The decisive point consists in clarifying what is dying inside us, in order to understand if there is at least some possibility that one day it could rise again. No one, I think, has any more doubts about the fact that something inside us is dying: we hear it perfectly, it is a dull and persistent noise, a kind of basso continuo which gives a funereal rhythm to our days and which derives from the awareness of the increasingly imminent threats : nuclear war, the climate emergency, the gap between generations never so profound in the history of humanity, the abysmal inequalities between the super-rich few and the underprivileged masses, such massive migrations of peoples as to generate a “drift of continents” of a social type, the use of artificial intelligence which can easily be transformed into abuse, genetic engineering which runs exactly the same risk. And then there is that process of growing “infantilization of the masses”, to quote Amos Oz, which erases the boundary between politics and entertainment so that people no longer vote for those who can govern better, but for those who excite and entertain, because today most want: to be excited, like spoiled children in the land of toys. All together these shadows that weigh down on us constitute such a dark density that they lead us to say: “Enough, I want to get away from this via crucis”. But in the face of such global threats there is nowhere to run. So the question returns: what exactly inside us is dying?
Hannah Arendt, from whose thought the saving light of true philosophy emanates, wrote: “The thing to really understand is that the ‘soul’ can also be destroyed without destroying physical man” (The origins of totalitarianism, p. 603). It is the “soul” who is in mortal danger today. The other day Umberto Galimberti told this newspaper that the soul “does not belong to Christian or Jewish culture: it is an invention of Plato”. It is not true. Plato has certainly contributed to deepening the concept, but the soul was present in all the great civilizations before him: in China Taoism spoke of “hun” (the spiritual soul that survives) and of “po'” (the psychic who dies); in India the Hindus of “atman” and “jiva” supporting reincarnation; in Greece with Pythagoras, Empedocles and Anaxagoras philosophy coined the concepts of “nous” and “psyché”; even earlier, the Egyptians knew three types of soul (“ak, ba, ka”) and for each of us they predicted psychostasis, the weighing of his soul, at the end of his life. As for Judaism, in it there is a triple concept of soul (“nefesh, ruah, neshamà”), for which see the essay by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The soul (Giuntina 2018) at the beginning of which it is written: «We have a soul. We can say it because we perceive it». And that finally Jesus, theologically close to the movement of the Pharisees, shared the existence of the soul and its immortality, is evident from the Gospels. Other than “Plato’s invention”.
But why did the great spiritual traditions of humanity, religious and philosophical, feel the need to speak of the soul? I think it was to underline the human peculiarity. We humans are in many respects a piece of the material world, identical to every other manifestation of matter; in other respects, however, no, we are different. And it was to express this difference that the mind coined the concept of soul. The same function covered other similar concepts, including spirit, conscience, freedom.
So here is the answer to the initial question: what is agonizing inside us is our specific difference as human beings. Our interiority (call it soul or in other ways it doesn’t matter, what matters is that we consider it our most precious wealth) today runs the risk of being destroyed, warned Hannah Arendt. Today we can say: hacked. Maybe it already is. Perhaps we are already partially hacked, and the thoughts we express in words are no longer ours but someone else’s who has entered our mind. When we speak, who speaks inside us? When we have feelings, who feels inside us?
What is certain, however, is that, by not believing in the spiritual soul and its ability to guide (called by Marcus Aurelius “ēghemonikón”), we suffer from distrust of ourselves. This is the deadly disease, the via crucis of us postmoderns and posthumans: distrust in our humanity. Pico della Mirandola, glory of the philosophical thought of the Italian Renaissance, was able to write an essay entitled: Oration on the dignity of man, that is: “Discourse on the greatness of the human being”. Today we are only capable of highlighting our miseries. Which there are, it is evident, and they are many, but, I think, they are not all.
One may or may not believe in the resurrection of Christ that the Catholic Church will celebrate tomorrow, but the symbol it represents goes beyond theological faith because it refers to hope and a positive vision of the vital process. And if the disease we suffer from is distrust in ourselves, the drug that can cure us is called trust.
Is it a rational attitude? No it is not. All the really important things about psychic existence are not rational: think of love, passion, enthusiasm, inspiration. But irrational does not mean false, because truth does not coincide with reason, it is rather accuracy that coincides with reason. Truth is more than accuracy: it is strength, energy, impetus, commitment; «heroic fury», said Giordano Bruno.
On 3 July 1943, while she was in the Dutch concentration camp of Westerbork from which she would later be deported to Auschwitz, finding her death there on 30 November of that same year, a young Jewish woman, Etty Hillesum, wrote to some friends: «The misery that c ‘here is truly awful, and yet late at night, when the day has sunk behind us, I often walk briskly along the barbed wire, and then a voice always rises from my heart – I can’t doing nothing, that’s it, it’s elementary strength -, and this voice says: life is a splendid and great thing, later we will have to build a completely new world. To each new crime or horror we will have to oppose a fragment of love and goodness that we will have to conquer within ourselves. We can suffer but we must not succumb. And she concluded: “So I recommend you: stay in your guard post, if you already have one inside you”. The soul (or conscience, or however you still want to call it) is this guard post within us, which, for those lucky enough to have it, can constitute its salvation. His daily resurrection. And that there is nothing more precious, all the great spiritual masters teach it, from Socrates to Buddha, from Confucius to Jesus. The latter one day said: «What is the use of a human being to gain the whole world if he then loses his soul?”