15

It is mentioned repeatedly in both Buffy and Angel that having his soul returned to him turned the evil Angelus into the usually good Angel. This is the setup for the character. However, there are many evil human characters (i.e. with souls), Giles' arch-nemesis, the lawyers at Wolfram & Hart, etc.

Why does having a soul make Angel good when it doesn't seem to matter for a lot of other characters? Why couldn't Angel continue being evil even though he has a soul now?

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    Because when he gets a soul, his conscience seems to kick back in. Don't forget that although Angel was a bit of a tearaway, nothing in his prior lifestyle would suggest he's actually capable of murder. – Valorum Dec 22 '15 at 2:06
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    @Richard Yes, they mention that a lot, with the implication being that having a soul causes you to have a conscience. Lindsey (W&H lawyer) is probably the most interesting character because he displays signs of a conscience at times, yet still chooses to do evil things. – CJ Dennis Dec 22 '15 at 2:09
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    Ah, well that's the human condition, isn't it. – Valorum Dec 22 '15 at 2:11
18

The strong implication is that when you lose your soul (and become a vampire), you lose the inhibitions that prevent you from doing evil acts. In the vanishingly unlikely event that your soul is restored, all of these various unpleasantries come crashing back down on your human conscience like a ton of bricks.

ANGEL: When you become a vampire, the demon takes your body. But it doesn't get the soul. That's gone. No conscience, no remorse . . . it's an easy way to live. You have no idea what it's like to have done the things I've done, and to care. I haven't fed on a living human being since that day. - Buffy: Angel

Specifically to Angel, when he gets his soul back, he becomes far more like his former self; Liam. Headstrong and more than a little arrogant but certainly not a murderer or someone capable of true evil. On top of that, the crushing weight of his former actions tends to leave him wallowing in self-pity and remorse (for his victims).


The theme of atonement is one that runs through the entire show. No matter how much good Angel does, he's still wracked with torment for the things he did when he was known as Angelus

Angel: “I used to be, uh, a long time ago. I hurt a lot of people.”
Rebecca: “I don’t believe that.”
Angel: “No, it’s true. I was bad. Which is why I have to help people now. I’m trying to atone.”

Darla suffers much the same problems when her soul is returned. Angel lays it out for her. It's all about memories...

Angel: You have a soul now. Pretty soon those memories are gonna start eating away at you. Believe me, I know. Angel: Darla


Update: As to why the lawyers at W & H are capable of acts of evil without it resulting in madness, the very short answer is that the re-ensouled vampires we see; Darla, Angel, Spike weren't especially evil when they became vampires. The impact of being forced to confront their own actions (e.g. literally centuries of murders) turns them into gibbering wrecks. By comparison, the lawyers evidently are evil, as evidenced by their career choice. Even so, eventually both Lindsey and Lila both suffered attacks of conscience throughout the series when it came to murdering children and innocents.

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    I have a vague suspicion that this is based on the mediaeval concept of reason as being the faculty whereby the soul informs the (Aristotelian concept of the) mind of the morality of actions. – user867 Dec 22 '15 at 2:20
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    This half of the answer is well explained in both shows. The other half which hasn't been answered yet is why doesn't the memory of all the terrible things that the lawyers at W&H have done make them feel bad too? – CJ Dennis Dec 22 '15 at 2:26
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    @CJDennis - possibly just that there's little difference between and absent soul and a twisted one. – Radhil Dec 22 '15 at 2:49
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    Do I genuinely need to explain why lawyers are evil? – Valorum Dec 22 '15 at 8:47
13

In the Buffy and Angel-verse, vampirism is actually a form of demonic possession. Vampires are

a species of soulless, undead demons that could only exist on Earth by leaving their own dimension and possessing human corpses

Although that demon has access to all the memories of the (dead) host body, they aren't truly that host. Everything the vampire does happens after the host's soul has already vacated the body.

When Angel and Spike have their souls returned to them, the true host essentially takes back control over their own body from the vampire. However, they also get all the memories of what the vampire did in their own body, and still continue to have the demon possessing them, attempting to coax them to commit further atrocities.

Buffy: "Well, I've got a news flash for you, brain trust. That's not how it works. You die, and a demon sets up shop in your old house, and it walks, and it talks, and it remembers your life, but it's not you."

And:

Angel: When you become a vampire the demon takes your body, but it doesn't get your soul. That's gone! No conscience, no remorse... It's an easy way to live. You have no idea what it's like to have done the things I've done... and to care.

So, not only do they get the memories back, but their conscience. Even though they can logically know that they weren't technically the one being evil, the mind doesn't separate that out.

For Angel in particular, part of his curse from the Gypsies was specifically to make him feel guilty for what the demon vampire, Angelus, had done.

Gypsy Elder (that cursed Angelus): You don't remember. Everything you've done. For a hundred years. In a moment, you will. The face of everyone you have killed — our daughter's face — they will haunt you and you will know what true suffering is.

This leads to Angel attempting to atone for what he's done, but it's not something he came to on his own. He didn't always want to be good, he just didn't want more things to weigh on his conscience.

We see in a Buffy episode, The Becoming: Part 1, that a demon named Whistler sets Angel on his path to being good:

Whistler: I mean that you can become an even more useless rodent than you already are, or you can become someone. A person. Someone to be counted.
Angel: I just wanna be left alone. (starts away)
Whistler: Well, yeah, you've been left alone for, what, ninety years already. (Angel turns back) And what a package you are. The Stink Guy!

Then:

Cut to the sewers. Angel arrives where Whistler is waiting for him.
Whistler: She's gonna have it tough, that Slayer. She's just a kid. The world's full of big, bad things.
Angel: I wanna help her. (Whistler looks at him) I want... I wanna become someone.

From then on, Angel chooses to be a good guy in the hopes of:

  • Being someone, not a worthless rat eater
  • Atoning for his sins
  • Earning his humanity back

The last bullet there is a central part of the Angel series, especially the later seasons where it relates to the Shansu Prophecy. However, I don't believe that was his initial motivation for becoming a warrior of the light, but just a possible reward he could hope for after his works.

So, you see, it's not just because he has a soul, like many other villainous characters do, but because the confluence of events that led to him receiving his soul, being approached by Whistler (and later Doyle/The Powers That Be), and also the qualities and personality already attributed to his soul (during his life as Liam).

  • Does that mean the gypsies missed their mark, as the wrong person is suffering? Shouldn't it be Angelus? – Robert Grant Dec 22 '15 at 17:57
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    @RobertGrant Good question. Actually, Angelus is stuck inside Angel, too, and when Angel loses his soul again, complains about Angel's conscience. So, I think they punished Liam Angel (ignorance or total war?) but Angelus suffers, too. Let me find quotes. – user31178 Dec 22 '15 at 18:08
  • Now you say that, it sounds very familiar. I've not seen it in a few years, but, yeah. Makes sense, thanks! – Robert Grant Dec 22 '15 at 22:11
4

Having a soul doesn't mean you're good, but not having a soul means you cannot be good (though you may act good sometimes). Actually, it's not a matter of good or evil per se, but rather of conscience - an inner sense of right and wrong.

Humans

Some people are sociopaths, so having a soul doesn't necessarily guarantee a conscience (though perhaps sociopaths do not have a soul - I don't think there any evidence either way).

Most people however do have a conscience - even those who are generally evil. Perhaps their conscience is very weak, or other concerns (e.g. greed or a desire for revenge) outweigh their guilt. I suppose many find a way to rationalize their evil deeds, especially if they fall to it over time.

Lindsey McDonald is a great example, since he does have a crisis of conscience. In Angel 1x21 "Blind Date" he betrays Wolfram & Heart to save some children ... but is then lured back by a promotion.

Lilah Morgan actually explains explains her motivation to Angel rather bluntly:

It's a survival thing. I made a lot of devil's bargains and I stuck to them. As a result, I live somewhat dangerously, and quite comfortably. My mother, who no longer recognizes me, has the best room at the clinic. I get up every morning, put on my game face, and do what I have to...We've spent so much time and money on you, you're so pivotal to the coming cataclysm, that I sometimes forget how dense you can be. The game face, the one I worked so hard to get, I became that years ago. Just like you've become simpering and good from yours. You're the new poster boy for human? Thank you very much, I don't want it...You think you can awaken some buried spark of decency in me? Is that the way you "help your helpless"? I'm not helpless. I'm glad you came along, because I was sitting here -- "what's it all about?" -- and now I know. It is all about making the rest of your eternal life miserable.

(Interesting to note she still takes care of her mother.)

Vampires

As you noted, people who become vampires invariably lose their souls. It doesn't matter if they were the kindest, gentlest person before - they no longer have a conscience. They don't feel compassion. If they murder someone, they don't feel any guilt whatsoever.

Most of the people we see before and after were not merciless killers before becoming vampires. They became so only after. Drusilla is an example of someone who was sweet and gentle before being transformed into a monster. She is immediately changed into someone who enjoys murder.

It is important to note that being soulless doesn't prevent a vampire from doing good, they just have their own reasons for doing so. Obviously, Spike is the key example.

Spike ends up joining up with our heroes simply because the Initiative's implants prevent him from killing people - and he wants to kill something, so why not kill some demons? Most importantly though, he's fallen for Buffy - something he doesn't realize himself until later.

Spike does love Buffy, just as he loved Drusilla, and goes to considerable risk for her. Most notably, he helps save Dawn from Glory. He doesn't do this out of general compassion - his reward is that he earns Buffy's gratitude. While he's working with the Scoobies it's easy to forget he lacks a conscience - after all he does so much good. (Well, Xander doesn't forget.)

Buffy is forcibly reminded of what Spike is in 6x15 "As You Were", when she finds out Spike was the one trying to sell dangerous demon eggs. The result of this is she breaks off her relationship with him because she recognizes that no matter how many good things he does, he lacks a conscience and is going to do evil things too.

She is more forcibly reminded of this in 6x19 "Seeing Red", when he tries to rape her. She tells him that he's irredeemably evil, and that's why she could never love him. This precipitates Spike's decision to get back his soul. He desperately desires her love, and finally understands that she can't love someone who lacks a conscience - so he seeks to restore his soul, which will restore his conscience.

Vampire(s) With a Soul

Restoring a vampire's soul doesn't make them good, it just restores their conscience - which enables them once again to feel guilt and remorse.

Bear in mind, those with a restored soul didn't choose to be evil. They didn't find their way to it over time. They never had to rationalize their acts or learn to suppress their guilt. They're just suddenly confronted with all the horrible things they've done.

When a vampire's soul is restored they restored to whatever moral state they were when they first became a vampire. Neither Angel (a.k.a. Liam) nor Spike (a.k.a. William) were evil men. (We don't really know about Darla, even what her name was.)

Imagine you woke up tomorrow morning and suddenly remembered murdering a bunch of children in cold blood. You would probably freak out! Now consider that Angel, Spike, and Darla would be responsible for the death of hundreds, some of which were killed in particularly vile ways.

Note that having one's soul restore doesn't undo every change - Spike remains a badass rather than a weepy poet, while Angel doesn't become a drunk.

Of course, it doesn't take Spike a century to get over it. Maybe that's down to Angel / Liam being naturally more whiny. ;-) Or it could be down to Angelus having been so vicious, emotionally tormenting his victims rather than simply murdering them.

Writers' Reasons

Out of universe, I think part of the purpose of the having vampires be soulless is to make them unambiguously evil, so they can be murdered without any moral issues. I think this is also the reason for their faces changing to be monstrous. I don't recall if that has been stated explicitly though - anyone have a reference?

Demons

As an aside, I do wonder how this relates to demons. I'm not sure whether it's ever stated if they have a soul in the same way humans do. Many are clearly evil monsters, but some are relatively benign, while a few are truly good. In Buffy there is Clem, while in Angel there are lots of examples of demons that aren't merciless killers, with Lorne being the most notable example.

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    Spike fell in love without a soul, it is debatable that he may have even been "good"... and he went seeking to find his soul. Would a bad person (or daemon) do that? – Hikaru Ichijyo Dec 22 '15 at 4:51
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    Regarding Spike's decision to seek his soul, I addressed that in my answer but perhaps it is unclear. Spike doesn't choose to recover his soul because he wants to be good, he does it because he is desperate (yes, desperate) to earn her love, and that is the only way. Remember, Buffy herself tells him (after the rape attempt) that she could never love him because he doesn't have a soul. – varradami Dec 22 '15 at 4:56
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    Perhaps the easiest way to explain love being separate from good and evil is this: Spike's love for Buffy doesn't stop him from trying to rape her when she rejects him. – varradami Dec 22 '15 at 5:16
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    Harmony also tries to be good (or at least, better) in the last season of Angel – Izkata Dec 22 '15 at 6:11
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    @Roger "Well, that's just it. I am. And you know it. You had a soul forced on you as a curse. Make you suffer for all the horrible things you'd done. But me... I fought for my soul. Went through the demon trials. Almost did me in a dozen times over, but I kept fighting. 'Cause I knew it was the right thing to do." -Spike, Angel S5 E8 – user31178 Dec 22 '15 at 16:08

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