Philosophy as “Training for Dying.”
Human Soul. The Meaning of Life
as an ambiguous term
Descartes, “God” and the “soul” are the most important issues
philosophy should deal with. It is certainly true that these
two issues characterize, dominate, and push forward the entire
history of philosophy. “Soul” is ambiguous, though. Does it
mean “intellect,” “person,” “human nature,” the “self,” the
“subject,” or something different from all of them? In ancient
philosophy, the discussion on the “soul” overlaps other concepts
and discussions—most notably, the concepts of self and the
person—with which we will deal later on in our Program.
famous argument for the spirituality of the intellect
does not refer to what we would call “person” today. Plato,
like all |Greek philosophers, did not have the concept of
person; however, his arguments for the spirituality and immortality
of the soul clearly refer to a subjectivity that we easily
recognize as belonging to that concept. Aquinas
gives an argument for the spirituality of the soul that follows
the lines of Aristotle’s argument, but, unlike
Aristotle, Aquinas explicitly distinguishes the soul from
the person, the self, the intellect, and human nature. In
approaching the concept of soul in ancient philosophy, it
is important to keep in mind that this concept, at the early
stages of philosophical reflection, embraces more meanings
than we would ascribe to it today.
as “Training for Dying”
At the beginning
of his dialogue Phaedo, Plato explains why “those who
practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying
and they fear death least of all men.” This is not an invitation
to commit suicide—that, for Plato, is intrinsically evil.
Rather, it is the sketch of a deep religious and ethical view
of life that does have many similarities with the Christian
tradition. For Plato, the human soul is made for a truth and
a good that do not belong to the present life, which must
be seen at the same time as a punishment for some past fault
and as a preparation for a future and perfect life. This life
should be lived as “purification” by way of measure and detachment
from the needs of the body. If death is “separation of the
soul from the body,” the life of the wise, who look for the
truth and the good, is already a “dying” and a training for
the complete separation of death and for the next life. Plato’s
thought involves a strong dualism between soul and body—which
is evil—that is significantly different from Christian thought.
It is to defend
his view of life that Plato, in the main part of the dialogue,
tries to demonstrate “that the soul still exists after a man
has died and that it still possesses some capability and intelligence”.
of philosophy as “training for dying” is a particular instance
of the ancient approach to philosophy as an active and genuine
search for wisdom. Most of the ancient philosophers were authentically
trying to figure what the overall meaning of life was in order
to conform their lives to that meaning. Philosophy was meant
to be the search for what fulfils human beings, for what makes
life worth being lived, or, in another (famous) word, for
what makes life “happy.” So, philosophy was not just a theoretical
enterprise, but also a moral one: i.e., an enterprise supposed
to result in living a wise life.
Aristotle, in his ethics, tries to give an account of human
fulfillment, or happiness, that includes also things and pleasures
that belong to our bodily life: i.e., to the life we live
in this earth. With Aristotle, philosophy searches for
a wisdom able to harmonize with each other the highest
and the lowest dimensions of human life. While there is a
strong dispute about Aristotle’s concept of happiness, there
is no doubt that he does not share Plato’s dualistic account
of human nature.
In medieval times,
philosophy becomes ancilla theologiae (handmaid of
philosophy) because medieval people commonly accepted that
the ultimate truth of human life comes from Christian revelation.
There is a fulfillment (a “natural happiness,” in the Aristotelian
sense) that man is supposed to aim at and achieve in the present
life; but the ultimate fulfillment (or “supernatural happiness,”
or beatitude) will come from a next life in which the soul
and the body will be reunited in the human person. Philosophy
can take reason up to the threshold of the mystery of life;
then, faith should come to give the final answer...
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I, X
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio
Soul and Plato’s Theory of knowledge
In the Phaedo,
Plato’s theory of knowledge (and/or Recollection) is explained
in order to support his discussion on the soul.
It is important
to highlight that the way in which Plato looks at the knowledge
issue is mostly similar to the way in which other Greek philosophers—most
notably, Aristotle—look at it. The difference between Plato
and Aristotle is, so to speak, only in the final solution
they give to the problem of the universals.
Difference between “act” and “potency,” or “being in act”
and “being potential.” Only “being in act” means to exist:
i.e., it is the “action” of being something. What exists
“potentially” exists due to another different act (a pure
potentiality cannot exist by definition).
Difference between “res” (thing) and “object”. The object
is not a real thing but a thing “as known.” The object
is in the knower.
Some basic principles
in the theory of knowledge:
The known object is part
of the knowing being; it is a way in which the knowing being
has been “configured” (like the file in the hard disk).
Knowledge is a contact between
two things that alters one of them (the knower) according
to the form of the other.
By “form” we can just mean
a set of information that configures the knower according
to the being of the known thing.
otherwise there would be
no knowledge at all because knowledge is real if it refers
the knower to what the thing known is.
The knower knows by “becoming”
the thing known.
knowledge is an accidental
change in the knower that at the same time preserves his nature
and “turns” him into the thing known.
e.g., the ear hearing and
the thing “sounding” (this way of speaking is clear but not
perfect because the thing cannot be “sounding” if the ear
is not “hearing” it).
All these principles,
as such, are shared by both Plato and Aristotle, but the last
one raises a very relevant problem that will be solved very
differently by Plato and by Aristotle.
things are “in act” knowable according to sentient knowledge
but not according to intellectual knowledge. They are not
in act “intelligible.” To the human mind, only the universal
is in act intelligible, but material things are essentially
particular. If they were in act intelligible they wouldn’t
be material beings. But, according to the last principle we
listed, universals must be in act as universals before they
can be received/known by the knowing faculty (i.e., the human
intellect). And since the universals are not in act in the
material (particular) things we see around us, Plato deduces
that we (our souls) must have known them previously (in a
past life) in an intellectual world made of actual intelligible
objects. According to Aristotle, on the other hand, our intellect
is able to abstract the universals from the material particular
things, making them actual before receiving them into itself.
proofs in the Phaedo
In the Phaedo,
Plato gives three or four main proofs for the spirituality
and immortality of the soul (the exact number is questioned
by the interpreters). Both Plato’s general approach to life
and his proofs for the spirituality and immortality of the
soul depend on some powerful philosophical insights, which
ground his so-called “theory of recollection”.
from the “immortal and unchanging” truths, and his proof from
the “ideal opposites” are two of the more fascinating proofs
for the immortality and spirituality of the soul in the history
of philosophy. Even those who want to criticize Plato cannot
deny that his insights on the intelligible universals are
very powerful and require strong philosophical answers. The
intelligible universals must come before the several particulars,
both in reality and in our knowledge. Aristotle neglected
this insight. But in Augustine it became a strong theology
of creation and the eternal law; and in Aquinas it became
one of the most interesting ways to prove the existence of
raised against the proofs in the dialogue—the one comparing
the soul to a “harmony” and the one comparing the soul to
“an old weaver”—are so powerful that Socrates, in order to
make his proofs more convincing, undertakes the explanation
of his second navigation and of his theory of forms.
From the life-to-death and
the death-to-life cycles
From the Theory of recollection
From the ideal opposites
(or from the form of life)
“soul” equal “life”
“life” equal “no-death” (this
is the very essence/definition of life)
the (form of the) “soul” cannot
accept “death”, by logical necessity the soul cannot die.