Ancient Greek Philosophy
23 November 2012
Plato and Aristotle’s Contrasting Views on the Nature of the Soul Both Plato and Aristotle offered theories on the nature of the soul throughout their prolific careers. Though they both agree on the existence of a soul in living things, they diverge in perspective on its ultimate goals, how it exists in relation to the body, what actions benefit and harm it, and whether or not our souls survive our bodies in death. In this paper, I will argue that Plato’s arguments for his theory of the nature of the soul are rife with flaws and contradictions, especially compared to the simple, observable framework of Aristotle’s theory. For this reason, I endorse Aristotle’s theory over Plato’s. At the time that Plato was actively philosophizing, the majority of people in Greece did not believe in an immortal soul (Phaedo, 70a), and so the ideas that Plato propagated might have contradicted the ‘common sense’ of his likely audience. In the Phaedo, he used the context of Socrates’ final moments as an appropriate setting in which to discuss, among other things, whether a person’s soul survives death. In this dialogue, Plato asserts that the soul is immortal, unchanging, separate from the body, and that it is through the soul that we acquire truth and wisdom. Plato details several theories to explain his conclusions including the Theory of Opposites, the Theory of Recollection and the Affinity Argument. Another good account of Plato’s philosophy on the nature of the soul is found in Book IV of the Republic. There, Plato describes his Tripartite Theory of the Soul and discusses what conditions culture a healthy soul and why it is important. An key point for Plato is that the soul is an immortal entity, that it was not created at one time and will not reach an end of being. This is possible if one considers that for certain things exist exact opposites. He offers as example, “the beautiful is the opposite of the ugly and the just of the injust.” (Phaedo, 70e) Plato suggests that any one thing must come from its opposite. For example, in order to arrive “here”, one must have come from over “there”. He assumes that we naturally know the opposite of life is death. Any living thing must have been not alive before its life began. And it follows that to die is to go from being alive to its opposite, being not alive. In this way, the human soul cycles between being dead and being alive, and it never will have a means of exiting this cycle; thereby Plato concludes that it must indeed be immortal. Furthermore, he referred frequently to an afterlife, which is presumably a “place” where souls reside as they await a return to the living realm of this cycle. The Theory of Recollection follows right in line with the Theory of Opposites. In the Meno, Socrates poses a young slave questions of geometry that he has not yet “learned”. Through this exercise, he demonstrates that if you only pose questions, all people can eventually figure out, or “recall” the knowledge needed to answer to the problem. This is his proof that people do not “ learn” things, they simply call forward information that already exists in the soul and which you acquired in a previous life. This is contributing evidence that the soul survives us through death and continues from one life to another. My objection to the Theory of Opposites includes the following. It is false to define the precise opposite of life as death. A chair for example is not living, and presumably not living is the opposite of living. However it would be inaccurate to describe the chair as being dead. Therefore, if we were to accept that all things do indeed come from their opposites, living things would not necessarily come from what is dead. The Theory of Recollection conjures a few questions to undermine its validity. If all we know through our souls has already been learned in a past life, can new knowledge never be created? It is...
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