An Episcopal priest I know shuns the word "spirituality" because he believes it is overused and under-defined. I had long felt the same way about the word "soul." After Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul became a huge best-seller, religious publishers tried to work the word into the title of their latest offerings or otherwise feature it prominently on dust jackets. In an age when human worth is increasingly measured by what we consume, it is not surprising that some people might want to reclaim the soul. But what does the word mean, exactly?
The Bible is of little help, curiously enough, even though the word is used frequently in the Hebrew Old Testament and to a lesser extent in the Greek New Testament. The first appearance of the word in the King James translation comes in the Genesis creation story, when God forms a man from the dust of the ground and breathes life into him, making him a "living soul." However, this same phrase is rendered in later translations as "living being," which may be closer to its intended meaning. The Hebrew word nephesh is here used in the sense of being alive and as such applies to all living things; indeed, this same word first appears in Genesis in a phrase translated as "living creatures" in the King James Version. There is not much sense anywhere in the Old Testament of a soul existing apart from the body or of being immortal. The New Testament Greek word for soul (psyche) also usually denotes the quality of being alive but occasionally has a larger meaning, as when Jesus tells his disciples, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul."
The idea of the soul as an immaterial entity that takes up temporary residence in the body seems to have originated with the Greeks. For the early Greeks, like the Jews in ancient times, having a soul meant essentially that you were not dead, and the adjective "ensouled" in Greek was commonly used to describe being alive. But for Plato, the soul was the essence of a person, comprising all intellectual, emotional and moral qualities. In his Phaedo, he presents his teacher Socrates' arguments for the immortality of the soul. Aristotle shared the view that the soul formed the essence of a person but did not believe it existed independently of the body. The later Christian belief in an immortal soul endowed with powers of reason is more closely aligned with Plato.
The concept of an immortal soul developed alongside the idea of an afterlife. If having a soul merely distinguishes a living person from a corpse, nothing would remain after the body returns to dust. An afterlife requires that some essential part of ourselves lives on. Lending weight to this notion was a series of experiments run by a Massachusetts physician a hundred years ago in which he weighed terminal patients before and immediately after death on a special bed built on delicately balanced scales. The physician reported a sudden weight loss of 21 grams (three-quarters of an ounce) at the moment of death, presumably coinciding with the soul's departure. However, these experiments were never regarded as scientifically credible, even if the results live on in folklore.
My own view is that the human soul is not a substance but rather an opening between the particular and the universal. "We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles," wrote Emerson, who was much influenced by nondualistic Eastern philosophy. "Meantime within man is the soul of the whole." If the eyes are windows of the soul, as Shakespeare said, the soul is itself a kind of window. Looking outward, God is able to see the world through our eyes; looking inward, we are able to see God. But, in truth, when things are viewed through this lens, it is never clear who is looking at whom.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Over-Soul"