Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Tomb of the Body (Plato on the Broken Man)


As I stated yesterday, this week's series will be on the subject of what is wrong with human beings.  What is it that makes us so difficult to fix, to the point where we have travelled to the moon but seem barely more capable of creating an art of living?  I will visit each of the groups in the ancient debate I seek to recreate, and discuss their own explanations for this seemingly unavoidable, tragic aspect of human nature.

The first person I will discuss is Plato.  I will predominantly focus on the Phaedo and the Republic here, and what they have to say about human nature.  Effectively, what is so problematic for human life is our presence in the flesh.  Our soul (or at least the rational part) is an immaterial, immortal thing that pre-exists the body.  It may or may not have been created in time, but does not die when the body dies.  These souls are periodically (and Plato does not explain exactly why this happens) put into bodies where they live human lives.  This enfleshment is a bad thing for the soul, for a number of reasons that I will outline.  It is described as a "tomb" for the flesh in the Gorgias, which indicates how poorly Plato thinks of being embodied.


A short note must be made here about what exactly Plato thinks we are.  The combination of soul and body together constitutes a human being or "anthropos".  However, and here's the surprising part, we are not human beings.  We are only our souls.  He therefore holds two positions that are usually considered contradictory: a human being is a combination of soul and body, and we are only our souls.  The way he is able to hold both of these positions simultaneously is by denying we are human beings at all.  The human being comes to be at birth and ceases to be at death, but we are still immortal because we are only a part of that human being.

What is it that happens to us, then, when we are encased in this bodily tomb?  Unfortunately, says Plato, a number of things.  First, the soul is a knowing thing.  The soul is the rational part of ourselves, that is capable of knowing the Forms, the perfect paradigms on which all of reality is based.  In our disembodied state, we knew all of the Forms perfectly.  Our rational part, separated from the body, had nothing interfering with it in its understanding of the Forms.

However, when we entered our bodies, we forgot everything that we knew.  It remains within us, waiting to be remembered through a process of dialectic and remembering.  However, this process will never be perfect.  The body is not an immaterial thing, and it confuses us by believing that the material world is the most real thing there is.  However, Plato believed this is false.  The material world is just an imperfect copy of the paradigmatic, immaterial forms.  Stuck in the body, though, we can never quiet the body.  It fills all our thought with confusion and making it impossible to ever fully understand any of the forms.  Worst of all is extreme pleasure and pain, which rivet our soul to our body, preventing us from realising the non-reality of the world and understanding the Forms.

The upshot of all of this is that knowledge is impossible in the body.  One can see why the early Academy became skeptical, if one takes the skeptical passages of the Phaedo to represent Plato's own views.  The Republic goes further in describing the confusions presented by the other two, bodily parts of the soul, passion and appetite.  The passion, a part of the soul shared with animals, loves music and stories and beautiful sounds.  It seeks the love of others and glory.  This part of the soul can drag our reason around, making reason a slave of the quest of honour.  The appetite on the other hand, loves the standard things, food, sex and sleep.  It can drag the rational part of the soul, telling it that what is really good is the satisfaction of appetites and physical pleasure.

This inability to know the forms is what makes it so difficult for human beings to be happy.  Our primary fulfilment is in the understanding of truth, specifically the Forms and especially the Form of the Good.  However, our presence in the bodily tomb prevents us from ever having perfect understanding of any of the forms.  We must think using images, be reminded using words and are constantly distracted by our body in ten-thousand ways.  This means our soul, a primarily rational and knowing being, can never be fulfilled.  Our body is constantly in the way, confusing it.

Even though perfect happiness impossible, the current situation makes even partial happiness difficult.  Unless we are philosophers, and do not believe in the reality of the material world, we will end up pursuing goods in the material world as though they are real goods.  Our goals will be for human respect and for the satisfaction of appetites.  This increases the amount of extreme pleasure and pain we experience, which in turn rivets the body more closely to the soul.  Such a cycle of life is almost completely impossible to escape, and those who have been riveted to the confusion of the body will not be willing to ever change.  The problem is fundamentally an epistemological one, and for those enmeshed in human life, the literally cannot conceive that they might be mistaken.

Plato therefore provides a detailed account of what is wrong with people in his discussion of the tomb of the flesh.  We are rational, cognitive, immaterial souls trapped in mortal bodies.  Those bodies interfere with our ability to perceive the immaterial forms that are the object of understanding.  Even the philosopher, therefore, can never be perfectly happy.  However, if one is not a philosopher, and seeks the things of the world as though they were real, it is very difficult to escape.  The pleasures and pains of the world continually rivet the soul and the body closer together to the point where knowledge of the eternal forms is simply inconceivable.

Sculpture: Central Cemetery, Vienna

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