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
Immortal soul
Wisdom loving
Mortal soul (lesser soul)
Esteem, honour, victory, force[18]
bodily desire and gratification—food, drink, sex, etc.

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
philosopher rulers
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. 


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