So, I thought about writing this post because I heard an anecdote recently about an Oxford professor that was, so the story goes, a model Platonist, so much so that his students would say, “Professor So-and-so does not go for a walk, he takes his body for a walk.” I get the joke and I find it very funny, but I also see a need to underline exactly what Plato meant concerning the primacy of the spiritual and the separation between body and soul.
The pure Platonist argues that it is the job of all those seeking wisdom to separate their soul from their body, because the soul is pure and uniform, whereas the body is complex and confuses the soul. He argues this from empirical fact, because there are not that many people who have not experienced a situation where they have had a really good idea, but instead of developing it have gone to sleep and then have forgotten it (or other such scenarios), or have been in a situation where they were fully willing to do something good, but they were too tired, or too hungry, etc. and their body has limited their ability to perform that good deed. He argues that that is because all matter is an imperfect instantiation of the Forms and, as so, corruptible. On the other hand, the soul is simple, incorruptible, and a receptacle of the Forms, which means that, with a lot of hard work, it can become perfect.
The Christian Platonist, however, (if you have not noticed that I belong to this grouping of Platonism, this is a formal admit ion) can delve even deeper into the question of the matter being imperfect and fallen. The Chrisitan believes that through the fall of man, which knocked the relationship between God and the world out of synch, all nature fell and, therefore, all nature is imperfect and corruptible. Especially for humans, the reason why the body confuses the soul is because the soul is distorted through the fall of man and, because the soul is the formal cause of the body (borrowing that out of Aristotle, but I do no think Plato would disagree), the human starts of at a disadvantage, with his body and soul out of tune. Of course, through the Way, the Christian begins to repair his soul, so to speak, but the body remains caused by the initial fallen nature. For this reason, the body becomes out of tune with the soul and, henceforth, confuses the soul.
All that being said, we return to the issue of whether the body and soul are two things, as Descartes would argue, or whether they are one thing as Aristotle, Christianity, and everyone under the sun until Descartes would argue. Granted, Plato does not clearly choose either side over the other, but the way Aristotle states that the body and soul are one think in De Anima leads one to believe that this was the consensus during that time and, therefore, assume that Plato would also have agreed with such a concept. Dualism does not shoot out of the woodwork until Descartes tries to reverse the whole point of Classical and Medieval philosophy, whose guiding principle is to bring the soul (subjective, internal) in tune with ultimate reality (objective, external). Descartes, instead, opts to bring ultimate reality under the test of subjective experience (this, by the way, is the culprit to accuse for the rise of subjectivism in modern times).
That said, an explanation is needed about how to interpret the many points in the Platonic corpus, especially in the Phaedo about the separation between soul and body. When Plato tells his students that they must work always to separate the soul and body, it seems much more straightforward, and therefore much more counter-cultural to today, than many established experts would have us believe. It is, very clearly, a call to abandon carnal pleasures in an attempt to rightly order desires. If one reads Middle Platonism (Plutarch for example), this point is so hammered that it starts turning into beating a dead horse if you keep reading for prolonged amounts of time. Of course, many of the current Plato experts (not to be confused with Platonists) believe that they just need to read some Platonic dialogues and absolutely nothing from all the Platonists from Plato (including Aristotle) to today in order to understand what Plato is saying, they believe in “Platonic inspiration” (similar to the kind that Ion experienced), so to speak. This, however, does not seem to indicate that the body and soul are distinct things.
Consider this example; many people today may rightly tell most of the Western population to separate their heads from their anal cavity. However, it does not follow that, since good and wise people are calling for a separation of the head from the colon, the head and the colon must be distinct entities. Surely, they are distinct parts, that’s why they belong separate from one another, but they are both parts of the body.
Same with body and soul in relation to the person. Though Plato hammers time and time again that it is the soul that is the most important thing about the person, that if you have to choose between saving your body and saving your soul, that saving your soul should always be the priority, it does not mean that they are separate things. If I have to choose between losing a hand and losing my liver, I’ll choose my hand any day of the week, even though a very silly person would think they need to hand (because they see themselves using it more) more than the liver (which they cannot see).
I think that the rise of materialism as the philosophical orthodoxy in philosophy of the mind and the rise of this misunderstanding about Plato’s psychology, as well as the rise of Cartesian dualism (to which people retroactively relate Plato), I think comes from one and the same source. They are, in fact, related. Augustine says (I forget the book, I can find out if someone asks) that the reason why some people believe that the soul is material or that an immaterial soul cannot exist is because they are so accustomed to thinking in terms of material things that they cannot expand their thoughts to immaterial things, they cannot quite conceptualize something that, by definition, cannot be visualized. This is at the root of questions which, in the minds of materialists, seem to disprove the existence of souls (or immaterial entities to begin with), such as, “What does a soul look like?” or “Where is the soul?” This is also at the heart of Descartes’ theory of mind, in my humble opinion. He makes a cut between matter and mind that is far too distinct for my liking. Of course, he further complicates the matter because he brings objective existence to judgment before his subjective experience, which is, in my opinion, the beginning of subjectivity and relativism, because the new standard is subjective experience. However, for the Discourse on Method to work, there needs to be a sharp distinction between body and mind, because otherwise cogito ergo sum also proves that his body exist (soul and body are one thing) and, therefore, that the whole world exists, because his sense perception (or matter in general) has no intentionality to lie. In other words, it comes down to Aristotle’s brief disproval of Descartes’ theory (I forget the book again), where Aristotle says that we can know nature exists because there is no reason to doubt sense-perception (rather, there is reason to doubt anywhere were interpretation comes into play).
In short, there is a link between the misunderstanding that the body and the soul are two things instead of one thing which has given rise to modern relativism and subjectivism. If you need someone to thank for that, look at Renee Descartes.
Why did I make you read all those words when I could just have put up the last two lines?