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“You Don’t Have a Soul”: C.S. Lewis Never Said It

July 5th, 2012 | 12 min read

By Guest Writer

Editor’s note:  Below is the definitive take-down of the idea that C.S. Lewis said that “You do not have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”   In recent years, the attribution has taken on a life of it’s own and it is our hope to clear Lewis’s name of it.  

I am grateful to Hannah Peckham for doing such an excellent job writing this.  You should follow her tumblr, because it’s one of the best, and on Twitter too.  

In the nearly fifty years since C.S. Lewis’ death, his writing has profoundly influenced the way many Christians understand their faith. In an odd twist, however, one of his most famous quotations is not even his.

The statement “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body” makes the rounds, in a seemingly cyclical pattern, on the internet and in print. John Piper tweeted it last year; Ravi Zacharias included the quotation in at least one of his books. It can also be found in several New Age handbooks, a guide for psychics, and a devotional for fathers. This pithy summation of the distinction between body and soul is almost exclusively attributed to Lewis, although a few recent authors baldly claim it as their own.

The quotation cannot be found in Lewis’ writing. While several sources ascribe it to Mere Christianity, more responsible writers concede that the primary source is unknown. Given the central themes of Lewis’ fiction and non-fiction, we can safely say that he would never intend to convey the belief that our bodies are simply temporary shells. Readers and fans know that the worlds he created are deeply physical. The trees are alive; the animals speak; a roaring lion appears most clearly to a small child.  And the gods will not meet us until we have faces.

Many who have suspected the Lewis reference to be apocryphal credit the quotation to A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller’s 1959 science fiction novel, in which one of the characters asserts, “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”

The mystery does not end there, however. If we keep going back through the sources, it becomes clear that not only was the sentiment common before Miller’s Canticle made it to print, but the exact phrasing can be found in multiple independent sources. We can find the “you are a soul; you have a body” quotation in a 1929 novel, a short anecdote in a 1905 periodical, and an 1895 survey of the peerage in the United Kingdom and Ireland, as well as a number of other sources. A 1901 YMCA training manual included the same phrasing.

This post is not simply meant to be a litany of old periodicals and half-forgotten figures. When Christians see the diverse assortment of characters who believed that they were their souls, they can be more prepared to respond when people today freely cite “Lewis” without thinking through the implications for their faith and their actions. Although this hardly needs emphasizing, the difference between the nearly identical quotations comes in the way they are used in context, whether as part of a fictional argument in a novel or in a chapter on the soul. Just as the recent incarnation of the statement is used to encourage both psychics and evangelical dads, not to mention Calvinist pastors and teenage bloggers, the soul-body dichotomy at the turn of the century served a number of different ends.

A closer look at these older sources shows that many of the authors thought that concentrating on the soul would encourage proper behavior. In one instance, The British Friend, one of the two main British Quaker periodicals at the end of the 19th century, published a piece in 1892 on excessive mourning at funerals. The author believed that overly strong mourning kept people from remembering their hope in heaven. It is here, finally, where we find the quote attributed to George MacDonald.

“Never tell a child,” said George Macdonald, ‘you have a soul. Teach him, you are a soul; you have a body.’ As we learn to think of things always in this order, that the body is but the temporary clothing of the soul, our views of death and the unbefittingness of customary mourning will approximate to those of Friends of earlier generations.”

This attribution to George MacDonald finally, perhaps, begins to unveil how C.S. Lewis came to be associated with the statement, given Lewis’ reverence for the Scottish minister.

It is fair to question the notion that our bodies are temporary; in fact, the popularity among Christians of the ‘you are a soul, but you have a body’ sentiment, stripped of any nuance or context, indicates that a robust defense of the theology of the body is needed.

But nothing is more universal than death, and it is understandable that this quotation was, and is, widespread because people want to be assured of their future. Christians need to be mindful, however, that they are embodied creatures with the promise of an embodied resurrection. Jesus incarnated in a body and resurrected with a body, so Christians should be careful about minimizing their own.

Hannah is a recent graduate of Duke University, where she majored in history and religion. She is an avid Tumblr user and tweets regularly. Lately, she has also been blogging about the Jesus Movement.


Everything Hannah said, plus a bit more.

It’s easy these days to read the quote, double-up our fists, and shout ‘gnosticism’ in a fit of anxious rage.   The reaction understandable and one that I have at many times shared.

However, I want to double-underline Hannah’s nuance above: Not all dualisms are intrinsically bad, and we should be open to the possibility that Scripture affirms some of its own.  Paul can speak, for instance, comfortably about a gap between the “outer self” and the “inner self,” between the seen and the unseen, the transient and the eternal.  Such language has historically been attached to the conception of the “soul,” and in that sense comes close to MacDonald’s line above.

Which is simply to say, we should be careful not to simply be reactionary against uncareful statements like the above.  Theology is ever in danger of reductionism, and it’s ever possible that our own contemporary reaction against the concept of the soul is too deflationary an account of human persons.

That said, out of context–which is how the legions of people who pass it around Facebook and Twitter generally see it–the quote really does express a stunted vision of the human person in light of the resurrection.  My own intuition is to say something along the lines of, “You are a body.  But you’re a soul too.  And your human flourishing is contingent upon being a soul-bodied thing.”

At any rate, if you’re a writer, pastor, blogger, or anyone who is looking to for a good C.S. Lewis quote to invest your work with a little more authority…you’ll now have to turn elsewhere.  You’re welcome, internet.

–Matthew Lee Anderson, Lead Writer at Mere-O and author of Earthen Vessels:  Why our Bodies Matter to our Faith

Update:  Mere-O reader Eric Eekhoff put the following in the comments as well.

A brief Google Books search came up with the book Plain Words to Children by William Walsham How. It dates to at least 1876.

“What a wonderful thing the soul is, children! You cannot see it: you cannot hear it: you cannot touch it. Yet you know it is there. You do not want any proof that you have a soul. You are as sure of that as that you have a body. It tells you itself.

Now I think I am wrong, after all, in saying that you have a soul. Ought I not to say, you are a soul? Is not the soul really yourself? In truth, my children, it is the soul that has a body, not the body that has a soul; for the soul is greater surely than the body, and will last when the body is laid aside in death.”

Hannah mentions a number of other sources above, and this is doubtlessly one of them.  While not quite as succinct as the MacDonald reference, it certainly expresses something similar.  And it’s possible that the MacDonald reference is actually an interpretation of the below.

At any rate, if you find other old parallels through Google Books or elsewhere, please let us know in the comments below.

Update two:  One more reason to think that Lewis probably never said the above.  In God in the Dock, he says:  “And as image an apprehension are in organic unity, so, for a Christian, are human body and human soul.”  “Organic unity” seems quite a bit stronger than suggesting that the soul simply “has” a body, which I take as one more small piece of evidence that the above quote runs against the grain of his thought, at least without further clarification and explanation.

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