Why are souls locked in earthly bodies?


« If the soul were not immortal, man would be the most unhappy of all creatures, » writes Marsile Ficin in his Platonic Theology of the Immortality of the Soul. In this treaty, which dates back to 1482, this argument is only mentioned in passing, as a matter of course. No need to insist, indeed: if one had absolute, irrefutable conviction, apodictic proof of the mortality of the soul, then the feeling of unhappiness of being nothing, the despair of a pitiful WTF, the assured evidence of the absurd, would invade the soul and suffocate it.

Questions about the origin and the end follow one another over the centuries, with strange resonances. There is no need for fine hearing or sharp eyesight. It is enough to visit the remains of sacred traditions, to connect them, and to place them side by side, to consider them together, with sympathy, in what they indicate in common, in what they reveal to be universal.

Marsile Ficin, a humanist and encyclopedic conscience, was interested in the beliefs of the Magi of Persia and Egyptian priests, the certainties of the Hebrew prophets, the visions of the Orphic, the truths of the Pythagorean and Platonician philosophers, the dogmas of the ancient Christian theologians and the revelations of the Brahmins of India.

Let’s look at the big picture, let’s breathe wide. The feeling of mystery is a stronger, more established, more significant anthropological constant than any of the truths hardly conquered by Gnostic and schizophrenic modernity. Among all peoples, the men most remarkable for their love of wisdom have devoted themselves to prayer, notes Porphyry.

For his part, Ficin, probably one of the remarkable men of his time, asked himself questions such as: « Why are souls locked in earthly bodies? »

Ficin proposes six answers to that question:

To be able to know the singular beings.

To unite the particular shapes with the universal shapes.

For the divine ray to be reflected in God.

To make the soul happier (the descent of the soul into the body contributes to the happiness of the soul itself).

For the powers of the soul to act.

So that the world may be embellished and God may be honored.

These answers can be summarized as follows: the soul unites what is a priori separate. The top and bottom. The world and the divine. The same and the other. It needs mediation, and it is itself mediation. It is in the process of becoming, it must increase, grow, mature, rise, to act, even if to do so it must first descend, to the point of becoming tiny like a germ again, remain for a very short time, decrease as much as possible, in order to observe better.

Why does such an infinite God bother with all these little supernumerary souls? Mystery, tsimtsum.

There are some leads, however, some indications, in the vast history of the world, that can be gleaned from the dismemberment of the body of Osiris, the Orphic hymns, the Book of the Dead, some verses from Homer, Virgil and Ovid, the fragments of Nag Hammadi, the cries and songs of the Vedas, the brevity of Heraclitus, the folds of Plato, the lengths of Kabbalah, the words of Christ, the figures of the shamans, – and in many other places…

A Jewish « Kenosis »


How could an Almighty God, creator of the worlds, let himself be put to death by his own creatures? Mystery. To designate this lowering, this humiliation, this annihilation of the divine, Christianity uses the word kenosis, from the Greek verb kenoô, « to empty oneself, to strip oneself, to annihilate oneself ». This word was first used by the Epistle of Paul to the Philippiansi.

But the idea of God’s death is much older. It can be found in the centuries preceding Christianity in quite different forms, it is true, for example among the Greeks with the death of Dionysus killed by the Titans, but also among the Egyptians with the murder of Osiris and his dismemberment by Seth, his own brother.

Among Jews, with the concept of tsimtsum (from the Hebrew צמצום, contraction), there is also this idea of a « God who empties himself ». It is a concept of late appearance since it is due to Isaac Louria in Ari Zal (Safed, 16th century), who uses it to explain a point of Kabbalah :

Before the creation of the worlds, God was everything, everywhere, and nothing was without Him. But when God decided to create the worlds, he had to give them a place so that they could be. God withdrew his original light, or qadoum. In the void thus created, called reshimou (« imprint », from the verb rashama, « write ») a light emanated from God, or néetsal. This emanated light constitutes the olam ha-Atziluth, the world of Emanation. Then are generated the olam haBeryah or world of Creation, the olam haYetzirah or world of Formation and the olam haAssiya or world of Action, – which contains our world. The light emanating from it therefore undergoes several contractions, compressions, or « dissimulations », which are all tsimtsum.

This word comes from the verb צָמַם tsamam, which has a wide spectrum of meaning: « to put an end to, exterminate, silence, annihilate, compress, contract, squeeze, veil, hide, observe closely, define exactly, certify », which is described in Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of Targumim Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1926). From this rich range, the word tsimtsum probably brings out the harmonics.

Here are some of them, taken from a Kabbalah lesson by Baruch Shalom Alevi Ashlag. The reason why the emanated Light cascades through the four created worlds, Atziluth, Beryah, Yatzirah and Assiya, is that the « desire to receive » must at each step be increased accordingly. For there can be no divine creation without an equally divine desire to « receive » this creation.

In the beginning, there is an abundance of Light created, emanating from the divine essence. Correlatively there must be an abundance of desire to receive this light. But this desire to receive cannot appear in the world ex nihilo. Desire is itself created. It is called Kli ְכְּלִי , a word whose primary meaning is: « thing done, thing made ». It is also called, less metaphorically, Guf (« the body »). The Kli must « receive », « lock », « hold » the light in him (as the root verb כָּלַא indicates).

Here, a little aside. The Kli can be said to be a piece of furniture, a vase, a garment, a suit, a ship, an instrument or a weapon. Here again, all the harmonics of these various senses can undoubtedly be applied to make the Kli resonate in its role as a receptacle of light, – in its role as a soul, therefore. Sander and Trenel’s dictionary says that Kli comes from the root verb כֶּלֶה (kalah), a close word to ֶכָּלַא (kala’), already mentioned. The verb kalah offers an interesting spectrum of meaning: to be made, completed, ready; to be resolved; to disappear, to miss, to be consumed, to perish, to languish; to finish; to consume, to exterminate.

Believing that words serve as a memorial to millenary experiences, I would think that all these meanings apply in one way or another to kli in its possible relationship with light.

Divine light, falling into the different worlds, spreads and at the same time contracts, folds, or veils itself, to let the desire to be received by the Kli grow, by this receptacle, this desire, this soul or this « body », this Kli which is at the root of the created creature. The Kli, who was previously part of the Light, must now distinguish himself from it in order to receive it better; he must separate himself from it in order to desire it better. He desires it as Or Hokhma (the Light of Wisdom) or Or Haya (the Light of Life), or Or Hassadim (the Light of Mercy). The Kli is therefore determined according to the degree of expansion of the Light and also according to its degree of exit from it.

Wise men commented on these questions as follows: « There is crying in inner dwellings ».

This means that when the Light arrives in the lower worlds, and it does not find a Kli wishing to receive it, it remains « interior », unrevealed, and then « there is crying ». But when she finds a Kli who desires her, she can reveal herself on the outside, and then « vigour and joy are in His place », and everything becomes visible.

i Ph. 2, 6-9 « Lui, de condition divine, ne retint pas jalousement le rang qui l’égalait à Dieu. Mais il s’anéantit (εκένωσεν) lui-même, prenant condition d’esclave, et devenant semblable aux hommes. S’étant comporté comme un homme, il s’humilia plus encore, obéissant jusqu’à la mort, et à la mort sur une croix !  Aussi Dieu l’a-t-il exalté et lui a-t-il donné le Nom qui est au-dessus de tout nom. »