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Literary critic discusses the soul

Charlie Ducey | Thursday, October 3, 2013


Do badgers have souls? British literary critic Terry Eagleton framed his lecture around this question when he spoke at the Snite Museum of Art Wednesday afternoon. 

English Department Chair Valerie Sayers introduced the topic of souls and literature with a short biography of Eagleton and his influence in contemporary literary criticism.

“Though many literary critics draw their fan base from within their specified field, Mr. Eagleton is actually read by the public,” Sayers said. “His capacious understanding of the interplay between religious faith and leftist politics as well as his authority on aesthetics have led him to write more than literary criticism, including a novel, a memoir and a screenplay,” she said.

To address the question of whether badgers have souls, Eagleton said inquirers should look at their bodies. 

“Look at what they do. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, ‘if you want to look at the soul, look at the body – the body as practice, the body as project,'” Eagleton said.

Eagleton said “practice constitutes the life of the body,” which gives it more significance than conventional understanding might hold. 

“People are more than parcels of matter, not because they harness a soul, but because they are highly particular,” Eagleton said. 

Souls, however, ought to be defined more tangibly, according to Eagleton.

“You can see someone’s soul all the time, just as you ‘see’ someone’s rage or grief,” he said. “There is a confusion of language games, as if asking where the soul is amounts to asking ‘How close to my left armpit is my envy?’  The soul isn’t a ghostly liver or a spectral kidney. It’s the natural force of a being, as Thomas Aquinas writes.” 

As a literary critic, Eagleton said language needs to be grappled with to understand the soul, and the question of whether or not badgers have them. He said a soul relates to a body like a meaning relates to a word, not necessarily attached, but the former in each pair is more profound. 

Because bodies are tangible, Eagleton said the most suitable human language is metaphor because it is tangible, allowing readers to experience the world discursively. 

“Some say that since badgers lack language, they lack souls. But if souls are understood as simply a natural driving force, then how to do we answer the question ‘Do badgers have souls?'” he said “Yes, badgers do have souls in this sense. Just look at them. Only because we have a misguided perception of the soul would we think otherwise.

“But the possessive ‘have’ is a misleading word. You can’t just get rid of a soul, like you can a piece of rubbish,” Eagleton said. 

Though badgers have souls by Eagleton’s definition, he said there are still differences between humanity and badgers. 

“We are conceptual bodies and can do things that badgers can’t do, like build cruise missiles and fire them at each other,” he said.

In this way, Eagleton said humanity is not unique in its possession of souls, but it does have its unique qualities. Human advancement was a move up, he said, but the destructive capabilities of modern society were anything but animalistic in his eyes. 

“This ‘move up’ is biblically called the Fall, [but] not down toward the beast, that is, how animals act. They’re fine. They’re innocent. So, two cheers for badgers.”