This morning I breakfasted on eggs, made bulls-eye. I prefer runny yolk and near raw albumen. Some would call it soul food. That got me thinking about the soul. So, what is this ‘soul’, I thought? The Buddhists shrug it off, saying there is no such thing. A few other faiths swear by it – on their souls.

Some say the soul is an independent thing moving from one body on its death to another spanking new one. So, ultimately, in the end, even the soul discards the temporal ‘me’. But that takes me to another question: what is ‘the end’? I’ve heard that those who swear by the soul swear by eternity. But that too, takes you to another question: what is ‘eternity’? And an eternity of what?

Some of us change jobs in a few years or so. Perhaps it’s ennui. At times despair. After a while, the excitement wears off, and even what was once exciting now becomes dull. People fall out of love, relationships, material possessions, etcetera after a while of possessing these. Time has that effect on many of us. After a while, some sort of change is welcome. Even if not so pleasant, that it removes the banal stupor of existential vacuity. Hence, an eternity of something – anything, can give us the shivers. Imagine – being the same thing forever!

Further wonder, in a cosmos where everything is in a state of constant change, why is there this one thing which transcends the rest of the cosmos and is unchanging? Micromegas from the eponymous novel by Voltaire would probably probe further on why is only man, who is one tiny speck existing momentarily in one tiny speck of the cosmos, blest with this one changing thing or unthing?
More muddling mead for thought.

Some assert that the soul can move from one living body to another and back. Soul hedonism? Want a respite from being human? Become a horse galloping across the Arabian dunes, maybe? Metempsychosis, I suppose it’s called.

Cebes, in Plato’s Phaedo, which is Socrates’ love letter on ‘the Soul’, declares that perhaps the soul vanishes into smoke when the body dies. Both die – like star-crossed lovers. Simmias, another interlocutor who has accompanied Cebes on his visit to the condemned Philosopher, speculates that the soul is, maybe, like the harmony produced by a musical instrument. Can this harmony exist once the instrument has broken, decayed and ceased to exist? Cebes equally challenges the old master. He will hypothesise that the soul is like a rent-a-coat that is worn by one body and then another. Will not even this fine rent-a-coat, at some point on the long journey of dressing many a fallible mortal, fall prey to wear and tear, lose its lustre and eventually be discarded into nothingness?

Now then, what is nothingness? Is it the end? Or is it eternity? Or are both the same thing? But isn’t ‘eternity’ endless and the ‘end’ finite?

Some say the soul reunites with the body at a future date, and all live happily ever after. You can meet your friends, lovers, children and say hello. Now, what is this “ever after?”

Socrates develops his myth that the ‘ever after’ is a segregated place with different layers of existence for different types of souls depending on who’s been a good boy or girl (leaving aside the pronoun debate). Like Santa, the Gods too have a list – they do check it twice – and they are going to find out who’s naughty and nice.

The best of the souls get direct communion with the Divine on Mount Olympus. Socrates asserts that for this to happen, the minimum requirement is that you must be a philosopher. A lover of knowledge. One who has gained a stoical rein on the sensibilities through the power of reason. Can I not argue that this myth propagated by the great master is the last forlorn hope of a man so consumed by his own sense of moral and supra moral correctness? A man who is condemned to death grasps at a divine straw of his own conviction which he believes is reserved for stoical philosophers such as himself. The best of the best. Scorned by humanity. Spurr’d by contumely, Cold inhumanity, Burning insanity, into his (Socrates) rest – to steal a few lines from Thomas Hood’s Bridge of Sighs.

So now, if there is a best kind of soul, will it not also follow that there is a worst? Given the misogyny of ancient Greece (if not the human race) and their practice of slavery (found in almost all ancient civilizations – modern too one may argue), I wonder if women and slave souls also exist as gendered things or unthings. Would they be inferior or superior? Mostly inferior, I’d assume (we must make some rational assumptions from the experiences of women and slaves). As inferior then, would they be the wrong-ended duality from where the good stuff springs from? From where equity emerges from inequity? Right from wrong. Good from bad. Joy from sorrow. Mind from body. Invisible from visible. Real from illusion.

It gets more confounding.

Some Eastern faiths also share the Socratic theory that an enlightened life frees the soul from this new body business. It merges with the divine ‘One’. Problem solved? Not really. I mean, what is this ‘One’? The stakes get more complicated. Nachiketas had to duel with Death to rebalance himself on this metaphysical tightrope.
It’s a battleground. Different answers from different theorists struggle to converge on this point. I mean, has anyone actually come back with evidence?

So, what is the most reasonable answer? This gets even more befuddling. How does ‘reason’ converge with ‘faith’? Didn’t Kant say “I had to deny reason to make room for faith?” Kierkegaard, on the other hand, says, “Nope, faith is far superior to reason, transcending human knowledge.” So, do you typically make room for faith once you have transcended the limitations of reason?

It gets more confounding.

Emily Bronte writes, “No coward Soul is mine…and where heaven’s glory and faith shine.”

Rumi lyrically says, “If I can taste one sip of an answer, I’ll break free from this prison for drunks.” But how do you ‘break free’? Camus would caution on this contentious position.

Rumi settles the argument by saying that since he “didn’t come here of his own accord, whoever got him here will have to take him back home.”

‘Home’? Now, where is that? Is it the ‘Ever After’, being one with the ‘One’, or the fashionable wordplay ‘No-Thing’? Or ‘NowHere’?…..more verbiage than truth? But hang on, Pontius Pilate, in a stoic moment of virtue, reflects on a transcendental stumbling block with his rhetorical question, “What is Truth?”

It gets more confounding.

My breakfast was coming to an end. I had to get back to business, away from these metaphysical pirouettes.
There is a Zen story of the man who sees a juicy berry within arms reach when precariously hanging on a single delicate branch on the side of a cliff with a snake above and the abyss below. So I swiped the remnants of runny yolk from my plate with my fingers, relishing the remnants of my breakfast and hurried back.

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Anil D’Souza Associate Professor – OB & HR School of Business and Management, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. +919920746610 / [email protected]