Plato’s incomplete theory of the Soul

Posted by on July 11, 2011

The theory of the soul is a continual intellectual project of the philosophers of Ancient Greece as they struggle to explain their existence and its significance in the Universe.  Primarily through the works of Phaedo and Republic, we see Plato’s ideas of the soul develop the traditional conceptions, as discussed by the Presocratics, into a more coherent rational sense.  Plato attempts to legitimize and advance the prior ideas on the soul through some creative ones of his own.  In this paper I will present some of the main tenets of Plato’s theory, while illuminating its limitations in explaining a wholesome and unified understanding of the body and the soul.

Plato develops his theory of the soul substantially in the Phaedo by discussing the following concepts: the dichotomy between the body and the soul, things are living because bodies are ensouled, the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, the soul as something that reasons, the necessity of taking care of one’s soul, attribution of wisdom as the highest virtue and the pursuit of the philosopher, and the fate of taking care of one’s soul.  The discussion starts out as Socrates attempts to explain to Simmias and Cebes that “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death”; Socrates explains that he is cheerful in facing death because those who practice philosophy properly “attain the greatest blessings yonder” (AGP 234). Earlier arguments are discussed that dictate why a philosopher practicing to die cannot commit suicide, but I am omitting that in order to discuss the  dialogue about philosophers practicing to die leading to Plato’s  theory of the soul.

Plato proceeds to define death as the event where the body and the soul are separated exclusively from each other (64c, AGP 234).  In defining the body and the soul in this way, he establishes a foundation for the dichotomy between the body and the soul that greatly differs from the materialistic view of the Presocratics before him.   Attempting to explain the cheerfulness behind the pursuit of death, Socrates turns the dialogue toward a discussion on the types of things that interest true philosophers. Here, he determines that “pleasures concerned with the service of the body” are despised, while the true philosopher concerns him/herself with freeing “the soul from association with the body as much as possible” (AGP 235).  This is done because the body and its physical senses “are not clear or precise,” thus confusing the soul in its quest “to acquire truth and wisdom” whenever the soul is associated with the body (AGP 236). The base qualities of the body are further elaborated by Plato when he states that “only the body and its desires cause war, civil discord,” making people “too busy to practice philosophy” (AGP 236).

From these statements, a fundamental understanding of the soul and its relation to the body is established.  First, there is an explicit dichotomy between the soul and the body.  Second, the body and soul have properties that are particular to them.  The body is attracted to pleasures and gains understanding through sense perception, while the soul pursues the highest virtues of truth and wisdom through reason and philosophy.  Third, consequentially following from the first two ideas, since the soul is dedicated to reason and the body is an obstacle, the optimal time for attaining truth would be at or after death when the soul is completely separated from the body.  This line of reasoning is explicitly stated by Plato when he states that “when we are dead [we] attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom…” because it is only possible to attain this pure knowledge when “the soul is by itself apart from the body” (AGP 237).  Plato claims that the true philosophers practice for dying because their whole lives they pursue pure knowledge by refraining “as much as possible from association with the body” other than when and for what it is necessary.  By living their lives accordingly, when they die “god himself frees [them]” and they are permitted to attain truth and wisdom, “for it is not permitted to the impure to attain the pure” (AGP 237).  These last remarks cue us into the necessity to care for one’s soul so that one may attain the greatest blessings yonder, as Plato remarks earlier.  These ideas appear to rationally explain the cheerfulness in facing or pursuing death, but the problem confronting Plato is the common Greek understanding of the soul as something perishable that is destroyed at the time of death by being dispersed like “breath or smoke” (AGP 240).

In looking at Plato’s theory of the soul thus far, Plato is both advancing his views from those of the Presocratics while simultaneously employing some of their own ideas into his theory.  Plato advances Heraclitean ideas found in fragments ninety five to ninety seven, which provide the understanding that morality and soul are related and that the state of the soul should be taken care of, by attributing wisdom to the rational pursuit of the soul through the soul’s dissociation with the body and its sensual perceptions.  Whereas in the Heraclitean fragments the soul is materialistic and therefore directly connected to and experiencing sensual perceptions, Plato’s theory develops a non-materialistic conception of the soul that seeks pure knowledge through dissociation with sense perceptions.  This leads us back to the issue of the mortality of the soul as conceived by Greek commoners.  Here, again, Plato uses a Presocratic theory, namely the Pythagorean concepts of the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, and that all living things contain souls.

In fragments one, six, and seven of Pythagoras the above-mentioned ideas are discovered.  While Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls claims that the soul goes through the various life cycles till it becomes immortal, Plato claims that the soul is immortal and that it transmigrates through various lives until it achieves the highest level of its soul function, the attainment of pure knowledge and consequently the reward of an other-worldly abode much greater than the worldly one (114c, AGP 278).   In order for the transmigration theory of the soul to work, it must be understood that it is not only humans, rather that “all animals and all plants…and in short all things which come to be” that contain souls (AGP 241).

Several arguments are provided by Plato in support of the immortality of the soul but the primary one that I will discuss here is the affinity argument.  The affinity argument, found in 78b – 80b in Phaedo, claims that there are two types of things in reality, the visible and the not visible or in other terms the perceptible or the not perceptible.  The visible/perceptible on the one hand are composed of parts and capable of being destroyed, while the invisible/not perceptible is not composed of parts and not capable of being destroyed.  Since the soul is not perceptible to humans, it is invisible and thus not composed of parts and not capable of being destroyed.  Plato claims that “nature orders the one to be subject and to be ruled and the other to rule and be master,” and determines that the divine is the one that rules while the mortal is the one that is the subject of rule (AGP 250).  Since the soul is confused, dizzy, or drunk when it attends to perceptible things, it is determined that it is most suited for intelligible reality.  Intelligible reality is most akin to the concept of divine.  Therefore, it is understood that the soul is most like the divine, immortal, intelligible, while the body is human, mortal, and unintelligible (AGP 250).

There are many more arguments in the Phaedo in support of all the concepts of the soul that Plato presents, but I have thus far covered sufficient examples to develop a basic understanding.  One sees at the end after having developed the theory of the soul as rationally pursuing philosophy and being immortal, that the consequence for such a soul is for it to be wise, else at worst the punishment after death will be that it rots in “Hell”; meanwhile the holiest and most pious soul that pursued philosophy correctly by dissociating with the body completely during its life will be swimming in the oceans of “Heaven” (AGP 278).   The account of the soul in Phaedo is not fully developed though, for it contains several problems in explaining the functions of the body and soul.  This rather lame conclusion, though, will be revisited at the end of the Republic, which attempts to cover the holes found in the Phaedo.

The theory of the soul as presented in the Phaedo remains somewhat incomplete and unsatisfactory, for it fails to account for a unified conception of the cognitive and appetitive capacities and activities of a human being.  For example, when we watch Homer Simpson sitting in a nuclear room thinking about doing work and then neglecting it to eat a donut, we do not think of it as Homer Simpson’s mind that is thinking of nuclear type work while his body is now desiring donuts. We do not understand it as two separate things acting in relevance to a particular person, but a singular entity, Homer Simpson, engaging in both the activities of cognition and desire. As the theory is in the Phaedo it assigns one activity to the soul, while the other to the body.  In this sense, bodily desire is given the same relation to the soul as something like the functioning of the immune system, circulatory system or metabolism, such that all of these bodily functions exist only due to the body being ensouled.  This leaves us with a puzzling question about how does Plato’s theory of the soul explain vital non-mental functions of a person? If a soul is ruling the body, how is it doing so in respect to those vital non-mental functions? In some respects, Plato tackles this issue in the Republic by further developing his theory of the soul, but we will see that he ultimately leaves an incomplete theory.

Plato develops what is normally understood as a tripartite theory of the soul in Book IV of the Republic, while the theory is particularly developed to explain how just persons can be truly happy and the unjust cannot as that is the challenge presented to Plato in the opening of the Republic.  As it has been shown in the Phaedo earlier, wisdom is attributed to the pursuit of reason, and in the Republic Plato eventually proves through Books I and II that justice is a virtue belonging to wisdom and that a just person is happy.  Therefore, in this respect, a just soul is one that is wise, one that is being cared for properly, and one that is happy.   Though this is the focus of the Republic I will not delve into this aspect of Plato’s theory, for I want to focus on how the theory in Republic attempts to cover for the incomplete aspect left in the Phaedo.

From having understood the problems in the theory of the soul in the Phaedo, when we look at the tripartite theory of soul in the Republic we will see that it is not so much a division of the soul into three parts but more of an integration of what previously belonged to the body into the soul.  The soul is made analogous to the functions of the state because Plato sees the state as a macrocosmic understanding and the soul the microcosmic.  In understanding how the theory of the soul in the Republic functions, the passage that clearly depicts the analogy between the soul, the state and the various classes that belong to each is the following:

Or rather, just as there were three classes in the city that held it together, the money-making, the auxiliary, and the deliberative, is the spirited part a third thing in the soul that is by nature the helper of the rational part provided that it hasn’t been corrupted by a bad upbringing? It must be a third. (AGP 439)

This passage illuminates the three parts of the soul as reason, spirit, and desire.  Reason and spirit are two allied parts of the soul, while the third part we can determine from the reference to “money-making” to be desire (580e – 581a, AGP 565).  In this passage it can also be understood that if a person is unjust and corrupted, then the spirit component of the soul has the capacity to turn against reason (440b, AGP 438). Each aspect of the soul is also concerned with specific things, while containing certain virtues that are its highest value.  Reason is the part of the soul that “has within it the knowledge of what is advantageous for each part and for the whole soul” and therefore can be called wise (AGP 440). Spirit is the component of the soul most attached to honor since “it is wholly dedicated to the pursuit of control, victory and high repute” and therefore its highest virtue can be said to be courage (AGP 565). Lastly, desire or appetite is obsessed with pleasures through the “appetites for food, drink, sex and …money,” and therefore its highest virtue would be temperance (AGP 565).

In the Republic Plato significantly surpasses any prior understanding of the soul through his tripartite theory, its relation with the state, and what sorts of souls should be governing and why.   This is why his philosophical movement is named after him as Platonism.  Although he is able to do this and is successful in developing a more unified theory of the soul by integrating other aspects of the human psychology into the soul, there are still two apparent limitations in his theory.  The first of these deals with the Myth of Er at the end of the Republic.  It appears that Plato is unsatisfied with his own account of why souls should be just solely for the purpose of being just.  Thereby, Plato provides a rather pathetic excuse that if we do not take care of our souls in just and wise ways, gods will punish the immoral souls while the worst will imprisoned in Tartarus (615 – 616, AGP 597 – 598).  Through this account, the theory is still limited because it requires firm faith in a dogma of supposed gods.  Lastly, even with the Republic conception of the soul, a large limitation in Plato’s theory remains.  While it is stated that the soul is responsible for the life of a human being, the theory does not explain how it is that the soul is related to non-mental vital functions such as circulatory, respiratory or reproductive systems.  This question is largely unanswered at the close of the Republic.  This may be because Plato was more concerned with developing his social and political theory of the ideal state and its rightful guardians.  Nevertheless the uncertainty of how the soul rules the body in all its aspects aside from the psychological leaves a significant hole in Plato’s theory of the soul.

Through these insights from the Phaedo and the Republic we learn that Plato’s theory of the soul legitimizes several aspects of Presocratic theories such as transmigration of the soul, immortality, and the body being ensouled, while surpassing their own through the construction of the tripartite theory of the soul.  I would have liked to have developed further insights into the limitations of Plato’s theory by analyzing the conclusions drawn from the setup of the ideal state and relating them to the inhumane theories that limit human potential like the Vedanta.  Given the limit of the breadth of the topic, though, I will conclude that Plato provides a far more rationally developed and coherent conception of the soul than previously understood, albeit an incomplete one.

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