Our SOULS make us equal?

October 11, 2019 • 1:00 pm

David Brooks’s new op-ed in the New York Times says exactly nothing. So why am I writing about it? Because of his thesis, squeezed into the last three paragraphs (see below). First, read his piece—if you can stand the sanctimonious attitude—by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’m not sure whether Brooks is really religious. He was Jewish and practiced occasionally, but may have converted to a form of Christianity, which I’ll mention below. But his conclusion, which follows a tedious virtue-flaunting and irrelevant description of racial tension, is that something apparently immaterial and supernatural makes us all brothers and sisters. To wit (and my emphasis):

[Frederick] Douglass could withstand all the ups and downs, all the ambivalences, because of an unchanging underlying belief: in the natural rights of all humankind.

He constantly returned to the core belief of America’s founding in 1776, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Slavery and racism were not just wrong — they betrayed the divine natural order of the universe. Douglass had an underlying faith in the providence. Justice would eventually triumph. The “laws which govern the moral universe,” he said, would make it so.

And here we get to the nub of what sustained Douglass and what sustains people today as they do this work. It is the belief that all humans have souls. It is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.

It is the belief that our souls make us all radically equal. Our brains and bodies are not equal, but our souls are. It is the belief that the person who is infuriating you most right now still has a soul and so is still, deep down, beautiful and redeemable. It is the belief that when all is said and done all souls have a common home together, a final resting place as pieces of a larger unity.

When people hold fast to their awareness of souls, then they have a fixed center among the messiness of racial reconciliation and they give each other grace. If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.

Souls? Grace? That sounds pretty Christian to me.  And of course there’s no evidence for souls, even though Brooks asserts with confidence that we all have them: weightless moieties without substance that somehow make us all equal.

But what are they? Are they the immaterial aspects of our being conveyed by God? If so (even though that’s hooey), how, exactly, do they make us all equal? And equal how? In the eyes of God, or equal in the eyes of the law, or in each other’s eyes?  And even in the eyes of God, are our souls all equal? I don’t think Calvinists, or others who accept “the elect”, would agree. Brooks is using an unsubstantiated concept to make an unsubstantiated assertion.

And if we didn’t have souls, would we be unequal? I don’t have a soul, or at least I have no evidence for one, so I guess I can be treated differently.

No, if you’re going to ground human equality in something, it’s better to use reason rather than superstition. Now you can’t prove that people should be treated equally under both the law and in society, but you can make rational arguments for it, be they based on the overall good of society, on a Rawlsian “curtain of ignorance”, or on deontology rather than consequentialism. (To me, you can’t just assert things like “discrimination against gays is just wrong”; rather, you have to have an argument why it’s wrong to counteract those who mandate inequality based on religious grounds.)

Now perhaps by “souls” Brooks means, “Members of the species Homo sapiens.” If that’s the case, then he should have said it rather than dabbling in the numinous.

A fairly recent New Yorker piece by Benjamin Wallace-Wells does imply that, if Brooks isn’t a believer, he certainly comes close:

One morning, passing through Penn Station at rush hour, Brooks was overcome by the feeling that he was moving in a sea of souls—not the hair and legs and sneakers but the moral part. “It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth on each of these thousands of people. They were living souls,” Brooks writes in his new book, “The Second Mountain.” “Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. With that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.” Brooks’s spiritual momentum was quickening. While attending the Aspen Ideas Festival, he hiked to the edge of American Lake, pulled out a book of Puritan prayers, and had a transcendent experience buttressed by the appearance of a “little brown creature who looked like a badger.”

. . . He relates the moment in Penn Station when he suddenly saw all the commuters as souls, and the one in Aspen, when he felt a sensation “like the sound of a really nice car door gently closing.” It’s “fair to ask, Did I convert?” Brooks writes. Not exactly. His religious awakening made him “feel more Jewish than ever before,” the cultural feeling now undergirded by a spiritual one. But, “On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew.” Here the secret and interesting book, the memoir of conversion, slides into the advertised, pedantic one, about the importance of virtue. Brooks writes, “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like.”

That, of course, assumes that Jesus was a real person. And maybe you can’t unread Matthew, but you can read it as fiction.


46 thoughts on “Our SOULS make us equal?

    1. “except in defending [people who tell him that they are religious]”

      Also, if a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, then David Brooks is someone who knows the meanings of the words he reads, but not the meaning of the sentences. Especially when it comes to religion.

  1. Brooks’ piece didn’t burn my toast much. Yes, he skirts around with some Christian sounding words, but, on the other hand, given a slightly poetic and metaphorical interpretation, it sounds a lot like just having respect for people because they are people, which is a way to blunt intolerance. I suspect he’s aware that the ambiguity will annoy some readers, but he’s hoping perhaps to hook others in. So, yes, you can read it as fiction.

  2. If Brooks had a transcendent experience at a lake in Aspen, that’s great. Sounds like a wonderful, “one with everything” moment.

    So, I’m not ridiculing his meaningful experience, but when he writes that he “had a transcendent experience buttressed by the appearance of a “little brown creature who looked like a badger””, I found this funny and incongruous.

    “What is the support for your philosophical position?”

    “My argument is buttressed by the appearance of a little brown creature.”

    For some reason, the first thing I thought of was Uri Geller’s claim that he had “teleported a dog through the walls of his house.” One report mentioned that the rather befuddled canine was found just outside of an open window.

    And so perhaps there are more earthly forces at work here, in both cases.

    1. Maybe by “…buttressed by the appearance of a little brown creature”, Brooks was hinting he was in a state of inebriation and needed support for his wobbly knees. His d*g (a great soul indeed) was there to help.

    2. I’ve had a few honest ‘transcendental experiences’ in my time where my surroundings appeared to take on a fresh clear connection with ‘everything’.

      No recreational substances were involved, nor did I become a ‘believer’.

    3. Unlike A C Harper (comment above), my most transcendent experience was facilitated by a quarter tab of LSD which a kind friend gave me.



  3. “Souls? Grace? That sounds pretty Christian to me.”

    There’s nothing specifically Christian about “souls,” either the word or the concept. The word “soul” doesn’t appear in the New Testament and in the Old Testament refers to a “living being” or “whole creature” rather than to an immaterial essence distinct from the body.

    The concept does appear in many Eastern religions, including Vedantism, and in some pagan writers, including Plato, Plutarch, and the Neoplatonists. The concept Brooks references is most explicitly elaborated on in Emerson’s 1841 essay on “The Oversoul,” a spiritual force in the universe in which all souls participate and that transcends individual consciousness (hence “Transcendentalism”). The idea that we all participate in a single “oversoul” is what underlies the notion of the brotherhood/sisterhood and equality of souls that Brooks is talking about.

    Not defending Brooks here—he does, God love him, tend to get a tad self-righteous and go overboard on the virtue of virtue—and certainly not trying to start an argument about the existence of souls. Just pointing out that not all people who believe in souls (myself included) are ipso facto Christians.

    1. No, not all are christian, Mr Miranda.
      But: I for one ‘ll NOT be buying any of it.

      According to wikipedia ( and to me ), thus, in re
      en soul ment, however:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensoulment .

      Using thus, then … … denying freedoms to girls and women
      including access to legal abortion within
      the 21st Century ! becomes … … e a s y.


      1. I’m with you, Blue.

        ‘A little brown creature who (who?!) looks like a badger’ isn’t a patch on Francis Collins and his frozen waterfall. But both of them show how easily the mind can be deluded into believing illusions. And the illusions lead to the sort of oppression that you talk about.

        The best response to Brooks’ fantasies is ‘Ah…souls!’

        1. “The best response to Brooks’ fantasies is ‘Ah…souls!’”

          That was my immediate reaction, too. Something homophonic to that, anyway. 🙂


      2. Thanks for the reference, Blue, but “ensoulment” (the moment at which a human being gains a soul) per Catholicism doesn’t really apply to Transcendentalism, which is what I was referring to. The latter posits that all living things participate in a single Soul. So Instead of a human being gaining a soul, you could say that the Soul gains a human being. 😊

          1. “Goin’ all Emerson’n’Thoreau on us, Gary? 🙂”

            Guilty as charged, Ken. One could do worse. (I just noticed, by the way, that my smiley face is smilier than yours. No connection. 😊)

    2. There are quotes from his book “The Second Mountain” about Souls waking up and souls yearning for goodness and Souls wounded by earlier traumas.

      How is it possible? What is a soul that is asleep? Do some Souls yearn for badness or maybe it yearns to go back to sleep.
      Can a Soul be wounded? How much can it be wounded? Can it be wounded into incapacitation? What then, bad Soul?

      What is the Soul stuff, how does it function, where is, how much is there?

      The whole notion is beyond belief as far as I am concerned. I never have heard of any coherent explanation of such a thing, ever, and I have been looking at this stuff all my life.

      I do know, for a fact that people and their brains can have a wide range of weird and wonderful subjective experiences that seem to be external phenomena, but aren’t. Just the machinations of the physical brain.

  4. Maybe Brooks is in search of a religion, I don’t know. He has been an op-ed columnist and pundit for most of his adult life. I guess known mostly as a moderate conservative republican. Things went south for Brooks after he went all in with the neocons for the Iraq war in 2003. He pushed it and wrote about it and cheered it on for several years. Then finally he realized it was one giant mess and he was dead wrong. Hard to go through all that and not have it affect you. So maybe he is looking for a higher guidance or different direction. I think he also separated from his wife a few years back. He now sees what is left of his republican party is really crap and that may be causing him problems.

  5. Tangentially, the New York Times has the worst opinion columnists on its staff. Brooks, Douthat, Bret Stephens. What is wrong with their selection process for the Opinion section?

    1. It is amazing that these are the best conservative columnists that they can find. I don’t mind Stephens, even when I don’t agree with him, but Brooks and Douthat are the worst, as neither deals much with reality. Brooks loves to do arm-chair psychology and sociology tinged with easy philosophy. Douthat of course keeps going back to his Catholicism. They are rarely interesting and often just seem to be making fairy castles in the sky.

  6. I don’t usually comment in the New York Times, but I did on this article. I won’t repeat what I wrote there, as it’s available in the comments on the Times under my real name, I’ll merely state that I questioned the use of “souls” as did our host here on WEIT and as many other commenters on the Times. I’ll add that I like David Brooks (we watch him every Friday with Mark Shields on the PBS News Hour). I think he’s usually a voice of reason, although I don’t always agree with him (I’m more liberal), and he’s the type of conservative (and religious person, I suppose) who we need on our side, generally. The religious stuff does bother me, though, as it did today, obviously.

  7. Ah, Brooks at his most Brooksian — indeed, this may be the chef-d’oeuvre for our foremost purveyor of lukewarm pap.

  8. Brooks writes, “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like.”

    Yep that just about says it all… giving yourself away to ignorance, lies, fairytales, at the expense of reason, true knowledge (science) and inquiry.

  9. Brooks in a piece like that is writing in a long poetical and mystical tradition. Others may have written more poetically, poignantly or searchingly, but if you want to put everything written in that genre to the test of scientific proof, it would all look kind of silly. I’m not ready to do that.

  10. It is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.

    Gee, just think, we all have a credit card in Heaven with an unlimited balance!

    1. I know it goes against the current, but there’s no point in the afterlife without a hell, if you don’t cut the wheat from the chaff, not a whole lot of point being stuck in eternity with a bunch of @$$holes of “infinite value and dignity”.

  11. I think arguments for inherent human worth are philosophically very interesting and morally very important, although I agree that Brooks chooses an odd backdrop for that subject here (while race relations can charged in this country, I sincerely hope that for at least 90%+ of the population, there is no question of actually questioning people’s basic humanity that would require such a defense.)

    I think where we are more likely to see the real world effects of valuing people on various metrics – usually productivity – over inherent humanity are in areas such as elder care and treatment of those with special needs. While we are much better at providing a societal place for those with significant special needs in 2019 than I assume we were in, say, 1419, the rate of selective abortions for children with Down Syndrome still says something about our priorities when it comes to valuing a life.

    Regarding what a ‘soul’ is in practical terms, my guess is that most people’s intuitions about a soul pretty much describe sentience, the ability to have experiences of joy, suffering, and so on.

    1. Interesting point. Indeed abortion is a case where one’s idea of a soul comes into play quite decisively. Religious folks like Catholics and many others feel that the soul of a zygote should be protected by law. There idea of the soul is certainly that it’s a mystical or sacred “thing” connected to belief in God and present from conception. A much more liberal view is that the soul is simply what we call respect for humans, in which case the soul is perhaps acquired gradually as one approaches the full term of a pregnancy. Down Syndrome is a complicated case because the condition can produce high or low functioning adults but with a shortened life span. With some other genetic conditions which are more clear cut, opting for abortions can be seen as saving the fetus from a life of suffering. Soul or no soul.

      1. I probably approach the topic from something of a spiritual perspective where seeing the equality of consciousness is viewed as important, but I think one could make a purely philosophical case for valuing human sentience entirely for its own sake. The idea that people must be ends unto themselves and it’s wrong to think of people as means to an ends, for example.

        I brought up Down Syndrome because while I agree that there are some confounding variables when it comes to Down Syndrome and abortion – perhaps parents are worried that they are not equipped to raise a special needs child, or about what would happen to them later in life if they pass away, etc. – it still seems likely to me that this demonstrates at least some preference for children who are seen as likely to succeed (in traditional terms), vs. children who can experience. A child with Down Syndrome might, as you note, be high or low functioning, but in either case has every ability to experience life’s joys and sorrows fully. If this were, in general, our biggest concern in bringing a human into the world, then the abortion rate for Down Syndrome would not be upwards of 90% in places. I don’t say that in a judgmental way (I’m not sure what I would do if it were me,) – just as an observation on the state of things. I think our values have shifted much more towards ‘humans are valuable in and of themselves’ over time, but that shift has not been total.

        1. Rather than ‘a child who will succeed’ I’d suggest the desire is for ‘a child who is happy, healthy and intelligent’ – and not dependent on caregivers for their entire life.

          “A child with Down Syndrome … has every ability to experience life’s joys and sorrows fully.”

          I would challenge that. Reduced life expectancy, total dependence on the poor caregiver, a whole raft of things they cannot do, or do only with difficulty and assistance. Do you suppose one of them, if presented with a magic switch that would make all their symptoms go away, would hesitate to flip it to ‘normal’?

          I’m not suggesting that Downs Syndrome sufferers – or anybody else who suffers from some affliction or is in bad circumstances – should automatically be miserable, or that we shouldn’t attempt to accommodate them. I’m less charitable towards parents who deliberately choose to bring a handicapped child into the world. What are they trying to demonstrate?


          1. I would challenge that. Reduced life expectancy, total dependence on the poor caregiver, a whole raft of things they cannot do, or do only with difficulty and assistance. Do you suppose one of them, if presented with a magic switch that would make all their symptoms go away, would hesitate to flip it to ‘normal’?

            Other than reduced life expectancy, the same could be said about children. I don’t think there’s any evidence that childhood is a particularly miserable time because full independence equates to happiness. I think worries about how productive and independent a person is going to be are more societal worries about having enough resources and so on. (Even in the immigration debate, there has been a lot of focus on how much people contribute to the GDP vs. how much they take – leading to things like the recent proposed ban on those without health insurance. I do think this speaks to a valuing humans based on how pragmatically useful we perceive them to be vs. as ends unto themselves.)

  12. In Czarist Russia, where internal passports were required, it was said that most people are made in two parts, body and soul, but Russians are made in three parts, body, soul, and passport. In Today’s Christian America, can you prove you’re a citizen right now? Forget the soul, get a passport. ICE is coming and merely being human won’t help you David Brooks.

  13. I remember (I was 17 when it happened) how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy hit the entire nation like a 12-on- the-Richter-Scale earthquake.

    Most everyone seemed united by shock and grief.

    Then Connie Francis began singing in her uniquely powerful voice a song meant to ease our dismay.

    The song’s lyrics said that Kennedy’s body was no longer alive “but his soul goes marching on.”

    Her anthem-like invocation of “his soul” deeply moved and comforted millions, among them Catholic seminarian me.

    But now?

    Consciousness has replaced “soul”, which has no reality other than as various metaphorical ones.

    And Kennedy’s consciousness has long since stopped marching on, as all of ours will in due time.

    Best to face this ineluctable fact rather than invoking airy-fairy non-existent ghosts in the machine to spread illusory hope for immortality.

  14. David Brooks is a dolt. We don’t have souls, we have brains. Some of us choose to utilize that thing between our ears, and others, like Brooks for example, choose to allow it to collect dust.

    1. ‘We don’t have souls, we have brains.’

      So far so good: brains (matter and energy) that produce minds (consciousness). But your second assertion is a false dichotomy. The several parts of the human brain function differently and may be said sometimes to be in ‘conflict.’ Lizard brain to high rationality. To ‘use’ one’s brain implies a ‘user,’ a coherent self. This we do not have, and as a result our minds, alas, are never really ‘made up.’ Subjectivity is messy, perhaps even illusory.

      Brooks shows a pretty common variety of messy subjectivity through his essays, although he may think he’s got it together. Human reason and enlightenment can prevail at large, as Pinker so thoroughly shows; but individual brains/minds–and I assert this both from my own incoherent attempts at self-examination and da lifetime of reading and considering literature–are. . . well, me say, messy.

      Merci, mercy.

  15. “He constantly returned to the core belief of America’s founding in 1776, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Slavery and racism were not just wrong — they betrayed the divine natural order of the universe.”

    Is there a bit of idealistic revisionism creeping in there? I thought the rebels of 1776 were more concerned with the price of tea than the rights of blacks, though I stand to be corrected on that.


  16. Two things about the Declaration:

    It begins:

    . . . when in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them. . .

    The word here is “people”, a collective we, and the “separate and equal station”–“bestowed by natural law and Nature’s God”(GNON)–belongs to the sovereign people.

    This is not an assertion of individual rights, its the basic principle of national self-determination. Colonists are a people, and have the right to break from Britain if their rights as a sovereign people aren’t respected. [Remember we are justifying a collective rebellion against the Crown, not writing a Bill of Rights.]

    Second you get:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . .

    18th Century equality was addressed at destroying a legal system of hereditary estates in Europe, where legal rights were dependent on your station, and your station was largely based on birth. Instead, you had citizens, and citizens had equal rights with other citizens. And government existed to secure the rights of citizens, or the citizens could revolt. The only universal, positive right here affirmed is the right to revolt against a government that fails to secure a citizen’s rights.

    As far as slavery, there was obvious discomfort in the Founder’s and the Revolutionary generation, but its hard to find anyone who would have viewed slaves as belonging to the “People”–Dred Scott, mid-19th Century, well after the Revolution and the Founding, was clear that Blacks could not be citizens. Since they weren’t citizens, outside of a general humanitarianism, no reason to worry about guaranteeing their rights. At best, liberals of the Jacobin Jeffersonian wing might support abolition, repatriation and creation of a “separate and equal” state for former slaves (as was Lincoln’s original intent). Nor was Dred Scott some eccentric or anomalous interpretation of the Constitution, as evidenced by the fact that it was felt necessary to pass the 14th Amendment to undo it.

    To a modern person, these attitudes clearly show a lack of political imagination (and are, needless to say, racist) but its disingenuous to lift a phrase out of the Declaration and pretend that it is the origin of a constitutional interpretation that only begins to emerge after a radical and violent restructuring of the relationship between state and federal administration and only after passage of the 14th Amendment.

    But Brooks no doubt is on the NYT editorial staff to prove the stereotype that Conservatives are stupid, seeking to supposedly “conserve” a tradition about which they demonstrate a profound historical and intellectual ignorance.

    1. Thanks for that. As may be apparent from my earlier comment, I thought Brooks was putting an unrealistic slant on things.

      (1776 was about 30 years before the first legal measures against slavery started to come into force anywhere)


  17. “If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.”

    Somewhat patronising, and I’d say Hitchens’ Razor applies.

    Anyway I do have a concept of the soul; likewise I’ve a concept of unicorns, vampires, banshees, leprechauns etc. Doesn’t mean I believe they exist.

  18. I pass through Penn Station every day. A sea of souls is the last thing that comes to mind. If there were a Hell, Penn might just be the portal. I suppose you could still use the sea of souls metaphor under this scenario…

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