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Written by Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, 2011
BUT that is a truth we couldn’t afford to admit until we found the clarifying, biological explanation for why we humans became competitive, selfish and aggressive; in fact, so ruthlessly competitive, selfish and brutal that human life has become all but unbearable and we have nearly destroyed our own planet!
In short, before we could acknowledge the truth about our soul we had to explain the HUMAN CONDITION–explain why the human race became corrupted, ‘fell from grace’, left the fabled ‘Garden of Eden’ of our original innocent state, or however else we like to describe the emergence of our present seemingly-highly-imperfect, soul-devastated condition.
And, MOST WONDERFULLY, biology is now finally able to provide this dreamed-of, exonerating, ‘good-and-evil’-reconciling, ‘burden-of-guilt’-lifting and thus psychologically rehabilitating EXPLANATION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION–thereby making it possible to safely admit the truth about our species’ innocent, soulful past! (It should be mentioned that this explanation of our species’ present deeply psychologically embattled condition is not the psychosis-avoiding, trivialising, dishonest account of it that the biologist E.O. Wilson has put forward in his theory of Eusociality, but the psychosis-addressing-and-solving, real explanation of it.)
In his wonderful 1807 poem Intimations of Immortality, the poet William Wordsworth gave this rare honest description of our species’ tragic journey from its original soulful, innocent, instinctive, moral state to its present soul-devastated, often-immoral, apparently–but, as we will see, not actually–non-ideal or, to use religious terminology, ‘unGodly’ state: ‘The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star…cometh from afar…trailing clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.’ In the poem Wordsworth described how quickly this ‘life’s Star’ of our ideal, moral, ‘God[ly]’ ‘Soul’ that is ‘with us’ when we are born becomes corrupted as we grow up in the -afflicted world of today: ‘There was a time when meadow, grove, and streams / The earth, and every common sight / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light / The glory and the freshness of a dream / It is not now as it hath been of yore / Turn wheresoe’er I may / By night or day / The things which I have seen I now can see no more… I know, where’er I go / That there hath past away a glory from the earth…Thou Child of Joy / Shout round me, let me hear thy shouts, thou happy Shepherd-boy! // Ye blessed Creatures…Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream? // Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting… Heaven lies about us in our infancy! / Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy…Forget the glories he hath known / And that imperial palace whence he came.’
Around 360 BC, the philosopher Plato also bravely acknowledged the existence within us all of an all-loving, innocent, pure, aligned-with-the-‘Godly’-ideals, original instinctive self or soul when he wrote that humans have ‘knowledge, both before and at the moment of birth…of all absolute standards…[of] beauty, goodness, uprightness, holiness…our souls exist before our birth’ (Phaedo, tr. H. Tredennick). He went on to write that ‘the soul is in every possible way more like the invariable’, which he described as ‘the pure and everlasting and immortal and changeless…realm of the absolute…[our] soul resembles the divine’ (ibid).
The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev also truthfully acknowledged the recognition within us all of a past innocent, uncorrupted instinctive self or soul when he wrote that ‘The memory of a lost paradise, of a Golden Age, is very deep in man’ (The Destiny of Man, 1931, tr. N. Duddington, 1960, p.36); while the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also expressed what we all intuitively do know is the truth about our species’ past innocent existence when he wrote that ‘nothing is more gentle than man in his primitive state’ (The Social Contract and Discourses, 1755; tr. G.D.H. Cole, 1913, Book iv, The Origin of Inequality, p.198).
But again, while these greatest of poets and philosophers were able to acknowledge the existence of our human soul, Wordsworth’s, Plato’s, Berdyaev’s and Rousseau’s inability to explain why our soul became corrupted meant their beautifully honest words ultimately left us humans feeling unbearably condemned for our present seemingly-highly-imperfect condition. In fact, trying to face the truth about our species’ present corrupted, ‘fallen’ condition without the exonerating explanation for it left humans facing the prospect of excruciating, even suicidal, depression! Such has been the extent of the real agony of the human condition! The above poets and philosophers were brave indeed!
Since the human race could not psychologically afford to face the truth that our soul is our instinctive memory of a cooperative, ‘Garden of Eden’ ‘Golden Age’ in our species’ past until we could explain our present corrupted, innocence-destroyed, soul-devastated competitive, selfish and aggressive condition, has, until now, had to avoid the whole issue of what our soul is–as the psychologist Ronald Conway noted, ‘Soul is customarily suspected in empirical psychology and analytical philosophy as a disreputable entity’ (The Australian, 10 May 2000). When the need for is critical any excuse will do, but calling soul a ‘disreputable entity’ is a very poor excuse indeed because it is one of our most used terms and, therefore, has a very real and authentic meaning. But beyond being poor, this excuse verges on the ridiculous when we take into account the fact that our soul is actually the fundamental issue in ‘psychology’, with the word ‘psychology’ literally meaning the ‘study of the soul’, derived as it is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from psyche, which comes from the Greek word psykhe, meaning ‘breath, life, soul’, and the Greek word logia, meaning ‘study of’. Yes, ‘psyche’ is another word for soul, as the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology confirms: ‘psyche: The oldest and most general use of this term is by the early Greeks, who envisioned the psyche as the soul or the very essence of life’ (1985). Also revealing is the word ‘psychiatry’, which literally means ‘soul-healing’, derived as it is from psyche (which again means soul) and the Greek word iatreia, which, according to The Encyclopedic World Dictionary, means ‘healing’. Similarly revealing of what the study of psychology is really all about is the word ‘psychosis’, which literally means ‘soul-illness’, coming as it does from psyche (which again means soul) and osis which, according to Dictionary.com, is also of Greek origin and means ‘abnormal state or condition’.
But again, despite society’s prevalent use of the term and its central role in the etymology of mental health, our denial has been such that dictionary definitions of the word ‘soul’ have also understandably followed a somewhat evasive path–for instance, the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘soul’ as ‘the immaterial…moral and emotional part of man’, and as the ‘animating or essential part’ of us, while The Macquarie Dictionary describes ‘soul’ as the ‘principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans’, and as being ‘the spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect…the seat of the feelings or sentiments’. Yes, until we could explain and thus heal our soul’s ‘abnormal state or condition’ we had no choice but to dismiss it as a ‘disreputable entity’ and try to bury its meaning in opaque references.
So, what is the reconciling, redeeming and thus psychologically rehabilitating and soul-resuscitating, truthful, real biological explanation of our present seeming-highly-imperfect, soul-devastated human condition? What is the explanation that finally makes it psychologically safe to both acknowledge that our moral soul is our instinctive memory of a cooperative, all-loving past, and explain how we acquired it in the first place?