Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Self and Soul

 

Prompted by the great Casey, I re-read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. First read it years ago, but I’m older now, and reading it again brings very different reactions.

One argument is that the modern world has done away with the Soul and has replaced it with the Self. That’s a quick way of describing a conviction I’ve held for a long time. A soul is an individual connected to God and the rest of the universe, striving to find harmony with all of it. A self has no such connection; it’s just a command center (with little control) over a sea of conflicting and confusing interior psychic currents. Or, as Bloom suggests, a soul is on the roof pondering the mysteries of the heavens, but a self is in the basement snooping around in the dark for Freudian rats.

Bloom describes the modern self who scorns religion and yet seeks salvation in psychology; but that’s a circle that can’t be squared. You can’t have both. I could understand an atheist who believes that life was a cosmic accident and has no meaning. On the other hand, I could understand a believer who believes that we were created, and therefore we have whatever purpose our creator intended (that’s my view). If you were created, it only seems logical that your purpose is anchored in the creator’s intention. What cannot square is being both an atheist and also seeking meaning to life. And yet, that would be a working description of a mere “self.”

Bloom portrays the American culture as being increasingly driven and shaped by an education system which is nihilist, relativist, functionally atheist, and therefore a disaster for the American soul. A soul, in the Christian understanding, is oriented to God and a higher purpose; if you dismiss that dimension of life, all you have remaining is an unremarkable and uninteresting self. Our educational system, and eventually our culture as a whole, is producing just such uninteresting “selves.”

Lately there has been some concern about what would happen if robots took over. Would soulless machines abandon any concern for humanity and pursue their own interests at the expense of human souls?

Well, hell, isn’t that what’s happening now?

There are 146 comments.

  1. Profile Photo Member

    Thanks, as ever, KC! I’m reading this, too, and finding a slightly different set of resonances…My post will appear when I’ve reached pg. 403 on Kindle. AMDG.

    • #1
    • February 1, 2015, at 2:01 PM PST
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  2. Jules PA Member

    KC Mulville: Or, as Bloom suggests, a soul is on the roof pondering the mysteries of the heavens, but a soul is in the basement snooping around in the dark for Freudian rats.

    I think you meant to say but a self is in the basement…?

    • #2
    • February 1, 2015, at 2:05 PM PST
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  3. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville Post author

    Jules PA:

    KC Mulville: Or, as Bloom suggests, a soul is on the roof pondering the mysteries of the heavens, but a soul is in the basement snooping around in the dark for Freudian rats.

    I think you meant to say but a self is in the basement…?

    Since corrected … thanks!

    Must be pre-game jitters. Or the Guinness.

    • #3
    • February 1, 2015, at 2:30 PM PST
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  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    KC Mulville: What cannot square is being both an atheist and also seeking meaning to life.

    Nonsense. Humans are fully capable of thirsting after something even if they’re not sure it exists, or even when they’re fairly certain it does not exist.

    For example, (probably) a normal part of growing up nerdy is desiring a beloved despite grave doubts that there’s any beloved out there for you. In fact, you can feel quite certain that no such beloved exists. The doubts don’t typically stop the desire, though, although they may transform the desire in rather odd ways.

    A universe that would permit the creatures in it to seek meaning even where no meaning is present might seem unfair, but it’s hardly inconceivable or even self-contradictory. Longing for the impossible is often a bad idea, but not, strictly speaking, a logical contradiction.

    • #4
    • February 1, 2015, at 2:44 PM PST
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  5. Aaron Miller Member

    I agree with Midge, but still there’s a difference. Psychology can look for problems both within (Freud) and without (Skinner). But it is focused on the self. In Christianity and Judaism, the cure for the self lies in focus on fellow human beings and God. Sacrificing the self is the way to secure the self.

    What’s the mirror image of a Catch-22; a contradiction which enlivens rather than confounds?

    • #5
    • February 1, 2015, at 2:58 PM PST
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  6. Mantis9 Inactive

    I think you might need to qualify the “meaning” portion. To right the ship, I think Bloom by KC’s paraphrase, is referring to objective meaning rather than subjective. If that’s the case, than I agree there’s a difficulty in atheism finding objective meaning in an accidental existence. This is a sentiment atheist philosophers the likes of Nietzsche and Russell have wrestled.

    On the other hand, whether you might believe it true or false, is a simple matter for a theist to address.

    As for longing for an object of affection, that’s a subjective matter. The meaning our lovelorn friend might feel toward a possible other half are circumstantial, and vanish the moment he does. An atheist might desire a meaning to life. However, this desire, if he is a strict materialist, is confined to himself as a psychological holdout of evolutionary forces and reaches no farther than himself, vanishing the moment he does.

    If true, a theist understanding of meaning exists outside of herself and exists prior as well as after her existence.

    • #6
    • February 1, 2015, at 3:54 PM PST
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  7. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    KC Mulville: What cannot square is being both an atheist and also seeking meaning to life.

    Nonsense. Humans are fully capable of thirsting after something even if they’re not sure it exists, or even when they’re fairly certain it does not exist. […]

    Longing for the impossible is often a bad idea, but not, strictly speaking, a logical contradiction.

    No. One person can long for something that a second person thinks is impossible. Or one person can long for something highly unlikely. But if you’re already convinced that your goal is impossible, any “hope” that you manufacture is preposterous. The fact that some people do it anyway simply shows that people can do things that are blisteringly stupid.

    • #7
    • February 1, 2015, at 5:33 PM PST
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  8. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    KC Mulville:No. One person can long for something that a second person thinks is impossible. Or one person can long for something highly unlikely. But if you’re already convinced that your goal is impossible, any “hope” that you manufacture is preposterous.

    You don’t necessarily feel hope – or so-called manufactured “hope”. It’s just that hopelessness isn’t always enough to kill longing. Have you never experienced that?

    • #8
    • February 1, 2015, at 5:45 PM PST
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  9. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    KC Mulville:No. One person can long for something that a second person thinks is impossible. Or one person can long for something highly unlikely. But if you’re already convinced that your goal is impossible, any “hope” that you manufacture is preposterous.

    You don’t necessarily feel hope – or so-called manufactured “hope”. It’s just that hopelessness isn’t always enough to kill longing. Have you never experienced that?

    Longing and meaning are not the same thing.

    • #9
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:31 PM PST
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  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    KC Mulville:Longing and meaning are not the same thing.

    I didn’t say they were. Merely pointed it that it is possible to long for meaning – and take steps to seek meaning – without knowing beforehand that meaning even exists.

    (Actually, what I just wrote sounds like the preliminary steps of discovering a mathematical proof. As one teacher said, a proof is a mathematical romance.)

    • #10
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:35 PM PST
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  11. Jules PA Member

    But isn’t this very longing that we experience evidence that hope is real? For as much as we long for something, we have hope that it might be, that it is not impossible.

    Hope is not manufactured. It is. It is like a vibration within us. That breath that makes us in the image of G-D is the very source of hope, reminding us of what could be.

    Because it (what we long for) could be, that it might be, we continue to strive and work toward the fulfillment of that hope. Even though we don’t see it, we don’t give up.

    No?

    • #11
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:39 PM PST
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  12. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Jules PA:But isn’t this very longing that we experience evidence that hope is real?

    It could be. It needn’t be.

    • #12
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:42 PM PST
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  13. Jules PA Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Jules PA:But isn’t this very longing that we experience evidence that hope is real?

    It could be. It needn’t be.

    I hope so. :)

    • #13
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:47 PM PST
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  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Jules PA:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Jules PA:But isn’t this very longing that we experience evidence that hope is real?

    It could be. It needn’t be.

    I hope so. :)

    Exactly. We hope so :-)

    • #14
    • February 1, 2015, at 6:53 PM PST
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  15. Casey Inactive

    KC Mulville: Prompted by the great Casey

    Best post ever.

    • #15
    • February 2, 2015, at 6:04 AM PST
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  16. donald todd Inactive

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: #4 “Humans are fully capable of thirsting after something even if they’re not sure it exists, or even when they’re fairly certain it does not exist.”

    An atheist has to try to manufacture purpose. An attempt to do so finds one looking into the abyss, consigned to failure because as atheists know, our individual and collective existence is an accident.

    Our impulses are accidental, and may be caused by culture, or digestion, or disease. They may even be mere reflexes because accidental creatures don’t really have free wills.

    Atheists believe that they are here today and gone tomorrow in the literal sense. One may hold to one’s progeny but they too are accidents, as is any emotion associated with them; and all to quickly gone.

    If there is no lasting value to the person, even morality has no existence except as a construct. The history of those constructs is spotty at best. Russia, China, and Cuba are good examples of that.

    • #16
    • February 2, 2015, at 6:56 AM PST
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  17. Western Chauvinist Member

    KC Mulville: A soul is an individual connected to God and the rest of the universe, striving to find harmony with all of it. A self has no such connection; it’s just a command center (with little control) over a sea of conflicting and confusing interior psychic currents.

    This helps describe my conception of our political taxonomy as well. I see the left as increasingly succumbing to its impulse for totalitarian collectivism (under the “beneficent” guidance of godless progressive Ivy-trained elitists) — and libertarians gaining strength as godless radical individualists on the right.

    I’d say the country was founded in the sweet spot between the two on “ordered liberty.” Ordered liberty requires a self-regulated self governing populace (individuals in relationship with their Creator) which understands the need for and limits of collective effort. Body (collective) and soul(s). Both/And.

    • #17
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:05 AM PST
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  18. Mike H Coolidge

    Sigh… does anyone else get tired of people who aren’t them telling them what they are and not allowed to think?

    • #18
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:21 AM PST
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  19. Z in MT Inactive

    Reading this I am once again struck with how odd I am. I would classify my self clearly in the irreligious camp with the main reason that I care little for finding meaning. Atheism is as much a religion as any other, and religious expression is motivated by the need to find meaning. Now Bloom may be right about the contrast between the soul and the self as practiced by Christians and atheists. But it leaves out the section of the population like myself that are irreligious. I am also a scientist, which means I am motivated by the how, not the why.

    ‘Course, I am an odd duck who told his parents he wanted to be a hermit when he grew up.

    • #19
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:31 AM PST
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  20. Doug Watt Member

    Your essay leads to the philosophical problem of “the common good”. A common good must be good for all, if it is not then it is not common. It is really a self-contradictory phrase and therefore not true. Human beings are flawed, to include legislators that enact legislation that is flawed. If we don’t seek something greater than ourselves than we bind ourselves to others who believe there is nothing greater than themselves. Jails and insane asylums are filled with people who believe in themselves-paraphrasing GK Chesterton. Those who believe in themselves and try to shape the world to fit their belief always have to resort to will, the will to destroy those who don’t share their vision of self. We need to spend less time standing in front of the mirror.

    • #20
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:47 AM PST
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  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    donald todd:Midget Faded Rattlesnake: #4 “Humans are fully capable of thirsting after something even if they’re not sure it exists, or even when they’re fairly certain it does not exist.”

    An atheist has to try to manufacture purpose. An attempt to do so finds one looking into the abyss…

    A theist is also called to “manufacture” purpose, since being made in the image of God, the Creator, calls us to be creative, productive beings ourselves.

    For the Christian, beyond the problem of fulfilling the moral purposes common to every human lies the problem of vocation – the problem of glorifying God using the specific gifts God has given us. A person who manages to not suck too badly at the common elements of morality may nonetheless feel a complete failure where vocation is concerned. If I have merely avoided major sins, yet haven’t put the specific gifts God has given me to good use, am I not a failure?

    Is it so impossible to be a theist at the brink of the abyss? I don’t know about you, but I’ve known too many theists who have been at that brink to say it’s impossible.

    • #21
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:51 AM PST
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  22. Casey Inactive

    Z in MT:Reading this I am once again struck with how odd I am. I would classify my self clearly in the irreligious camp with the main reason that I care little for finding meaning.Atheism is as much a religion as any other, and religious expression is motivated by the need to find meaning. Now Bloom may be right about the contrast between the soul and the self as practiced by Christians and atheists. But it leaves out the section of the population like myself that are irreligious. I am also a scientist, which means I am motivated by the how, not the why.

    ‘Course, I am an odd duck who told his parents he wanted to be a hermit when he grew up.

    Bloom is not really speaking of religion in this book.

    And I think he would argue that you are not really odd at all, unfortunately.

    As it now stands, students have powerful images of what a perfect body is and pursue it incessantly. But deprived of literary guidance, they no longer have any image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one.

    • #22
    • February 2, 2015, at 7:54 AM PST
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  23. KC Mulville Inactive
    KC Mulville Post author

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    A theist is also called to “manufacture” purpose, since being made in the image of God, the Creator, calls us to be creative, productive beings ourselves.

    I’d say this is at the difference between purpose and tactics. A theist focuses on particular tactics on how to carry out a purpose, and that’s where human creativity plays a role. But when it comes to the difference between believers and atheists, that’s on a deeper level than tactics.

    In Jesuit spirituality, for instance, man’s purpose is stated at the very beginning: man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God, and by this means to save his soul. What follows is a process called “discernment.” And by this, the person seeks the skill, and then the habit, of listening to find God’s will. But all of that comes, of course, after the believer has already committed to the purpose of serving God in the first place.

    • #23
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:15 AM PST
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  24. Ed G. Member

    KC Mulville:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    KC Mulville:No. One person can long for something that a second person thinks is impossible. Or one person can long for something highly unlikely. But if you’re already convinced that your goal is impossible, any “hope” that you manufacture is preposterous.

    You don’t necessarily feel hope – or so-called manufactured “hope”. It’s just that hopelessness isn’t always enough to kill longing. Have you never experienced that?

    Longing and meaning are not the same thing.

    Neither are seeking and longing the same thing. One seeks what one hopes is there and attainable. One longs for what is not there or unattainable.

    Seeking is active while longing is an emotion.

    • #24
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:23 AM PST
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  25. donald todd Inactive

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: #21 “Is it so impossible to be a theist at the brink of the abyss? I don’t know about you, but I’ve known too many theists who have been at that brink to say it’s impossible.”

    A theist should have a much different view than an atheist.

    When Teresa of India no longer found consolation in her prayer life she had to decide what to do. She continued acting as though God were near her in her daily endeavors, while suffering for missing His tangible presence in her life. His absence was her pain.

    Whatever one believes, one acts on. If one finds one’s self no longer acting on something it is because it was set aside for something else more important or less painful. I think we all go though that so we can discover (or rediscover) what we love.

    If you are noting that consolation is missing, and that desolation has replaced it, then those people are at the brink as you have noted. Will they imitate Teresa of India by acting as though God were there? Will they do what they should anyway?

    It is after all exactly what He did on a particular Friday. Alone and, except for His mother, His beloved disciple, and a woman He had already redeemed, virtually abandoned.

    • #25
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:24 AM PST
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  26. Owen Findy Member

    “I could understand an atheist who believes that life was a cosmic accident and has no meaning. On the other hand, I could understand a believer who believes that we were created, and therefore we have whatever purpose our creator intended (that’s my view). If you were created, it only seems logical that your purpose is anchored in the creator’s intention. What cannot square is being both an atheist and also seeking meaning to life.”

    Isn’t that only because you’re already assuming that meaning must come from outside the person? Why can’t the person make their own meaning?

    • #26
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:27 AM PST
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  27. Ed G. Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    donald todd:Midget Faded Rattlesnake: #4 “Humans are fully capable of thirsting after something even if they’re not sure it exists, or even when they’re fairly certain it does not exist.”

    An atheist has to try to manufacture purpose. An attempt to do so finds one looking into the abyss…

    A theist is also called to “manufacture” purpose, since being made in the image of God, the Creator, calls us to be creative, productive beings ourselves.

    For the Christian, beyond the problem of fulfilling the moral purposes common to every human lies the problem of vocation – the problem of glorifying God using the specific gifts God has given us. A person who manages to not suck too badly at the common elements of morality may nonetheless feel a complete failure where vocation is concerned. If I have merely avoided major sins, yet haven’t put the specific gifts God has given me to good use, am I not a failure?

    Is it so impossible to be a theist at the brink of the abyss? I don’t know about you, but I’ve known too many theists who have been at that brink to say it’s impossible.

    Midge, there’s also a difference between having a purpose vs not living up to it. Donald and KC have been talking about the existence of purpose; living up to it is a different discussion.

    • #27
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:30 AM PST
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  28. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Ed G.:Neither are seeking and longing the same thing.

    No, but longing often prompts seeking, even if you’re not sure that what you’re longing for can be found.

    In the fictionalized philosophy of science, a mathematician isn’t supposed to care whether conjectures are true or false, only that they be proven or disproven. In real life, though, what keeps the average person seeking a proof of a conjecture is longing for that conjecture to be true. And… sometimes the long-sought (because long longed-for) proof falls through, because the conjecture turns out to be a false one.

    • #28
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:31 AM PST
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  29. Casey Inactive

    Owen Findy:

    Isn’t that only because you’re already assuming that meaning must come from outside the person? Why can’t the person make their own meaning?

    Nietzsche says that indeed we must.

    What Bloom laments is that neither God nor Nietzsche appeals any longer.

    • #29
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:38 AM PST
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  30. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Ed G.:

    Midge, there’s also a difference between having a purpose vs not living up to it. Donald and KC have been talking about the existence of purpose; living up to it is a different discussion.

    In the abstract, perhaps, they are different discussions. Lived experience, on the other hand, suggests to me that they are far harder to tell apart than we would like. If you don’t feel like you’re living up to the purpose you’re supposed to have (whatever that is), it can fell an awful lot like not having a purpose at all.

    Many atheists I know lead purposeful lives. They act as if they have purpose – and indeed, can be quite driven. They may even believe they have purpose. This despite my protestations that, as atheists, they are not allowed to believe they have a purpose, that the privilege of believing one has a purpose should be reserved for theists like me ;-)

    On the other hand, many theists I know struggle with feelings of meaninglessness and purposelessness in their lives. I grant you, they are not typical theists – but they’re not all that rare, either.

    It just isn’t that hard, for example, to find Christians who struggle with the fear that their life, personally, is basically meaningless, no matter how much they are assured each Sunday that human life in general is meaningful. (Which makes me wonder if Christians who cannot acknowledge there are other Christians like the ones I just described out there are just really unobservant people or perhaps merely blinded by their own good luck in not struggling with that particular problem.)

    • #30
    • February 2, 2015, at 8:41 AM PST
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