The word “psychology” comes from the Greek and means -literally- “the study of the soul.” Humans have been studying this pre-existing and eternal part of us for thousands of years. For eons before that, however, no one was studying anything. Our brains had not yet evolved to that capacity.
Anatomically modern versions of homo-sapiens have been around for approximately 200,000 years. Humans behaving in any way analogous to us contemporary humans go back about 50,000 years. The only real existential question at that time seems to have been making sense out of the experience of death. There were no alphabets around to do this, so people communicated via rituals for the dead. There does not appear to be evidence of any deep reflective thinking about our place in the universe during these centuries. Our brains were simply not yet evolved enough to do this.
Flash forward to the seventh century BC in ancient Egypt, where we have the first evidence of symbols as a kind of proto- writing. Then move up to 3,500 BC where we have the first evidence of recorded history and organized forms of reflective thinking. This development, setting the stage for a study of the soul, developed in ancient Egypt and Sumeria.
The wisdom of Western spirituality goes that far back. The wisest humans began to speculate about who we are and why humans were already beginning to feel alienated and anxious and confused about our place in the universe.
Stories arose across cultures, remarkably similar in their structure and even content, about a “paradise lost”. The collective wisdom of these stories, a kind of proto- psychology, said that there was a time, lasting thousands of years, when humans wore no clothing, except for warmth, experiencing no shame whatsoever about their bodies. Our human ancestors apparently felt a deep connection with their bodies, the earth and with heavenly powers.
Something happened, however, to cause us to be “exiled” from our earthly paradise. What happened was that we humans developed egos, enabling us to experience the others and the world and whatever heavenly powers there might be as cut off from us. Feeling lost and alienated, we humans needed help; we needed “salvation.”
In our next posting, we will explore what our ancestors did to try to make sense out of the existential questions and issues facing them. What they discovered and concluded is our first evidence of “the study of the soul”
Next posting: The Riddle of the Sphinx
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