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How we inherited the ancient Greek model of a split human
The ancient Greeks also saw a split in the human psyche which, in their view, defined the very essence of humanity. For them, the split was between body and soul. The soul was the source of human reason and, they believed, was pure, unchanging, and immortal, linking humans to divinity. The body, by contrast, was polluted, changeable, the source of feelings and emotions, and destined to die.
In fact, they saw the soul as being imprisoned in the body, and only truly liberated after the body’s death. Since reason was the divine essence of the human being, they believed, it was only through rigorous intellectual thought and freeing oneself as much as possible from sensory distraction that one could arrive at true knowledge. This was the ultimate goal of the philosopher.
The Greeks, then, saw a similar split as the Taoists in human consciousness, but they came down on the opposite side of this split in their value assessment. For the Taoists, it was conceptual consciousness that separated humans from the Tao. For the Greeks, it was only through reason, an essential property of conceptual consciousness, that humans could get in touch with divinity.
This Greek-based model of a human being split between divine reason and polluted emotions has structured Western thought ever since. It formed the foundation of the Christian worldview, which postulated an immortal human soul tempted by bodily desires, that went either to heaven or hell after the body’s death depending on how well it resisted those temptations. In seventeenth-century Europe,
Descartes and other philosophers of his era transformed Christian cosmology into the scientific worldview that underpins much of what is commonly believed today about the cosmos. Since only humans possess reason, they surmised, and reason was what made humans divine, then the rest of the natural world lacked divinity. Nature was thus a mere machine without intrinsic value, and should be treated as such.
The Scientific Revolution spawned by this type of thinking has transformed the entire human experience and the rest of the world along with it. It has brought enormous advances in our understanding of the natural world that have led to previously inconceivable wonders of modern technology, many of which we now take for granted, such as electricity, antibiotics, sanitation, air travel, and the internet.
It has also led to the extreme imbalances between humans and the natural world that have come to threaten our very civilization. And while it has given us material comforts and conveniences that we treasure, it has also brought, for many of us, a sense of alienation, a separation from a source of meaning in our lives, a loss of deep connection with something inexpressible that feels truly worthwhile.
Excerpt from The Web of Meaning, Chapter 1.