“If the soul speaks, then alas it is not the soul that speaks.”
Updated: Dec 31
If the soul speaks, then alas it is not the soul that speaks.
- Friedrich Schiller, German poet and philosopher
For me, this was a breakthrough quote. Interestingly, given its very early location in my commonplace book, I must have seen it as powerful at the age of 21 despite the fact that I’m sure I didn’t really internalize it – it wasn’t really operative in my life and belief system – till sometime in my mid-30s.
Until that age, I suffered hugely from analysis-paralysis over most of the things that mattered in life. I had a kind of moral perfectionism that was clearly faulty. Its faultiness lay in the fact that I had unusually (almost pathologically?) little access to my intuitions. I knew my gut feelings and instincts were important, but until my mid 30s, I could never “hear” what they were telling me, even as I wanted desperately to listen to them.
That problem was something to do with my utterly reductionist approach to the world. Contra Ram Dass (of which no doubt much more in a later blog), I would only believe I knew something if I knew that I knew it. In other words, I tried to run my life like Descartes’ skeptical project, accepting an answer to a question of personal concern only once I had the certainty that the French mathematician and philosopher found in cogito ergo sum.
When it comes to decisions about the best way to behave in emotionally high-stakes situations –especially those that involve people you care about – that standard for knowledge (and therefore action) is a show-stopper because life is (and certainly people are) too complex to allow for certainty about every relevant variable.
Indeed, I had spent many years around my time at university deconstructing my own motivations to the point of illness (of which also more later)… and I kept doing that for a good decade afterward. Accordingly, the apparent moral perfectionism (not to confused with moral perfection) was in the thoroughness with which I considered all variables before making a decision. The impossibility of that task (and the absurdity of the attempt) was the cause of the aforementioned repeated analysis-paralysis. My doing it anyway, regardless of the frustration it caused and general lack of success of the method in my life, both was fueled by and fueled anxiety - which is something I battled with for most of my adult life.
This kind of extreme reductionism is something one can do really well and destructively if one has developed one’s mind by pursuing a math-heavy physics degree at Cambridge, and topped out with a triple first class degree. That is all the truer when one’s pursuit is driven by the insecurity of the identity-invested overachiever – which is what I was, because I was certainly no physics genius.
It was as if, through my intense studies, my brain had become like an extremely sharp knife – an extraordinarily (and dangerously) high-quality tool for a singular purpose. My problem was that the wielding of a sharpened brain isn’t like the wielding of a sharpened knife because the former has emotional consequences. And I wasn’t emotionally equipped – I didn’t have the emotional maturity in my 20s - to deal with the emotional impacts of my ruthlessly reductionist treatment of every significant issue in my life.
So my mental knife just ended up cutting me.
As Alan Watts has put it, “analysis” is a very violent process. That word includes “lysis”, which means splitting – more than a clue to the violence.
Another, related, from my commonplace book:
“There’s two ways to look at virtually anything…. The violent way is to analyze something. When you analyze something, you break it apart… Analyzing is a very violent intellectual act.. in that it tears apart.”
– Wayne Dyer
Now the problems of the human condition and experience clearly aren’t tractable using the mathematical variables and properties that are used in the hard science to represent the state of the world. Instead, when it comes to real life, the reductionist solves problems using the only other representing “entities” he has instead – words or more generally, “verbal concepts”.
Usually, when we’re being rational, we think in words.
But as I’ve made something of a career explaining in the past decade to those who will listen, words are the conceptual building blocks that constrain not only what we can think and understand – but also even what we can perceive. The limitations imposed by words on our understanding and our experience are pre-conscious.
Therefore, if what is True doesn’t happen to match exactly the meanings of the words that we have to describe it, then we cannot, even in principle, grasp it through analysis, verbalization, or any type of cognitivization. We cannot experience it purely: let alone understand it. Therefore, we can’t know precisely what is True about what Matters.
There is no such “match”. Obviously.
And so the things of the soul – the questions with which the soul is or even could be concerned – cannot be conveyed in words. They cannot, therefore, be spoken.
That is why, “if the soul speaks, then alas it is not the soul that speaks”.
That quote came to be a humbling and liberating reminder for me: don’t expect – and therefore don’t try too hard – to put fundamental truths of experience into speakable words. And don’t be dumb enough to think (as I was until well into my 30s) that a “verbal analysis” or “rational treatment” can provide the answers one seeks to questions that seem so personally consequential.
To me, Schiller was saying: allow that the Truth may have to be accessed in non-cognitive ways.
It’s a kind of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem for life.