When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought Review

When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought
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This is a subject that I have always been interested in. I am LDS and was aware that we were one of the few western religions that believe in a pre-existence. I also knew that Plato and a few early Christians such as Origen believed in the concept. I was not aware of the many others that believed in pre-existence and the diversity of views that it entailed. This book has exceeded my expectations and made me aware of many other schools of thought on the subject.
Givens has a very impressive resume and is professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond. He has done an extensive study of the subject of pre-mortal existence and the results are condensed into this book. Here he covers religion, philosophy, and poetry that cover this subject.
The book covers from Mesopotamian times to modern times. Highlights include Hebrew traditions, Plato, Gnosticism, Origen, Augustine, the Kabbalah, and the Cambridge Platonists. Philosophers that tackled this subject include Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant. In 19th century religion major players were Wilhelm Benecke, Joseph Smith, Edward Beecher and Julius Muller. Poets that covered the subject include Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Lermontov, Carlyle, and Goethe.
His final chapter is more philosophical and discusses the views of Jung and others and how the idea pre-existence can solve many philosophical and religious problems. He notes that this paradigm never succumbed to philosophical or scientific critique. It has great explanatory power, but did not fit in with the western idea of creation out of nothing and that fact that God is the only eternal being.
This book is a must for anyone interested in the idea of a pre-existence. Givens explores the religious, poetic, and philosophical implications of this belief and for someone like myself who loves theology and philosophy was a wonderful exercise in thought.

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The idea of the pre-existence of the soul has been extremely important, widespread, and persistent throughout Western history--from even before the philosophy of Plato to the poetry of Robert Frost. When Souls Had Wings offers the first systematic history of this little explored feature of Western culture. Terryl Givens describes the tradition of pre-existence as "pre-heaven"--the place where unborn souls wait until they descend to earth to be born. And typically it is seen as a descent--a falling away from a happier and untroubled state into the turbulent and sinful world we know. The title of the book refers to the idea put forward in antiquity that our souls begin with wings, and that only after shedding those wings do we fall to earth. The book not only traces the history of the idea of pre-existence, but also captures its meaning for those who have embraced it. Givens describes how pre-existence has been invoked to explain "the better angels of our nature," including the human yearning for transcendence and the sublime. Pre-existence has been said to account for why we know what we should not know, whether in the form of a Greek slave's grasp of mathematics, the moral sense common to humanity, or the human ability to recognize universals. The belief has explained human bonds that seem to have their own mysterious prehistory, salved the wounded sensibility of a host of thinkers who could not otherwise account for the unevenly distributed pain and suffering that are humanity's common lot, and has been posited by philosophers and theologians alike to salvage the principle of human freedom and accountability. When Souls had Wings underscores how durable (and controversial) this idea has been throughout the history of Western thought, the theological dangers it has represented, and how prominently it has featured in poetry, literature, and art.

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