Plato and the goodness of the body. Part 5. The encrusted soul

IV. But What About . . . ?
If all this is the case, what about those texts in which Plato seems to have a negative view of embodiment? We’ll consider three.

a) The Encrusted Soul (Rep. 611b–612a)

One thinks, for instance, of the image of the sea god Glaucus, who is obscured and made to appear like a monster by encrusting shells and seaweed (Republic 611b–612a). He is like the pure immortal soul that is deformed by its embodiment obscuring our perception of its true nature. The pure soul is the disembodied soul. The analogy is not Plato’s best—for the relation between the original statue of Glaucus and the marine detritus that clings to it is rather unlike the organic and integrated relation between the immortal and the mortal parts of the soul. In the image, the statue is damaged and harmed by its encrustation—not a very positive way to think of embodiment! But Socrates’ point is primarily that a soul is not essentially embodied—it can exist without body (and hence, without spirit and appetite)—and secondarily, that embodiment does, in various ways, create problems for the soul. The image of removing the accretions from the statue of Glaucos is intended to picture an epistemic method for discerning the essential core of soul. Perhaps not the most helpful picture, because it elevates the immortal soul by degrading the other parts of the soul. However, it does not follow from the illustration that the immortal soul is better off without body (and hence, spirit and appetite). Bear in mind that in this very dialogue Socrates has defined a just person as one whose intellect, spirit, and appetite are rightly related. On the Republic’s own account, then, it is hard to see how a disembodied soul could be just. And if justice has to be instantiated in concrete particulars then souls have to be embodied.


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