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Rosalie Osmond


A History

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

Until quite recently, almost everyone believed in the soul, although ideas about its nature varied considerably. In this book Rosalie Osmond looks at the history of the idea in Western thought, starting with the Greeks and continuing down to the present day. She is studiously neutral on the question of the soul's existence but focuses instead on the place of the soul in people's imagination. Her concern is with how the soul has been pictured in art and literature and with what this tells us about ourselves.

In her excellent opening chapter, Osmond provides an brilliant overview of Greek ideas about the soul, starting with the rather unappealing notion of a shadowy postmortem existence that we find in Homer. This picture changed radically later: the Greek philosophers had a lot to say about the soul and their views had a profound influence on Christianity subsequently. Plato's account of the soul contains most of the elements that characterized Christian theology. For Plato the soul is immortal and retains the characteristics of the living person after death. The Platonic soul is complex rather than simple, made up of different elements. This provides for psychological struggle and uncertainty, and so can accommodate the contest between good and evil that is so prominent in Christian thought.

Nevertheless, it was Aristotle rather than Plato who was to have the greater influence on Christian thought. This may appear surprising, because Aristotle's view of the soul does not leave much room for immortality or separation from the body. But Aristotle did seem to allow for separation of that part of the soul which he termed rational (nous). However, Christian theologians such as Thomas Aquinas extended this notion very considerably. "Nothing in Aristotle's account leads to the idea of the survival of a human soul with an individual personality, but this difficulty was largely ignored or glossed over by later Christian commentators."

Is the soul male, female, or neutral? It has been conceived in all these ways but female souls seem to predominate. If Jung is right, this may be because most writers have been men and the male soul or anima is feminine. Linguistically, the soul is feminine in Greek, Latin, all Romance languages, German and even Arabic. From Dante to the pre-Raphaelites we find the soul pictured as a beautiful woman. Osmond devotes a chapter to this theme. As might be expected, she discusses William Blake both here and elsewhere in the book and includes several examples of his art. However, I was surprised to find no mention anywhere of Swedenborg, whose extensive writings on the soul (allegedly based on first-hand experience of other worlds) had a considerable influence on Blake.

Other chapters look at the soul in conflict, the soul in dramatic literature (it figures in some quite amazingly unstageable plays), and the soul as envisaged in analogy. Even insects have been made use of as images of the soul. The emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis is an obvious metaphor for the liberation of the soul at death. More improbably, grasshoppers have been recruited for this purpose as well; Osmond is puzzled by this (and is mistaken in thinking that emergence from a larval stage might explain it, because grasshoppers do not undergo metamorphosis).

The immortality of the soul has always been taken for granted in Christianity and the only question has been whether the soul is saved or damned. Since there is no question of reincarnation in Christianity the fate of the soul is fixed at death, and there are many references to this decisive moment in mediaeval literature. But there is an apparent inconsistency here, because there is also supposed to be a collective judgement at the end of time, as predicted in Scripture. To reconcile this difficulty it has often been supposed that the soul exists in a disembodied form after death until the Last Judgement, when its body will be resurrected in a transfigured form and the two will be reunited. Exactly how this will work out has, not surprisingly, led to a fair amount of head-scratching among theologians.

In her final chapter Osmond looks at modern views of the soul. The relentless advance of scientific understanding of how our personalities depend critically on our brains has led to increasing scepticism about the existence of the soul, but at a popular level many people, especially in the USA, continue to cling to the notion.

Yet the desire to believe in something beyond the physical exists. It spends itself in astrology, in rigid fundamentalism, in meditative exercise, in vague reference to the numinous, in a passionate desire for past certainties.
The rise and subsequent decline of belief in the soul is one part, but an important part, of the rise and decline of religion in many modern technological societies. Osmond's account of this idea is well researched and scholarly but very readable.

22 September 2004

%T Imagining the Soul
%S A History
%A Rmosalie Osmond
%I Sutton Publishing
%C Stroud
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-9-2961-8
%P x + 246 pp
%K religion, psychology, philosophy
%O illustrated

22 September 2004

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