What is the soul of a man?

by John MacBeath Watkins

In the above Youtube selection, Blind Willie Johnson poses the musical question, what is the soul of a man?

Won't somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Want somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man
I'm going to ask the question, answer if you can

If anybody here can tell me, what is the soul of a man?
I've traveled in different countries, I've traveled foreign lands
I've found nobody to tell me, what is the soul of a man

I saw a crowd stand talking, I came up right on time
Were hearing the doctor and the lawyer, say a man ain't nothing but his mind
I read the bible often, I tries to read it right

As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind
When Christ stood in the temple, the people stood amazed
Was showing the doctors and the lawyers, how to raise a body from the grave

That's not just a song, it's outsider philosophy. Blind Willie believed a man is more than a mind, that there is something that lives on after a person has died. Now, I'm no doctor of divinity, and I can't tell you if there is a spirit that lives on in a heaven and hell we cannot visit until we die. I can, however, talk about the strangeness of being human, and how we live on after death in this world.

As we discussed here and here, it's my belief that being human is a peculiar thing quite different from being any other sort of animal, because of the strange, symbolic world we have invented. Everything has a real existence and a symbolic existence for us. In Plato's cave, the symbolic is privileged above the real; the world we see with our eyes is but a shadow play of the real world of the ideal forms.

But what is our idea of a chair? Something made to sit on, to be sure, but since a great many things can be pressed into service for sitting on -- rocks, stumps, tuffets -- surely what we think of as a chair and choose to use as a chair and make as a chair becomes a chair. Plato's notion of the ideal form of a chair was reification of the meaning of "chair," the fallacy of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is not a mistake my cat would make, it is a mistake only a human could make, a mistake a cat would think was so far from truth as to be not even wrong. But to Plato, and to us, those ideal forms are very real.

In the same way, Blind Willie was exploring whether the soul is the reification of the mind. He chose the religious and mystical view, that "As far as I can understand, a man is more than his mind." His is an argument for the spiritual against the material.

Now, logic and evidence cannot tell us if such a supernatural world exists; if they could, it would be part of the natural world. But I claim that Blind Willie had a point even in an entirely materialistic view of the world, because a person does not die with his or her body. My mind is made up in part of every person I've ever met, or read, or had any contact with. I've learned from them, reacted to them for or against or merely counted them present. My father died April 22, 2011, but he lives on in me, because the structure of my thought was shaped more by him and my mother than by any other person.

Human culture is cumulative. Oh, it is possible for the voices of our ancestors to die, if enough of those who remember them die. But as we have become more numerous, and remember more, our symbolic world has grown in complexity, an ever-growing chorus of the dead who live on in us. The evil that men do and the good they do echoes down the years in us, lives on in our kindness and our cruelty, our tolerance and prejudice. History can change quickly, but culture changes slowly, because all the new people raised in a community are made up, to a great degree, of those who raised them.

That is why, when Germany experienced pogroms in the 1920s, 18 of the 19 towns that had them had a history of medieval violence toward Jews. The attitudes of the late 1340s, when many cities blamed the Jews for the Black Death, lived on in the descendents of medieval anti-Semites. In 1349, they blamed Jews for a plague that killed 30-60% of the population of Europe, in the 1920s they blamed Jews for the loss of the Great War. In cities where Jews were not killed for causing the Black Death, they were not killed for causing the loss of the Great War, in most cases.

Would this be the case, if our ancestors did not live on in us? Would we see the pattern of slave states and the pattern of states that voted against President Obama resemble each other so closely? We do not need to know the names of our ancestors -- in fact, they need not be our biological ancestors -- for us to carry them within us.

And if we do not die completely when our bodies die, but our voices echo down through the years like someone calling from the top of a tall spiral stairway, well out of view, we will be part of the good or the evil those whose voices are in part our own do in the world.

So be careful who you are, and what you leave in your wake. You are responsible for the meaning of your life, and that meaning will go on after your death.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self