Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Price of a Soul.

There is an interesting question which has been suggested as a social experiment. How much would you be prepared to sell your soul for? Would you sell it for £10? If in all seriousness, I offered to buy your soul from you, would you sell it to me?

I suspect that quite a few people would not, and even those who did, would feel uncomfortable about what they had done, even if they were staunch atheists. There is something rather unsettling about the idea.

What precisely is a soul? I remember that Donald Soper, when he went on his soapbox at Hyde Park, was once heckled by someone who asked him what shape a soul was. Quick as a flash, Lord Soper replied "Oblong. Next question please". That of course, was merely a ruse, and a bit of sharp repartee by someone who was a master of speaking in Hyde Park and dealing with heckles. It doesn't really tell us anything about what he thought, or whether a soul is oblong or not.

There are clearly dictionary  ideas of a soul, and they come down to the idea that the soul is a kind of essence of what makes us human, which can be thought of as incorporeal. But it can be difficult to pin down exactly what is meant.

When Johann Tetzel said in the 16th century ""As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs" (or is purported to have said), his idea of a "soul" was perhaps more like a ghost, a kind of shadow person. Certainly the ways people are depicted in paintings of the period suggest souls are embodied in some form.

In the ancient Pagan world, most Greeks followed Homer in believing that the soul was an insubstantial shadow, which lived an impoverished existence in the underworld after death

In fact, it is very hard to picture something disembodied, and certainly impossible to portray it in any visual form except perhaps symbolically.  But perhaps part of the problem is that we think of souls in terms of essence rather than process.

It is easy to say that the soul is the essential part of who we are, in other words, what makes me myself, despite changes in my physical appearance. But how do we mix identity and change?

The waterfall is an analogy which has been used here. The water is constantly flowing, continually changing, and yet the pattern of the water as it falls (let's not be too fussy about erosion) remains the same as we watch it happen. We have both continual change, and an unchanging pattern.

But whether we identify soul with self, or think it is something different, may well depend on different religious perspectives. What is certain is that there is quite a strong folk-belief entrenched in our culture and mythology about the existence of souls. That is why even atheists may find it unsettling to sell their souls.

They may not believe that souls exist, but that is in the realm of the intellect, and as Freud and Jung showed us, we are not creatures of pure rationality. Subconsciously, to sell a soul means giving someone else some kind of power over you. It may not be rational. But we are not rational either. The idea that we are simply very sophisticated computers is an importation of a false metaphor which over simplifies the complexity of biological organisms.

Some people, of course, may have already sold their soul. In 2010, Game Maker introduced a special "immortal soul clause" to the contract signed before making online purchases. It read:

"By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorised minions."

And it went on to provide an opt out clause:

"We reserve the right to serve such notice in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire, however we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such an act. If you a) do not believe you have an immortal soul, b) have already given it to another party, or c) do not wish to grant Us such a license, please click the link below to nullify this sub-clause and proceed with your transaction."

Very few people actually read these clauses, but if they had, they may have noted that this clause was inserted on 1st April!

So would you sell your soul? The most famous story about this, and one I really liked, was Robert Louis Stephenson's  short story "The Bottle Imp".

Keawe, a poor Native Hawaiian, buys a strange bottle from a sad, elderly gentleman who credits the bottle with his fortune. He promises that an imp residing in the bottle will also grant Keawe his every desire.

Of course, there is a catch - the bottle must be sold at a loss, i.e. for less than its owner originally paid, or else it will simply return to him. The currency used in the transaction must also be in coin (not paper money or a bank cheque/check). The bottle may not be thrown or given away. If you throw it away, or give it away, it just returns.

All of these commands must be transmitted from each seller to each purchaser. If an owner of the bottle dies without having sold it in the prescribed manner, that person's soul will burn for eternity in Hell.

It can be read online here, and I'm not going to give the ending away.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What price a soul?