2/06/2012

Plato's argument for the prenatal existence of the soul

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Plato’s belief in attainable knowledge, the duality of being and the importance of a telos led to an intense, rich analysis of the nature of the soul. Examining his ideas of understanding, the forms and human nature itself, the modern philosopher gains a pivotal insight into the way knowledge is acquired. Some of Plato’s most interesting opinions and dialogues however concern his belief on the soul and its survival both before birth and after death as well as the repercussions this has on its life while it inhabits the body. While areas of explanation, bias and information gained much later than Plato lived cause problems with his argument it remains astute and extremely relevant for philosophers today.


Plato believed that knowledge was possible however, it could only be attained through understanding that which is real and true. He inferred that if something is true then it must be immutable, immortal and absolute. By exposing the fallibility and subjective nature of human senses and perception he revealed our inability to really know anything based on physical experience, which he saw as belief, or opinion. Plato believed that there was however some realm of pure concepts and ideal prototypes for the objects and ideas that make up this world, or “Forms”, that could be known. Plato concurred that no human knowledge can be taught during life, but must be “recollected” from some purer state of being in which the obtaining of knowledge did not rely on sensory perception. To come to understand this knowledge there must be some part of the individual that carried it even before birth, and this vessel was the soul.


All people have a seemingly innate knowledge of equality. Indeed people can recognise when two things had the same size, colour or weight and judge them equal while still retaining the knowledge that they are not absolutely equal. Plato explained that our ability to see this, without being taught, was in fact our soul’s “recollection” of the Form equal. In the same way one can recognise a painting of a friend without believing the friend is in the room , Plato sought to show all things in the physical world like shadows, imperfect replicas of the Forms themselves. Our knowledge of these absolutes must then be gained before birth. This discovery played an important part in Plato’s decision that human were dualist in nature and that the soul could survive the embodied state.


Once Plato felt he had “proved” dualism, he needed to define what it was that made body and soul different, especially that the soul was free from the restrictions the physical world placed on the body. The body is more likely to belong in the physical world and the soul in the realm of the Forms because of the soul’s intangible nature. Plato follows that if the soul and body are in harmony and their combined telos of a life of virtue is reached, once the body dies, the soul returns to the realm of the Forms and being of a “kindred nature” is purified by them until it attains a state of wisdom. By contrast, if the body has had control during life and a person has not sought to attain a life of virtue the soul, confused and contaminated, will be dragged into the body of a lesser being, such as that of an animal, without wisdom.


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Plato’s argument though logical and thorough is laced with problems. For example, many would argue now our knowledge of evolution insists that morality is in some ways evolution. It would seem that Plato’s telos could in fact be evolutionary theory that humans, now physically well adapted should seek, through virtues of courage, wisdom and goodness, to progress in academic evolution. Even much of his theory about knowledge held by the soul, may be attributed to instinct that assists the survival of the species, such as altruism. Plato’s other theories on the formation of society and the tripartite nature of the soul may be reviewed as specialisation and variation, important evolutionary tools.


As well as this, there are other questionable terms and ideas that Plato uses as proof. For example, his argument that the soul is invisible and unchanging is faulted in both terms. Even if we except his premise that the Forms are unchanging and immortal (which is why they can be known), we can not apply the same rules to the soul. Plato has already explained that the soul can be tainted, purified, even moved to another body where it cannot properly seek wisdom, such as a donkey. While his idea that the soul is more like the Forms remains true, there is no reason to believe that it should follow the same rules of immortality. Even its invisibility can be questioned in a modern age of electricity. While the soul still may not dissipate into thin air as suggested by Democritus , there is no reason to believe it will not, as a the energy in a battery would, lie dormant until the body decomposes and it no longer has a vessel in which to exist.


Plato’s idea that only some can attain this state of wisdom is also problematic. If the soul is from the realm of the Forms and, as Plato says, exists in a state of purity and wisdom, how can it attain a tripartite structure? Would it not be more logical for all souls to be created equally prepared to attain understanding of the forms if they all come from a state of wisdom? Plato provides people who do not seek wisdom but do try to live their lives virtuously the ability to go into what he sees as virtuous animals (bees, wasps and ants) or even humans. “But no soul which has not practised philosophy, and is not absolutely pure when it leaves the body, may attain the divine nature.” It seems that only those with reason as their soul element may ever attain that which is most desired by Plato, even if their telos is toward moderation or courage. These biased distinctions lessen my faith that Plato himself is examining the ideas rationally and impartially. Surely all people at least have the potential, if they study philosophy, no matter what their “tripartite soul” designates, to enter this divine realm! Plato does not make allowances for this and still asserts people should be happy with their lot in life, even though they will never attain the “divinity” he so highly prizes. There seems no reason why wisdom or knowledge should be favoured if that is not the individual’s telos as designated by the soul and this problem suggests others throughout the argument.


It seems clear Plato’s belief that the soul survives its embodied state stems from three central ideas; dualism, his view of knowledge and his belief in the need for each individual, society and soul to attain its telos. His argument is both rational and acute and he uses substantial evidence in his dialogues to explain and justify his motives. However, his argument is limited by the time in which it was written, our incomplete sources retained from the destruction of the Academy and Plato’s reliance on premises which, when examined may be found faulty and weaken his argument. From Plato’s reasoning for belief that the soul exists outside of the bodies mortal life it is easy to see how he reached both premises and conclusions. His, like all arguments had problems, but it still provides amazing insight into our understanding of knowledge and human nature and how we may have attained them. Although he did not have any specific theory, Plato’s use of dialogue, reason and even spirituality are enlightening and challenging in both their own context and today.





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