Classical Views of the Soul

Note 3: Plato 1/13/99

Plato, in contrast to Aristotle, articulated a concept of the soul, principally in the Timaeus, which in several ways is more compatible with Christian theology, on the one hand, and with certain aspects of native American concepts of spirit, on the other. Plato, or more properly Timaeus, who actually speaks the words in the dialogue, claims that the creator of the world perceived that

"intelligence could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul. For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the creator of a work which was by nature fairest and best."

A reasonable assumption which can be drawn from this statement is that the soul possesses the quality or the power to make everything in which it can be said to exist among the "fairest and best" things that can be created. The soul, which is universal and exists in all parts of the created world, is composed of three things: that which recognizes the same, that which recognizes the other, and essence. Timaeus also argues that the soul functions as the primary "organ" of the higher senses and of intelligence, all of which is due to the manner and composition of her nature:

"And because she is composed of the same and of the other and of the essence, these three, and is divided and united in due proportion, and in her revolutions returns upon herself, the soul, when touching anything which has essence, whether dispersed in parts or undivided, is stirred through all her powers, to declare the sameness or difference of that thing and some other; and to what individuals are related, and by what affected, and in what way and how and when, both in the world of generation and in the world of immutable being."

In these general terms, then, Plato's perception of the soul emphasizes the ability (she) has to recognize, through reason and intelligence, the nature or essence of all created reality and has the further power to "declare the sameness or difference" of anything (she) touches. It is worth noting here as well that these powers of the soul extend from the world of "generation" to the world of "immutable being," which suggests that there is no hierarchical structure explicitly defined among those things which become or grow in a natural sense (plants, animals, people) and those which do not change over time because they are "immutable" in their being. An idea like this one flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy because it implies there is no difference between the soul infused in divinity and the soul that occupies people, animals, and plants. Christian theology, however, did seize on the notion that the soul was the seat of reason and intelligence but used that fact to draw the hierarchical distinction on which it depends to justify a necessary difference between God as highest (most reasonable) and brute beast as lowest (least reasonable) with (wo)man falling out somewhere in the middle (not reasonable enough and hence sinful).

With regard to the soul in a living human being, Timaeus argues that the soul is at first overwhelmed by being placed in the body of any person, since it is incorporeal and since it is assaulted by the sensations of the world that penetrate into its space in the human body. After it recovers its equilibrium, so to speak, the soul is either overcome by the sensations that affect it from the outside during the person's life, in which case the person is said to live unrighteously, or the soul overcomes those same sensations and the person is said to live righteously. Timaeus then explains what happens in each of these two separate cases:

"He who lived well during his appointed time was to return and dwell in his native star, and there he would have a blessed and congenial existence. But if he failed in attaining this, at the second birth he would pass into a woman, and if, when in that state of being, he did not desist from evil, he would continually be changed into some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired, and would not cease from his toils and transformations until he followed the revolution of the same and the like within him, and overcame by the help of reason the turbulent and irrational mob of later accretions, made up of fire and air and water and earth, and returned to the form of his first and better state."

The idea expressed here that the soul, "at the second birth," if a person's life had been badly lived "would pass into a woman," is meant, of course, to suggest that the soul has been downgraded from its first life in the body of a man to a lesser and more difficult (inferior) life in the body of a woman. Timaeus articulates, near the end of the dialogue, a strangely convoluted statement about the way in which souls are passed along into "brutes," if the person does not reverse her (his) course of bad or evil behavior. The statement suggests that this transformation is accomplished through sexual intercourse where the offspring are delivered as various kinds of animals instead of as normal human children.

Christian orthodoxy opposes this complex of ideas on two grounds. The soul is individualized in Christian theology and belongs exclusively to a single person and hence cannot "migrate" into another form of life after death. Plato here retains a notion of soul more closely aligned with animistic beliefs in reincarnation, not of soul, of course, but of spirit, which is an entirely different concept. Plato simply transmutes an animistic concept of spirit into one about the soul. Christianity also insists that the soul is corporeal because one that is not of a physical constitution cannot be made to experience the suffering inflicted on it in hell, which is the fate of the unrighteous human soul as opposed to the notion of it being reborn in a lesser form of life after the "first" death.

Timaeus also outlines a kind of code that determines whether a person lives well or badly:

"When a man is always occupied with the cravings of desire and ambition, and is eagerly striving to satisfy them, all his thoughts must be mortal, and, as far as it is possible altogether to become such, he must be mortal every whit, because he has cherished his mortal part."

In this first statement, of course, Timaeus is making it clear how a person fails to achieve his heavenly attributes by turning all his thought to the mundane activities of daily life. In a second statement he explains the attributes of the person who achieves a higher state of being:

"But he who has been earnest in the love of knowledge and of true wisdom, and has exercised his intellect more than any other part of him, must have thoughts immortal and divine, if he attain truth, and in so far as human nature is capable of sharing in immortality, he must altogether be immortal; and since he is ever cherishing the divine power, and has the divinity within him in perfect order, he will be perfectly happy."

The person who seeks "true wisdom" through a "love of knowledge," simply because he/she has exercised that part of the soul devoted to intelligence and reason, will attain a state as near to immortality as a human being is capable, which may not be the same thing as saying that a seeker of truth actually becomes immortal. Christianity turns this notion around somewhat by insisting that "Love of God," who is all reason, all wisdom, and all knowledge, is the only criterion necessary for achieving immortality. Human wisdom, knowledge, and truth, because they are not God, actually act as impediments to salvation and should be avoided at all costs.

Timaeus clarifies this point somewhat by noting that the righteous person ought to consider those things which are

"naturally akin to the divine principle within us [which are] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. These each man should follow, and correct the courses of the head which were corrupted at our birth, and by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, should assimilate the thinking being to the thought, renewing his original nature, and having assimilated them should attain to that perfect life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future."

The point of this statement is that men should study and learn the revolutions of the celestial objects that guide and direct the courses of the human soul through a person's life. In one sense this idea points to the necessity of knowing how the planets, which are the same as gods in Greek philosophy, influence the daily lives of their human subjects or created inferiors.

Timaeus notes that specific punishments were reserved for various kinds of people in the next life to which they evolved. He describes a race of birds whose "minds were directed toward heaven" during their lifetime on earth but who "imagined, in their simplicity, that the clearest demonstration of the things above was to be obtained by sight." He then claims that such people "were remodeled and transformed into birds, and they grew feathers instead of hair" after they died. A second class of failed humans were to be transformed into a "race of wild pedestrian animals." These common beasts were to be fashioned from people who "had no philosophy in any of their thoughts, and never considered at all about the nature of the heavens." After describing several other classes of transformed humans, Timaeus states that "[t]hese are the laws by which animals pass into one another, now, as ever, changing as they lose or gain wisdom and folly." The notion here of the transmigration of souls into different levels and classes of animals was an idea firmly rejected by Christian theologians in the early centuries of the spread of their philosophy into pagan Europe.

Another idea that drew ridicule from Christian thinkers was the notion that the human soul was incorporeal. Tertullian, for instance, argued that the soul was a corporeal substance and therefore capable of perceiving and experiencing the punishments of hell and the rewards of heaven, as noted above. If the soul had no material substance, according to this line of reasoning, there would be no way for it to experience either punishment or reward. The idea that people are rewarded by bliss in heaven, if they spend their lives contemplating heavenly things, is an idea not far removed from the Christian notion of the dangers inherent in pursuing a materially oriented life. Christianity, however, took this notion well beyond the statements made here by Timaeus, in as much as Christians were expected to show a total contempt for the world, the flesh, and the devil if they harbored any hope of achieving heavenly bliss. The Greek view was not nearly so rigidly life-denying as the Christian conception of the human condition and contained no reference to an idea akin to original sin. Tertullian also argues that the human soul was the seat of reason because God Himself was the ultimate expression of rationality in the created universe.

A point of general parallel between Plato's perception of the human soul and native American perceptions of spirit exists in the idea of the rebirth of the soul in another body in a second or later incarnation. The ideas are not exactly the same however. Plato emphasizes the fact that people are reborn in another form strictly according to the way they have lived their first life. Live well, seek wisdom, do no harm to anyone, and you can expect to return in a higher form of existence during your second incarnation. Live badly and you will return as a lower form of life. Native Americans share the notion that a person's spirit can return to earth after death in a different form. The form of the incarnation, however, is not determined by how well or how badly you lived during your first life on earth. Native Americans in general do not embrace the notion of hierarchy in their philosophy so there is no point in talking about being returned to earth in a lesser form, since there are no lesser forms. Hence, the idea of punishment and reward in an afterlife or a second incarnation does not exist in native philosophy.

A perception of the importance of knowing the courses of celestial objects is a strong component of native American philosophy, one which reached its highest and most complete form in Mayan perceptions of the relationship between time and celestial motion.

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