Archive for June 2015
HROUGHOUT Plato’s dialogues, and especially in the Phaedo (which describes Socrates’ final conversations), he presents many logical arguments and proofs for the immortality of the human soul. He also implies that we ought to be convinced that the soul is immortal. Yet, in truth, his arguments and proofs are not fully persuasive at the logical level. Sometimes the premises of his arguments are open to question, and other times the conclusion does not automatically follow from the premises.
This has puzzled many scholars, and some have gone to great lengths to reconcile Plato’s assertion of confidence with the seemingly flawed arguments. The logical gaps are plain enough that surely even Plato sees them. So what’s going on?
I think the answer partly lies in Plato’s unique teaching method, which we might sum up in two words: dialectic and anamnesis. Dialectic is the term Plato uses for his general method for approaching philosophical and moral problems. Through the conversations between Socrates and other characters in the dialogues, Plato likes to approach problems methodically and analytically, often using specific techniques like division, collection or aggregation, contradiction, and so on. His real aim, however, is not by such methods to come up with a specific logical answer. In fact, we find that Plato’s dialogues often end in a condition of what is called aporia, or perplexity, in which none of the various solutions proposed seem correct or fully satisfactory.
But that is precisely Plato’s purpose. For him the real aim of dialectic is not to deduce an answer, but to focus ones attention, intentions, and Intellect on a problem. In making that strenuous mental effort, one may find that a spontaneous insight into the problem being considered arises. One catches a fleeting but definitive glimpse of some important thing, say the beauty of Moral Virtue.
This flash of insight Plato calls anamnesis. Etymologically, this means recollection or un-forgetting (an = not, amnesis = forgetting). Taken literally, it implies that the insight is not something seen for the first time, but is actually a remembering of a truth previously known. That has implications, some perhaps controversial, concerning other aspects of Plato’s theories, which there is no need to consider here. It suffices to note that a hallmark formula for Plato is: perform dialectic to produce anamnesis.
With this principle in mind, Plato’s seemingly less-than-perfect arguments for the soul’s immortality make more sense. We wouldn’t expect him to prove by deductive logic that the soul is immortal. Rather, it is more characteristic of his modus operandi to use the outward form of a logical argument as an exercise of dialectic, the real aim being to have us see the true nature of the soul. And in doing this, we may see that the soul is divine and immortal.
Again, I present this only as a proposal or conjecture. The best or perhaps only way to verify it is to study Plato’s arguments, become engaged with them, and see if they may indeed elicit some experiential insight into the soul’s divine nature.
As noted, this view comports with Plato’s general didactic method (whereas an attempt to logically prove the soul’s immortality would not). Some corroboratory evidence comes from Plotinus, in Enneads 4.7. In this treatise, Plotinus reviews arguments for the immortality of the soul. In section 4.7.1 he says:
To know the nature of a thing we must observe it in its unalloyed state, since any addition obscures the reality. Clear, then look: or, rather, let a man first purify himself and then observe: he will not doubt his immortality when he sees himself thus entered into the pure, the Intellectual. For, what he sees is an Intellectual-Principle looking on nothing of sense, nothing of this mortality, but by its own eternity having intellection of the eternal: he will see all things in this Intellectual substance, himself having become an Intellectual Kosmos and all lightsome, illuminated by the truth streaming from The Good, which radiates truth upon all that stands within that realm of the divine. (Plotinus, Enneads 4.7.10; MacKenna translation)
This comes just after Plotinus has referred to some of Plato’s logical arguments for the soul’s immortality. Plotinus’ language is, as is often the case, a bit obscure, but it seems he is basically saying: “If you want to know without doubt that the soul is immortal, see it.” (cf. “Know Thyself”), which I take to generally support the claim I’m raising.
It also seems fitting to note a comment Cicero makes in Book 1 of the Tusculan Disputations. (The latter part of this Book is in many respects a commentary on Plato’s Phaedo.)
Even if Plato gave no reasons for his belief—see how much confidence I have in the man—he would break down my opposition by his authority alone; but he brings forward so many reasons as to make it perfectly obvious that he is not only fully persuaded himself, but desirous of convincing others. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 1.21; Peabody translation.)
In other words, even if his arguments are not fully convincing at the logical level, we sense the conviction of Plato in the skillful and earnest way that he presents the issue to us, and this itself is evidence that his beliefs in the soul’s immortality are correct.
I hope in future posts to list, categorize and summarize all of Plato’s arguments for the soul’s immortality, and perhaps to explore some of them in detail. It might be mentioned that the four main arguments in the Phaedo for the immortality of the soul are the cyclicity argument, the recollection argument, the affinity argument, and the Form of Life argument. A good summary of these can be found here. Other major proofs Plato presents include the self-moved mover argument of Phaedrus 245c–246a, and the vitiating principle argument of Republic 10.608e–10.611a.
A few hours after writing the above, the thought occurred — in connection with a different project — to consult Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. There I was first surprised to learn that its full title is actually The Platonic Theology: On the Immortality of the Soul (Theologia Platonica De immortalitate animorum). He says much of value in the proem, for example:
Whatever subject he [Plato] deals with, be it ethics, dialectic, mathematics or physics, he quickly brings it round, in a spirit of utmost piety, to the contemplation and worship of God. He considers man’s soul to be like a mirror in which the image of the divine countenance is readily reflected; and in his eager hunt for God, as he tracks down every footprint, he everywhere turns hither and thither to the form of the soul. For he knows that this is the most important meaning of those famous words of the oracle, “Know thyself,” namely “If you wish to be able to recognize God, you must first learn to know yourself.” So anyone who reads very carefully the works of Plato that I translated in their entirety into Latin some time ago will discover among many other matters two of utmost importance: the worship of God with piety and understanding, and the divinity of souls. On these depend our whole perception of the world, the way we lead our lives, and all our happiness. (Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, proem; Allen translation)
Ficino also says that “in the sphere of moral philosophy one must purify the soul until its eye becomes unclouded and it can see the divine light and worship God,” and that it is a mistake to “divorce the study of philosophy from sacred religion.” (Ibid.)
I ANTICIPATE in the near future a favorable change in publishing circumstances, one result of which will be that my articles on society and culture will appear in a different venue. A side effect is that here I will be able to devote more attention to a subject that has always interested me, but which I’ve somewhat neglected, namely mind-body integration.
So let me begin with a very specific topic, namely myofascial trigger points (MTPs). Basically these are bundles of tense skeletal muscle fibers — such as in the neck, arms, or legs. They correspond to what in colloquial language have for a long time been called muscle knots, but that term is misleading. Instead of ‘knot’, the word ‘cord’ is a better metaphor. What happens is that bands of adjacent muscle fibers, for various reasons, can all tense up together, producing bands or cords of tense fibers within the larger muscle. If you probe with your fingers into a muscle around an area of such tension, you can actually detect these bands. They’re often associated with pain, and sensitive to the touch. By pressing the area of maximum pain (or applying certain other, gentler massage techniques), it is possible to make the cord relax, so that it is as flaccid as the adjacent muscle tissue.
Sometimes this release is associated with muscle spasms, or even vocalizations (i.e., you want to scream); but as soon as the tension is released you feel a great deal better.
Most recent attention has been on how MTPs cause chronic pain. I’d like to contribute to thinking in this area by mentioning two points I’ve not seen previously mentioned.
The first is that it appears to me that, quite apart from any chronic pain they may involve, MTPs sometimes seem to consume a considerable amount of metabolic energy. They can drain the body of energy and leave one feeling chronically tired. From a kinetic standpoint, the size and location of the MTP would be a relevant factor, so the effect is variable. But to maintain, say, a 1-inch wide band of muscle fibers, several inches long, in a constant state of tension would, it seems, require a considerable amount of ones available energy.
Second, I’ve noticed that trigger point tensions and their release seem to have effects on vision. Specifically, I’ve found that when I release an MTP via self-massage or applied pressure, there is a simultaneous positive change in the quality of my vision. As soon as the muscle tension is released, some area of my peripheral vision which was formerly indistinct, suddenly becomes clear. It’s a quite remarkable phenomenon, but it happens so consistently that I do not doubt its reality, or that other people, upon experimentation, will observe the same thing.
I suspect that associated with the muscle tension is some kind of mental agitation, which disturbs the integrity of visual perception. As to why that may be so, I have two conjectures. One is simply that the chronic tension of a muscle causes agitation in the brain’s electrical activity — producing beta waves, basically. By this view, the muscle tension is causally prior to the mental agitation.
The second possibility is that the mental agitation is causally prior. That is, suppose that for example, due to some psychological trauma, one adopts a posture corresponding to chronic anticipation of being attacked. For instance, one may keep certain leg muscles tight, ready to spring up and flee; to keep the muscles chronically stimulated, one maintains some kind of chronic ‘mentation’ — for example, holding onto some fear, albeit unconsciously. So in this case, the mental movement or agitation (which also produces a decrement in visual clarity) comes first. It is, then, by first letting go of the mental attachment or conflict that the muscle tension is released.
From my own experience it’s not obvious which of these two possibilities (if either) are the case, but I consider the second somewhat more plausible.
Let me add that the improvement in visual quality associated with release of an MTP is no minor thing. It can be very dramatic, almost like a mist suddenly being removed from ones eyes, or a depressed, dismal scene becoming instantly more vibrant. A room that seemed dreary and shadowy suddenly seems sunny. I would assume that a similar improvement also takes place relative to inner perceptions — improved clarity of ones thoughts, feelings, and intuitions — though, of course, that’s somewhat harder to objectively assess.
I should mention that there are some theoretical and practical connections between MTPs and the concept of character-armoring developed by Wilhelm Reich. There are some differences, however. For one thing, Reich talked about muscle tensions generally, but not the specific kind of banding phenomenon seen with MTPs. Another is that Reich, a pupil of Freud, was too narrowly interested in muscle tension as a symptom of sexual repression. The phenomenon is much more complex than that.
In short, I’d encourage everyone to do some reading on MTPs, and to experiment with self-massage and the like. I would just add that, while yoga poses are of course very helpful in keeping skeletal muscles relaxed, self-massage and applied pressure seems to relax MTPs in different ways than yoga asanas, so that the two are complementary.