The Purpose of Plato’s Arguments for the Immortality of the Human Soul
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.)