It seems like talking about the soul is going out of fashion. We don’t often hear people debating or discussing the topic of the soul anymore. Perhaps that has to do with the rise of Science or the ever-slowing death of Philosophy. However, philosophy has and also will be one of the topics I hold dear to my soul.
Speaking of which, how do I see the soul?
I don’t believe in the cartoonish interpretation of the word where when we die, a part of our soul floats out of our body and rises to the heavens. I also don’t believe that our soul is an actual essence, something separate from our body.
Instead, I relate the soul to our conscience. The inner voice inside our head, which influences our actions and thoughts and in turn, we influence its disposition. Cultivating this two-way relationship is necessary for having a good, healthy outlook on life.
And I believe that’s what Marcus Aurelius was trying to relay all those hundreds of years ago. Starting with his first point.
The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things.
Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for coining the term, Amor fati which can be translated to “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate”. The idea is that no matter what happens in your life, you have to accept it because all of those incidents and moments make up your personal unique experience in this world.
The use of love can throw some people off of this concept because how can you truly love the passing of a child or a loss of a parent? I don’t believe we are capable of fully loving this type of tragedy. However, I think we can get to a point where we no longer resent it, so we are able to accept the tragic moments of our life and figure out ways to move forward.
It’s this movement that is akin to nature.
Where a piece of land can be flooded or burned or abandoned completely and sooner or later, we can see parts of nature reclaiming it. Weeds growing through the concrete. Flowers blossoming where there once was a desert. Of course, nature has patience on its side. Nature can wait hundreds and hundreds of years but we don’t have this luxury. We have patience in our own way but with a timer on it. So, maybe we can’t move past something tragic right away, and perhaps it will take a few years to accept one’s fate, but we are capable of following nature’s guidance and being one with it, as Marcus Aurelius suggests.
And through this acceptance, we can harmonize with our inner voice.
Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is even carried so far in opposition as to intend him harm — such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger.
Not everyone is blessed with loving relationships. Those who are, understand how that’s one of the greatest joys life has to offer. Even those who weren’t raised in loving environments can cultivate a loving community. However, it is easier to cut ties and embrace a solitary life than put yourself out there because when you do that, you open yourself to more heartbreak.
I believe heartbreak is worth it compared to the soul-enriching benefits of healthy relationships.
One of the dangers of heartbreak is that we can turn hateful. Spiteful. We can become angry at everyone, at the world, and at our circumstances. However, this harms us more than anyone.
Not only do we miss out on healthy relationships but we also poison our inner mind with negativity and as I said before, it’s a two-way street. The more negativity you feed your mind, the more negative it becomes, and in doing so, that negativity compounds to the point you can jeopardize living a healthy life.
So, you have to have this balancing act where you’re open to love but don’t allow the negative consequences to isolate and anger you. Part of the way you can manage this tightrope walking is through the Amor fati concept.
The third point Marcus Aurelius makes is:
A soul harms itself, thirdly, when it gives in to pleasure or pain.
This boils down to immediate gratification and the inability to tolerate discomfort. All animals move toward pleasure and avoid pain, so I don’t think Marcus Aurelius meant to blanket these terms. Rather, we harm our soul by giving in to immediate gratification.
When we’re bored, it’s almost instinctual to pull out our phone and start scrolling. When we feel the slightest hunger sensation we run to the fridge. When it comes to picking between entertainment and work, our initial reaction and action tend to favour entertainment. It’s this type of pleasure that harms the soul because it weakens our resolve, focus, and discipline.
As for pain, it’s our inability to manage it properly that can harm our souls. Most things that are worthwhile, most goals you will have in life will be associated with a varying degree of discomfort and pain. Often, it’s those who can handle and manage discomfort in the present that ends up reaping the rewards in the future. So, when we give into discomfort during a task that requires a lot of mental or physical energy we end up hurting our soul.
Essentially, you want to be able to master the zone of proximal development. Where you are carefully and consciously pushing your discomfort boundaries and through it, enriching your soul.
Fourthly, whenever it dissimulates, doing or saying anything feigned or false.
Lying is easy. We have been doing it since we were kids. But it’s always difficult to lie to oneself. You know what you intended to do, what you set your mind on doing, which promises you made, and so on. So, when you fail to meet your intentions or promises, when you do something that is opposite of who you wish to be, that’s when the soul is damaged.
Those lies enrich the negative portion of your inner voice, the one that is full of self-doubt and feeds a negative self-image. But the more often you meet your intentions and stay true to your promises, you water a positive self-image.
A positive identity.
We are taught not to lie because you can hurt someone else but in reality, the worst aspect of lying is that we hurt ourselves. So, the way of the truth is the way of a good, healthy soul.
Fifthly, whenever it fails to direct any of its own actions or impulses to a goal, but acts at random, without conscious attention — whereas even the most trivial action should be undertaken in reference to the end. And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and the rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state — the Universe.
For the Stoics, our actions needed to be in line with the Universe. This concept can be hard to grasp in our current day and age, but the concept of not allowing your actions to be dictated by impulses is pretty easy to understand.
Our impulses are chaotic and random. If you follow them then your actions and in turn, your life will be chaotic and random. It’s difficult to accomplish your goal living like this. It’s also difficult to find a healthy mental and physical space when we’re being pulled around by our impulses.
Rather, our actions should be dictated by reason.
I believe the best way to accomplish this is to have a big goal, something that will come to fruition a year from now or years even. Once that is set, you trace backward, creating smaller goalposts to reach on the way to your eventual goal. Once these goalposts are set, we being to act in a rational manner that will help you attain the nearest goalpost. And from there, we move on to the next one. This concept can be applied to career goals, mental health goals, physical goals, life goals, and relationship goals.
Once we act with reason, we are able to focus our being and soul. But without it, the chaotic nature of life can be overwhelming and can end up hurting our soul.
So, it’s the balance of these 5 things which can cultivate a healthy soul and the good thing about it is that we have some kind of control over each aspect. Whether it’s acceptance or our attitude toward pleasure and pain, the discipline to follow the truth, embracing love rather than anger, or acting in a rational manner.
All of these combined can lead to harmonizing your inner voice and experiencing life to its fullest.