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?…
…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?…
… 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….
… 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….
… 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?…
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.
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.
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).
 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39.