Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 26

For an introduction to this series, look here

You won’t find the boundaries of the soul, however many ways you travel – its depth is beyond discovery

Heraclitus may well have been the first person to use the word ‘soul’ (psyche) as a way of describing the centre of human personality – the first person who could think of ‘psychology’ (literally, the science of the soul). It’s much less certain what he meant by it, and that hasn’t changed much over the last two and a half thousand years. The word ‘soul’ is used all the time, in many different ways: the Oxford English Dictionary has 26 categories of meaning for the word, many with sub-sections.

I hope Heraclitus would be pleased. The Greek word he used has in its English counterpart exactly the point he was making. When we start to explore the concept of ‘soul’, even at a literal dictionary level, it’s impossible to hold all the definitions in your head at once. Still more is it impossible to grasp the wholeness of a human being in their manifold complexity. Yes, we can understand some parts pretty well, and Western science has come an extraordinarily long way in understanding how bodies work, but each individual’s uniqueness means that even where we know the most, there is a vast amount more to discover. Faiths and philosophies around the world have explored the deep spiritual waters of the human soul, without any signs as yet of plumbing the depths. And to understand the whole self – in all its manifold dimensions at the same time – that is a task beyond us, whether in regard to ourselves or anyone else.

‘Soul’ is a word which points at a mystery, the mystery of our humanity, as self-conscious animals who can wonder about our own existence.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark

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