The best proof as to the theoretical validity of Plato’s metaphysical ideas, contained in his famous works “Phaedo” and “Symposium”, is the fact that these ideas still represent the foundation, upon which European idealistic philosophy is based. In this paper, we will explain the reasons that prompted Plato’s mentor Socrates to set apart the notions of body and soul, as being essentially different, and will define Plato’s understanding of what constitutes the foremost virtue, within a context of pursuing a romantic relationship.
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In “Phaedo”, Socrates first establishes the theoretical possibility for the soul to be extended in time, beyond the physical existence of one’s body, to which it is attached. By utilizing the Theory of Opposites, Socrates suggests that the existence of soul could not possibly end with the death of one’s body, because life and death actually derive out of each other: “Suppose we consider the question whether the souls of men after death are or are not in the world below. There comes into my mind an ancient doctrine which affirms that they go from hence into the other world, and returning hither, are born again from the dead. Now if it be true that the living come from the dead, then our souls must exist in the other world, for if not, how could they have been born again?” (Plato). From here, Socrates moves on to further substantiate his thesis as to soul’s immortality, by applying a so-called Theory of Recollection. All people, suggests Socrates, are entitled with some kind of innate knowledge, which they seem to possess from the time when they are being born, and which can be “recollected”, during the process of people’s interaction with objective reality. Socrates compares it to how people instantly remember their loved ones by looking at physical items that used to belong to them. Therefore, our whole lives are nothing but the process of recollection of our long lost essence, as individuals. In its turn, this implies that we have existed, even before being incarnated in our present bodies: “Recollection, if true, necessarily implies a previous time in which we have learned that which we now recollect. But this would be impossible unless our soul had been in some place before existing in the form of man; here then is another proof of the soul’s immortality” (Plato). This bring Socrates to conclude that the soul is nothing but “thing in itself” (Theory of Forms), much like the ideas of beauty, ugliness, tallness, hungriness, perfection, etc. Therefore, while certain existential aspects of one’s soul are revealed in the body it is being attached to, we cannot think of soul as derivative of the body: “But when returning into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging” (Plato). Moreover, just as any idea, that is “thing in itself”, soul cannot possibly be associated with physical qualities that would contradict its very essence. To substantiate this idea, Plato utilizes the fire as an example. Fire can be “hot” or “burning”, it can relate to the notion of heat, but never to the notion of coldness. The same can be said about soul – since soul is synonymous to the notion of life, it cannot posses the subtleties of death by definition. In its turn, this implies that the soul exists forever, unlike the body. While addressing Cebes’ suggestion that soul should be compared to the attunement of musical instrument (which implies the impossibility of attunement’s existence outside of such instrument), Socrates comes up with contra-argument that the degree of attunement can vary, while we cannot suggest that one’s soul can be less of a “soul”. Just like women, who cannot become half-way pregnant, the existence of one’s soul cannot vary in the degree of “wholesomeness”.
After having proven soul’s existential superiority over the body, Socrates naturally comes to conclusion that it is only the virtues that are related to the purification of soul by the mean of attaining wisdom, which correspond to their objective value: “Inasmuch as the soul is manifestly immortal, there is no release or salvation from evil except the attainment of the highest wisdom. For the soul when on her progress to the world below takes nothing with her but nurture and education” (Plato). According to Socrates, an individual must strive to lead a modest life, while never skipping an opportunity to educate himself, whenever is possible, because it is namely this individual’s psychological trait that gains him Gods’ favor.
In his work “Symposium”, Plato strives to educate readers on the subject what constitutes the greatest virtues, within a context of people pursuing relationship with each other. He does it rather subtly, as “Symposium” is written in form of dialogues that take place between Socrates and his friends, during the course of drinking party. In this particular work, Plato’s develops his earlier ideas in regards to the concept of virtuousness, while revealing the full spectrum of their practical application, when used to refine the romantic relationship between women and men and between men and men. There are three main ideas, regarding love and sexual desire, which characterize the overall message of this particular Plato’s work: 1) Love between two individuals corresponds to their subconscious strive to attain psychological and physiological qualities (usually associated with opposite gender) that they feel are missing from their existential mode. Every person has manly and womanly qualities about him or her, which prompts people who pursue romantic relationship, to actually seek in their mates qualities for which the subconsciously long: “After the division the two parts of man (by Zeus), each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart” (Plato). 2) The love of men results in the birth of ideas (idealistic forms the last forever), whereas the love of women results in the birth of bodies; therefore, the love of women is inferior to the love of men by definition. Men that yield to their animalistic sexual urges act like women, which in its turn, disqualifies them from reaching intellectual heights: “Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children… But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor” (Plato). 3) There are many variations of love, which differ in value. Loving someone’s body is the lowest form of love, because of the sheer irrationality of sexual desire, closely associated with this type of love. Loving someone’s individuality is more superior form of love, because individuality is nothing but part of one’s soul, which is immortal. However, the supreme form of love is the love to purely abstract ideas, because only these ideas can be truly beautiful and because namely this type of love is capable of benefiting humanity, in general: “If beauty of form in general is his (lover’s) pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same! And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honorable than the beauty of the outward form” (Plato).
From reading “Symposium”, it appears that Socrates considered women as being quite incapable of broadening their intellectual horizons (the biggest virtue, according to Socrates), simply because the physiological nature of their sexual desire, which prevents majority of women to exist other then in the state of constant sexual tension. Once man obtains the subject of his sexual desire, he no longer desires it: “Love is of something, and that which love desires is not that which love is or has; for no man desires that which he is or has” (Plato). Women, on the other hand, can only exist for as long as they desire, while being unable to distance themselves from their physiology. This is being illustrated during the course of Socrates’ dialogue with Diodima, who despite being an intelligent woman had proven her inability to think of love as purely “platonic” notion. This is the reason why Plato had suggested that, whereas men should be thought of as the combination of soul and body, women should only be thought of as bodies alone. In its turn, this also explains the wide-speared practice of romantic relationship between men and men in ancient Greece – such practice rarely involved sexual activity, but was rather seen as the legitimate way for men to express their admiration of each other’s intellectual wits.
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