Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 1: Plato as a body-hater?

Today begins a new series of reflections. This time it is all about Plato and embodiment.
You can download the whole series as a PDF here.

Plato as Body-Hater?
It seems to be something of a commonplace in certain contemporary theological circles to strongly contrast Plato’s portrait of being human with that of the Bible. Needless to say, Plato usually comes out of such comparisons badly scathed. Indeed, one may sometimes get the impression that all the evils of the world—from our alleged hatred of our bodies to the environmental crisis—can be laid at his feet.[1] For more than a few, it seems that one can dismiss a view simply with the words “but that’s just Platonic” (translation: “that is clearly against the teachings of the Bible”). While there is no smoke without fire, which is to say that Plato did sometimes have unhelpful tendencies regarding embodiment, I wish to argue in this series that Plato’s attitude towards the body was considerably more positive than is often claimed. Indeed, one could quite easily developed a Plato-inspired understanding of the body that is fully consistent with the Jewish and Christian belief in the goodness of creation. In fact, that it precisely what some of the early church fathers attempted (albeit not always completely successfully). Let’s not forget that many of those early Christians who affirmed the goodness of creation in all its materiality, the importance of the Word becoming flesh, and of the non-negotiable status of the resurrection of the body were Christian Platonists. This alone ought to alert us to the possibility that Plato may not be quite as dangerous as we are often told.
Perhaps it ought to strike us as strange that Plato is considered such a hater of particularity and embodiment. After all, his philosophical discussions are not written as abstract theses but as dialogues that envisage particular people in particular situations discussing particular issues. The characters in the dialogues are not usually just hollow and interchangeable interlocutors but specific people whose own stories factor into nuances of the dialogues.[2] Abstract discussions there are, but they arise from the particular situations and are intended as the means by which the right way forward in the particular situations can be discerned. Socrates wants to know, say, what justice itself is in order to know how to live justly. Paradigms are, after all, that in relation to which particulars are to be measured.
Furthermore, Plato seems to have an appreciation of the beauty of particular embodied people and places. Perhaps a classic instance is Socrates’ reaction at reaching their stopping place just outside Athens in the Phaedrus:

By Hera, it really is a beautiful resting place. The plane tree is tall and very broad; the chaste-tree, high as it is, is wonderfully shady, and since it is in full bloom, the whole place is filled with its fragrance. From under the plane tree the loveliest spring runs with very cool water—our feet can testify to that. . . . Feel the freshness of the air; how pretty and pleasant it is; how it echoes with the summery, sweet song of the cicades’ chorus! The most exquisite of all, of course, is the grassy slope: it rises so gently that you can rest your head perfectly when you lie down on it. (230b-c)

This does not sound like a man who despises the world.
Now there are texts in Plato, in the Phaedo and the Phaedrus in particular, that do seem to offer prima facie support for the body-despising attitude that his critics’ decry. We’ll come back to them later. But one problem is that Plato’s critics are typically very selective in the texts that they cite, and they fail to take on board the full scope of his teaching. When we look at his work more broadly a much more positive view of the body emerges.

[1] Ironically, some of the ancient heroes of modern environmentalism, such as Hildegard of Bingen, were Platonists.
[2] For instance, Marshell Bradley argues at length that one needs to know who Phaedrus was and something of his back-story if one wants to understand Plato’s Phaedrus. His particular identity is key to the dialogue. See Marshell Carl Bradley, Who Is Phaedrus? Keys to Plato’s Dyad Masterpiece (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012). Plenty of other similar examples could be provided from other dialogues.


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