Russians have bragged to themselves about their souls for ages, but for the past hundred years or so—roughly since Nietz­sche discovered Dostoyevsky, Henry James discovered Turgenev, and the assorted Bloomsbury folk discovered Chekhov—other European nations, Britain foremost, have been pitching in as well.  The dubious outcome of it all is that, alongside bast shoes, pinewood tar, marsh cranberries, dancing bears, and submachine guns, the Russian soul has become an internationally recognized commodity, in no way less distinctive than the cigars exported by Cuba or the wine made by the French.

The intellectual fraud that has been thereby perpetrated on the public is little short of epochal, as a clear implication of the Russians having a patent on the soul is that other European nations, Britain foremost, have but inchoate, miasmic, vaporous substances in imitation of the hallmarked original to animate their people.  Obviously, this deeply absurd, yet by now deeply ingrained, perception makes it difficult for Christians to believe in the immortality of what is at best a cheap Korean product, a Brummagem knockoff, rendering them impotent against every sort of spiritual deviation.  I realized this only recently, while boozing in London in the company of some wastrels, and it started me thinking.

The truth of the matter is that the Russian language does not have a special word meaning “soul.”  What we use is a cognate of “spirit,” which ultimately means nothing more specific than “breath.”  In other words, having a soul, in the Russian mind, is what distinguishes a living human being from a cadaver—and that, I regret to say, is all there is to it.  How any literary, philosophical, or theological edifice could have been erected, and made to stand upright for a millennium, upon this gaping abyss of a semantic void is quite beyond me.  It makes me think of Mark Twain, who, reflecting that the French language does not have a word meaning “home,” concluded that a Frenchman’s home is where another man’s wife is.

In English, by contrast, the Saxon word soul is a separate, autochthonous semantic universe into which the attentive traveler hardly needs any philosophical or theological means of locomotion to be transported—astounded, illuminated, and perhaps reborn.  Like the German Seele, it is, in fact, an Indo-European cognate of the Russian word sila, meaning “power, force, strength,” a sense surviving in the English resilience.  Unlike its Slavic counterpart, the Saxon soul is not merely a physiological distinction between the quick and the dead.  It is the articulation of a moral lesson, a sermon—a warning and a benediction.

The extent of a man’s possession of a soul, goes the intuitive logic of the Saxon, is measured by his ability or willingness to resist.  Resist what?, one may well ask.  It doesn’t matter, is the answer, because the world—today no less than all those thousands of years ago when these languages were first being made—bears down upon the individual in a myriad different ways, and to try and enumerate, predict, or catalogue them would be futile.

Tolstoy is hardly my favorite writer, but there is a psychological moment in his novella “Father Sergius” to which I return time and again.  The hero, a brilliant courtier and an intimate of the czar who has given up the world for a life of soul-searching and itinerant penury, stands by the roadside, cap in hand, as a richly appointed carriage rushes past, splashing him with mud.  Not recognizing him, the laughing passengers—his erstwhile peers—toss some coins to the beggar in a gesture of recompense, which, blessing them, he humbly accepts.

I think what Tolstoy is telling us here is that a man’s soul is less like a birthright, such as our ears or limbs, and more like a talent, such as a singing voice or an eye for color; that, like every talent, this one needs developing, training, and cultivating; and that, depending on our life’s choices, this talent, which is at best embryonic at birth, may or may not become strong.  And by strong, as with a writer’s or a painter’s creative abilities, I mean unyielding, uncompromising, committed to autarchy, resistant to social conformity, seeking grace in the eyes of God and distinction in the eyes of posterity.

Strength—as in “strength of character,” a phrase we often use with insufficient reverence, unaware that it may be synonymous with humility, perhaps even sanctity—is the key image here.  Tolstoy’s tale of the nobleman who shows his mettle by accepting alms from his peers is an allegory of the education of the soul.

To bend without breaking in the face of external pressure—refusing to renounce your faith despite the fear of lions in the Colosseum would be one example, but surely each and every one of us can think of political or social situations closer to home—is what makes the inchoate, miasmic, vaporous substance within us worthy of being called a soul.

I say so, which may be neither here nor there.  But so, too, says the language I’m proud to speak.