Another word that must be defned is soul, because it is the cornerstone of every moral belief system, and, due to the lack of a clear-cut defnition, it has been the subject of many controversies. The differences of opinion concerning the nature of the soul directly stem from the plethora of meanings attributed to this word. A perfect language would have a unique term for every idea and concept, thus avoiding many debates and arguments, and misinterpretations would be impossible.
Some defne the soul as the principle of organic life, with no existence of its own and ending with the life of the body. According to this belief, otherwise known as materialism, the soul is an effect and not a cause.
Others believe that the soul is the principle of intelligence, the universal agent of which each being absorbs a portion. According to this theory, there is only one soul for the entire universe that distributes sparks of itself to all intelligent beings. When these beings die, each spark returns to the common source and rejoins the general whole, just as streams and rivers fow back to the ocean from which they were originally produced. This opinion differs from the previous belief in that there is something more than matter that resides in us, and it continues to exist even after our death. However, practically speaking, it is as if nothing remains of us after death since all sense of individuality is lost and we lose all perception of our identity. According to this theory, the universal soul is God and each being is a fragment of the Supreme Being. This is a variation of Pantheism.
Yet, there are people who view the soul as a moral being. Completely distinct and free from matter, this being preserves its individuality after death. This interpretation of the word soul is unquestionably the most widely received, because the idea of a being surviving the body is an instinctive belief, independent of all teachings, evidence of which may be found across all nations, ethnic groups and religions, regardless of their degree of civilization. This doctrine, which dictates that the soul is a cause and not an effect, is supported by spiritualists.
Without delving into the actual merits of these opinions, and only taking into consideration the linguistic aspects, these three applications of the word soul derive from three clear-cut ideas, each requiring a different term. Soul, therefore, has a triple signifcance, and is used by each ideology according to the different meaning it attaches to that word. The fault truly lies in the fact that human languages have only one word to convey three ideas. To avoid the confusion that naturally ensues from using the same word to express three different ideas, the meaning of soul must be limited to only one of them. It is irrelevant to which idea it is attributed, provided that the choice is clearly understood and agreed upon. In our opinion, the most logical action would be to attribute to the word soul its most widespread and commonly understood meaning, which is why we use it to indicate the immaterial and individual being residing within us that survives the body. Even if this being did not actually exist and were only a fgment of the imagination, a specifc term would still be needed for it.
Given the lack of a specifc term for each of the other two ideas, we use the term vital principle to defne the material and organic life that is common to all living beings regardless of its source, from plants to humankind. As life can exist when a being does not have the ability to think, the vital principle is a distinct and independent element.
The word vitality does not express the same idea. According to some, the vital principle is a property of matter, produced wherever matter is found under specifc conditions. In contrast, most believe that it resides in a special, universally circulated fuid, of which each being absorbs a portion during life. This effect can be compared to how inert bodies absorb light. This is the vital fuid, which is generally regarded as being the same as the animalized electric fuid, also known as magnetic fuid, nervous fuid, and so on.
Regardless, one fact, proven by observation, is certain. Organic beings possess an intrinsic force that, for as long as it is present, produces the phenomena of life. All organic beings possess this physical life, which is independent of intelligence and thought. Intelligence and thought are faculties belonging to select organic species, and among those gifted with intelligence and thought, only one possesses a special moral sense that renders it indisputably superior over all others: human beings.
Because it has multiple meanings, the term soul excludes neither Materialism nor Pantheism. Spiritualists themselves understand soul to have one of the frst two defnitions, without denying the distinct immaterial being to which it would give another name. This word does not represent an opinion, rather it is a versatile term defned by each individual according to his or her own school of thought. As such, this is an endless source of dispute.
Confusion could be avoided by adding a descriptive term, when using the word soul in the three cases defned above, that would specify the perspective or the manner in which we apply it. This word would be generic, representing the principles of material life, intelligence and moral judgment, each of which would be distinguished by a specifc feature or characteristic. This method is employed, for instance, for the word gas by adding the words hydrogen, oxygen or nitrogen. Therefore, we could say – and perhaps it would be the best approach – vital soul for the principle of material life, intellectual soul for the principle of intelligence, and spiritual soul for the principle of our individuality after death. This is merely a question of words, but it is crucial for ensuring clarity and understanding. In this case, the vital soul would belong to all organic beings, plants, animals and humans; the intellectual soul would specifcally belong to animals and humans; and the spiritual soul would belong to humankind alone.
It is very important to be explicit in regard to this point, because Spiritism is naturally based on the existence of a being inside us that is completely independent of matter and that lives on after the body has succumbed to death. The word soul appears frequently throughout this work; therefore, it is critical to defne the meaning that we attach to it to avoid any potential disputes or misunderstandings. We can now move along to the main object of this preliminary explanation.