September 13, 2017
Episode 4: Richard Seaford on the Origins of the Soul
This episode was recorded when I was just getting the hang of my newfangled recording technology, so please excuse the poor sound quality, which is more than made up for by the fascinating subject-matter.
In some of the earliest documents we possess from Indo-European cultures – the Rg Veda and the Homeric poems – the human beings depicted do not have ‘souls’. That is to say, they have organs of what we might call different types of consciousness, but there is no indication that there is a unifying principle which knits all the different organs together. Then, at the beginning of the sixth century BCE, something rather startling happens: in both Indian texts (the Brahmanas, Upanishads, and others) and in Greece (in the movement known as Pre-Socratic philosophy) the notion arises that there is indeed a unifying, bounded, and possibly immortal soul.
Richard Seaford has a provocative theory, based in a sociological / anthropological approach, as to why this new and revolutionary idea comes into being at just this time in just these places. Whether you agree with him or not, you will not want to miss Professor Seaford’s masterful survey of the Greek and Sanskritic evidence for the first appearance of that most essential entity, the soul.
Other fascinating themes touched on:
- What is the ‘Axial Age’, and what makes it so ‘axial’?
- The problems of dating the Homeric poems and the Rg Veda
- The origins of the concept of the incorporeal in Greece and India
- What money and private property have to do with the rise of the soul
Works Discussed in this Episode
- Macpherson, C.B., 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. The Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Parfit, D., 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Sorabji, R., 2006. Self: Ancient and Modern Insights about Individuality, Life, and Death. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
On the development of Greek ideas about soul, see
- Bremmer, J. N., 1983. The Early Greek Concept of the Soul. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- Claus, D. B., 1981. Toward the Soul: An Inquiry Into the Meaning of ψυχή Before Plato. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT / London.
- Robinson, T., 1970. Plato’s Psychology. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
- Seaford, R. (2017). ‘The Psuchê from Homer to Plato: A Historical Sketch’. In: Seaford, R., Wilkins, J. & Wright, M. (Eds.), Self and the Soul: Essays on Ancient Thought and Literature in Honour of Christopher Gill, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Not a lot of comparative work has been done looking at the parallels between early western and Sanskritic world-views, but check out the essays in the volume
- Seaford, R. (Ed.), 2016. Universe and Inner Self in Early Indian and Early Greek Thought. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
- Seaford, R. 2020. The Origins of Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Ancient India: A Historical Comparison. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Heraclitus, Homeric Poems, Interview, Parmenides, Plato, Pre-Socratic Philosophy, Soul, Vedas
September 3, 2019
A compelling historical argument in so many respects. But it left me confused over my preconceptions. I had always thought of psyche as life, as the life of an animal that is normally regarded to be extinguished when it takes its last breath. Immorality argues that it is not extinguished, that the fire burns on. You seem to be describing the social self, the ego self, the “me”, not a consiousness but a self consciousness, like the fallen Adam realising he is naked and so ashamed. Perhaps Plato’s About the Psyche psyche is like that, but then that sometime appears as a coat that can be shed when it is alone (p. 79), and so more akin to the observer-I ?
December 15, 2019
Plato’s notion that we are all part of the world soul seems to imply that the bounded internal “self” is illusory.
When the self is recognized as an illusion, it is very easy to understand the immortality of the soul. After all, if one’s self consists of all one’s influences, then the death of the self doesn’t destroy those influences. When Socrates critiques the pythagorean view of the soul as a harmony, he does so by establishing immortality (a priori) , and then shows that when the lyre is broken, the harmony dies. For that reason he says that the soul can’t be a harmony.
The ridiculous part of this is that any real harmony subsists not in a single lyre, but across the transmission of cultural lyre play. When one lyre breaks, the harmony can continue to be played. This is Gustav Fechner’s view of immortality (he coined the term psychology and invented “the median”).
Empirically , did you know that brain waves are harmonics? As in, frequency doublings? (Roughly, theta double delta, alpha double theta, beta double alpha, gamma double beta.) That’s to support Harmonic coupling between bands, or phase amplitude coupling in the antipoetry of neuroscience.
As Plato said, “music is akin to the revolutions of our soul”, we can interpret as “the oscillations of the brain are similar to music”
January 3, 2020
Very interesting comment. Have you written about this more anywhere online or elsewhere, where you go into this in more detail?
March 15, 2021
Some also say that Music is God’s voice, One of The Ways we can hear the Divine. J. S. Bach- his music, can be an example…there is an anecdote that one time a visitor came to Bach’s house, his wife opened the door and the visitor saw that he the great master (who was then- Only -highly regarded organist, not a master composer!)is crying at his clavier..and the visitor asks the wife – why you are not comforting your suffering husband, and she replied that her husband is talking with God and not to be disturbed…
January 3, 2020
Someone did a transcript of this episode with links…..really helpful.
March 15, 2021
I am catching up with the whole lot of this wondrous treasures, masterly crafted by skilled podcaster! Is there more about this subject- the soul…? Please it is the most intriguing and deepening calling subject! Is there more already prepared or we are still anticipating? Blessings to all for sharing this amazing knowledge ❤️
April 18, 2021
I’m reminded of #medeivaldeathbot ((which Twitter has since banned for some reason) which tweeted records of deaths from centuries ago, where often it was stated the value of objects involved in their death
Eg Thomas Selwin died by falling off a ladder worth 3 shillings
April 18, 2021
The internet really is a weird place.
May 30, 2021
Oh! That was run by a friend of mine. As far as they can tell, the reason it was banned was that if you replied to it, it would give you a randomly generated death, and twitter took that sending as death threats *eye-roll*.
Anyway, here’s the explanation of the price thing: “That thing–be it a pot or a knife–is called a ‘deodand’ and it’s something that is believed to have caused the death of an individual. The price of each deodand is appraised and gathered for the crown’s treasury. The crown was then supposed to use this money for pious means, in the light that a deodand is, in purest form, something forfeited to god. The deodand was either paid by someone in the village or taken out of the deceased’s chattels.”
April 28, 2022
Thanks, Emily. Interesting that God levies a death-tax directly based on what the cause of death was. Presumably, He’s been raking it in since death by automobile-crash became the leading form of violent exit.
December 17, 2022
Just a side remark on the linkage between the concept of personhood and private property, proposed in the interview from about 21:00 onwards.
In “The Total Economy”, an essay on the evils of industrial corporate capitalism, Wendell Berry, the American Christian conservationist, comments that it is absurd to call corporations “legal persons”. As he puts it: “The folly at the root of this foolish economy began with the idea that a corporation should be regarded, legally, as “a person.” But the limitless destructiveness of this economy comes about precisely because a corporation is not a person. A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.”
First I liked Berry’s idea a lot. However, in the light of Seaford’s argument on the emergence of personhood from the spirit of private property, so to speak, I think Berry might have missed a deeper point. If persons are, essentially, owners of property, than, maybe, the fact that corporations are called “persons” in legal parlance is not after all so wide off the mark, and has an unconscious anthropological justification. This would be a curious “confirmation” of the Seaford’s thesis, the actual history of the term “legal person” aside.
December 17, 2022
There is another side the question as well, though, which Berry might agree with (or maybe not): Persons are responsible for their actions in legal sense, so that if they do something horrible, at least in theory, they will be punished or whatever. How do you punish a corporation which, say, destroys an ecosystem or kills a bunch of people? Who’s the murderer, exactly, in this case? Do you maybe pay a fine and dock the CEO’s bonus cheque for a year or two until public scrutiny dies down?
So the classical liberal balance book, wherein both rights and responsibilities inhere in individuals, doesn’t work with ‘corporate persons’: they get the rights, but there’s no way to enforce the responsibilities, and, to be honest, if our kids behaved the way corporations (or states) do we’d be looking into severe punishments.