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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 7. Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment

c) The Phaedrus and the fall of the soul into embodiment
Plato’s myth in the Phaedrus of the soul as a charioteer with two winged horses (246a–257b) seems, at face value, to have a drastically negative view of human embodiment. We see here the tripartite view of the soul introduced earlier in this series. The soul is “the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer” (246a). The charioteer is the intellect, the obedient horse is spirit, and the unruly horse is appetite. The soul is not one part of this, such as the charioteer, but the whole team.
In the myth we first see the gods, who are also charioteers with winged horses, though in their case both horses are noble and in perfect balance.  They gods effortlessly ascend to the rim of heaven to look “beyond” it to contemplate the forms. Human souls try to follow in their train, but with their unruly dark horses this is a difficult ascent as the bad horse seeks to drag the soul down. Some manage to get just high enough to glimpse the forms, others rise and fall, glimpsing some forms and missing others, many don’t get high enough to see anything. The soul that glimpses the forms gets another safe circuit around the heavens. In theory, it can keep this up forever (248c). However, if it fails to see the forms it starts to forget, is “weighed down, sheds its wings, and falls to earth” (248c). Depending on how much a person saw before he fell, he will be anything from a philosopher all the way down to a tyrant, the lowest form of human in Plato’s view (248e). The goal is to grow one’s wings back and ascend again. This takes a long time and is very difficult. What makes it so hard is that “the senses are so murky that it is only a few people who are able to make out, with difficulty, the original of the likeness they encounter here,” unlike when we were perceiving the forms apart from our senses. “That was the ultimate vision, and we saw it in pure light because we were pure ourselves, not buried in this thing we are carrying around now, which we call a body, locked in like an oyster in its shell” (250b-c).
The picture of an undesirable “fall” of humanity into a body, a body in which it is now buried alive and imprisoned, is hardly imagery that presents a positive view of embodiment. It is no wonder that many have balked at it. However, I would like to tentatively suggest that things may not be as they appear at first blush.
First, we should note that what Plato offers is “a mythic hymn” (265c) that tells us not “what a soul actually is” but “what it is like,” the former being a task for a god, the latter being humanly possible (246a). The non-literal aspects of the ascent are hinted at in talk of the “the place beyond heaven . . . without colour and without shape and without solidity” (247c). This cannot be a literal “place” nor can it be literally “beyond” heaven. It is “visible only to intelligence” (247c); an intellectual “space” that occupies no physical space. So we need to be careful how we interpret the myth.
Second, we should note a major problem with taking the story as relating to an actual fall into embodiment from a blissful disembodied state. The soul under discussion in the “story-like hymn” is the tripartite soul known from various other Platonic texts. The problem is that everywhere else in Plato the spirit and appetite (the two horses) are extensions of the soul under the conditions of embodiment.[1] To take the story even semi-literally would be to see pre-embodied souls as tripartite and this is problematic at two levels. First, it is inconsistent with what Plato says elsewhere. Second, and more importantly, it is difficult to give any worthwhile account of the two horses for a disembodied soul. Consider how Socrates explains the nature of the dark, unruly horse: it is attracted with passion for earthly things and drags the soul down (247b); it hungers for physical bodily pleasures (253e–254a). Surely these are the passions of the embodied soul.
Now it may be objected that the notion of disembodied tripartite souls must be intelligible because the gods themselves are here tripartite. They too are charioteers with pairs of winged horses. But we need to remember that for Plato the gods are not disembodied. The Timaeus makes very clear that the gods are astral deities composed of soul and body. Their bodies are those astral objects that moved in perfect circles around the heavens (Tim. 38c–40d). Because nothing disturbs their circular motions they are closer to perfection. This, presumably, is why the myth in Phaedrus images them as having two white horses in perfect union (246a; 247b). Humans, in the Timaeus, have their circular motions interrupted by the rectilinear motions of up, down, left, right, backwards, and forwards.[2] This is a result of embodiment and it generates disruption and problems for reason. The Phaedrus myth pictures this condition as that of having an untamed horse that struggles against the wishes of the charioteer. Now if this parallel between the analysis of the internal conflict within the human soul in Phaedrus and Timaeus is correct, then the soul we are talking about is embodied in both cases. What I am suggesting is that while Plato is telling a story about a fall into embodiment, we need to appreciate that it is a story and be open to the real possibility that he is not making any claims about the biography of any actual souls. He is not, in other words, speaking of an actual or literal fall into embodiment, but of the metaphorical fall of an already-embodied subject.[3]
Third, let’s consider the main point of the myth, the problem created by embodiment is, as we saw in the Phaedo, a very specific problem—an epistemological problem. The contrast throughout the myth is between the pure sight on reality when considered apart from the senses and the very murky view offered by the bodily senses (250b). The focus of the myth is on a fall from a higher mode of apprehending reality to a lower mode. For nourishment the fallen souls have “their own opinions” instead of knowledge (248b). The wings are fed from the grass of the plain where truth stands, and cannot be sustained by mere “opinion.” So the task of the soul is to re-grow its wings and to ascend again, moving from sense perception to apprehension of the forms. But, like the descent, this ascent is an epistemic one symbolized as an ascent from the body.
Fourth, the surprise, in light of the use of rather negative body imagery in the myth, is that the actual journey of ascent grants an important role for the body. The philosopher sees beauty here in the sensible world (for beauty is seen all around us) and is “reminded” of the vision of beauty itself. This beauty captures his heart and makes him seem to others like a mad man, for he is “possessed by a god” (249d). The perceivers of beauty “are startled when they see an image of what they saw up there. Then they are beside themselves, and their experience is beyond comprehension because they cannot fully grasp what it is they are seeing” (250a). So literal vision, “the clearest of our senses” (250d), is the start of the journey. Radiant beauty sparkles through the eyes and the intellect recognizes in it that by which the beautiful particular is beautiful, and the wings start to grow.
Importantly, the ascent does not mean leaving the particular beautiful thing/person behind. The philosopher becomes obsessed with the particular object of his love (in the Phaedrus, it is a beautiful boy[4]) and must keep on gazing at it or recalling it in order for his wings to keep growing (251d-e). Ascending to beauty itself does not require leaving the beautiful particular behind.

As well as demonstrating that Plato did not wish to drive a wedge between form and appearance, the strongly positive view of methexis (participation) in the Phaedrus frees him from the charge of otherworldliness and total withdrawal from physicality, for the philosophic ascent does not result in a “loss” of love for particular beautiful things, since the particular participates in beauty itself. Thus the philosopher is synonymous with the lover of beauty, and also with one of a musical or loving nature (248d). . . . [I]t is precisely within the physical world that he recognizes a likeness to the realities, and then is ‘stricken with amazement and cannot control himself’ (241a). . . . [T]he image of the good in the beauty of physicality is not just an empty ‘version’ or simulacrum.[5] And so if the philosopher can be accused of neglecting ‘things below’ like the insane bird (249d), it is not that he turns away from physicality itself (for that would deny him access to the good), but that he neglects a mundane apprehension of physicality as merely immanent or crudely separated from the whole, and all the concomitant proprieties of property, custom, and conventional status (252a). By contrast the contagion of the divine urges the philosopher from place to place, yearning to see the beautiful again.[6]

Furthermore, when the object of his love is another person, as it is in the Phaedrus, the true lover seeks to lead the beloved on the same journey for the beloved’s own sake, rather than using them as a means to an end (255b-e).[7] This is the kind of love that Socrates praises and seeks to awaken in young Phaedrus (252b). And it is praise of this love that is the whole point of Socrates’ speech. Eros, he says, is sent by the gods for our benefit (244a).
Fifth, the two horses themselves play an interesting role in the journey. On the one hand, the unruly horse can cause major problems, forcefully resisting the directions of the charioteer and the promptings of his partner horse. He can drag a soul down into being entombed in a body, blind to reality. However, on the other, the image itself suggests that the horses play a key role in motivating and moving the soul.[8] The charioteer (intellect) is to give direction, but the horses are to translate this direction into movement. As Martha Nussbaum observes, “If we starve and suppress emotions and appetites, it may well be at the cost of so weakening the entire personality that it will be unable to act decisively; perhaps it will cease to act altogether. The idea of ‘nourishing’ the non-intellectual plays an important part in Plato’s myth.”[9] Of course, the horses need training and taming, but when they are so disciplined they play a constructive rather than a destructive role. More than that, Nussbaum argues that the horses play a positive role in guiding our aspirations towards understanding. Socrates’ hymn of praise to the divine madness of erotic love makes very clear that “certain sorts of essential and high insights come to us only through the guidance of the passions. . . . The non-intellectual elements have a keen natural responsiveness to beauty, especially when beauty is presented through the sense of sight.”[10] The three aspects of soul, each with its own desires, respond to beauty in different ways. The appetite wants to have sex with the beautiful boy (254a) while the spirit feels shame and holds back (254a). This conflicted reaction to an instance of beauty throws the charioteer into an initial state of confusion until “his memory is carried back to the nature of beauty” (254b). In this way, the horses, in their limited perceptions of beauty, can spark the mind to seek the form of beauty itself. The dark horse can be overpowered by the charioteer and trained to know fear, awe, and respect in the presence of the beautiful boy. So, when rightly aligned, the embodied parts of the soul can guide and drive the philosopher towards the world so that he is enabled to ascend to the forms.[11] The point is that while the body can be an epistemic tomb, it need not be. The body can play a constructive role in the pursuit of reality so long as it knows its place vis-à-vis the charioteer.
Plato’s problem is not with bodies per se, but with disordered souls. The reordering of the soul and the regrowth of its wings does not require disembodiment. Remember that it is the whole soul that is winged (246a). The soul that falls and the soul that regrows its wings and ascends to the forms is the tripartite soul (nous, spirit, and appetite), which is the embodied soul.



[1] This is the case in texts apparently earlier (e.g., Republic) and later (e.g., Timaeus) than the Phaedrus. So it is hard to think that Plato changed his mind on the matter. On the link between tripartation and embodiment in the Timaeus see Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy, 142–52.
[2] See fn. 38.
[3] Eric Perl suggests a very similar reading of the myth in Thinking Being, ch. 2, section 5. In further support of the reading he observes that later in the dialogue Socrates says that when he observes a person who is able to rightly discern forms he will “follow behind as if he [the enlightened person] were a god” (266b). This is an allusion to the myth in which the “pre-incarnate” souls “follow a god” to “the place above the heavens.” Perl’s point is that the story is a mythic presentation of this same point. It does not require literal disembodiment. Thus, one need not take the myth at face value.
[4] The context of the dialogue is the warped homoerotic relationship between Lysias and Phaedrus. Phedrus is obsessed with Lysias, but Lysias merely uses Phaedrus for his own ends. Socrates presents himself, in contrast to Lysias, as a true lover of Phaedrus, a philosophical lover who seeks Phaedrus’ own betterment. On this theme see Bradley, Who Is Phaedrus?
[5] Cf. “[W]hen Plato says that sensible objects are only imperfectly beautiful or just, he does not mean that they are approximately beautiful or just [as if they were imperfect copies of a perfect exemplar]. Rather, he means that they are only accidentally beautiful or just, while the Form and its characters possess the relevant property in an essential manner.” Alexander Nehamas, “The Imperfection of the Sensible World,” 178. Nehemas, however, does still conceive of forms as perfect models. His point is that particulars can (for a time) possess the relevant properties perfectly, and thus be truly good or just or wise or beautiful. Their imperfection lies in that they, unlike the form, do not possess the properties essentially. Indeed, following Allan Silvermann, I think that Plato does not believe that particulars possess any properties essentially, but only by participation in forms. In other words, particulars, unlike forms, do not have an essence.
It is worth saying that while forms self-predicate, it is not agreed what such self-predication amounts to in Plato. So the claim that “the beautiful (i.e., the form of beauty) is beautiful” can mean that it is supremely beautiful—the perfect model of beauty—or that it is self-identical (i.e., it is itself and nothing else). Following Silvermann, I understand self-predication in the later sense. “Beauty is beautiful” does not mean that beauty is a beautiful object. Rather, each form self-predicates insofar as each form is its essence. “When Plato says that each Form is itself by itself, auto kath auto, monoeides, simple, eilikrines, pure, and one, I take him to be referring only to the relation of Form to essence. Being is found only where subject and essence are related, that is only where essence is predicated of some subject. . . . [S]ince the only thing that [a Form] Is is its essence, each Form is monoeides, ‘of one essence’” (Dialectic of Essence, 91).
[6] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 14, 15.
[7] See fn. 53.
[8] In this analogy Plato clearly sees each of the three “parts” as a source of desire within the soul, each with its own object (the charioteer, nous, desires “the plain truth,” the white horse, spirit, is a lover of honour, the black horse, appetite, loves sexual pleasure and gratification). The challenge is to bring these desires into harmony under the rule of the charioteer.
[9] Nussbaum, “This Story Isn’t True,” 214.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Against this positive evaluation of the horses in Phaedrus, see Frisbee Sheffield, “Erôs Before and After Tripartation,” in Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 211–37.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body, part 6. The Phaedo's anti-body texts

b) The Phaedo’s anti-body texts
One thinks of the notorious passages in the Phaedo in which Socrates speaks of the body as like a prison for the soul. The philosopher longs for death so that s/he can be separated from the body.
Now I do think that Plato’s assessment of the body in the Phaedo is inadequate. But, rather than simply dismissing it, we need to attempt to understand it in the context of the dialogue itself and the Platonic corpus more widely. The matter is not as bleak as we may think.
First, Plato’s interest in the Phaedo is not the body at all, but the soul. The whole discussion is an attempt to provide a case for the immortality of the soul.[1] Part of the case involves contrasting body and soul in ways that cast the body in a dim light in order to set the soul off in stark contrast. One needs to appreciate that the rhetorical context drives some of the somewhat drastic language and imagery. The picture presented is a call to seek the welfare of the soul and the virtual annihilation of the body. But this “soul not body” language is simply a way of forcibly saying “soul more than body.” The actual point, put in less rhetorically stark terms, is found in Socrates’ words at his trial: “I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul” (Apology 30a-b).[2]
Second, as D. C. Schindler observes, Socrates does not say that the body imprisons the soul but that the soul imprisons herself in the body (Phaedo 82e). What Socrates is referring to is the way in which the body can mislead the soul by overpowering the soul through bodily sensory inputs and desires into imagining that the most real is what we can see and hear and touch and taste. This, to borrow from an image in the Republic, is to mistake the shadow on the cave wall for the reality. To rightly order soul and body is to struggle against the body’s tendency to invert the relationship between body and soul. If the soul surrenders to this it, in effect, imprisons itself. The philosopher’s resistance to the body’s fight to dominate, says Socrates, involves a kind of separation of body from soul—a kind of death. But this is not a literal separation (at least, not prior to actual death): it is a cognitive separation that trains the soul and body to be rightly aligned. And, while this is not Plato’s point in the Phaedo, it is for the good of the body as well as the soul that one resist the body’s attempted coup. Here is Schindler on the negative consequence of the soul submitting to the body’s attempt to rule:

[T]his inversion would in fact by that very stroke eliminate the body’s and thus the senses’ expressive character. In other words, to take the natural world in its materiality as a positive thing in itself separate from its subordination to meaning and thus its expressiveness is to destroy it as image, to render it mute. It thus becomes dead “stuff.” The world surrenders its meaning, and the soul becomes entangled in the push and pull of pleasure and pain as so many mechanistic and therefore unintelligible, noncausal, forces. . . . The irony now ought to be clear: owing to the paradoxical nature of image, the inversion of the body-soul relationship is deeply problematic, not (only) because it trivializes the soul, but because it subsequently trivializes the body. In other words, the absolutizing of the physical fails to accord the physical its due goodness—i.e., it empties of the goodness it can possess only as receiving . . . . But this means that sometimes the vehement condemnations of the body’s tendency to claim ascendancy over the soul that we find in classical literature, both pagan and Christian, may indeed be a zealous affirmation and protection of the body’s significance. . . . One cannot insist on the body’s significance without at the same time insisting on a hierarchical relationship to spirit.[3]

Schindler’s point is that given Plato’s view regarding of the sensory world as image of the forms, expressing the eternal in time, with particulars (including bodies) participating in universal forms in order to have any meaning or significance at all, one must put the body in its place for the sake of the body itself. To fail to do so evacuates the body of all goodness and beauty and meaning; indeed, of any intelligibility (and hence being) at all.
That is the philosophical context within which we must understand the negative comments about the body in the Phaedo. Even so, Plato’s rhetoric does make for some uncomfortable reading if one’s goal is to affirm the goodness of the body. However, as noted above, that was not Plato’s goal in Phaedo so he does not attempt to mitigate his harsh words when putting the body in its place.
Third, Plato’s philosophy was dynamic and developing. I do not see any major disjunctions in his thought from the early to the late works, but one can trace modifications and developments, in continuity with his basic philosophical orientation.[4] And in relation to the body Plato develops his philosophy in directions that bring out the positive potential that we have seen even in the infamous Phaedo itself.
Iakovos Vasiliou has argued that it was the subsequent development of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul that allowed him to moderate the apparent hostility to the body found in the Phaedo.[5] In the Phaedo “[t]he body is viewed as a recalcitrant ‘other thing’ that can only be avoided, shunned, and admonished, mastered, and punished.”[6] There is no suggestion that one can educate or habituate the body. The Republic, in Books II and III, provides a contrast. There, engaging in the right bodily practices, thereby forming the right habits, is essential for the education of both body and soul (cf. 395d). Habituation is fundamental to the Republic’s training in virtue. The soul benefits from its physical and musical training (410c–411a). In the Phaedo the soul was spoken of as purely rational and engaged the body as if it were some other hostile thing that had to be tamed and forever held in check. In the Republic the notion of the soul has been expanded to absorb the psychic elements of the body within itself.[7] This allows for a far greater integration of body and soul and for a cessation of hostilities between the warring parties, given sufficient training. “The more elaborate psychology expands the educative possibilities. A habituated virtue, which does not depend on a purely rational soul, is now possible.”[8]
Plato’s cosmological thought developed from the Phaedo to the Phaedrus to the full-blown explorations in the Timaeus.[9] And it is with this development that we see an increasingly positive assessment of the body, as we have already noted in our earlier discussions of the Timaeus. With this comes a greater appreciation of the bodily senses. Thus, Timaeus says, “our sight has indeed proven to be a source of supreme benefit to us, in that none of our present statements about the universe could ever have been made if we had never seen any stars, sun, or heaven” (Timaeus 47a). And this positive assessment of the rightly ordered body is not the result of Plato toning down his thinking on body and soul or on forms. Rather it comes from pursuing the trajectories of thought he was already exploring. This positive valuation of the body is, in other words, deeply Platonic.


[1] An attempt that, in the assessment of most philosophers, falls short. Indeed, Socrates himself seems aware that he has not managed to fully persuade his own audience, and so in the end resorts to a “comforting story” about the afterlife. For a brief but helpful assessment see Fred D. Miller Jr., “The Platonic Soul,” in Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 278–93.
[2] Which for Christians may call to mind 1 Tim 4:8: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
[3] D. C. Schindler, The Catholicity of Reason, 127, 128. See also D. C. Schindler, “Truth and the Christian Imagination: The Reformation of Causality and the Iconoclasm of the Spirit.” Communio 33 (2006) 521–39
[4] The issue of the interpretations of the differences between the dialogues remains a contentious one. Interpreters tend to fall into one of three camps: (a) those who see a single unchanging philosophy across the dialogues (with differences understood as apparent and not real), (b) those that see stark discontinuities and inconsistencies, and (c) those that find development within a broadly unitary philosophy. The hermeneutical issues concern how to interpret the parts of the corpus in the light of the whole (and vice versa), how we can know which voice(s) in the dialogue represent Plato’s own views, and also whether we can establish a reliable relative order for the dialogues. The majority view is that the early works include texts such as Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Protagoras, The middle period included the likes of Phaedo, Cratylus, Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus, and the late works included Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, and Laws. But it has to be said that the chronology is uncertain and its hermeneutical significance is a contested issue.
[5] Iakovos Vasiliou, “From the Phaedo to the Republic: Plato’s Tripartate Soul and the Possibility of Non-Philosophical Virtue.” In Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 9–32. Plato speaks of the soul as an undifferentiated unity in the Phaedo. The tripartite soul first appears in the Republic IV. In the light of the later dialogues, the soul of the Phaedo is only a part of the whole soul—the immortal, intellectual soul.
[6] Ibid., 27.
[7] Plato attributes passions and pleasures to the body in the Phaedo (65a; 66c; 81b; 83d; 94b) that he attributes in later texts to the lower parts of the soul—those linked to embodiment. The living body in the Phaedo has a psychic dimension and is the active subject of perceiving. Later dialogues refer to this in terms of the appetitive and spirited parts of the soul. This suggests a development and refinement of his earlier views, not a contradiction of them.
[8] Ibid., 29.
[9] See Cynthia Freeland, “The Role of Cosmology in Plato’s Philosophy,” in Hugh H. Benson (ed.), A Companion to Plato (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009), 199–213.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Standing on giants' shoulders

"We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more and farther than they, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are raised up on their giant size. Our age enjoys the gifts of preceding ages, and we know more, not because we excel in talent, but because we use the products of others who have gone before."
John of Salisbury, quoting Bernard of Chartres

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 5. The encrusted soul

IV. But What About . . . ?
If all this is the case, what about those texts in which Plato seems to have a negative view of embodiment? We’ll consider three.

a) The Encrusted Soul (Rep. 611b–612a)

One thinks, for instance, of the image of the sea god Glaucus, who is obscured and made to appear like a monster by encrusting shells and seaweed (Republic 611b–612a). He is like the pure immortal soul that is deformed by its embodiment obscuring our perception of its true nature. The pure soul is the disembodied soul. The analogy is not Plato’s best—for the relation between the original statue of Glaucus and the marine detritus that clings to it is rather unlike the organic and integrated relation between the immortal and the mortal parts of the soul. In the image, the statue is damaged and harmed by its encrustation—not a very positive way to think of embodiment! But Socrates’ point is primarily that a soul is not essentially embodied—it can exist without body (and hence, without spirit and appetite)—and secondarily, that embodiment does, in various ways, create problems for the soul. The image of removing the accretions from the statue of Glaucos is intended to picture an epistemic method for discerning the essential core of soul. Perhaps not the most helpful picture, because it elevates the immortal soul by degrading the other parts of the soul. However, it does not follow from the illustration that the immortal soul is better off without body (and hence, spirit and appetite). Bear in mind that in this very dialogue Socrates has defined a just person as one whose intellect, spirit, and appetite are rightly related. On the Republic’s own account, then, it is hard to see how a disembodied soul could be just. And if justice has to be instantiated in concrete particulars then souls have to be embodied.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 4. Human social life and embodiment

III. Human Social Life and Embodiment
Consider further the role that Plato saw for the city in the pursuit of the good.[1] For the guardians to obtain a knowledge of the good they need the right education and that is only possible in the right kind of city. The very institutions of formation that are required to train people to see reality aright require embodied social and political institutions. The city, for Plato, is “the condition of possibility for dissemination of the good. It is precisely under conditions of relationality that the philosopher-guardian can recollect the good, and as the feathers of his soul begin to sprout, he can in turn pass on this beneficial effluence to others.”[2] Remember in the famous cave analogy (Rep. 514a–521b) that the one who sees the sun (representing the philosopher discerning the form of the Good) has a duty to return to the cave (the city) for the good of those in it.



[1] On which see Pickstock, “Justice and Prudence.” Cities come about precisely because humans are not self sufficient (Rep. 369b-c).
[2] Ibid., 272. The image of the feathers on the wings of the soul comes from Phaedrus. On which, see the final section of this series.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 3. Plato's cosmology and embodiment

II. Plato’s Cosmology and Embodiment
A second line of argument can be made for a positive evaluation of embodiment in Plato—namely the developed, albeit cautiously offered,[1] cosmology found in one of his later works, the Timaeus. Here the divine Craftsman (demiourgos), conceived of as pure intellect (nous), creates the cosmos according to the eternal intelligible paradigms of the forms.[2] The forms should not be thought of as something existing in addition to and outside of the Craftsman—the Craftsman is the eternal divine intellect and the forms are akin to eternal ideas in his mind.[3]
The cosmos is a living creature (30c–31a)—indeed, a god (34b)—composed of a body and soul.[4] The human creature partly mirrors this cosmic animal in its own body-soul composition[5] so it pays to note several things about this divine cosmic creature.
First of all, the Craftsman forges the soul of the cosmos and then its body. It may surprise us to discover that both soul and body occupy space: the body in three dimensions and the soul in two dimensions. As soul has length and breadth but not depth it has literally no thickness at all and so, unlike the cosmic body, cannot be seen. However, as spatially extended, the soul of the world is “wrapped around” its body, and extends from the centre of the cosmos to its periphery (34b).[6] Indeed, he crafted the body “within” the soul, perfectly aligning them (36d). The integration of the cosmic body and soul are shown in that the very bodily movements of the cosmos, the orbits of the planets, are in perfect synchronicity with, indeed are bodily manifestations of, the circular movements of its intelligence, its thought, its soul. Body and soul interpenetrate. The same is true, as we will see, of the human body and soul.
Second, God creates the cosmos out of his overflowing goodness. “He [the Craftsman] was good, and in the good there never occurs any jealousy [or grudgingness] about anything whatsoever. Being devoid of this motive, he formed the desire that everything should become as close in nature to himself as possible” (29e).
Third, that the cosmos is embodied and not simply a soul is the divine intention and part of its perfection. Note that making a cosmos “as close in nature to [the Craftsman] as possible” did not result merely in a cosmic soul, but in a comic soul and body.
Fourth, the embodied cosmos is, in Plato’s view, very good; indeed, being based by the Craftsman on the eternal forms, it is as good, beautiful, and perfect as it is possible for some empirical particular to be. “[F]or the world is the best of things that have become, and he [the Craftsman] is the best of causes” (29a);[7] “Now it was not, nor can it ever be, permitted that the work of the supremely good [i.e., the Craftsman] should be anything but that which is best . . . [W]hen he framed the universe, he fashioned reason within soul and soul within body, to the end that the work he accomplished might be by nature as excellent and as perfect as possible” (30a-b). “Having received and been filled with mortal and immortal living things, thus this cosmos, a visible living thing containing visible ones, image of the intelligible, a sensible god, greatest, best, most beautiful, and most perfect, has come to be, this which is the one only-begotten universe” (92c). Notice how overflowingly positive Plato is about the goodness of creation. It’s body and soul—both of which are everlasting[8]—are arranged to function together for the greatest possible good. He is no nature-hating proto-Gnostic. In the Laws the citizens of the city must revere the earth: “The land is [our] ancestral home and [we] must cherish it even more than children cherish their mother; furthermore, the Earth is a goddess and mistress of mortal men, and the gods and spirits already established in the locality must be treated with the same respect” (Laws 5.740, cf. 6.761).
Fifth, as Sarah Broadie has argued convincingly, Plato’s interest in the Timaeus was not to use cosmology as a way of getting at his real interest, metaphysics. Quite the contrary. His primary focus in this text was developing a cosmology, and he deployed the metaphysics as a means to that end.[9] So while it is true that Plato can use the sensible world as a stepping-stone to ascend to a knowledge of the forms, he can also reverse the trajectory and use the forms as a foundation for better understanding the sensible world. The sheer detail and attention that Plato has lavished on attempting to understand the workings of the human body and his reflections on its proper function (44d–47e; 64a–69a; 69d–76e; 80d–89d) suggest that giving an account of the cosmos was his primary interest in the Timaeus.
And what of humans? The embodied human, a rational being that is mortal, while less perfect than the cosmos itself,[10] nevertheless is necessary for the completion and perfection of the cosmos (41b7–d3).[11] The implantation of the human souls in bodies is thus considered to be “a necessity” (42a3). Human embodiment is part of the perfection of the cosmos. In the Timaeus, embodiment is not a punishment for human failure, but essential to what humans were created to be.[12] “[T]he preincarnate state is shown not as a condition desirable in its own right but as an interlude entirely occupied with preparation for life in the body.[13] . . . This means that their mortal embodiment will come as a fulfillment, even though one fraught with dangers. Thus . . . the mortal soul will enter into the mortal condition as if into its inheritance . . . . The body is not to be a bunker in which it is trapped against its nature and from which its most rational wish would be to be allowed to escape”[14] Let’s put the matter this way: let’s suppose we put the following question to Plato: would it have been a better world if souls had never been embodied, but had been able to contemplate the forms in an unmediated way? How would he reply? Whatever we may say about earlier dialogues, the answer in the Timaeus seems clear: “Absolutely not!”
The soul for Plato, certainly from the middle dialogues onward, is not an undifferentiated unity, but is famously tripartite.[15] Two of these three parts of the soul are essentially tied to embodiment (Republic 518d–519a). The incarnate soul needs to maintain its embodied self and for this the appetite—the desire for food and drink and rest and sex—is required. But appetites can get out of hand and tend not to find their own healthy limits, so the spirited part of soul develops to keep them in check.[16] In a healthy person appetite is in submission to spirit, which is in submission to intellect.[17] (But the soul is intended by the divine Craftsman to be embodied, and hence to be tripartite.)




Parts of Soul
Parts of body linked to soul parts
(Tim. 44d–45b; 69d–72d)
Objects of desire
Nature
Immortal soul
Intellect
head
truth
Wisdom loving
Mortal soul (lesser soul)
Spirit
heart
Esteem, honour, victory, force[18]
Honour-loving
Appetite
liver
bodily desire and gratification—food, drink, sex, etc.
Pleasure-loving

The immortal soul is created directly by the divine Craftsman, while the body (and hence the mortal soul) are made by created celestial gods, at the command of the Craftsman (Timaeus 41a-d).[19] These gods, we are told “built on” (prosôikondomoun) and “composed” (sunethesan) another, mortal form of soul by mixing the affections (69c9, d6). The affections in question are pleasure, pains, daring and fear, passion, hope, perception, and desire, all of which can create trouble for the soul and all of which arise of necessity from embodiment. Embodiment thus gives rise to the lesser, mortal soul.[20] The single human creature is thus a paradoxical and conflicted being, an immortal soul living a mortal life.
The ancillary gods, by careful and rational design, linked the different parts of the soul with different parts of the body. The head had been created to house the immortal soul. They created a buffer zone (the neck) to keep this away from the mortal soul in the torso. The organization of the body mirrored the ideal organization of the soul—the spirited part of the soul is intended to mediate the intellect’s wisdom to the appetite’s desires. It is located between the head and the lower torso so that “it might be within hearing of the discourse of reason and join with it in restraining by force the desires, whenever they should not willingly consent to obey the word of command from the citadel” (70a4–7). The heart, the location of spirit, sends blood around the body to communicate between the intellect and the body as a whole. The liver, with its smooth shiny surface, is intended to reflect back reason’s image. Johansen observes that the plan of the ancillary gods was to take the disruptive rectilinear movements that humans undergo[21] and to make them part of the body’s rational order. Even the disturbing motions are given a teleological purpose (i.e., nourishing the body, 70d-e) and made subject to the rule of reason. “Our aim should not be to eradicate the motions of the mortal parts of the soul but to regulate each part so that its proper motion neither overwhelms nor is overwhelmed by the motions of the other parts. The rational order of the soul, post embodiment, is not one in which only the motions of the intellect thrive but a complex order in which other psychic motions operate alongside those of the intellect in common pursuit of the human good.”[22]
Now embodiment does create problems for the soul. In infancy we are in a state of deep confusion (Tim. 42e–44d), and without proper education and training we will grow into de-formed adults (as explored at length in the Republic). Being a good human being is a very difficult challenge. Yet even the struggle may be part of the divine plan. Sarah Broadie has proposed that the struggles of the soul to orientate itself to embodied life and to order it is a part of the good that the Craftsman intended.[23]
The Craftsman’s design plan is that the soul should be ordered hierarchically with the appetites submitted to spirit and spirit submitted to the intellect. Justice in an individual, according to the Republic, simply is the right ordering of the soul. And, according to the Timaeus, when the soul is rightly ordered in this way the lower parts of the soul play an important role in contributing to the purposes of the intellect. The mortal soul, the parts that arise from embodiment, are not simply restrained, but actually positively contribute to the good human life. The disorder of the soul can create havoc—a key theme in the Republic[24]—but this should not mislead us into thinking that Plato considered the lower parts of the soul, the parts linked with embodiment, to be bad, only that they are bad when they are not playing the right role in human life. There is a mode of rationality that penetrates to the very lowest parts of the soul, which can cooperate with reason, and hence Platonic rationality is an embodied rationality.[25]
The psychosomatic unity of the human being is also revealed in Plato’s analysis of human illness. Wellbeing requires proper proportion between soul and body, disproportion leads to various illnesses. The safeguard against the illness-inducing dangers of disproportion is “not to exercise the soul without exercising the body, nor the body without the soul, so that one may be balanced by the other, and so be sound. The mathematician, then, or the ardent devotee of any other intellectual discipline should also provide exercise for his body by taking part in athletic training, while one who takes care to develop his body should in turn practice the exercises of the soul by applying himself to the arts and to every pursuit of wisdom” (Timaeus 88b–c). It is necessary to pay attention to the needs of both soul and body. And we need to appreciate that these two are not unrelated. The philosopher rulers of the Republic are required to train their bodies, not simply for the sake of their bodies, but also as a way to train the spirited part of the soul (Republic 410b-c).
As a final aside, the interpenetration of the parts of the soul finds a social analogy in the city of the Republic. Socrates famously parallels the three parts of the population with the three parts of the soul (Republic 368c–369c):

Parts of the soul
Parts of the city
intellect
philosopher rulers
spirit
soldiers
appetite
artisans, merchants

Note that those at each level of the city are themselves tripartite souls—artisans have intellect and spirit, soldiers have appetite and intellect, philosophers have appetite and spirit. In different people, different elements of soul come to the forefront, but in all people, all elements are present. Each section of society, like each part of the soul, has its own tasks to focus on for the healthy running of the whole. But the three parts of the society and the soul are not hermetically sealed off from each other. Thus, to take an instance of the individual soul, eros is not simply key in the appetitive part of the soul but also the spirit and mind. In the Symposium and the Phaedrus Socrates goes to great lengths to facilitate the eros that pursues divine wisdom. Here the parts of the soul seem to bleed into each other. Desire is not simply ordered towards bodily needs but can transcend them.[26]



[1] Timaeus explains that the best that he can offer is “a likely story” (Tim. 29c-d). By this, he means “probable” or “plausible.” A cosmology could never offer more than this. See Francis M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (1937. Reprint. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 28–32.
[2] Plato never discusses the relation of the divine Craftsman to the Good. I am tentatively inclined to think that they cannot be simplistically identified. To cautiously borrow an analogy from Christian theology, it seems to be that the Good is in some ways akin to the first person of the Trinity, while the Craftsman plays a role closer to the second person, the divine Logos. I am not suggesting that this analogy is anything more than limited. For starters, Plato shows no hint of any interest in offering straightforward religious devotion to the Good or to the Craftsman (though the philosophical journey climaxing in the “sight” of the Good should not be seen as non-religious). He does, however, show normal religious devotion to the gods, including the cosmos itself (all of which he sees as lesser divinities than the Good).
[3] On this understanding of the relation of the forms to the demiurge, see Perl, Thinking Being, ch. 2, sec. 8. It is surprising how often one reads of the Craftsman having to work within the constraints of pre-existing forms, as if these were somehow separable from the Craftsman himself. For instance, here is Cornford: “This [the receptacle, see Tim. 48e–49a] . . . is as independent of the Demiurge as the world of Forms. The Forms . . . he does not create; they are not made or generated, but eternally real and self-subsisting” (Plato’s Cosmology, 37).
[4] The intelligible form (or complex of forms) of the living creature contains within itself the forms of all sub-species, the four main families of which are the heavenly gods (stars, planets, earth), birds, fish, and land animals (39e). The human form is obviously a subset of the last. All living creatures, from stars to snakes, are ensouled. The celestial gods are eternal. The other three classes of being “are neither gods nor everlasting, but subject to birth, change, and death, in the inferior regions of air, water, and earth” (Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 138).
[5] I say “partly mirrors” because the cosmos, unlike the creatures within it, does not exist within some wider empirical environment. (There are echoes of this in the claims of modern physicists that there is nothing “outside” the universe, and that while the universe is expanding it is not expanding into anything.) The cosmos is self-contained and lacks the cosmic equivalent of eyes and ears and limbs, etc. As such its motions are entirely circular, hence it is more perfect than the creatures it contains (33b–34a). Nevertheless, our intellect mirrors the divine intellect of the cosmos. Note that the materials from which the bodies of mortals are composed (air, earth, water, fire) are a part of the cosmos (42e–43a). However, the immortal souls of rational creatures are not part of the cosmic soul—they are irreducibly individuals. Individuality is not a result of embodiment but precedes it. See Broadie, Nature and, 95–100.
[6] The problem of body-soul interaction is of a different order for Descartes—who sees body as spatially extended and soul as having no spatial properties—than for Plato. For Plato, body and soul are both spatial and the movements of one can affect the other.
[7] Interestingly Timaeus does not argue from the goodness of the Craftsman to the goodness of creation. Rather, he argues from the goodness of creation, which he takes of evident, to the goodness of its divine cause (29a). Given that this is only possible if the creation is made according to the forms (28a), then creation must be according to the forms. So Timaeus argued from (not for) the goodness of the world. “Since the visible world is, in fact, good, its maker must have copied a model that is eternal” (Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 28).
[8] Clearly Plato thought the cosmic body and soul were everlasting when looking forward. Whether he thought that the cosmos was sempiternal (extending eternally in both temporal directions) has been a matter of debate from the days of the Academy onwards. The creation myth in the Timaeus, taken at face value, would suggest that he did not. The debate concerns whether Plato did intend his readers to take it at face value. That debate need not concern us.
[9] Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, chs. 2 and 3. The monologue is announced as a cosmology (27a), and rather than an ascent into the domain of pure intelligibles, there is a descent into detailed scientific explanations and (in the follow-on monologue Critias) human “history.” These scientific explanations go far beyond what is needed for a “gateway to metaphysics.” The metaphysics in Timaeus is in the service of cosmology. Unless the sensible world of becoming is “based on” the eternal forms, intelligible paradigms, this cosmos would be literally unintelligible and cosmology could not even get off the ground.
[10] The human soul is made of a slightly less pure blend of the same stuff as the cosmic soul, and is mixed in the same manner (Tim. 41d). Cosmic and human soul is made of a blend of Being, Sameness, and Difference (Tim. 35a ff.). It is the nature of the embodiment that makes the human less perfect than the cosmos. We need to grasp that for Plato, thought moves in circular spatial motions. In the cosmos these are embodied in the movements of the planets. The orbits of the planets are (literally) the cosmos thinking. Human bodies also partake in these circular motions, but in addition they also partake in six rectilinear motions (up, down, left, right, forwards, and backwards). These rectilinear motions disturb the circular motions of the soul, causing them to lose their circular shape. Thus rationality and irrationality mark the embodied human being.
The pre-embodied human soul already had the potential for this disturbance. It was composed of two main moving circles (the Same and the Different), one of which (the Different) was divided into seven sub-circles that moved in different senses. This pre-incarnate, differentiated soul was perfect in its circular movements, with the circle of the Same coordinating the circular movements of the whole soul. But with embodiment the circle of the Same ceases to be able to coordinate, leaving the circle of the Different susceptible to the interruptions of the rectilinear motions of the body—“they barely held together with each other, and though they moved, their motion was irrational, now reversed, now sidelong, now inverted.” (Tim. 43e2–3).
[11] For Plato, a perfect cosmos has to exemplify all kinds of creatures, and this includes three different logically possible kinds of mortal creature (Tim. 41a-d).
[12] The idea that embodiment is the result of a fall may be seen in the myth of the Phaedrus. However, on the interpretation of this, see later in this paper.
[13] Broadie is referring to the pre-embodied tour of the cosmos given to human souls, getting them ready for embodiment (Tim. 41d-e).
[14] Broadie, Nature and Divinity, 107
[15] On the tripartite soul, see the excellent essays in Rachel Barney, Tad Brennan, and Charles Brittain (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). For a helpful account of what constitutes the unity of a tripartite soul see Eric Brown, “The Unity of Soul in Plato’s Republic,” in Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 53–73.
[16] Spirit has an inward-looking task and an outward-looking task. Looking in, spirit acts as a policeman keeping the appetite in check. With its outward gaze, spirit is akin to the army. Looking out, the soul has to deal with the fact that it exists in a world of limited resources with other embodied souls and needs to know how best to navigate that situation. Spirit in a soul is behind, among other things, competitiveness, aggression, loyalty, bravery, generosity, self-sacrifice, and love of status and honour and reputation.
[17] We need to see that Plato does not separate the parts of a soul into hermetically sealed units. Rather, they bleed into each other. Thus, intellect can permeate down into spirit and appetite. And eros—love, desire, sexual attraction—marks not simply the appetite, but also spirit and intellect. Indeed, the intellectual soul’s pursuit of wisdom is defined by eros (see Symp., Phdr., Rep.). On the goodness of eros in Phaedrus see Joseph Pieper, Enthusiasm and Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue “Phaedrus” (3rd ed. St. Augustine’s Press, 1999) and Martha C. Nussbaum, “‘This Story Isn’t True’: Madness, Reason, and Recantation in the Phaedrus,” in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 200–233.
[18] I do not mean to suggest that Plato imagined that honour has some existence “out there” in the world apart from embodied souls. “[T]here is no realm of facts about honor at large in the cosmos that needed to be attended to prior to the creation of the souls themselves. It is the creation of multitudes of appetitive souls in proximity to each other, in a region where appetitive goods are moderately scarce, that in turn creates a situation in which there are facts about differential abilities to acquire and preserve those appetitive goods, plus possibilities for group sharing and distribution of appetitive goods, plus facts about the biological or ethnic kinship of various groups. There is not, in addition to all of this, some further set of facts about honor in place before spirited souls arrive on the landscape. Rather, it is the spirited soul’s sensitivity to these other facts that constitutes the landscape of honor, creates the institutions of reputation, renown, shame, and so on, as a sort of signaling system to encode and transmit these underlying facts. Plato, in other words, is a realist about goodness and something like a projectivist about honor.” (Tad Brennan, “The Nature of the Spirited Part of the Soul and Its Object,” in Rachel Barney et al. (eds.), Plato and the Divided Self, 102–27. Quote from p. 110.)
[19] A slightly charming coincidence is the discovery of modern science that the carbon-base of human bodies requires the formation of carbon in stars. So, in one sense (albeit not Plato’s sense), even modern scientists see the stars as responsible for human bodies.
[20] For this interpretation see Thomas K. Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy: A Study of the Timaeus-Critias (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 147–48.
[21] See footnote 40.
[22] Johansen, Plato’s Natural Philosophy, 152.
[23] Broadie, Nature and Divinity, 90.
[24] In Republic IV (438d–441c) the disordered desires of the spirit and appetite oppose reason, and the various disordered human rulers considered in books VII–IX (543a–576b) are explained precisely in terms of the failure of their souls to be ordered according to justice (i.e., in submission to the intellect).
[25] The city of the Republic, which Plato explores in detail precisely because he sees it as analogous to the soul (368c–69c), reinforces the point that immortal souls without mortal souls are not adequate. A city that is composed only of philosopher rulers would be incomplete, unworkable, and undesirable. In the same way, a soul that was simply the immortal soul and not the tripartite, embodied soul, is incomplete.
[26] Pickstock writes: “desire is not rigidly pre-ordained to be a bondage to the ephemeral but has the capacity to be transformed. Indeed, a true desiring, even of finite realities, already involves such a transformation whereby they are referred to higher realities. Thus, for example, if the beloved is not loved for the sake of his beauty as such, rather than, as in Socrates’s first speech [in which he adopts an anti-erotic stance precisely opposite to his own views] in the Phaedrus, for his usefulness or potential to satisfy one’s desires, then he is not really loved at all. It seems that the lower orders of desire and force, far from being necessarily inimical to the order of reason, are in fact suspended from it, and sustained by its relay of the contagion of the good.” Catherine Pickstock, “Justice and Prudence: Principles of Order in the Platonic City.” Heythrop Journal XLII (2001) 269–82,” quote from 279. On passions in both rational and non-rational parts of the soul see, Jessica Moss, “Pictures and Passions in the Timaeus and Philebus,” in Rachel Barney et al., Plato and the Divided Self, 259–80.