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McInerny Center for Thomistic Studies
Program in philosophical studies
November 2006


Fulvio Di Blasi


Philosophy, the Beginning:

Fourth Class




Philosophy as “Training for Dying.”

The Human Soul. The Meaning of Life



Main bibliography: the Phaedo.



Soul as an ambiguous term


According to 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.


Aristotle’s 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.



Philosophy 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”.


Plato’s idea 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.


Unlike Plato, 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...


Further suggested readings:

-         Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I, X

-         John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio



The 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.


Conceptual tools:

  • 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:

  • Knowledge as possession of a form:

ü      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).

ü      Knowledge is a contact between two things that alters one of them (the knower) according to the form of the other.

ü      By “form” we can just mean a set of information that configures the knower according to the being of the known thing.

  • Similarity between the knower (of which the known object is part) and the thing known:

ü      otherwise there would be no knowledge at all because knowledge is real if it refers the knower to what the thing known is.

ü      The knower knows by “becoming” the thing known.

  • Not a destroying change in the knower:

ü      knowledge is an accidental change in the knower that at the same time preserves his nature and “turns” him into the thing known.

  • Simultaneous actuality of the knowing faculty and the known thing:

ü      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.


Problem: material 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.



Plato’s 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”.

Plato’s proof 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 God.

Two objections 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.


v     From the life-to-death and the death-to-life cycles

v     From the Theory of recollection

v     Affinity argument

v     From the ideal opposites (or from the form of life)

o       “soul” equal “life”

o       “life” equal “no-death” (this is the very essence/definition of life)

o       the (form of the) “soul” cannot accept “death”, by logical necessity the soul cannot die.




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