History / Philosophy / Uncategorized

Shadows – Part 2

Part 2 of a small series on some aspects of the history of ideas about the relationship of body and soul, or matter and mind. Part 1 is here.

At the time of Plato, the practice of sacrifice is still there, but the concepts of death and life seem to have changed. According to Plato, Socrates, in his last words, ordered that a rooster should be sacrificed to Asclepius, god of medicine. One interpretation is that he (or Plato, they are hard to tell apart) viewed life as a kind of illness. The drink of hemlock then was a kind of medicine to cure him, hence Asclepius deserved a sacrifice.

Shadows of Socrates and Plato:

…We believe, do we not, that death is the separation of the soul from the body, and that the state of being dead is the state in which the body is separated from the soul and exists alone by itself and the soul is separated from the body and exists alone by itself? Is death anything other than this?…[1]

…Now, how about the acquirement of pure knowledge? Is the body a hindrance or not, if it is made to share in the search for wisdom?…[2]

… when does the soul attain to truth? For when it tries to consider anything in company with the body, it is evidently deceived by it….[3]

… In thought, then, if at all, something of the realities becomes clear to it?…

…But it thinks best when none of these things troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor any pleasure, but it is, so far as possible, alone by itself, and takes leave of the body, and avoiding, so far as it can, all association or contact with the body, reaches out toward the reality….[4]

… the soul of the philosopher greatly despises the body and avoids it and strives to be alone by itself?…

…Do we think there is such a thing as absolute justice, or not?…

…And absolute beauty and goodness….

… Well, did you ever see anything of that kind with your eyes?…[5]

So the older concept of a mere shadow is replaced by the concept of a soul. Plato seems to have thought that death would purify the soul from the burden of the body and this would enable the soul to perceive the eternal forms clearly. In other places, Plato presents the idea that the soul perceives the forms before life and that learning actually means remembering these previously perceived forms. This concept of the soul might be influenced by Pythagoras.

Shadow of Diogenes Laertius:

He was the first, they say, to declare that the soul, bound now in this creature, now in that, thus goes on a round ordained of necessity.[6]

Perhaps this idea came from India. The Persian Empire, spanning from Greek areas in the west to parts of India in the east, might have provided the means by which ideas could travel. However that might be, the idea of a soul that can exist independently of the body, and its connection to the theory of the forms, plays an important role in Plato’s philosophy and from there, it enters the main stream of European thinking that then feeds into Christianity.

Shadow of Alfred North Whitehead:

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.[7]

Oops, it looks like lots of different, uninvited shadows are trying to squeeze in here, just like it happened to Odysseus, who just wanted to talk to Teiresias. Go away, Alfred, it is not your turn yet. We are still in antiquity.

Shadow of Alfred North Whitehead (apocryphal):

Just wanted to take my chance. It is not nice to be reduced to just one citation, while nobody is reading my works again, but it is better than nothing…

One of the starting points of Plato seems to be that we have difficulties defining certain concepts exactly. For example, what is justice? It seems to be clear but once you try to pin it down, it turns out to be somehow nebulous. You just don’t really get it. His explanation, according to what Socrates explains in the Phaedo, seems to be that our senses and our bodies in general are in the way of really recognizing the true essence of these concepts. So according to Plato, the material world is somehow twisted and mixes things up. The soul, however, freed from the constraints of the material world and the body, would get a clear view of the forms.

We are still sitting on the old tomb besides the old roman street. Before we get up and continue our walk and our line of thought, let’s just eat some of our food. Aren’t these olives wonderful? I prefer this bread with olive oil to the mere idea of it. Now I see a shadow walking up and down nervously there. Aristotle was known for doing that while thinking and while teaching, that gave his whole school its name, the peripatetic school, the school of the “around-walkers” (perhaps his students where imitating this irritating habit). I am trying to avoid him, so let’s go.

(To be continued…)

(The picture, a painting depicting the death of Socrates, painted by French painter François Watteau, is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Mort_de_Socrate-Watteau.jpg).


[1] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D64c

[2] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D65a

[3] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D65b

[4] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D65c

[5] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DPhaedo%3Asection%3D65d

[6] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D8%3Achapter%3D1, section [14].

[7] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39.


15 thoughts on “Shadows – Part 2

  1. You know, I’ve tried reading Plato’s Republic before and have lost my temper several times. His notion that an intelligent woman’s soul is male is one reason I put it down. I’m going to have to dig it out from the back of the cupboard to find the other arguments that had me miffed. I remember vaguely a notion that the person who accomplishes a series of good works and has gained financial success from such work will then necessarily start producing mediocre work because the need has been satisfied. Perhaps you will remember it?

    In your text above, the soul and body being able to exist separately – somehow I don’t think so.

    • Plato’s Republic is quite totalitarian, a caste system, nothing that would appeal to a modern reader. I also think he was wrong on the soul and body question (and a lot of other things as well) but he was influential. I find it interesting to trace the history of such ideas through the times.

      • It’s a bit difficult to pin down Plato on his stance toward the body and the material world, or anything else for that matter. In some works, he tends to be more of a dualist. In these, matter and ideas both exist and they have a problematic relationship with one another. In other works, he seems to emphasize the material world’s necessary connection to ideas (Symposium, Timaeus), which seems to come from the need to logically explain why matter should exist at all. He seems very apologetic about allowing matter to have any reality, and this comes out of deference to Parmenides. So Plato’s interest is then, what does matter have to do with reality? He can’t dismiss the material world as mere illusion, the way Parmenides had. In these dialogues, he’s actually being the empiricist.

        On the soul specifically, I don’t think he takes a definite stance. He presents various arguments. Sometimes he seems to take a definite stance, but when you think about it, he’s really leaving things up in the air. In the Apology, which is presumably an early work, he has Socrates say that the death is either a transition to the other world, or it’s a dreamless sleep. Later there are various theories presented for why the soul is mortal, and Socrates doesn’t necessarily do a great job in demolishing them, even though his interlocutors (Simmias and Cebes, if I recall) think he did. And even if he had, his belief in the soul’s immortality wouldn’t jive with what he said in court—that death was either a transition or it might be likened to a dreamless sleep. In court he was rather agnostic about the soul. My thought is that Socrates wanted assisted suicide. He never would have been persuaded to escape prison.

        Plus, Plato often appeals to myth to persuade (rather than argue) that the soul is immortal. So, some of what people call Plato’s “theory” is really just a fictional device rather than a set position or doctrine.

        When Plato writes a myth such as the one at the end of the Republic (the myth of Er), we can be pretty sure he intends that for a certain audience—those who need images (the modern equivalent would be TV, I guess). These images would then present a religious tale for them that would help them lead better (moral) lives. But for others, such as Plato’s brother, Glaucon, possibly a Pythagorean and musician, there would be a message in mathematical terms that the previous group wouldn’t be privy to. Really, a lot of this is lost on us. I think the latter would suggest more of a relationship with the material and immaterial worlds, but the former would have more emphasis on living morally in order to score points in the afterlife…or lives (plural).

        That said, I do think he believed that ideas were transcendent in some way, but either wasn’t sure why or how, or he didn’t want to reveal why or how in definite terms. After all, he even challenges his own theory of forms. No theory is sacred for him.

        • I think he had a lot of ideas fermenting in his mind but he probably never settled on a single specific system. He also did not have the long history of philosophy to look at to see how difficult these questions really were. He did not have finished answeres in the form of a system and that is probably why he choose to present his thoughts in the form of dialogs.
          I think you are right that he tailored his presentation to different audiences. In the Phaedrus, Plato uses this as an argument against writing: the written word is always the same, no matter who reads it, while the spoken word can be adapted.

        • One of the things I am trying to aim at here is the idea that Plato got it the wrong way around. For him, the forms are the “real” reality and the material world is a distorted and imperfect shadow of it. The aporias of the early dialogs seem to be interpreted as a result of the imperfections of the material world. If we could see the “real” world of the forms, everything would be clear. In my view, on the other hand, the forms are constructed ideas and theories. The real reality is the material one and it is just richer than any of our theories can ever be. Our theories are incomplete and imperfect in principle so physical reality is a proteon. Since we are able to extend and invent ever more ideas, concepts and theories, human thought and, as a corollary, human culture is a proteon as well. Sciences are operating within closed theories or systems (as long as they do “normal science”), philosophy is concerned with navigating across the breaks and borders of the systems (or analytical spaces), with generating new ones and with looking at them from the outside in a critical way. Perfect systems of state and society are impossible because humans, their minds, their cultures, languages and societies are creative, i.e. proteons in the sense that new ideas can be produced all the time, without there being a single theory about the creative process. Each bit of philosophy can therefore only be a statement inside a larger dialogue (so Plato was right on using the forms of dialogs and letters, instead of trying to produce systematic tractates). The attempt to create an ideal society leads to violence.
          The attempt to systematize knowledge ultimately leads to knowledge in the form of formal theories or algorithms (as we see it in analytic philosophy and artificial intelligence), such representations of knowledge are, in principle, incomplete as descriptions of reality. As long as you try to define computability in terms of formal theories, you end up with Turing-computable functions. True intelligence, as exhibited by human beings, on the other hand, requires creativity in the sense that you can step out of any theory and create a new one. It can be shown that this cannot be done by any algorithm, but humans can do it. So intelligence requires physical entities (I am avoiding the term “physical systems” here because in my terminology these are not systems) that are proteons. While formal theories are timeless and cannot extend themselves, creative minds are existing historically in physical time and can change. While Plato, at least in the sections cited above in the article, seems to think that the mind can exist independently of material reality, if you try to separate its description from that physical base, in the form of formal theories, intelligence and creativity are lost. Analytic philosophy and AI are the latest incarnations of an essentialist philosophical tradition that started with Plato and Parmenides. This tradition tries, in one way or another, to separate mind and matter. But I think we have to turn things around. The material world is not the imperfect, distorted and mixed up results of putting the perfect forms into matter, but the forms (ideas, concepts, theories, formalisms, algorithms…) are the incomplete and in that sense imperfect descriptions of a reality that is richer and too rich to be captured in them. The shadows on the wall are the forms, and the reality outside the cave is the material world.
          The hemlock was the wrong prescription (so let’s eat the chicken ourselves, sorry Asclepius). I don’t like Aristotle too much either, but he was on the right track by leaving the Academy and writing countless books on a large multitude of subjects (and running away when things started to become dangerous).

          • I think the source of some confusion here on Plato is difference between his stance on the soul and body vs. ideas and matter. I think I might have complicated things in talking loosely about them.

            The “mind body problem” that we think of today isn’t the same as the “matter-idea problem” that he had. The soul is attached to a particular person; it’s individual, particular, mine. But the ideas (or forms) were objective for Plato, not derived from “my” mind. They had an independent existence. So he would wonder how a particular soul can be made sense of in his theory of ideas. How can a particular “idea of me” (soul) be an immortal idea? I think he grappled with that problem, but I don’t think he had a definite theory. So that makes the soul and ideas two different things for him, though later on in the history of philosophical discourse they’re often used interchangeably to describe dualism in a broad sense, or the “mind-body problem” which wasn’t really Plato’s problem. He wasn’t a dualist in the Cartesian sense. But he did think of matter and ideas as two distinct things, and thought of their relationship as a problem to be solved. But this isn’t the same as our modern understanding of the mind body problem, which tends to lump together soul and ideas.

            On the soul, I’d say Plato was rather agnostic. He wanted the soul to belong to the world of ideas, but the particular nature of it made it difficult to include. It seems to me that if the soul were included in the world of ideas, it would no longer be equivalent to one’s particular personality. But then what is a soul? And who cares about the soul’s survival if it doesn’t retain one’s personality?

            On the relationship between the world of ideas and the material world, he’s in another strange position altogether, which is what I described earlier in his deference to Parmenides.

            That said, I also disagree with separating the realm of ideas from the material world dualistically (problematically) in order to prioritize one ontologically over the other. For me, the essential is simply a part of experience, as is the material. The need to reduce one to the other seems to be the real problem, which comes from seeing the two as separate distinct realities. When out of simplicity we simply axe one form of our experience by reducing it to the other, there’s always something that doesn’t quite make sense, something that feels left out. This is why I like the stance that Husserl takes in his form of phenomenology, which starts with bracketing and eventually leads to a fuller disclosure of how the two realms (which are no longer “two”) are really inseparable in our experience—and experience is really all we have when you think about it. I’d agree that the experience is always incomplete, and that incompleteness could be a fundamental component of how we experience. Dualism in itself isn’t quite wrong…there’s nothing really “wrong” in experience as it is experienced, and dualism is a part of that (a great part of that), but the problem can comes in the way we value and judge, usually in retrospect.

            From my point of view, the world as some not-yet-experienced reality isn’t necessarily richer or more complete, and the realm of ideas isn’t necessarily richer or more complete. Shadows aren’t less real than political puppets or the sun, but I would want to explore why shadows seem less real.

            In the most theoretical or philosophical sense, I remain agnostic on an overarching ontology, since I can’t see that it makes sense to exclude one thing in favor of another. It seems that when we do so, we’re forced to produce some sort of causal relationship for something we deem to be somehow “not real” that doesn’t explain as much as we intend it to, and we end up making more problems than our endeavor was worth. I see this as the necessary outcome of reductionism…exclusion by its nature can’t encompass all.

            In daily life, this means the ontological stance I would take would depend on the context. In other words, in discussing science I wouldn’t try to throw Heidegger into the mix unless it somehow made theoretical sense (and I can’t imagine it would). In doing philosophy, I wouldn’t assume a reductionism.

            Since experience would always be incomplete (remember Husserl’s “horizon”? It’s also always incomplete) your idea of proteons—as I understand it—sounds like an assertion that ontology can’t be definite or certain. It would have to be a mere hypothesis. Of course, I’m seeing now that if I understand you right, we’d be arriving at this for different reasons.

    • I think most people get angry when they read Plato for the first time. I think that was intended, believe it or not, and I think people even in Plato’s time would’ve been bothered by his writing, although perhaps not for the same reasons. When you consider the “waves of paradox” that Socrates discusses—tearing babies away from their parents to be raised by the state, equal education and opportunity for women (but really more directly equal than our modern Western societies…women must strip naked in the gym alongside the men and train for combat, etc.), censorship of certain art forms—then you see how ancient Athenians might’ve gotten angry with Plato too.

      My husband says that the first time he read The Republic, he threw it into a river. He’s now a Plato scholar.

      • The use of the word “totalitarian” is certainly anachronistic here, but that is what I think of Plato’s republic. If somebody tried to implement it today, he or she would be called a fashist, and I think that would be correct. Definitely, it would not work. There would be dissidents and you either have to allow them their way, destroying the system, or one would have to silence them in some way. The result would be censorship, a Gulag, etc. What Plato seems to be missing is that people are creative, so you cannot, in principle, convince everybody of an ideology, even if it where totally rational. So in order to implement such a system, you would need violence of some kind, destroying its moral integrity. As a result, you need a pluralistic society with only a minimum of coercion. I don’t think, on the other hand, that a total anarchism would work, I think it would be instable like a pencil standing on its tip. Plato was simply not realistic, he relied on an ideal human being that does not exist. His own attempt to implement such a system ended up with him being sold as a slave.
        Some fascists of the 1920s and 1930s (especially in Austria) explicitely referred to Plato. and that is not a coincidence. I know for you The Republic is an inspiration and you have a different view of it, but on my bookshelf, it is standing in the “poison cabinet”, together with some right wing philosophers I am working on or intending to work on.

        • Well as you know, I have a different interpretation of the Republic, which I don’t see as a political prescriptive doctrine at all. It’s really more about psychology, with some aspects of very theoretical politics involved.

          But even from the Republic alone, I see that he had a fatalistic view about politics. What he describes in the Republic is the natural degeneration of various “pure” forms of government, from aristocracy to anarchy, and this movement proceeds as if by necessity into chaos. In other words, I think he was trying to show that politics, even in the most abstract terms, was hopelessly prone to corruption. The city of pigs might be an exception, but that (I think) refers to a pre-moral, peaceful state, perhaps the world my Geordie lives in. 🙂 In that world, you lead a simple life without luxury and you don’t go to war to acquire luxuries. In other words, humans might not be capable of this life, but that sort of barnyard commune might just be what Plato or Socrates (hard to tell who) really admired.

          As for the Dionysius affair, I think in the Seventh Letter Plato said he didn’t think it would go well. The tyrant had asked him to teach him philosophy, but as tyrants go, he was violent and capricious. Plato didn’t have any hope of turning Dionysius into a philosopher king. I think he merely wanted to get him to draw up reasonable laws, but I don’t recall that detail too well, so I’m really just speculating on that point. I’m not sure I trust Diogenes Laertius, who sounds a lot like a gossip columnist for philosopher celebrities, but after Plato was supposedly sold into slavery, he actually returned to Syracuse to do it all over again. Apparently he barely escaped with his life.

          In the 7th letter he explains that he considered it his duty to make an effort, even though he had no hope of success. But I don’t think it’s fair to say he wasn’t realistic. He certainly didn’t like tyranny, which was what he saw in Dionysius. And keep in mind that he saw the worst of Athens, the constant upheaval after the Thirty Tyrants—not the Golden Age. He saw how fickle and violent a direct democracy can be. I think he was actually as jaded as one can be when it comes to politics. The aristocracy in the original sense of the word would not be possible, and even if it were, it wouldn’t last long. That’s what Plato says in the Republic.

          The fascists who want to think they’re following Plato didn’t understand him, in my opinion. I think he’s too abstract for their thinking. If they understood him, they wouldn’t be interested in getting involved in politics.

  2. I can’t remember much Plato but I know I didn’t like him – seemed to me that he had a great imagination and a big need to get people to believe him and next thing you know, all the audience is nodding their heads. It is interesting how his ideas influence us even today. Makes me think of Freud in this context. We don’t believe anymore, but yet, we believe in the echoes.

  3. I don’t like Plato either . I love the material world and do not believe it is a shadow – I know , I know who do I think I am ! As to poor ANW – some of us have heard of him (even read stuff) which isn’t the genuflection to Plato . I came across him 1st studying the philosophy of maths at university and later in connection with Iqbal and Bergson .

  4. By the way, where did this quote come from? I love it! I might have to include it in my novel.

    “Just wanted to take my chance. It is not nice to be reduced to just one citation, while nobody is reading my works again, but it is better than nothing…”

    • I marked it as “apocryphal” because that is not a real quote. Besides their afterlife in their books, these shadows might develop an afterlife of their own in our imagination. 😉 You are free to use it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s