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I can not help but wonder what must have been Socrates' opinion of the human soul.

On the one hand I am told that 'the Greeks' (and thus, I assume, Socrates and his followers too) took ψυχή which is generally translated as soul, to be the "breath of life" that bestows the body with animation in the first place.[1] And this animation of a body is not the first but rather just another iteration of the selfsame immortal soul animating a new body.

On the other hand, this reflects badly on the merits of the soul: Socrates takes a rather derisive stance against the body and its desires; after all, for him, value lies in the realm of the ideal and eternal, not in the indulgence in base bodily desires.[2]

It appears, then, that the immortal soul so conceived is a bit of a juvenile hedonistic bully who forces body after body to suffer their material lives so it can derive pleasure from the corporeal acts to which those bodies enable it. One gets an almost pathological view of the soul here.

But this view seems irreconcilable with Socrates' assertion that "the true philosopher" should be concerned not at all with his bodily aspects but only with his soul because only through the soul he gains access to the eternal and ideal.[3]

The best solution which I can find to this dilemma is that Socrates does indeed take the soul as a kind of juvenile entity which is maturing with each and every incarnation so it can finally break the cycle, animate no new body and instead attain a nirvanic state of content with the mental ideal. The contradiction doesn't go away, though: The soul is then somehow both an immature and imperfect process striving after both bodily and mental satisfaction but also somehow an instance of already ideal perfection present within it, because without the soul, we would have no access to the ideal.

What do I miss here?


[1]: E.g. Cottingham, J., Western Philsophy: An Anthology (2008)

[2]: Phaedo for example.

[3]: Also Phaedo

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On the one hand I am told that 'the Greeks' (and thus, I assume, Socrates and his followers too) took ψυχή which is generally translated as soul, to be the "breath of life" that bestows the body with animation in the first place.[1] And this animation of a body is not the first but rather just another iteration of the selfsame immortal soul animating a new body.

This is not the only function of the soul in Plato. In Euthydemus 295b, the soul is "that whereby you have knowledge." In Crito 47e, the soul is "that part of us, whatever it is, which is concerned with right and wrong." The "breath of life" is not even part of the soul in Plato's scheme in the Republic 4.440e. To use Aristotelian terminology, the "breath of life" is the vegetative soul, as opposed to the rational soul. Plato doesn't, to my knowledge, speak of the vegetative soul as part of the soul.

It appears, then, that the immortal soul so conceived is a bit of a juvenile hedonistic bully who forces body after body to suffer their material lives so it can derive pleasure from the corporeal acts to which those bodies enable it. One gets an almost pathological view of the soul here.

The misconception here is that the soul forces the body to contain it. This isn't how Plato describes the soul's entrance into the body. In the Myth of Er, the souls are compelled to choose their body by lots. The careful reader will note that lots are handed out by "the maiden daughter of Necessity" (Republic 10.617d).

The transmigration of the soul into the body is described somewhat differently in the chariot myth, yet still has the status of a "law of Destiny" (Phaedrus 248c): the disembodied souls lagging behind the others are forced to pass into a body for a few thousand years. Whether taken literally or allegorically, it isn't the soul fighting its way into the body, but Necessity compelling it.

But this view seems irreconcilable with Socrates' assertion that "the true philosopher" should be concerned not at all with his bodily aspects but only with his soul because only through the soul he gains access to the eternal and ideal.[3]

Plato often has Socrates stress the importance of the soul's health (he doesn't say the body's health isn't important, only that the soul is more so). A soul is not necessarily good; thus the need to care for it. The passage in Crito 47e (mentioned above) is instructive in comparing the health of the body to the health of the soul. Just as the body's health is in fitness, nutrition and medicine, the soul's health is in being just. Thus one shouldn't be concerned merely with the soul's existence, but in keeping it healthy and good.

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