The Soul in Plato

On the self-knowledge of man

Author: Sebastian F. Seeber

Issue No: 95

The expression ‘soul (ψυχή)’ occurs in 32 of the 36 Platonic writings and is used, in some cases several times, in 676 passages of text. Moreover, Socrates describes his activity in the Apology as follows:
“Nothing else do I do when I go about but to persuade both the older and the younger of you , to care neither for their bodies (σωμάτων) nor for their fortunes (χρημάτων) rather, nor so intensely as to make their souls as good as possible (τῆς ψυχῆς ὅπως ὡς ἀρίστη ἔσται). ” (apol. 30a-b, cf. also ibid. 29d-30a).

The soul is a fundamental concern of Platonic philosophy. In the Phaidon it is even said, with a certain wink, that the true philosophers were concerned with nothing but “dying and being dead” (Phaid. 64a), with death being depicted shortly afterwards as “the withdrawal of the soul from the body (ἡ τῆς ψυχῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος ἀπαλλαγή)” (ibid. 64c).

To philosophise, in this sense, is to concentrate as much as possible on the soul, and very particularly, as will be shown, on one of its parts: the logoson.

But why is Plato at all interested in something as imponderable and invisible as the soul? How does he justify the assumption of its existence, and how does he come to speak of different parts of it?
This article provides an insight into the Platonic doctrine of the soul and illustrates the central role of the soul in Platonic thought. It must be said in advance that the text can only represent a fraction of all the thoughts and ideas of the Platonic work.

2 Etymologically, ἡ ψυχή (breath, breath, life(-force), soul (of the deceased)) derives from the verb ψύχω (to blow, to breathe). Greek tradition since the Iliad understands it as a kind of spirit, a winged image of the dead. Cf. Frisk, Hjalmar: Greek Etymological Dictionary. Volume II. Heidelberg: 1973, pp. 1141-1142.
This was the result of a search at Perseus (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/) on 06.01.2022. The four texts in which it is missing are the dialogues Euthyphron, Kriton, Hipparchos and Theages. I refer to all 36 texts of the nine tetralogies composed in antiquity, even if the authenticity of a few of them is doubted to some extent today.
All translations are by the author and are based on the Greek text editions by Burnet (Oxford: 1975) and Duke et al. (Oxford: 1995).

Primarily, this incomplete overview serves to inspire and arouse curiosity in Platonic thought. In the following, the soul is considered first as a whole in its relationship to the human being and the body, then in its parts. The focus is on the logical considerations, which even attempt to show its immortality. An excursus on the meaning of myth concludes the article.

Self-knowledge: The soul is the human being

In an essay entitled “What is man?”, which is quite characteristic of modern anthropology, the author manages not to mention the term “soul” even once. The soul seems to have been misjudged to the point of insignificance in philosophy and science, and the concept of soul seems to have become dispensable for enlightened man. In Plato, on the other hand, man and soul are identical: “Is it necessary, then,” Socrates asks, “to show you somehow still more clearly that the soul is man (ὅτι ἡ ψυχή ἐστιν ἄνθρωπος).” (Alk. 1 130c) It is thereby not an object of faith, but of reason-guided knowledge, namely self-knowledge, as demanded by the famous formula above the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself (γνῶθι σαυτόν)!” (ibid. 124b, Prot. 343b, Charm. 164e).
The above statement is preceded in Alcibiades by the following argument: man is either (i) body or (ii) soul or (iii) both together (cf. Alc. 1 130a). However, since man uses the body – for example, Socrates uses his mouth to speak – and the used is obviously different from the used, man can be neither the body nor both together, but the soul alone, since only the soul can use the body as its tool (for the whole argument cf. ibid. 129b-130c).
Against this background, the modern question of whether man has a soul seems paradoxical and amusing. The real question is whether the soul recognises itself as such or confuses itself with the body, forgetting itself in the process. When Kriton asks Socrates shortly before the latter’s death, “In what way shall we bury you?” (Phaid. 115c), the latter replies, “However you like, if you get me and I don’t escape you!” (ibid. 115c) Then he laughs softly and jokes that Kriton still mistakes him for his body.

The soul in relation to the body

The relationship between body and soul becomes clear in the understanding of death as the “withdrawal of the soul from the body” (Phaid. 64c). To be dead denotes the state in which body and soul are separated from each other (cf. ibid. 64c). The pure body is the corpse (ὁ νεκρός), the always passive means and instrument, which only acquires an (apparent) life of its own through the action of the soul. Just as a man’s clothing lies limp and motionless or hangs whenever it is not moved and carried by the living man, so it also happens to the body separated from the soul:

Keil, Geert: What is the human being? Notes on an unscientific question. In: Detlev Ganten, Volker Gerhardt, Jan-Christoph Heilinger and Julian Nida-Rümelin (eds.): What is the Human Being? Berlin/New York: 2018, pp. 139-146.
Cf. Renaud, François, “Selbsterkenntnis”, in: Der Neue Pauly, Edited by: Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider (Antiquity), Manfred Landfester (History of Reception and Science). Viewed on 03.02.2023 at “http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_dnp_e12224900”.
The cobbler is different from his cutting tool, the guitarist from his guitar (cf. Alk. 1 129c-d).
“Every body, namely, to which [only] from without (ἔξωθεν) the becoming-moved [comes to be, which is called] inanimate (ἄψυχον), but to which from within (ἔνδοθεν), entirely from itself (αὐτῷ ἐξ αὑτοῦ), [which is called] animate (ἔμψυχον), as if this were the nature of the soul. ” (ibid. 245e)

The soul, on the other hand, is by its very nature the principle of life and motion, it is “that which moves itself (τὸ αὑτὸ κινοῦν) […] the source and cause of motion (πηγὴ καὶ ἀρχὴ κινήσεως) […] for everything else that is moved” (Phaidr. 245c). It is “by which we live (ᾧ ζῶμεν)” (rep. 445a). All living things have this self-movement, growth also being a form of movement (on the ten kinds of movement cf. nom. X 893b-894c). The apparently purposeful movement must have a cause: the self-movement, which is the soul. The self-motion of living beings is consequently the effect of the soul animating the body (cf. Phaidr. 246c) and “the whole together was called living beings (ζῷον), the soul and the fortified body” (ibid. 246c).
From these essential properties of the soul (motion and life), its immortality is also deduced: “The ever-moving is immortal (τὸ ἀεικίνητον ἀθάνατον).” (ibid. 245c) Moreover, the soul could no more be dead than the snow could be hot or the three straight, since life essentially belonged to it (cf. Phaid. 103b-106b). Now the snow, which is essentially cold, can pass away through heat, but the soul, which is essentially alive, can never pass away, since everything immortal must also be imperishable (cf. ibid. 106b-d): “With certainty, then […] the soul is immortal and imperishable.” (ibid. 106e-107a)
The relationship between body and soul can also be seen introspectively in the search for truth. In the Phaedo, it is detailed that the body is a hindrance to the acquisition of knowledge and that its senses are deceptive, whereas pure thinking (τὸ λογίζεσθαι) is most likely to lead to knowledge (cf. ibid. 65a-66b):

Whoever wants to know anything in a pure way “must remove himself from it [sc. the body] and contemplate things themselves with the soul alone” (ibid. 66e).

The senses show man images (εἴδωλα) that are full of contradictions and constantly arise and pass away: the circle that is drawn and removed again or made of wood and perishes again, always having its opposite, the straight line, about it (cf. epist. VII 342c, 343a). The essence and idea of the circle, however, as it reveals itself to thought, can never take on an opposite property (the straight), nor can it ever perish: The circle is that two-dimensional figure in which all points have the same distance to the common centre (cf. ibid. 342b).

The ideas, which obviously cannot be sensually perceived, man grasps with his reason (νοῦς), which is located in the soul

(cf. ibid. 342c). Plato distinguishes.

Here Socrates distinguishes between the cause (τὸ αἴτιον) and the circumstance, without which the cause could never be a cause (cf. Phaid. 99b): Socrates is not in prison because he has bones, sinews and joints, but because it seems better (βέλτιον) to him to sit there, and more just (δικαιότερον) to suffer the punishment (cf. ibid. 89e). The true cause chooses the best (cf. ibid. 99b), which requires a perceptive and evaluative consciousness. To fail to recognise the difference between cause and circumstance is what Socrates calls “extremely great recklessness of thought (ῥᾳθυμία τοῦ λόγου)” (ibid. 99b), a recklessness that was already common in natural philosophy at the time (cf. ibid. 98b-99c).
Classic examples in Plato are the following: The ring finger is large compared to the little finger, but small compared to the middle finger (cf. rep. 523e). We perceive the same finger at the same time as one thing (a finger) and infinitely many things (three finger links, hundreds of hairs, thousands of cells, countless atoms, etc.) (cf. ibid. 525a).

basically two genera: on the one hand, “the visible (τὸ ὁρατόν)” (Phaid. 79a), which always becomes and never behaves in the same way (cf. ibid. 79a), and on the other hand, “the invisible (τὸ ἀειδές)” (ibid. 79a), which always is, never comes into being and never passes away, and always behaves in the same way (cf. ibid. 79a). Socrates argues that man recognises this Being by withdrawing as much as possible from the physical and concentrating entirely on his psychic faculty of rational deliberation:
“Must we imagine, then, that the latter does this [sc. recognise the essence of things] in the purest way, who also always approaches each one as much as possible with the intellect (αὐτῇ τῇ διανοίᾳ) alone, by neither adding the sense of sight to the thinking (ἐν τῷ διανοεῖσθαι) nor any other sense perception (αἴσθησιν) to the deliberation (μετὰ τοῦ λογισμοῦ), but which he attempts, by using the pure mind all alone, to hunt out for himself every single object of existent things (τῶν ὄντων) purely and alone, withdrawing as far as possible from the eyes and ears, and, in short, altogether from the whole body, in the conviction that the latter confuses the soul and does not let it acquire truth and insight whenever he consorts with it? Is it not this […] if anyone at all who can attain to the being (τοῦ ὄντος)?” (ibid. 65e-66a)

“Whenever, however, [the soul] makes investigations all by itself, then it comes there: Into that which is pure, ever existing, immortal, and ever behaving alike (εἰς τὸ καθαρόν τε καὶ ἀεὶ ὂν καὶ ἀθάνατον καὶ ὡσαύτως ἔχον). ” (ibid. 79d)

This kind of self-knowledge is a self-awareness of thinking: when human thinking experiences really understanding what a circle is, for example, this is connected with the unconditional insight that it is completely impossible to perceive a real circle in the world of the senses. The eyes only see more or less circular images. Nevertheless, it is possible to recognise the essence of the circle, although it does not exist in the material world!

The intensive occupation with the ideas awakens in the soul a self-consciousness of its own being, for it experiences how it gathers experience and knowledge without participating in the sense world:

It experiences its own life by withdrawing from the senses. By means of this occupation, “a certain organ of the soul is thoroughly purified and rekindled, which is ruined and blinded by other occupations, and which is more important to preserve than ten thousand eyes” (rep. 527d-e).
In the Politeia, Socrates proposes the following areas of education for the “redirection of the soul (ψυχῆς περιαγωγή)” (ibid. 521c): Arithmetic (λογιστική τε καὶ ἀριθμητική), Geometry (γεωμετρία), Stereometry (not directly named, but described in ibid. 528a-b), astronomy (ἀστρονομία), harmony (ἁρμονία) and dialectic (διαλεκτική) (cf. ibid. 522b-534e). He is concerned with the examination of conceivable contents (numbers, two- and three-dimensional figures, movement in mathematical space, harmonic relations and ideas) and explicitly not with empirical research in the world of the senses: it is ridiculous to try to grasp the essence of movement or harmony “by looking at the orbits of the stars” (ibid. 530a) or “holding out the ear” (ibid. 531a). The immediate, introspective experience, however, of acquiring all the knowledge “which can be grasped with reason and the intellect (λόγῳ καὶ διανοίᾳ) but not with the sense of sight” (ibid. 529d), by concentrating on the soul’s faculties and turning away from the world of the senses, leads successively to the soul’s self-knowledge.

About the author

Our Author Sebastian F. Seeber
Sebastian F. Seeber (M. A.) graduated in Greek Studies, Philosophy and Classical Philology from HU Berlin, where he has been teaching Ancient Greek since 2020. He is a private teacher and founder of the Carpe Kairon Institute. In addition, he is working on a modern Plato translation and the lived realization of Platonic philosophy. Contact: seeberse@hu-berlin.de

This article was originally published on the German website: Die Seele bei Platon

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