Lucretius and Plato on the Mortality of the Soul

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Patrick McCleery

Essay I: Lucretius and Plato on the Mortality of the Soul

In this essay it will be argued that the soul is mortal and does not survive the death of the body. As support, the following arguments from Lucretius will be examined: the “proof from the atomic structure of the soul,” the “proof from parallelism of mind and body,” the “proof from the sympatheia of mind and body,” and the “proof from the structural connection between mind and body.” The following arguments from Plato will be used as counterarguments against Lucretius: the “cyclical argument,” the “affinity argument,” the “argument from the form of life,” and the “recollection argument.” It will be shown that Plato’s premises lack validity and that Lucretius’ position is the more reasonable of the two.

The first argument put forward by Lucretius is the “proof from the atomic structure of the soul.” This argument states that the soul is a “fine material substance,” akin to an invisible gas (Lucretius 3.425-44). When the vessel that contains a gas shatters, the gas escapes and dissipates. Therefore, when the vessel (body) containing the soul shatters (dies), the soul dissipates. Plato argues that the soul partakes of the Form of Life, and that Forms are eternal and unchanging. Therefore, the soul cannot die. Plato’s argument lacks validity because there is no compelling reason to believe that the soul partakes of the form of life. It is simply taken for granted that “the soul (mind) is what brings life so the soul (mind) partakes of the form of life.” Plato could be accused of “begging the question,” or assuming the existence of that which he should be proving. This is also called “arguing in a circle” (Earle 262). It is also worth noting that many of the problems of the ancient arguments regarding the soul result from equivocating “mind” with “soul.” The existence of the soul is presupposed as a result of this equivocation. Since people think, they must have souls. For now, we will ignore this problem and focus on Plato and Lucretius’ arguments. A: The soul is a fine-material substance like a gas

B: When the vessel containing a gas shatters, the gas dissipates C: When the body shatters (dies), the soul dissipates
A  B  C
A  B
C

The second argument put forward by Lucretius is the “proof from parallelism of mind and body.” This argument is based on an observation that both mind and body follow a similar path in life: “both move from weakness in youth to growth and strength, then to weakness again in old age” (Lucretius 3.445-58). The implied conclusion is that because both mind and body follow a similar path in life, the soul dies because the body dies. Plato’s “cyclical argument” could be used as a counterargument to the “proof from parallelism.” The cyclical argument is also sometimes called the “opposites argument,” because it states that those things which have an opposite and also “come to be” are caused by their opposite. The opposite of “life” is “death,” and the opposite of “coming alive” is “dying.” If dying and coming alive are opposite processes, they are also the cause of each other, since both “coming alive” and “dying” are things that “come to be.” Plato concludes from this that the souls of the living must come from the souls of the dead and vice versa. Souls are constantly “recycled,” and therefore they must be immortal. Plato could be accused of equivocation when making this argument. When Plato asserts that all things which have an opposite and “come to be” are caused by their opposite, he is referring to concepts. Conceptually, this statement makes sense: it is impossible for a person to conceive of “hot” without something either less hot or hotter to compare it to. Thus, the concept of hot will always make its appearance alongside the concept of cold and it is impossible for either concept to occur in the mind in isolation from its opposite. However, this doesn’t mean that “hot” and “cold” will always...
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