Plato on the Limits of Human Life

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By focusing on the immortal character of the soul in key Platonic dialogues, Sara Brill shows how Plato thought of the soul as remarkably flexible, complex, and indicative of the inner workings of political life and institutions. As she explores the character of the soul, Brill reveals the corrective function that law and myth serve. If the soul is limitless, she claims, then the city must serve a regulatory or prosthetic function and prop up good political institutions against the threat of the soul's excess. Brill's sensitivity to dramatic elements and discursive strategies in Plato's dialogues illuminates the intimate connection between city and soul.

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1: Socratic Prothumia

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SOCRATES'S DEFENSE OF the calmness with which he confronts his death unfolds within a theological framework with which he has a vital, if also uneasy, relationship. Indeed, he is granted the opportunity of giving this defense because of a delay in his execution due to a religious observation: the citywide observance of a vow to Apollo, involving a ritual mission to Delos in memory of Theseus, prohibits the civic pollution that accompanies executions. Further, Socrates's attempts to give both an account of himself and of the “true” philosopher are shaped by the need to determine both of these entities’ stances toward the theology he outlines very early on in the dialogue. With respect to the dialogue's psychology, this theological framework provides a number of the dominant conceptual and linguistic tools through which soul is investigated; consequently it will be necessary to outline this framework in detail. At the same time, Plato's depiction of the uneasiness Socrates feels about certain elements of this theology provides an important orientation toward this framework that neither rejects it nor uncritically appropriates it.1 Instead, the Phaedo illustrates that for Plato it is incumbent upon the investigator of the soul to make apparent the conceptual and linguistic apparatus through which soul is interrogated. Insofar as theology provides one such lens, this theology must be made explicit and subject to scrutiny, and this is precisely what Plato has Socrates do.

 

2: The Body-like Soul

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SOCRATES'S AND HIS interlocutors’ extended investigation of the soul's immortality begins as a more thorough telling, a (70b), of an opinion about death that Socrates playfully presented as his apologia of his confidence in the face of death (63b). That it is the defense's conception of the soul that is particularly problematic is suggested by Cebes, who objects that the soul's endurance beyond death is in need of further discussion (70a–b). Socrates's eager agreement to offer a more thorough story inaugurates the first of four logoi about immortality (70b).

This first logos inherits a definition of death which Socrates, as we have observed, gives in his initial defense with a noteworthy nonchalance: death is the separation of soul and body (64c). Throughout the discussions of soul's immortality, Socrates draws out and reframes a number of assumptions about the nature of this separation. However, the Phaedo's depiction of Socrates speaking with friends who are at once eager to philosophize and grieving the looming loss of their friend opens an investigation not only of assumptions about what death is, but also of how to properly comport oneself toward mortality, whether one's own or that of others. That is, the conversation about immortality is directed not only at death but also at grief, and at marking out what should be grieved and how. This dimension is perhaps made most explicit during the interlude on misology (88e–91c), but it is at work early on in the dialogue as well in, for instance, the care Plato takes to describe the curious blend of affect had by Socrates's interlocutors (58e–59a). With the first logos, Socrates begins to contend with his interlocutors’ assumptions about death and their attitudes toward grief by trying to wrest death away from an association with utter destruction.

 

3: Psychic Geography

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WHEN SOCRATES CONCLUDES the four logoi about immortality with the observation that it is to the care of the soul that they must turn, “not only for this time in which we call ‘being alive’ goes on, but for time as a whole” (107c), it would seem as though he simply passes over the need to give an account of “being alive.” Socrates does not go on to offer a logos of living being in the same manner in which he has discussed the immortality of the soul. And yet, if his subsequent account is indeed of time as a whole, it is the place in which such time unfolds that is given the greatest attention. The myth about the earth that Socrates offers provides an image of the scene of duration, an image of what we might call “doing time,” in which the site of the “doing” is the subject of description. Socrates returns to the mythic context in which the four logoi began by first offering a preliminary description of the soul's journey to Hades (107c–108c), followed by an extended myth of the earth (108d–114c) in which he describes the whole earth (108d–109b) and its various regions (109b–113c), and concluding with an account of the experiences of the souls of the dead under and upon its surface (113d–114c). Thus, Socrates follows the fourth logos about soul's immortality—a logos whose failure to provide an adequate account of living being we have charted in some detail—by recounting a description of the earth in which death is presented as the soul's migration to a region on the earth appropriate to it. Justice is enacted by the soul's dwelling therein.

 

4: City and Soul

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THE MAJORITY OF the conversation that comprises the Republic occurs because Socrates is trapped by his own piety: unable to hear justice slandered, he agrees to defend the just life by showing the effects of justice and injustice on the soul. Glaucon and Adeimantus offer a number of formulations of this task. Glaucon desires to hear what the powers of justice and injustice are when they are in the soul, alone and by themselves, stripped of their wages and consequences (358b). Adeimantus, observing that no one has adequately argued that injustice is the greatest evil a soul can possess and justice, correspondingly, the greatest good (366e), fills in his brother's argument. He calls attention to the effect on the soul of the customary opinion that justice is good but hard, namely, the development of the belief that happiness is best attained by gaining the reputation for justice while cultivating the unscrupulous advantage-gaining of the unjust (365a–366b). He twice asks Socrates not only to show that justice is stronger than injustice, but also what each does to the person who has them (367b, e).1

 

5: Psychic Fragmentation

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WHILE BOOKS 2 and 3 provide an account of the vehicles through which city and soul affect one another, books 4 and 5 elaborate upon the complexity that is interior to soul and identify the tense interaction between desire and other elements of the soul as decisive for the unity or fragmentation of both soul and city. Thus, books 4 and 5 contribute to the multidimensional psychodynamics requested in the preceding books by deepening Socrates's and his interlocutors’ understanding of what it means for soul to become virtuous or vicious. They do so by focusing upon the general forms of fragmentation and unity to which the human being and human things (including cities) give rise in the course of their respective becomings.

Indeed, I will argue, books 4 and 5 lay the foundation for a catalogue of psychic division, one which seeks to take into account a broad range of manifestations of fragmentation and unity. These books look not only to individual human behavior and the psychic division that can be discerned therein, but also to collective human action and the political formations to which it gives rise—viewing the city as a field in which division and unity are made manifest—and beyond even human political activity to the varieties of beings themselves and the vision of dissolution and unity provided by an exploration of the ontological status of things.

 

6: Philosophy in the City

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As we have seen in the previous chapter, in book 5 Socrates explores the forms of fragmentation and unity to which soul and city are subject and introduces a distinction between desiderative orientations that illuminates two courses of life, that of the lover of wisdom and that of the lover of opinion. By the end of book 9, Socrates and his interlocutors have seen this distinction developed into that between just and unjust lives and have had their judgment sufficiently trained to discern their differences with respect to happiness and to choose between them. In the intervening books, Socrates elaborates upon the possibility of psychic unity presented by the properly educated philosophic nature in terms that emphasize the training of this nature's desire (books 6–7) and returns to analyze in detail the corrupt forms of city and soul he mentioned at the end of book 4, concluding with the soul of tyrant, whose depravity provides the terms by means of which the most unjust life is envisioned (book 8–9). This analysis adopts a decidedly clinical stance toward both city and soul, even as it produces an account that calls into question the evaluative efficacy of health and sickness, and culminates in the complex image of soul that allows Socrates and his interlocutors to observe what the advocate for the unjust life is really arguing for. Moreover, in these books we see the city in speech and the city of speakers collide in the enigmatic figure of Socrates, who both seems to include himself among anomalous occurrences of those living in corrupt regimes who nonetheless are able to keep company with philosophy in a worthy way (496c), and yet engages in an analysis of the transformations to which cities and soul are subject, an activity that cannot be easily circumscribed within the single-minded pursuit of Being described in books 6 and 7.

 

7: Politics and Immortality

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BOOK 10 OPENS with Socrates's observation that their most recent comments have illustrated the correctness of their earlier critical assessment of poetry. He then levels a charge against the imitative arts as such: they “seem to maim the thought of those who hear them and do not as a remedy have the knowledge of how they really are” (595b). According to this assessment, the lovers of poetry1 are lovers of something that disfigures them, and moreover does so without announcing these effects. Indeed, it is precisely the lack of transparency regarding poetry's ontological status and effects, its lack of provision for knowledge of what it is and does, that Socrates attempts to remedy in the subsequent discussion of what mimēsis is. This is to say that book 10, which concludes with the myth of Er, begins with a call for a poetry that is able to account for itself, a dialectical and self-critiquing poetry.

Throughout the first half of book 10, Socrates's critique of poetry takes as its justification the tendency of poetry to foster2 one part of the soul to the detriment of others, even in the souls of the decent (605c). The figure he summons to illustrate this danger is that of a bereaved and decent father who, having lost his son, does battle with himself, struggling between a desire to deliberate and set his affairs aright, on the one hand, and a desire to indulge in lamentation, nourishing the part of him that wants to mourn, on the other (603e–604d). Even decent people, concludes Socrates, are tempted by the displays of lamentation in tragedy to luxuriate in mourning (605c–d).

 

8: Psychology for Legislators

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IN THE FIRST book of the Laws, the Athenian Stranger and his interlocutors turn to discuss the best form of civic education, one that would provide for the well-being of citizens. They conceive of education in terms that merit comparison with Republic: education is a matter of becoming good (634e, 644a), and requires a training in pleasures and desire (643c) that includes the turning of one's erotic impulses toward that which one is studying (643e). In the Republic, as we have seen, it is the plasticity of young souls that is taken to recommend the supervision of poets and the determination of which tales are suitable to tell. In the Laws the first detailed account of psychic plasticity, that is, of the factors that shape the soul and give character to a human life, occurs in the form of an image introduced in order to clarify the Athenian's assertion that those capable of ruling themselves are good, while those incapable of so ruling are bad (644b): the infamous image of the living being as a puppet of the gods (644d–645c). What unfolds in the course of this image-making is an account of the legislative subject, the being for whom laws are enacted.1 This being is constituted by the tense interaction between an array of demands and capacities, figured in the image as sinews or cords. Several of the most powerful of these cords are described as follows: pleasure and pain, two “foolish and antagonistic counselors” (644c); opinions () about the future, hopes, which, when they anticipate pain are called “fear” and when they anticipate pleasure, “confidence”; and calculation (), capable of determining which opinions are good and which are bad (644c–d). Populated by a plurality of competing affections, the human being is a loose and tenuous conglomerate whose actions are the result of a tense mechanics of pulling and pushing. One such cord—calculation—is capable of adjudicating between the competing demands of the others and directing action on the basis of the good. However, this particular cord exerts its attraction and influence in a gentler manner than the others, and thus requires aid. When calculation becomes the shared opinion of the city, it is called law (644d, 645a).2

 

9: Psychology for the Legislated

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THE ATHENIAN'S TURN to penal law begins with a lament that such legislation is necessary in Magnesia (853b). However, he quickly acknowledges that they are humans legislating for humans, and that the account of human nature and the human soul they have been developing reveals the necessity for laws of the sort they are about to create. The structure of these laws is informed by another early agreement, namely, that the account of the soul that informs the legislators’ approach to legislating is to be shared with the legislated (645b–c). As we have seen, the preludes that are appended to laws are treated as a powerful vehicle for conveying this civically salutary conception and attitude toward soul. This chapter will argue that the preludes attached to penal law are particularly vivid instantiations of this psychology for the legislated. We will begin with the prelude to temple robbing, a piece of legislation which directly precedes and motivates the distinction between injury and injustice that so shapes Magnesian homicide law, and which promotes precisely the attitude toward violent action that is encapsulated by the religious language of pollution. From there we will move on to discuss the legislation pertaining to homicide and the impiety of the young in order to analyze the implicit accounts of soul contained therein.

 

10: Psychic Excess

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EARLY ON IN the lengthy prelude addressed to the would-be atheist, the Athenian makes a statement about soul whose ambiguity and profundity beg comparison with that fateful description of the good from Republic 6 as “beyond being” ( ) (509b). If, observes the Athenian, soul can be shown to be generated prior to things like fire and air, then “it would be most correct to say it to be ” (892c).1 As the adverbial form of means primarily “differently from.” It is often used (in conjunction with a genitive) to indicate “above,” and this specification to its kind of “difference from” recommends the adverb's use to indicate “especially,” “pre-eminently,” or, as Bury renders it, “superlatively.” To claim that psuchē is is to suggest that psuchē has being as both surpassingly and superlatively natural, which is to attribute to soul a deeply ambiguous relationship to nature.

This is a fruitful ambiguity, one in keeping with the general tenor of the discussion of soul in book 10. The Athenian's characterization of the soul as exceedingly natural is contingent upon both a conception of phusis and a demonstration of soul's generation, a showing of its priority with respect to genesis. In fact, genesis and phusis are brought into an intimate relationship in this passage because the atheist's conception of phusis, as the Athenian describes it, is precisely as (generation or coming-to-be of things primary) (892c). As we have seen, the Athenian does not expressly challenge this general formulation of phusis; instead, as the prelude develops, he attempts to reconfigure the atheist's conception of the relationship between phusis and psuchē by asserting that soul is the primary cause of all motion. In doing so, the Athenian attributes to soul generative capacities whose magnitude and scope blur the distinction between psychology and cosmology.

 

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