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.


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