The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    The Body In Question

Body and Soul

Mark Edmundson

Liz as Cleopatra (detail), 1962, by Andy Warhol (1928–1987); private collection/Bridgeman Images. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Does the body still exist if we do not have souls? It may sound like a flippant question—or at least a sophistic one. I intend it as neither: Does the body still exist if we do not have souls?

That we do not have souls is a palpable fact to many—I would even say most—members of the educated classes in the West today. They don’t go to church. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about a possible life to come. They don’t bother themselves terribly about the matter of God.

But no one denies that we possess bodies. We are all flesh and blood and bones. This much is common knowledge and beyond any real dispute. We eat and drink and sleep and copulate—and now, of course, we exercise. We have a pulse and a blood pressure. We live and then we die.

But what happens to this body when there is no soul? What happens when we conceive of existence in a way that is no longer dialectical?

Over centuries and centuries—beginning long before Christianity acquired its own stand on the question—we believed that we possessed a dual identity. We have been two entities: body and soul. Often—one may say almost always—we considered these two forms of being to be in tension. They were, first, of a different nature. The body perished. The soul was eternal. The body died and decomposed, while the soul returned home to God, or flew to the other place. The body was mortal, the soul eternal.

And the body and soul, needless to say, were often in conflict. The body demanded carnal satisfactions, which were, at least in many traditions, antithetical to the health of the soul. Gluttony and lust and sloth: Three of the seven deadly sins involve excesses of the body. The individual striving to achieve salvation, or simply to live a righteous life, needed to defend against the tendency of his body to betray his hopes.

Saint Augustine tells us that in the Garden of Eden, Adam was never overcome by lust. Yet he was still in a position to be the father of the human race. Copulation without lust? Sex without forbidden desire? Yes. In the Garden, according to Augustine, Adam willed his erections: They were dependent on the free activity of his rational mind. In Paradise, the body never got in the way of the soul.

Until, of course, it did. Aided by Milton, we commonly conceive of the fall of man as an act of bodily indulgence: that gorgeous, lush apple. Pride was at the center of the fall. Milton suggests that Eve and Adam desired to be like gods. But the fact that the expression of that pride was a form of bodily indulgence—surely that matters, too. Body and soul have not been on easy terms down through time.

In his poem “Among School Children,” William Butler Yeats imagines a state of being in which “body is not bruised to pleasure soul.” He wants to enjoy the world without outraging the aspirations of his spirit. But the line suggests that Yeats is aware of the tension, knowing it to be endemic to Christianity and much of Western thought. He is, I think, imagining a pagan dispensation (which may or may not ever have existed) in which the demands of the inner life are perfectly compatible with the pleasures of the body. Yeats knows how remote this is from the realm of his inherited Christian culture and (I suspect) from his personal possibilities. Yeats being Yeats, this makes the state in which the body isn’t sacrificed to the longings of the soul—immortal longings, one might imagine—all the more precious.

The phrase “immortal longings” is Cleopatra’s from the last act of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, when the queen is about to commit suicide rather than fall under the power of the baleful Emperor Augustus. Cleopatra clearly refers to the immortality that comes after a life of doing amazing deeds, the kind of legendary immortality that Achilles sought, and that Shakespeare, among others, confers upon her. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is not going to a heaven of any sort. She faces her death feeling that the life of her spirit and the life of her body have not, overall, been incompatible. Her immortality will come, in some measure, from the gusto with which she indulged her bodily hungers. Before Antony became her lover there was Pompey, before Pompey there was Julius Caesar (“He plough’d her, and she cropp’d”), and how many more besides? Say what you like about Cleopatra as she is rendered by Shakespeare (and history, give or take): Her body was not bruised to pleasure her soul. Her body and her spirit streamed in the same direction: to pleasure and to power, and then on to renown, a renown she still possesses. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

But to the heaven of the angels, of the thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, and powers, Cleopatra, one dares to say, will secure no admittance. It is only through the harsh contentions of body and soul that the Christian spirit in the post-pagan world can achieve salvation in the next world and virtue in this one. Virtue in this one? Yes. Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of the harsh battle of fate in which souls are born—and in which they grow to full potency: For virtue comes from the Latin word that means strength. Cleopatra’s renown comes from her capacity to live the life of the body to the full and to provide a beacon for aspirants to extravagant pleasure and sexual delight. The individual who lives out the contention of body and spirit can overcome the bestial part in himself—what Blake and Coleridge thought of as the Natural Man—and achieve something else.

Sometimes he achieves self-conquest with an eye to heaven. But sometimes he achieves it for the purposes of earthly life. The thinker and the warrior and the saint struggle against the domination of the body and its baser appetites so that they can realize their full potential on this earth. The thinker seeks truth; the warrior seeks victory; the saint seeks a compassionate world, a world of brothers and sisters. These aspirations may not be consistent with one another: Warriors and saints have their conflicts (although they have some secret affinities, too). But the truth is that these idealists see the hungers of the body as impediments to their highest aspirations. Pleasure, enjoyment, even happiness: These are states tied to bodily satisfaction, although, abided in too long, they will lead to inertia. To the idealist, who seeks perfection, the body is both antagonist and ally. Like that of the believing Christian, his life is based upon tension. He lives a fraught dialectic in which the kind of resolution that Yeats entertains and that Cleopatra (or at least Shakespeare’s Cleopatra) achieves is radically undesirable.

Does the body still exist if we do not have souls? The question now may be a bit more cogent, although still strange enough. What happens, in other words, if the dialectic that has existed for believers and for idealists alike suddenly collapses? If there are no souls, are there still bodies in the conventional sense—the sense that puts the body in tension with the soul? If there are no ideals (and our culture is surely not in love with ideals), what happens to the bodies (or what once were the bodies) of those who might have been idealists?

The answer that follows from this line of thinking, provisional though it is, is that our bodies become ourselves. Men and women are no longer and can no longer be what Emerson called us, “a stupendous antagonism.” We are not a dragging together of the poles of the universe for the purposes of salutary struggle. After the collapse of the soul and the collapse of the ideal, after the death of the internal dialectic, what exists?

I do not think it is wrong to say that what we are left with, when our bodies become ourselves, is the quest for pleasure. If the body is the only existence (and therefore not quite the body as we knew it before), then we need to gear ourselves to living as enjoyably as possible. The objective of life becomes the avoidance of pain and the stringing together of as many moments of gratification as possible. What else could it be?

Surely there will be impediments to this life defined by what we might call the Body Omnipotent (which is no longer the body of old). One will be too sick for enjoyment; one will lack funds; one will not know which pleasure to choose among the many on offer; one’s communications device will malfunction and mislead. No doubt there will be internal impediments to the life of pleasure: Maybe there is a superego after all, but in time and with the help of various drugs and therapies, we shall overcome it. And, curses upon it, one must have a job. One must labor. But the aim of life becomes clear: It is the utilitarian’s aim of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The Body Omnipotent cannot conceive of anything else. And why should it?

The Body Omnipotent will happily accept prosthetic extensions of itself to augment power and pleasure. With the addition of the machine, one can enjoy more—which is to say buy more and experience more. Will there still be a mind? Of course there will: a mind enhanced and enlarged by one electronic device after another. But the mind will not be disposed to think its way clear of the Body Omnipotent. The mind will not put the body’s hegemony in doubt. The mind will become a tool functioning strategically to deliver as much pleasure as possible to the self. What is the best dinner? Where the best car? How to possess the most lulling vacation? To string together as many beads of pleasure as possible will be to construct a life: this meal, that trip, this dress, that suit. We came, we saw, we enjoyed.

Soul departs the world; body disappears to be resurrected as the god of itself. Homer, Plato, and the Gospels recede. Cleopatra is eternal queen.