(CCSLQ-8) Are A Soul

This is part of an occasional series (currently it’s weekly) exploring quotations attributed to C.S. Lewis that are questionable for one reason or another. There is an “at a glance” page HERE to quickly see what has been posted so far in this series. Also, if you haven’t already, be sure to read the INTRODUCTION to this series. 

Are a Soul

“You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.”

Someone once said, “It’s not what a quotation says to you that matters, but what you think it says.” Or, at least, that’s what I think I was thinking a moment ago when I started typing this post. Of course, my attempt to make up a meaningful expression is less than perfect at conveying what I’m actually thinking…which IS the main point. Quotations are typically very brief and do not have much more than a dozen words (as the one above), as a result of this a certain amount of interpretation MUST occur in the reader’s mind.

This “soul/body” quotation is not found in any published writings by C.S. Lewis. How it became associated with him is somewhat unclear, but what is indisputable is that people are clearly divided on its meaning. Some believe this expression advocates Gnosticism. A key concept of this heresy is that the spiritual realm is only good and the material world is evil. Thus, Gnostics have a low opinion of the body. Therefore, people who strongly dislike this quotation think it is support of those notions. While I’ve never ask someone who like the quote why they did, I remember the first time I read it, I thought it was merely advocating the truth that the physical realm is not all there is, that people usually deny there is anything else beside the body and ignore the spiritual aspect (or soul) that they have. Either way, whether you love or hate the quote don’t credit Lewis as the source because he didn’t write it.

Let’s return to how Lewis may have become connected with this quotation. Previously when I explored this expression I had only managed to trace it back to a 1892 article thanks to a post by Hannah Peckham at the Mere Orthodoxy website. Her piece reveals that a monthly journal called The British Friend had a piece stating George MacDonald made a statement very close to the popular quotation we see today. The anonymous author of the 1892 article writes, “’Never tell a child,’ said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.’” Lewis was a very big fan of George MacDonald and he even edited a collection of quotations by him in a book entitled George MacDonald: An Anthology. Yet, this quote is not even present there.

However, when reviewing other resources while preparing a book about The Screwtape Letters, I watched a six-part video series featuring Dr. Jerry Root that the C.S. Lewis Institute produced on that book in 2010 that is now available for free online. In the first lecture (around 21:30) Dr Root credits this quote to George MacDonald and states it is found in one of his novels. Unfortunately the quotation given isn’t correct, but it did lead me to the correct work where George MacDonald makes the closest statement. The book, first published in 1867, is Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood. In the 28th chapter of this fictional work MacDonald notes “the great mistake of teaching children that they have souls.” He goes on to say that “they ought to be taught that they have bodies, and that their bodies die; while they themselves live on.”

My conclusion is that the popular quote is adapted from the 1892 article where the anonymous author was paraphrasing MacDonald. Lewis is likely associated with it because he enjoyed MacDonald’s writings. In addition to the already mentioned anthology, Lewis even had him as a character in his fictional work The Great Divorce. 

One final note: there is a novel from Walter M. Miller Jr.  entitled A Canticle for Leibowitz where I’m told that there is this line: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.” (emphasis in original)

WHAT LEWIS SAID THAT’S RELATED (or closest to it):

“Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious. But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be—I am not sure—defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money.”
from The Four Loves, chapter 5



There is also a lengthier section in chapter eleven of Perelandra that touches on some elements expressed in the quotation in question.

The next quote examined is:

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most perfect person that I can think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, and most precious thing ever.”

Related Articles:

What Lewis NEVER Wrote  (Podcast)

Not Quite Lewis – Podcast Version

Not Quite Lewis – Questionable Lewisian Quotations (Conf. Paper)

Updated 10/24/2015

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  2. (CCSLQ-9) Perfect Person | Essential C.S. Lewis - […] this case we again know who the author is. As with the previous quotation, it is from George MacDonald.…