April 6: The Bhagvad Gita plugs it stronger than a kitply advertisement: Fire can’t burn it, water can’t moisten it, the wind can’t dry it.
But can the owner sell it'
A young man in Jiaxing, near Shanghai, posted his soul on China’s top online auction site, Taobao, attracting bids from some 58 soul-searching buyers before the posting was taken down last week.
“We realised we had no specific policy on the selling of souls,” said Porter Erisman, spokesman for Taobao’s parent, Yahoo-backed Alibaba.com.
The site wants more proof that the seller can actually provide the goods.
That could be solid thinking. According to Buddhism, once the principal religion in China, there is no permanent, abiding self or soul that the man could have sold.
Nor could he, if Aristotle is right. To the Greek philosopher, our soul is not a ghostly occupant of our body but the most important purpose we are meant to serve.
The soul is a man’s “potential for rational activity” ' and the master would have thought it impossible that the seller could give up this potential.
A property that can be possessed but not sold ' that would have appealed to the diehard among the country’s communist rulers, however hostile dialectical materialism may be to the “bourgeois” idea of a “ghost in the machine”. But Taobao kept the door open.
“After some discussion,” Erisman said, “we decided we will allow the member to sell his soul on Taobao, but only if he can provide written permission from a ‘higher authority’.”
Such permission may be a tad difficult to get, though Christians, Muslims and Hindus do believe in the soul’s separate existence.
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul'” asks the Bible. “Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul'”
Islam, which believes the purpose of life is to develop the soul, frowns on frivolous, unnecessary talk about it. Lucknow’s Nadwa-based scholar Naim-ur-Rahman Siddiqui said the attempted sale was a stunt for “cheap publicity”.
Even the Chinese hold the soul with deep reverence. As Taobao made the decision, Chinese around the world on Wednesday observed Qing Ming, a traditional holiday where many travel to their ancestors’ graves to clean them and offer gifts to the spirits.
The occasion corresponds roughly with the Catholics’ All Souls Day, held in memory of all the departed faithful, with a fond belief that the souls of loved ones might return for a meal with the family.
But “cheap” or not, the big question about the sale is: how do you do it at all' Fr Francis Ezhanikkat of the Redemptorist Order finds it “ludicrous” that one can hand over one’s soul, “which is non-material”.
American Nathan Wright, though, had offered “my soul in a jar” ' much like a genie in a bottle ' for $26 on eBay four years ago. The site pulled it down in days, saying it didn’t allow “listings intended as jokes”.
One man to whom the price would have seemed a joke was Dr Johann Faust (1488-1541), the German alchemist and magician who reputedly sold his soul to the Devil himself in exchange for all the power, knowledge and pleasure in the world for 24 years.
The never-before transaction was condemned by all good men, and the expression “sell one’s soul” that appeared in the English language sometime around 1570 to this day refers to a dishonourable act done for money or power.
Yet the deal continued to inspire brilliant literature, as by Christopher Marlowe, Goethe and Thomas Mann, and great music, as by Beethoven, Liszt and Wagner.
It’s unlikely the unnamed Chinese seller would have been inspired by Faust’s tale. When the time came for Lucifer to claim his part of the bargain, legend has it that he wrenched the soul from the doctor’s body, leaving his room blood-spattered, bits of his brain clinging to the walls, here an eye, there a few teeth, the corpse twitching outside the room.
Yet, science fiction ' often tomorrow’s science ' could suggest a way out. Some scientists dismiss the soul as a fiction and others say science can explain neither soul nor consciousness ' but many of them identify both concepts with physical processes in the brain.
If the brain is the seat of the soul, there are ways to “transfer” it, say the dreamers.
For instance, the brain can be uploaded into a computer after its entire electrical circuitry has been mapped by a scanner, or it can be “copied” through neuro-imaging and a “duplicate” made, so the seller can have his cake and eat it too. Or, it may be transplanted, either intact or in slices to be stitched together again.
Plato, who sliced up the human soul into three parts ' reason, emotions and the passions in that pecking order ' would not approve. A soul that is being sold, he would have said, has already lost its proper harmony and hierarchy, as the seller’s greed has made the lower passions triumph over reason. Such a soul would be spoilt goods.
His teacher Socrates identified the soul with knowledge, happiness and, above all, virtue. Better suffer an injustice, he would say, than do one. The first may injure your body but the second will harm your soul, which is a human’s most precious possession.
If they really want a soul stronger than kitply, the 58 soul-searchers who logged in at the Taobao site might consider forgetting about the seller’s and start working on their own.