12 December 2010


At one point in the dialogue Phaedo [pronounced Fay-doe], Socrates has to meet an objection that Simmias poses to the notion of immortality of the soul.

Simmias is at first reluctant to state his doubts. After all, Socrates will take the hemlock soon, and one does not quarrel with the self-consoling thoughts of a man about to die! But Socrates encourages him, and Simmias says that the preceding discussion has proven the duality of body and soul to his (Simmias') satisfaction. But...here comes a big "but".

"One might also make the same case about harmony and a lyre and its strings, that on the one hand, harmony is something invisible and without a body ... whereas the lyre and its strings are physical and corporeal and composite and earthy and are akin to the mortal."

From this duality is does NOT follow, Simmias points out, that the harmony will survive the death of the lyre. If someone cuts the strings, the music ends.

"If then the soul happens to be a particular harmony, it is clear that, when our body is slackened or stretched without measure by diseases and other evils, the soul ... must in fact immediately be destroyed, even if it be most divine...." [Sounds like John Searle's view of the mind-body problem, BTW.]

How does Socrates respond? It takes some time -- the dialogue moves in zig-zags, not straight lines. When we in time we come back to this issue of the lyre and harmony, Socrates says that some harmonies are more harmonious than others. Harmony, then, is a matter of degree. This is not the case with the possession of a soul. If I understand the point here, Socrates/Plato is arguing that "possession of a soul" is a binary matter. No one person is more ensouled than another.

"All the souls of us living are equally good, if indeed, souls are, by nature, the same as this itself: Soul."

Thus, the analogy fails, and Simmias lays aside his own objection to immortality.

Contemporary philosopher Anderson Brown translates that argument into 21st century lingo, in a lively way.

Brown sees Plato as saying that we don't simply find material things and discover that you can pluck them and get music. We create material things for that purpose. A manufacturer created the lyre, stringing it together just so, in order to allow it to carry a harmony. Thus: harmony precedes the lyre. Harmony inspired the lyre. So the duality of harmony and lyre is one in which the intangible side of the dualism both precedes and survives the tangible side. It supports Socrates' contention, rather than weakening it.

I don't really see in Phaedo what Brown sees, but he seems to have given a lot more thought to it than I have, so I'll take it for granted this is there somewhere.


Henry said...

How does Brown's reading of Phaedo support Socrates' contention? Is Socrates, according to Brown, saying that the creator of human beings created them for the purpose of their souls? If so, this presents a couple of problems.

First, if there is a duality between body and soul, then does a soul need a body the way harmony needs a lyre? If the soul continues to exist after the body dies, then why can't it exist without a body in the first place?

Second, did Plato, like Descartes, believe that non-human animals lacked souls? If so, why did the creator of non-human animals create them?

By the way, did the Greeks believe in a creator, in the Genesis sense, of human or non-human animals?

Anderson Brown said...

Hey, this is the second time you've mentioned me. Thanks for the attention, very much appreciate to see that. I'll add you to the blogroll on my blog. I see Pragmatism as basically empiricism, positive/negative learning - and for me that's a good thing. I'd be interested to hear what you thought of my obituary discussion of Rorty (an earlier post). Anyway great discussion

Christopher said...


Hi. We now know that Anderson is keeping track, so if I go too far wrong, he should feel free to correct me.

In sequence of your questions then:

1) What I think Anderson is saying, on behalf of Plato's argument, is this: this body may be only one way of realizing the particular harmony that is my soul. You can play "Mary had a little lamb" on a piano. If the piano 'dies' you can play it on your harmonica. It is recognizably the same harmony in either case.

I should see myself as the harmony, not as the instrument. Thus, I DON'T need (this particular) instrument, in the same way that "Mary had a little lamb" doesn't this particular instrument.

The easiest inference might, then, be to a theory of reincarnation. Plato did believe that, but he also seems to have believed in a bodiless immortality, which may come about when my soul has outlived its need for an instrument. At that point, of course, the analogy seems to limp.

2) Yes, Plato believed animals have souls. He plays with the idea sometimes, saying for example in Phaedo that those who practice social and civic virtues may become bees, ants, or wasps in future lives. I think he was being fanciful there, but the underlying assumption of animal souls he surely took seriously.

3) Going further on the nature of classical Greek religion is beyond my pay grade. It is all hotly contested, especially when contrasted with Jewish notions of a Creator who is the great "I Am," and MOST especially in early December! Keep those candles burning.

Christopher said...


I'd be honored to be on your blogroll.

This is not my second but my third reference to your blog. The first, more substantive one, came back in May, when I used your comments on personal identity/continuity as a catalyst for my own.

Then in November I congratulated you for leading me to this:


SIferryguy said...

The Buddhist guy Thich Naht Hanh uses the term 'suchness', as in

thanks for allowing my Yorkie- suchness to run with the Big Dogs, this short distance.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.