As the philosophical question par excellence, the question of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Republic is raised in conjunction with the rewards offered for living a just and a virtuous life. As an extenuating issue, the immortality of the soul derives its place in Plato’s discussion of the establishment of the Republic from the characteristics most essential to a consistent outcome of the philosophical/political experiment, and is no mere desultory component in the machinery of the well-governed state.
The characteristics most essential to the Republic are first, the fulfillment of the primary wants of mankind, which is an economic concern; second, the requirement of the proper sort of education that reveals the True and the Good for the kind of life most proper to the soul of men; third, the essential character of justice revealed as a consequent of the well-governed society in its totality; that is, justice, as a good in-and-of-itself, crowns the character of the state, which is the practice of, or carrying out of the per se principle of justice.
The well-governed society has an analogical correlate in the well-governed soul; its character, like that of the soul, is neither the product of an arbitrary decision, democratic arbitration, nor derived from existing models of government; the well-governed society operates only on the principles of reason, from which its character has been deduced.
The way or manner of living justly and virtuously within the confines of the state allows individuals to pursue the happy life collectively, and possibly achieve the happy life as a common goal. As Plato observes, the way in which men lives their lives makes them happy or unhappy, irrespective of circumstances. The accidental attributes of men’s lives, such as how they are benefited or rewarded according to the shape of external forces, are not what make for an unhappy or happy life — such external forces are put out of play when the life of virtue, like justice, is pursued as an end-in-itself.
Plato’s study of the character of the soul in relation to the nature of justice and virtue proceeds along similar lines, and concludes with the supposition that, like justice and virtue, when the soul is studied free of its material manifestations, viz., its association with the body, and the things of the body, its essential character is brought into focus far more clearly (611b).
Like the nature of individual constituents of a polis, the nature of the individual human soul may be investigated; this, however, does not suit Plato’s considerations of justice as it relates to the soul. As justice pertains less to the nature of the individual member of a society than to the whole of a society, so too does the character of the soul, which, in a state free of accidental associations, requires an analogical, rather than inductive strategy in order to be understood.
As the true nature of justice is not to be understood in terms of the reputation that it has acquired in the hands of such persons as Thrasymachus, likewise the soul, as Plato states, is not to be understood according to the life of the senses, or in terms of the goods and evils that collect around it, nor in terms of a “multicolored variety and unlikeness or that which differs from itself” (611a).
If the soul, as Plato argues, is an immortal entity, then it must be considered per se, as the nature of justice is considered per se, according to philosophic reason. If the soul is considered as finite and mortal, then an anthropological consideration of individual souls, with the goods and evils they collect in life, would be sufficient to account for soul as a material phenomenon, as something akin to personality or predilections, rather than something requiring a metaphysical foundation.
This, however, is not Plato’s method any more so than his methodic treatment of the question of the nature of justice stops with the early conclusion that justice is “benefiting one’s friends and harming one’s enemies.” Accordingly, Plato’s deliberation on the question of the soul’s immortality is no mere studied device to persuade people to adopt the just and virtuous life and reject the life of injustice and vice.
Because the per se nature of the soul is not self-evident, indeed no more so than the plan of the just society is obvious to the man in the street, it acts as a mirror of the form of justice to whatever degree its bearer acts in accordance with the equally shadowy ideal of the virtuous life.
As the life of virtue, which is lived for its own sake, brings about the best end of the rational soul in the afterlife, so too does the just life most accurately reflect its analogical relation to justice, which undergoes neither alteration nor change according to external material circumstances.
The counter-intuitive argument presented in the Republic, to the effect that the individual man out of joint with the popular pursuit of selfish desires and inclinations is, in the final analysis, happier and better rewarded than those who do not resist their desires and inclinations, argues for the necessity of presupposing the immortality of the soul.
If the belief in the immortality of the soul is mediated or decided only by the existing tradition that maintains that it is immortal, then what is to prevent one from arguing crab-wise that the conception of justice maintained by the existing tradition, such as “giving back what is owed,” is not valid on the grounds that it satisfies what is required of it by the tradition, i.e., belief? The per se character of justice, virtue, and the immortal soul land on shaky epistemological grounds if what is employed as a valid line of reasoning for one, such as justice, is refused as a valid line of reasoning for another.
Throughout the Republic, Plato emphasizes that neither justice, virtue, nor the soul can be rightly understood according to the received opinions about them, nor according to how what is called just or virtuous, or what the soul is, seem to differ according to different times and places, in which opportunity takes precedence over strictly rational considerations.
Plato advances an argument in book ten of the Republic regarding how the immortal nature of the soul is brought to light against the claim that “a thing [i.e., the soul] is destroyed by the badness proper to something else when it is not destroyed by its own” (609d; brackets mine). Clearly, what Plato argues is that what exists per se cannot be corrupted per accidens, and remains unchanged in its essential nature, irrespective of whether “something that has an evil… makes it bad” (609b).
What exists as an evil or corruption in a thing, such as sickness in a body, or blight in the grain, “injustice, licentiousness, cowardice, and lack of learning” (ibid.) in the soul, either destroys, or it does not. The body exists materially, and is destroyed materially; licentiousness, cowardice, and all other vices that pertain to the soul’s pursuit of its desires and inclinations manifest themselves in physical ways as well; the soul itself, however, does not cease to be what it is essentially by the evils that attach to it.
The evils implanted in the soul are proper to the soul in the same way as rottenness is an evil proper to food; but Plato is clear on the point that maintaining that the corruption of one thing comes from something that is not essentially a part of that thing is an ontological fallacy:
…since the body is one thing, and food another, we’ll never judge that the body is destroyed by the badness of food… by the same argument, if the body’s evil doesn’t cause an evil in the soul that is proper to the soul, we’ll never judge that the soul, in the absence of its own particular evil, is destroyed by the evil of something else… We mustn’t say that the soul is even close to being destroyed by these things until someone shows us that these conditions of the body [such as disease, or indeed affections of the soul such as licentiousness, cowardice, and injustice] make the soul more unjust and more impious (609e-610b).
The preceding argument can be extended to anything, including the nature of the republic itself. The corruption of a just state founded on rational principles, such as that formulated by Plato in the Republic, comes about according to some evil implicit in itself, such as injustice, which is a badness external to it, rather than something appointed to destroy it. Justice itself, as an object of philosophic reason, like the soul itself, must always be, and cannot undergo corruption or dissolution.
The state can be corrupted by an evil present in the polis, even while calling itself just; and by that same token, the body can be corrupted while the soul is immune to the evils that dissolve the body. But justice itself, like the number of souls (611a), cannot be made more or less just, or it would differ from itself, which is a logical impossibility; or, according to the same line of reasoning, Plato maintains that if “anything immortal is increased… the increase would have to come from the mortal, and then everything would end up being immortal” (ibid).
In short, the question of the immortality of the soul in Plato’s Republic is answered in a way that does not permit the casual reader to disengage the arguments for immortality from the preceding arguments in the dialogue that lead up to the formulation of the nature of justice, and the explication of the just and virtuous life as a logical corollary. Socrates’ admission that we can know nothing about the nature of the soul may call into question those parts of the dialogue based on the understanding of the soul, such as where the education proper to the citizens of the polis is concerned.
However, the discussion of the immortality of the soul, particularly in the “myth of Er,” serves the dual purpose of causing persons of an un-philosophic nature to worry over the state of their soul in the next life, and causing philosophers to turn and address the question of the soul, rather than conclude that it has been resolved. The “myth of Er” is clear on the point that fulfilling one’s duty to the republic is not sufficient for Plato’s version of salvation and damnation in the next life.
Plato writes that unless one has strained every nerve through philosophic contemplation here on earth, the voyage into the next life will be profitless. The republican nature of the well-governed state corroborates Plato’s account of the soul throughout the Republic; hence, the conclusion that the well-governed state is a just state founded on rational principles, and that the soul and its immortality, upon which the former rests, is the necessary foundation for the just state.
In Plato’s dialogue the Laws, the state, if it is to be a just state, must be a true polity; thus, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, as opposed to a republic, are all undesirable as forms of governance in light of the fact that they are class states; and due also to the fact that their laws are passed for the good and benefit of particular classes, rather than for the good and benefit of the whole state. States that hold to such laws, according to Plato, are not true polities, but rather parties; consequently, their conception of justice is ultimately without meaning.
Plato’s definition of the well-legislated state in the Laws derives from his discussion of the character of the truest form of polity in the Republic. The state exists, then, not for the good of any one class of men, but for the leading of the happy life. In the Laws, Plato renews in unambiguous terms his conviction as to the importance of the soul, and the importance of the sort of governance proper to the soul (726a-728a). According to Plato, the life lived according to virtue, the happy life, is inconceivable apart from the well-being and just administration of the polis.
When Plato takes up the issue of the immortality of the soul in book five of the Laws, he does so not as if he were making a casual perusal of the subject, but as a necessary philosophic consequent to the project of establishing laws and customs appropriate to the character of the best kind of polis. Even though, in the Laws, Plato replaces the rule of the philosopher kings from the Republic with the rule of law, the role of the concept of the immortality of the soul in the dialogue remains consistent with the role of the arguments put forth for the soul’s immortality in the Republic.
The minor amount of space given to the subject of the honoring of the soul in the Laws ought not be taken for a measure of the importance of the issue to Plato’s philosophic investigation of the laws of the state, as Plato had previously addressed the same subject, albeit in differing thematic contexts, in previous dialogues, such as the Phadeo and the Republic. The Athenian stranger’s treatment of the various subjects in book five of the Laws is discursive, and seem to be addressed not systematically, but taken up severally, and dealt with as they occur to him. Book five, which early on contains a very brief discussion of importance of the soul may thus be read as a preamble to the unfolding of the grand, and equally discursive code of legislation that follows it.
Plato’s treatment of the subject of the soul and the proper way that it should be honored is a heavily weighted theme throughout the Laws. The question of the soul’s immortality, however, only receives passing mention by comparison. One mention of the soul’s immortality comes in book five of the Laws, and this in regard to men’s uncertainty as to the nature of the life to come:
Nor does he do it [the soul] any honor if he thinks that life is a good thing no matter what the cost. This too dishonors his soul, because he surrenders to its fancy that everything in the next world is an evil, whereas he should resist the thought and enlighten his soul by demonstrating that he does not really know whether our encounter with the gods in the next world may not be in fact the best thing that ever happen to us (727b; brackets mine).
One point that deserves mention in this passage is that the man who does not know whether the next world will be evil or good is someone neither philosophically, nor theologically minded. The philosopher, as well as the theologian may very well have much to say on the subject of the afterlife; indeed, more than the person who stakes all on the present life alone. One can enlighten one’s soul in terms of acknowledging the fact that one does not know what the nature of the life to come will be; one can also enlighten one’s own soul in terms of investigating into the nature of the life to come; taking the converse of the beliefs of the ignorant person who too highly values the present life because it is the only one they have experience of, this last point is implicit in the passage quoted above.
The discussion of the immortality of the soul in the Laws is, needless to say, not as fully developed as the discussion that we find in the Republic. That is not to say that a discussion of the immortality of the soul in the Laws, on par with that what we find in the Republic, would be out of place, as Plato’s favored themes of education and the life of virtue, both of which refer to the well-governed soul, figure in the philosophical apparatus of the Laws with as much weight as in the Republic. The rule of law does not insuperably displace the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, as Plato concludes book twelve of the Laws with a final notice on the importance of theology in relation to the ordering of the state, and choosing of its leaders and legislators:
No mortal can ever attain a truly religious outlook without risk of relapse unless he grasps the two doctrines we’re now discussing: first, that the soul is far older than any created thing, and that it is immortal and controls the entire world of matter; and second… that reason is the supreme power among the heavenly bodies… No one who is unable to acquire these insights and rise above the level of the ordinary virtues will ever be good enough to govern an entire state, but only to assist government carried on by others (967c-968a).
This passage indicates that although the question of the immortality of the soul does not figure heavily in the dialogue as a theme, its importance in relation to the meta-theme, i.e., the success of the well-legislated state, can be affirmed with confidence. The leaders and legislators of the state are absolutely essential to political life, and must be individuals of a far higher caliber than any other member of the state.
In terms of Plato’s conception of the state, its laws, and the nature of its leaders, any point is open to disagreement and dispute from any quarter; but in terms of philosophical and rhetorical consistency, Plato’s discussion of the soul’s immortality in the Laws is nevertheless significant because the just state depends on it. How crucial the formulation of the immortality of the soul in the Laws turns out to be depends not so much on the whether Plato “proves” the immortality of the soul— and he offers no such proof— but on the fact that the nature of the just state demands the presupposition of the soul’s immortality.