Resurrecting the Soul in a Secular Age

Mark Edmundson has written a “book about ideals — and about their potential disappearance from the world.” Can he save them?

Resurrecting the Soul in a Secular Age

Self and Soul by Mark Edmundson. Harvard University Press. 304 pages.

IF WE HAVE SOULS, we should be worried about them. Memory of the soul lives in the modern moment only through language, the tenuous fate of dying ideas. We still use phrases like “selling your soul,” accuse people of being “soulless,” or might even speak of a performance as “soulful.” Other than such phrases, the soul is a dead idea. It functions rhetorically, often as a flourish by humanists to damn the target of their critiques. In his massively popular New Republic article from 2014, “Ivy League Schools are Overrated: Sends Your Kids Elsewhere” (a perfect example of upper-middle-class click-bait), the writer William Deresiewicz claimed that the Ivy Leagues were bad for students’ selves and souls. In a well-crafted rebuttal, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker replied:

Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it.

Pinker is right, of course. Do you really want a school assessing whether you or your child are on your way to becoming a “unique soul,” to use Deresiewicz’s words?

So maybe it’s best to let the soul pass away. If it’s just a word, what do we stand to lose? It turns out, quite a lot. The persistence of words well after they are fashionable, or even conceptually intelligible, testifies to some abiding power in what the word evokes in the culture, what it conjures from the reader or hearer. Professional poets today are as personally secular as most members of the literary elite; yet religious language remains a crucial and even growing aspect of poetic language. Words may have a life of their own, carry their souls in themselves. Even after we have stopped believing, we continue speaking the language of faith.

“Soul” is a metaphysical and religious word; its provenance is the history of philosophy and theology; its friends and companions are words like “eternal,” “spirit,” and “divine.” In the examples of “soulful” or “soulless,” the word connotes intensity and depth, something beyond the surface, something that abides through change and resists capture by everyday ephemera. The soul is part of the second, and higher, world, that of heaven or the inner person, cherished by romantics and the spiritual as a portal beyond the mundane. That world has largely disappeared in our secular age. Yet if it is not immortal, the soul suggests something significant in its uncanny power to abide (who wants to own up to the accusation of being “soulless”?). There are still some who believe in the soul and think it’s worth saving.

Mark Edmundson is one of the believers in the beyond, and he wants to save your soul. A cultural critic and professor of English at the University of Virginia, Edmundson is unapologetic in his intentions. He concludes his “polemical” introduction to Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals by telling you what his book is all about: “the resurrection of Soul.” His is a “book about ideals — and about their potential disappearance from the world.” The danger of disappearing ideals arises from Edmundson’s diagnosis of the times, which he describes in the unsparing rhetoric of a prophet:

We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. From the halls of academe, where a debunking realism is the order of the day, to the floor of the market […] nothing is in worse repute than the ideal. Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge; prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

Against the Self, Edmundson posits Soul as that which links us to the ideal, to the transcendent order of things.

This polemic is not intended to assert one order of ideals against another. Rather, its strategy is to give the very idea of ideals a chance. Without an exploration of ideals as living options, Edmundson thinks we risk losing something essential to our humanity. And since neither the university nor the culture at large are defending ideals, his book is aimed at students and any person interested in what a life beyond personal pleasure and acquisition might mean, as well as in why, for most of our history, people have ordered their lives according to an immaterial set of values.

Edmundson’s project is a religious (or spiritual) attempt to discover alternatives to the everyday world of late-modern capitalism. No dogma is involved, save the premise of the book itself: namely, that ideals matter profoundly, and we can discover and use them through reading great literature. This is, one might say, the religion of ideals, a holding space between pure secularity and traditional religion. Its sole purpose is to say that something matters more than our petty concerns with self-advancement, and through openness to that something we might encounter ways of life worth living.

Edmundson’s argument suffers when summarized, because its real power comes through the close analysis of a series of books and figures that embody the ideals he traces. Beginning with Homer and the warrior ideal, he moves through the ideal of compassion embodied in Jesus, Confucius, and the Buddha, toward the predecessor of our soulless age, William Shakespeare, while also dealing with poetry and eros. His penultimate chapter covers the archenemy of ideals, of religion and the transcendent, Sigmund Freud.

The book functions as an internal conversation and historical argument, with Shakespeare and Freud advocating on behalf of our own idealless age. This approach balances Edmundson’s exploration of ideals as living options by also inquiring deeply into what may be wrong with ideals. What he wants is conversation, the kind with roots deep enough to build a world or change a life. After all, Freud’s own anti-idealist movement turned very quickly into a form of secular religion, with all the trappings of the great founder, the orthodox disciples, and the great heretics and schismatics, none greater than Carl Gustav Jung.

That C. G. Jung pops up in only one passage might suggest that Edmundson has no great liking for him, yet he is deeply relevant to the argument in Self and Soul. In 1933, Jung published Modern Man in Search of a Soul, a collection of lectures and essays. As this collection attests, he believed in the soul, believed perhaps too much, particularly for Freudians. Jung’s absence seems a missed opportunity, given that he nominally shared Edmundson’s goal of resurrecting the soul.

By the end of Edmundson’s book, the reader may be moved and even changed. A talented writer and brilliant reader, he shows how we remain obsessed with ideals but in substitute forms, like sports as the ersatz warfare of the middle class. Yet he himself remains at a distance from any definite defense, any unambiguous conviction. While I enjoyed Edmundson’s Self and Soul, I do not know what he personally believes about either entity.

Does it matter? For a typical academic book, probably not. But for a book seeking the resurrection of the soul, it may. In his conclusion, Edmundson loosens the very tension that animates his argument. He gives space for self as a perhaps necessary protection of the soul, claims that the ideals of compassion and the warrior, for example, are not really in conflict.

Yet they are in conflict. Our worst fears about things not coming together, not making sense, are valid. Max Weber, in a lucid and profound summation of modernity as a spiritual crisis, spoke of “warring gods,” referring to the values (ideals for Edmundson) that shape the separate parts of the modern world, ideals like love in romance, compassion in religion, victory in war, and profit in the economy. These worlds are not coherent; they split us into pieces and force choices. The attempt to worship one god in the modern world — whether money, power, love, or kindness — will make you a monster. Yet the refusal to acknowledge, as David Foster Wallace observed, that we all worship something, merely testifies to our self-deceiving power as a species. We all worship. The question is, do we worship well?

Self and Soul points to a deeper conversation it could create, a conversation about how we are all subjected to dominating powers, like global capitalism, and how we also find ourselves possessed by smaller but still potent powers to whom we build the shrines of our lives, gods like affluence and personal pleasure. If the soul is to be resurrected, what new energies will it unleash on the world? And if the soul continues to fade away, what language will we use to articulate the forces that bind us, shape us, and define our stories?

The truth is we only fully make our world in our fantasies. Our personal agency contributes something, our collective agency a great deal, but as Auden said in one of his poems, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”

What we call “spirituality” today may be the best and last chance we have to understand those powers, but only if it is brought into conversation with all the warring gods of our time. In exploring some of the powers that have shaped the world, Self and Soul may help us achieve a more modest goal than the resurrection of the soul: it might help us talk to those who are lived by different powers than the ones we worship, whether they are secular or religious.

Whether we need transcendence or not, we desperately need a space to explore our differences, and how deep they really go. That’s spiritual work. It’s the work of the soul.


Samuel Loncar is the editor of the Marginalia Review of Books and a philosopher and scholar of religion, currently teaching at Yale. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including art and ideas, science and religion, and the academic-public divide.

LARB Contributor

Samuel Loncar, PhD (Yale University), is helping heal the divide between mind and matter that has sundered wisdom and spirituality from science and technology. A philosopher and scholar of religion, he is also the publisher and editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, a LARB channel. More about him and his work can be found at his website:


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!