What is a Soul?

Do humans have souls? What about animals: does Fido have a soul? Do germs?

Qabalah says that not only do humans have souls, those souls divide into parts. The Zohar discusses three:

  • Nephesh (נפש), the lower or "animal" part
  • Ruach (רוח), the "spirit"
  • Neshamah (נשמה), the higher or "super-soul".

Of these, the Nephesh enters the body at birth and the others develop — or don't — later, depending on one's circumstances.

Additional teachings in and about the Zohar discuss two more, both more sublime than the other three and said to be within the grasp of only a few chosen individuals:

  • Chiah (חיה‎)[1], the "vitality" that allows one to be aware of the divine life force
  • Yechidah (יחידה), "uniqueness", the highest plane of the soul, in which one can attain the fullest possible union with the Divine.

Hermetic Qabalism pays attention either to four of these or to all five. The model of four Souls relates them to the four Worlds: Chiah to Atziluth, Neshamah to Briah, Ruach to Yetzirah, and Nephesh to Assiah.

The model of five Souls has a slightly more complicated grouping. Ruach continues to relate to Yetzirah and Nephesh to Assiah; but Yechidah relates to Atziluth (specifically to Kether, the first Emanation), and Chiah and Neshamah are together in Briah: Chiah with Chokmah and Neshamah with Binah.

However, consider for a moment that those models might both be flawed. Rather, we should look at the souls from a slightly different perspective, one that takes into account the way in which the various parts of the Tree of Life relate to each other. Here is an alternate way of looking at souls.

The Souls as Mothers

The first, most obvious association of the three souls is with the mother letters Alef, Mem, and Shin. Here, the division is fairly obvious:

  • Neshamah, the higher soul, is Alef: Air, intellect.
  • Ruach, the spirit, is Shin: Fire, the active or conscious principles.
  • Nephesh, the lower soul, is Mem: Water, the passive or unconscious principles.

As such, these three souls have their emanation in the three Supernals: Neshamah from Kether, Ruach from Chokmah, Nephesh from Binah. But they find their expression as Triads in the tree, just as the Supernals do. Kether, and thus Neshamah, expresses as the Supernal triad emanating from Kether. Chokmah, Ruach, expresses as the Conscious or Fire triad whose base is Tiphareth, the Sun, and the Subconscious or Water triad whose base is Yesod, the Moon. Binah, Nephesh, expresses as Malkuth.

The Souls as levels of consciousness

Thinking of these three souls as emanations of the pillars of the Tree gives us insight into how to consider them.

Nephesh, the unconscious self, is the parts of ourselves that don't depend on thought for their direction. Our hearts beat, our lungs pump, without being willed to do so. All creatures, not just humans, have this soul. Dogs have emotions and instincts. And, though I couldn't prove it, I'm prepared to believe that germs have autonomic systems, or at least an analog of them, ways of reacting that are functionally equivalent to them. To be alive is to have this soul. Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality would call this the "biological" patterns.

Ruach is our conscious self, the part we normally think of when we say "I". It is, in fact, the part that thinks, period. It is the part of us that interacts socially with Souls other than itself. To Freudians, paradoxically, this Soul would be best described not as Ego, but Super-ego: it is the part that recognizes and enforces social rules and customs, helping to keep us "in our place" in society. If Nephesh is thesis, Ruach is antithesis: the unconscious wants to act on its whims, unrestrained, whereas the conscious recognizes this for a "bad idea". The Metaphysics of Quality refers to this as the "social" patterns.

Neshamah is our intellectual self, mediating between the conscious and unconscious, and directing them. It gives us goals and aspirations, things to strive for when we attempt to transcend ourselves. It's the part that lets us not just think, but think about thinking — without it, we could not wonder, could not ask "why?" Freudians would think of Neshamah as the Ego, mediating between the id, the superego, and the external world. The Metaphysics of Quality calls it "intellectual" patterns, the highest level of evolution.

Thought is not intellect

The discussion above says a possibly surprising thing: Ruach is the part of us that thinks, but Neshamah is the intellect. Isn't the intellect the part of us that thinks?

Well, it is and it isn't. Here, we will distinguish between two types of thinking, common and creative. "Common" thinking is a facility all of us have, and which we even share with many animals: the ability to solve simple puzzles or follow a set of instructions. Creative thinking, the kind that requires abstract reasoning or some true inventiveness, is a different realm of thought. We will ascribe the former to Ruach and the latter to Neshamah.

Animals think. You can watch a cat figuring out how to get from where it is to where it wants to go. It doesn't (well, most of the time doesn't) go blindly, trying every possible path until by luck some perambulation gets it to its destination; it has a plan, and the plan doesn't involve knocking things over by accident. And for that matter, some form of cogitation had to happen for the cat to want to go from here to there in the first place.

Intellect goes beyond that level of thought. While cats can think, they don't reason. They neither formulate nor answer questions of philosophy or metaphysics. The ability to go beyond the concrete into the abstract is the domain of intellect.

Nor do cats invent. In its most rarefied form, intellect also provides inspiration, the "Aha!" moment that puts us on the path of discovery and points the way.

And then there were five

The creative spark coming from Neshamah is something we haven't considered up to this point. Where exactly does creativity come from? How do we invent?

Neshamah, that over-soul, is complex. We call it "one thing", but just like Divinity itself that one thing has parts. One of its parts is the fount of knowledge called "Neshamah". The other parts are those two Souls we have yet to consider, Chiah and Yechidah.

We began by noting that the three Souls correspond to the three Mother letters, giving us aspects of intellect (Air), thought (Fire), and feeling (Water). Now let's turn again to those three Mothers, and note that they similarly give us three parts of intellect: understanding, wisdom, and inspiration.

Understanding is data after we have processed it, had a chance to think about it. This is the sphere of Binah, and the outermost — that is, most accessible — of the kinds of intellect, the Soul Neshamah.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is pure experience before it has produced thought. While it knows, the knowing has as yet no words. The words will come later. This is the sphere of Chokmah, and the Soul Chiah.

These two things balance and complement each other. Understanding without wisdom is empty, static. But wisdom without understanding is inaccessible to us, not usable. Our mental, spiritual, even social evolution depends on being able to do both, each in its own proper time. That's why when we draw the Tree of Life, these two Sephiroth are on the same level. One is not superior to the other, and one can't be used without the other. They are two parts of one whole.

But sitting above and before even those two is the undifferentiated Unity, inspiration: the creative act that begins the experience that produces wisdom and understanding. This is the sphere of Kether, and the Soul Yechidah. It is the Beginning of Whirling, that instant of no-time between when a thing isn't and when it is. As such, it is at once infinitely small and infinitely large, our closest possible apprehension of the Infinite: a thing isn't, and now it is.

That instant collapses because it must. The beginning of experience, its inspiration, turns into experience. The experience is a flash of wisdom. The wisdom produces understanding. And these three Souls, taken together, are the Three-In-One we collectively name Neshamah.

[1]Others render this "Chayyah". Given the word's Hebrew voweling, that's a better spelling.
[1]Others render this "Chayyah". Given the word's Hebrew voweling, that's a better spelling.
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An Interactive QabalahThe Mother lettersSeven of Swords A Brief Introduction to QabalahNepheshSix of Swords Kether, the CrownNeshamahFive of Swords Chokmah, WisdomThe Veil of ParokethFour of Swords Binah, UnderstandingPermutations of the NameThree of Swords Daath, KnowledgeThe Three PillarsTwo of Swords QliphothThe ProfaneAce of Disks Chesed, MercyReflectionKnight of Disks Geburah, StrengthRuachQueen of Disks Tiphareth, BeautySefer Yetzirah, the Book of FormationPrince of Disks Netzach, VictorySeverityPrincess of Disks Hod, SplendorThe simple lettersTen of Disks Yesod, FoundationWhat is a Soul?Nine of Disks Malkuth, KingdomThe SoulsEight of Disks AlefThe Supernal TriadSeven of Disks BetThe FoolSix of Disks GimelThe MagusFive of Disks DalethThe PriestessFour of Disks HehThe EmpressThree of Disks VauThe EmperorTwo of Disks ZainThe HierophantAdjustment ChethThe LoversAeon TethThe ChariotArt YodAdjustmentThe Chariot KaphThe HermitDeath LamedFortuneDevil MemLustThe Emperor NunThe Hanged ManThe Empress SamekhDeathThe Fool AyinArtFortune PehThe DevilThe Hanged Man TzaddiThe TowerThe Hermit QophThe StarThe Hierophant ReshThe MoonThe Lovers ShinThe SunLust TauThe AeonThe Magus The Qabalistic WorldsThe UniverseThe Moon Atziluth, ArchetypesAce of WandsThe Priestess Briah, the CreativeKnight of WandsThe Star Yetzirah, the FormativeQueen of WandsThe Sun Assiah, the ActivePrince of WandsThe Tower The court cardsPrincess of WandsThe Universe The AcesTen of WandsHebrew alphabet transliterations The KnightsNine of WandsThe Triads The QueensEight of WandsThe Qabalistic Veils The PrincesSeven of WandsThe Name of Names, YHVH The PrincessesSix of WandsAlef The TensFive of WandsAyin The NinesFour of WandsBet The EightsThree of WandsCheth The SevensTwo of WandsDaleth The SixesAce of CupsThe double letters The FivesKnight of CupsGimel The FoursQueen of CupsHeh The ThreesPrince of CupsKaph The TwosPrincess of CupsLamed The 32 Paths of WisdomTen of CupsMem The AbyssNine of CupsThe mother letters Adam Kadmon, the Body of GodEight of CupsNun AlchemySeven of CupsPeh The Alef-Bet in Space and TimeSix of CupsQoph The Ari TreeFive of CupsResh The Astral TriadFour of CupsSamekh BalanceThree of CupsShin The double lettersTwo of CupsThe simple letters The Ethical TriadAce of SwordsTau the Flash of LightKnight of SwordsTeth The Gra TreeQueen of SwordsThe Tree of Life The 72 Hidden Names of GodPrince of SwordsTzaddi The Tree of LifePrincess of SwordsVau The Hebrew alef-bet letter classesTen of SwordsYod MercyNine of SwordsZain The Presence of the Most HighEight of Swords