Every age has its own questions. It’s hard to say what the questions of the current age are; we don’t have enough perspective just yet. If I had to guess, they would have to with what is really real. There seems to be a great deal of commentary on the “other side” (whoever they might be) misrepresenting the truth. We see it clearly in science and religion discussions , but also in political discussions, philosophy and science, etc. Whether we think there is an objective reality or just a number of subjective opinions, we spend much of our time talking about “truth” and whether or not we can get there – usually in the context of physical facts and causes.
When we talk about souls today, it tends to happen in this framework. Do we have souls? How do we know? Are souls real? How do they fit in with our picture of the physical universe?
This was not always so. 500 years ago, philosophers were also concerned with reality, but much more in terms of what could be said to be universally true. What are the principles that underlie the universe? What are the principles that underlie morality? What are the universal natural laws? The idea that we could have such comprehensive knowledge was broadly accepted, though different people justified it differently (Descartes with pure reason, Bacon with observation, Hume with critical thinking). They set the groundwork for modern science.
When Enlightenment thinkers talked about souls, they talked about them as the foundation of universal ethics (everyone has them equally) or the foundation of universal knowledge (everyone can “know” because they have an “intellectual” or “rational” soul).
900 years ago, a better question would be one about how everything relates to everything else. The famous Scholastic philosophers (and their contemporaries in Islam and Judaism) sought to create systematic pictures of the cosmos. How can we see the universe as a coherent whole and what is our proper place within that whole? Later theologians made fun of Thomas Aquinas for trying to shoehorn God’s grace into exactly seven canonical sacraments, the heavenly host into exactly nine choirs of angels… Numerology was important because it was thought to represent deep order and hidden meaning. [And if you think that’s amusing, you should hear physicists wax poetic about the surprising appearance of pi and h-bar in seemingly unrelated equations. It’s not as common today, but it still pops up.] They answered questions by thinking not only about reality (what is), but potentiality (what could be), and necessity (what must be).
When Medieval thinkers (Ghazzali, Maimonides, Aquinas, Ockham,…) talked about souls, they wanted to know how they related to bodies, how they were created and if they could ever be destroyed. Are souls necessary to human beings (cp. vampires) and are souls necessarily human (cp. golems)?
1800 years ago , thinkers wanted to know where things were going. How do we fit into the movement of the world? Do we have individual destinies? Do we have a common destiny? The Aeneid spoke of the history of the Roman people. The Bible spoke of salvation history. The Enneads spoke of the emanation of reality from the One. Lucretius was famous for saying we weren’t headed anywhere, just randomly bouncing about in an endless random universe, but note that he was famous for precisely this, denying historical movement.
When writers in Late Antiquity speak of the soul, this is usually the type of question they have in mind. Where do souls come from? God, the soul bank, an accident, and pieces of parental souls were all popular answers. Do our souls give us the ability to change things in a way that unsouled things cannot – to go with our against the tide of history? Do we make meaningful choices?
2400 years ago, Greek writers wanted to know how to understand change. What does it mean for things to change? Without some basic consistency “change” would be meaningless, so the very idea sends a message that something remains constant, while something else does not. Heraclitus was famous for saying we never step in the same river twice; everything changes. Parmenides, on the other hand, proposed that everything important always stays the same; only appearances change.
When Plato and Aristotle speak of souls, they are trying to answer the question of what persists through change. What is the thing in and of itself (the essence) and what are its properties (or accidents), which might change? Greek and Hebrew authors at this time are also interested in the issue of life and non-life. What is the essence of a living thing that makes it different from a rock or pool of water? What is its essence, such that it breaths and eats moves?
[Scriptural Sidebar: When St. Paul stands in the Areopagus in Athens, proclaiming God to the Greeks, he speaks of God “in whom we live and have our being” (Acts 17:28), he is speaking to exactly this question.]
I think we make a mistake when we try too hard to make ancient texts speak to our current questions. This is not to say they don’t have answers. I am convinced the Bible says many interesting things about “reality.” I am also convinced that Aristotle can make contributions to modern biology. Nonetheless, I think we need to read them first in light of the questions they were trying to answer. The authors thought they saw an important truth and that truth was important to them for a reason. It’s worth figuring out what that reason was.
Particularly with regard to the idea of “soul,” we need to be careful about how we unpack the wisdom of the ages. Most people I speak to jump immediately to the modern question – do souls exist? – without asking what they mean by soul. What role does the concept play in your life and your concept of reality? I have my doubts about whether it is a useful term when speaking about what is real and what is universal, but I find it very insightful when talking about what we can do and how we relate to the world around us.