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The Immortality of the Soul In Plato’s “Republic” & “Laws”

Dryptosaurus Cope
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.

The Question Of The Immortality Of The Soul In Descartes’ Epistle To The Sorbonne

Pterodactyls

I. The Question of Immortality

In his Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne, Descartes presents his Meditations to the Dean and Doctors as a work of Christian apologetics, while suppressing his incendiary goal of demolishing the entire Aristotelian metaphysics, physics, and psychology with the critical principle of rationem dubitandi. Descartes’ methodological doubt functions as a general principle for critiquing what Aristotle and his Scholastic followers took for granted — the reliability of the rational soul’s knowledge of the material world gained through the senses.1 The Aristotelian-Scholastic’s proofs for the soul typically began with some form of evidence derived from the order of corporeal being, such as the fact that living things possess the power of self movement and growth, then causally deduced the formal principle from the material principle — for example, living things that move and grow and reproduce are animated by soul. However, concerning the survival of the incorporeal soul after the dissolution of the body, Aristotle does not give a consistent opinion, except on the point that the rational soul is “capable of existence [i.e., functioning] in isolation from all other psychic powers.”2

The demonstrable fact that the rational soul engages in operations such as calculation, speculation and contemplation, in which the body has no share, is not tantamount to the Thomistic claim that the soul has an existence — not merely an operation — entirely independent of the body that it is the form or actuality of. In his Summa Contra Gentiles, Thomas maintains, contra the view of Aristotle, that if the human intellectual soul, which is the actuality of the human body, possesses operations that are in no way dependent on the body’s operations, 3 then it follows that the intellectual soul is capable of continuing its operation of intellectual apprehension (intelligere corrumpitur) after the death of the body.

Descartes maintained that such proofs were not conclusive because man’s knowledge of the ontological order was made to depend on the perception of the fallible senses as the first principle of knowledge. For Descartes, the necessity for providing indisputable proofs for the existence of God and the separability of the soul from the body was of particular importance,4 considering that the dubitability of the evidence obtained through the senses, and the hypothesis of the malin génie, called into question the validity of any proof that presupposed the reliability of the senses, such as Thomas’ proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. By calling his addressee’s attention to the point that his project for proving the existence of God, and that the soul does not perish with the body, corresponded to the traditional Scholastic enterprise, Descartes sought to align his proofs with the long-accepted attempts of his Scholastic predecessors.

Citing the Lateran Council held under Pope Leo X in session eight, Descartes attempted to further legitimize his philosophical investigation into the nature and immortality of the soul by supporting his quest for epistemological certainty with Leo X’s mandate for Christian philosophers to refute the arguments of irreligious philosophers who hold “that the soul dies along with the body.”5 Be that as it may, Descartes’ mission as a philosophical apologist for the truth of Christian doctrine involved more than simply upholding the tenets of the Faith with rational arguments, as there was nothing innovative or new in doing so.

The sense that Aristotelian philosophy was a stagnant body of knowledge was part of the impetus behind Descartes’ desire to look afresh at the foundations of philosophy. That the Church had, in making Aquinas its representative theologian, implicitly “Christianized” the thought of Thomas’ master, Aristotle, was an alliance that made the doctrines of Christianity dependent in crucial ways on the philosophic principles and reasoning of a pagan philosopher.6 Hence, Descartes hoped to free Christian philosophy from the influence of, and dependence on Aristotelian philosophy, while setting the traditional questions of natural theology on a philosophically indubitable and Christian foundation.

When he broaches the question of the nature of the soul, Descartes could have had nothing other than the opening of Aristotle’s De anima in mind, writing, “As regards the soul, many people have considered that it is not easy to discover [non facile investigari] its nature…”7 Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring about the soul in De anima begins with what is perceptible or intelligible, and moves to the underlying principle or mechanism: “…in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does [movement] precedes the question, what enables it [i.e., the soul] to do what it does.”8 Aristotle does not begin his inquiry into the nature of the soul with thinking, since thought itself is neither perceptible, nor is it an intelligible species that takes itself as its own object; that is, Aristotle’s account of the rational soul does not begin with a demonstration of rationality.9 Descartes reverses Aristotle’s procedure for inquiring into the nature of the soul, and begins his Meditations by inquiring into a type of purely rational mental activity that is comparable to Aristotle’s conception of theoria, or contemplation, and then moves, in the Sixth Meditation, to where Aristotle’s investigation begins, which is an account of the perceptible activity of the agent that the soul/mind informs.

II. From Immortality to Separability

In his letter to the Dean and Doctors of the Sorbonne, Descartes claims that the existence of God and the immortality of the soul “are prime examples of subjects where demonstrative proofs ought to be given with the aid of philosophy rather than theology;” and further, “that the only reason why many irreligious people are unwilling to believe that God exists and that the human mind is distinct from the body [mentemque humanam a corpore distingui] is the alleged fact that no one has hitherto been able to demonstrate these points.” That no prior proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul is immune to contradiction or refutation is precisely what Descartes is claiming to be the case, bluntly stating that, “I would add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.”10

However, a rational proof for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul would invalidate the necessity for God’s participation in revealing Himself to man, and the soul’s salvation would not require God’s intervention any more than its survival after the death of the body. Aquinas was particularly aware of the religious or fideistic dimension to the question of the soul’s immortality. If the self-subsistence of the soul could be conclusively demonstrated, then God’s act of preserving the soul after the body dies would become superfluous, since the soul would be inevitably immortal, and without any need of divine support.11

Prior to addressing the matter of the nature and immortality of the soul in his letter, Descartes draws on Biblical passages that declare man’s knowledge of the existence of God to be “manifest” in order to build a case for the proof for the existence of God given in the Meditations. As Descartes’ proof for the separability of the soul from the body in the Second Meditation hinges dialectically on his proof for the existence of God as an innate idea of the mind, the soul is conceived of as tantamount to mind.12 The conflation of soul with mind leads Descartes to allude in his Sorbonne letter to his doctrine of innate ideas, writing that “everything that may be known of God” through the Scriptures, including man’s knowledge of God’s existence, “…can be demonstrated by reasoning which has no other source than our own mind.”13

Descartes’ phrase, “no other source than our own mind,” introduces a subtle shift in the argument, and is intended to transfer man’s knowledge of the existence of God from the sensible effects wherein God’s existence is evident throughout His creation, to a knowledge of God’s existence that is neither discursive, nor requires any recourse to the theological Biblical tradition. Knowledge of the existence of God derived from His sensible effects is, according to Descartes, a fallacy in the order of knowledge; the corporeal organs of sense only sense what is sensible, and God, who is incorporeal, cannot be apprehended in His existence through the corporeal senses. The dubitability of sensible objects and their effects undermines the validity of knowledge derived from the material world; hence, if man’s knowledge of the existence of God is drawn from sensible effects, then the existence of God can be called into doubt through the same channels by which His existence was asserted.

On the other hand, in the Third Meditation, the necessity of the mind’s a priori knowledge of the existence of God is deduced from the infinite nature of God, as there is no other means by which a finite mind could be in possession of the idea of an infinite being.14 Further, Descartes maintains that,

the mere fact that God created me is a very strong basis for believing that I am somehow made in his image and likeness, and that I perceive that likeness, which includes the idea of God, by the same faculty which enables me to perceive myself.15

The thesis that the mind is made in God’s image and likeness rests upon the assumption that the mind possesses judgment, rationality, and will — in other words, those communicable attributes that God possesses infinitely and perfectly, and the human mind, to a limited and finite degree. Because the meditator perceives both God and the ego through the same faculty, i.e., the understanding, what is predicated of God — infinity and perfection,16 is also predicated of the mind, but to a diminished degree of perfection.17 The quasi-univocity between the innate contents of the mind and the mind’s simultaneous apprehension of the knowledge of the existence of God and the ego confirms that the mind has natural knowledge of God in the same way that the mind perceives itself — the force of the intuition that to think (i.e., to act), one must exist, impresses itself on the understanding with the same indubitable force as the fact that if a finite mind has an idea of an infinite, perfect being, it follows that an infinite perfect being must perforce exist.

The Sorbonne faculty, as Descartes was well aware, were Aristotelian-Thomists, and held that the first principle of man’s knowledge was the grasping of concrete existence in its singularity, which apprehension depended upon the sensible object received by the active intellect via the phantasm. Without the sensible object, neither the active nor the possible intellect could be activated, and the intellect’s abstraction from the particular thing to grasp the intelligible species could never take place. Man’s knowledge of the existence of God, deriving from the order of created things, points to the necessity of His existence as the first cause of the material world, and the requirement that there exist in the universe intellectual creatures that bear “a likeness to its source, according to its being and its nature, wherein it enjoys a certain perfection.”18

Man’s rational soul, or intellectual nature, cognizes the existence of God by the rational faculty that has its basis in the priority of the sensible object given to the active intellect through the phantasm. Descartes’ emphasis on the ease with which the existence of God is thinkable subordinates the chain of causes in the sensible order to the chain of causes in the order of ideas. That the existence of God, according to Descartes, is more self-evident than the existence of the sensible world, alters the Aristotelian/Thomist conception of the intellectual soul, which apprehends its object via the simple class of objects that Aquinas refers to as “sensible by accident,” or objects which are intelligible in themselves.19 However, Descartes wished to gain the commendation of the Sorbonne for his Meditations, and to do so required a subtle method of aligning his ostensibly anti-Aristotelian conception of God and the human soul with the views upheld by the staunchly traditional Sorbonne faculty:20

I have noticed both that you and all other theologians assert that the existence of God is capable of proof by natural reason, and also that the inference from Holy Scripture is that the knowledge [cognitionem] of God is easier to acquire than the knowledge we have of many created things…”21

In this rhetorical gesture, Descartes first presents his conception of man’s knowledge of God’s existence as an innate idea of the mind, which is a pivotal move in his attempt to persuade the theologians that his metaphysics does not diverge from the main topics of prior systems, but serves to reckon together and codify all “arguments that have been put forward on these issues by the great men,” whose arguments Descartes praises as having “the force of demonstrations.”22

In his letter, Descartes strategically combines established doctrines of the Church with the traditional Scholastic endeavor to generate proofs for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, and then, in the Meditations, ingeniously modifies the purpose of speculative philosophy and natural theology to support the practical ends of physical science. It is noteworthy that the Sorbonne letter only contains one passing mention of science, when the wider purpose of the Meditations was the establishment of a firm foundation upon which to raise the sciences.23 Because Descartes scientific thought derives entirely from his metaphysics,24 he is able to sidestep the need to deal directly in his letter with the fact that his speculative physics overturns the speculative physics of Aristotle — the main points that Descartes address in his letter, viz., proving the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, are framed in terms of definitive proofs that can be used to combat atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism.25

Descartes’ project of providing a firm metaphysical foundation for the sciences is carried out according to the established template of the Scholastic philosophers, consisting of a synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology. But by taking a reductionist approach to the history of philosophy, and indeed to the act of philosophizing itself, at one stroke Descartes is able to critique and sweep aside the writings of his Scholastic predecessors with his claims of logical soundness and indubitability for the proofs in the Meditations.26 Descartes’ conception of one universal science, whose “roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences…,”27 required that the method used for augmenting the sciences be single, in order that truth could be demonstrated in a systematic order. The indisputability of Aristotle’s indemonstrable principles for reasoning was transformed, under the auspices of the Cartesian method, into the test of indubitability for arriving at epistemological certainty in derived propositions.

Descartes synthesis of speculative metaphysics and Christian theology differs, then, from the Scholastic’s metaphysics and theology in that the aim of discovering a method from which to derive indubitable metaphysical principles with which to augment physics and all the other branches of science was never present for Scholastic philosophers such as Aquinas. For Descartes, the theological imperative to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the soul developed out of a rationale opposed to the Aristotelian/Scholastic concept of theoria (the contemplation of truth) as the utmost goal of philosophizing.28

Descartes rejected not only the contemplation of truth as the goal of philosophic activity by replacing it with an end in practical activity, but took skepticism as his chief philosophic enemy from the beginning, rather than the thought of Aristotle and the Scholastics.29 Moreover, Descartes’ held that the rational proofs found in the writings of the Schoolmen for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul failed to attain their objective, and amounted in the end to mere demonstrations that the truths of faith and the truths of reason do not lie in opposition to each other; or, that there can not exist something which is both true and not true at the same time.

Such demonstrations, Descartes held, were insufficient to combat the tendency in the 17th century toward atheism, materialism, and religious skepticism. Only the perception of truth impressed with such force and vivacity that the mind cannot help but assent to it could be a sufficient criterion for the test of the indubitability of knowledge — what is true is what the mind perceives “clearly and distinctly.”

1 It should be noted that, in regard to his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Descartes’ desire to have his textbook adopted and instituted into the Jesuit educational programme led him to soften his tone concerning the anti-Aristotelian and anti-Scholastic positions found in such works as his Discourse on the Method (1637) and Meditations (1641). Writing to his former teacher, Charlet, in October 1644, Descartes states in regard to the contents of his Principles that, “I know that people have thought my views were new; yet they will see here that I do not use any principles which were not accepted by Aristotle and by all those who have ever concerned themselves with philosophy. People have also imagined that my aim was to refute the received views of the Schools, and to try to render them absurd; but they will see that I do not discuss them any more than I would if I had never learnt them” (AT IV, 141; CSMK 3, p. 238); and four months later, again writing to Charlet, Descartes expresses his wish that his textbook would “serve effectively to explain the truths of the faith without, moreover, contradicting the writings of Aristotle” (AT IV, 157; CSMK 3, p. 240).

2 DA, p. 558 (413b 25). Cf. DA, p. 548 (408b 24): “The incapacity of old age is due to an affection not of the soul but of its vehicle… Thus it is that in old age the activity of mind or intellectual apprehension declines only through the decay of some other inward part; mind itself is impassable.”

Regarding Aristotle’s opinion of the immortality of the soul in De anima, and how those opinions formed a basis for debate among Christian philosophers C.F. Fowler notes that, “His [Aristotle’s] enigmatic comments throughout the De anima on the possibility of the survival of the human soul only added to the difficulties for his Christian followers and gave rise to the various schools of interpretation.” Descartes On the Human Soul: Philosophy and the Demands of Christian Doctrine (International Archive of the History of Ideas, 160; Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, Boston, London, 1999), p. 80. Brackets mine.

3 Cf., SCG 2, 68: 12: “Above all these forms [nutritive and sensitive souls], however, is a form like to higher substances even in respect of the kind of knowledge proper to it, namely, understanding. This form, then, is capable of an operation which is accomplished without any bodily organ at all. And this form is the intellective soul; for understanding is not effected though any bodily organ. That is why this principle, the intellective soul by which man understands and which transcends the condition of corporeal matter, must not be wholly encompassed or imbedded in matter… This is proved by its intellectual operation, wherein corporeal matter has no part. But since the human soul’s act of understanding needs powers — namely, imagination and sense — which function through bodily organs, this itself shows that the soul is naturally united to the body in order to complete the human species.”

4 Cf. AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4: In his Dedicatory Letter, Descartes is in earnest with his assertion that, “I think there is no more useful service to be rendered in philosophy than to conduct a careful search, once and for all, for the best of these arguments [for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul], and to set them out so precisely and clearly as to produce for the future a general agreement that they amount to demonstrative proofs.” Brackets mine.

5 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

6 In 1613, Aquaviva, the General of the Jesuit order, renewed the Jesuit’s commitment to Thomas’ theology.

7 AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4, brackets mine. Cf. DA, “To attain any assured knowledge of the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world,” p. 535, 402a 10. Cf. Discourse on the Method, “But many are convinced that there is some difficulty in knowing God and even knowing what their soul is,” AT VI, 37; CSM 1, p. 129.

8 DA, p. 561, 415a 15. Brackets mine.

9 Cf. Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “There are… some who raise a difficulty by asking, who is to be the judge of the healthy man, and in general who is likely to judge rightly on each class of questions. But such inquiries are like puzzling over the question whether we are now asleep or awake. And all such questions have the same meaning. These people demand that a reason shall be given for everything; for they seek a starting-point, and they seek to get this by demonstration, while it is obvious from their actions that they have no conviction. But their mistake is what we have stated it to be; they seek a reason for things for which no reason can be given; for the starting-point of demonstration is not demonstration,” p. 747-748 (1011a 1- 15).

10 AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4.

11 In order for the philosophical proof for the immortality of the soul to be consistent with the Church’s doctrine, Aquinas postulated that God would have to act in order to preserve the soul after the death of the body: “Separated souls know some singulars but not all (even those that are temporally present). For evidence on this we should consider that there are two modes of understanding. One is by abstraction from sense images, and in this manner singulars cannot be known by the intellect directly… The other manner of understanding is by the infusion of species [per influentiam specierum] by God, and according to this manner the intellect can know singulars… immaterial substances can know singulars by way of species which are participated likenesses of the divine essence,” ST, 1a, 89, 4, reply; pp. 149-151. Brackets mine.

12 Cf. footnote 3 in CSM 2, p. 10, where the additional phrase from the French translation of the Meditations, “…or the soul of man, for I make no distinction between them,” is noted in relation to the passage from the original text that reads, “And it follows from this that while the body can very easily perish, the mind is immortal by its very nature.”

C.F. Fowler note of Descartes’ predominant use of the term mens over anima, animus, ingenium, and spiritus in the Meditations to describe the human soul (Fowler 1999, pp. 161-175). Fowler concludes with the observation that, “The novelty of the Cartesian notion of the human soul was highlighted by a refusal of the traditional vocabulary and the deliberate choice of the word mens,” ibid., p. 186.

13 AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3. Brackets and italics mine. The Latin original is as follows: “…videmur admoneri ea omnia quae de Deo sciri possunt, rationibus non aliunde petitis quam ab ipsamet nostra mente posse ostendi.”

14 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35: “…when I turn my mind’s eye on upon myself, I understand that I am a thing which is incomplete and dependent on another and which aspires without limit to even greater and better things; but I also understand at the same time that he on whom I depend has within him all those greater things, not just indefinitely and potentially but actually an infinitely, and hence that he is God.”

15 Third Meditation, AT VII, 51; CSM 2, p. 35.

16 The fact that man is created in the “likeness” or “image” of an infinite and perfect God has its parallel in: 1) infinite — the human will that extends indefinitely; 2) perfection — the mind’s reflexive apprehension of clear and distinct ideas.

17 Cf. Third Meditation, AT VII, 42; CSM 2, p. 29: “An although one idea may perhaps originate from another, there cannot be an infinite regress here; eventually one must reach a primary idea, the cause of which will be like an archetype which contains formally [and in fact] all the reality [or perfection] which is present only objectively [or representatively] in the idea. So it is clear to me, by the natural light, that the ideas in me are like [pictures, or] images which can easily fall short of the perfection of the things from which they are taken, but which cannot contain anything greater or more perfect.” Brackets in original.

18 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 2, 46: 2.

19 Cf. SCG 2, 77: 2: “…the intellectual soul itself remains potential with respect to the determinate likeness of things that can be known by us, namely, the natures of sensible things. It is the phantasms which present these determinate sensible natures to us. But these phantasms have not yet acquired intelligible actuality, since they are likenesses of sensible things even as to material conditions, which are the individual properties, and, moreover, the phantasms exist in material organs. Consequently, they are not actually intelligible.”

20 In a letter to Mersenne of January 28, 1641, Descartes writes in regard to his physics, “…I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle,” AT III, 297-298; CSMK 3, p. 173. Like Aristotle’s, Descartes physics are founded on his metaphysics; hence, to destroy the principles of Aristotle’s physics is to cast doubt on the validity of his metaphysics as well — which Descartes does not fail, in his Meditations, to do.

21 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 2; CSM 2, p. 3.

22 Letter to the Sorbonne, AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4.

23 “And finally, I was strongly pressed to undertake this task [producing demonstrative proofs for the existence of God, and that the human mind is distinct from the body] by several people who knew that I had developed a method for resolving certain difficulties in the sciences…” AT VII, 3; CSM 2, p. 4. Brackets mine.

24 In a letter to Mersenne of November 11, 1640, Descartes discusses some possible difficulties in the Sorbonne’s reception of his Meditations, which he refers to as his “metaphysics, due to controversies that might arise concerning certain other projected publications: “It might also hold up the approbation of the Sorbonne, which I want, and which I think may be very useful for my purposes, for I must tell you that the little book on metaphysics which I sent you contains all the principles of my physics.” (AT III, 233; CSMK 3, p. 157).

25 “What I have done is to take merely the principle and most important arguments and develop them in such a way that I would now venture to put them forward as very certain and evident demonstrations. I will add that these proofs are of such a kind that I reckon they leave no room for the possibility that the human mind will ever discover better ones.” (AT VII, 4; CSM 2, p. 4).

Contra the materialistic view of the soul propounded by early natural philosophers, Descartes briefly alludes to such claims in the Second Meditation: “But as to the nature of this soul, either I did not think about this or else I imagined it to be something tenuous, like a wind or fire or ether, which permeated my more solid parts.” (AT VII, 26; CSM 2, p. 17). Cf. SCG: “This, then, does away with the error of the early natural philosophers. Who supposed that no substance exists except the corporeal, and who therefore said that the soul is a body, either fire or water or air, or something of the kind…” (2, 49: 11). Cf. DA, p. 540-542 (405a 5-505b 30) for Aristotle’s review of his predecessor’s opinions of the soul as “either an element, or constructed out of the elements.” The respective summaries of the opinions of early natural philosophers found in the writings of Descartes and Aquinas’ are an obvious echo of remarks made in Aristotle’s treatise on the soul.

26 “I do not think that the diversity of the opinions of the scholastics makes their philosophy difficult to refute. It is easy to overturn the foundations on which they all agree, and once that has been done, all their disagreements over detail will seem foolish.” (AT III, 232; CSMK 3, p. 156).

27 Fifth Set of Objections, AT VII D; CSM 1, 186.

28 Cf. Nicomachean Ethics, “…the activity of God, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this [contemplation] must be most of the nature of happiness,” p. 1104 (1178b 20). Brackets mine. Cf. SCG 1, 1: 2: “The ultimate end of the universe must… be the good of an intellect. This good is truth. Truth must consequently be the ultimate end of the whole universe, and the consideration of the wise man aims principally at truth.”

29 Cf. Frederick Copleston, S. J., A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy: Descartes to Leibniz, volume 4 (Image Books, Garden City, New York, 1960), p. 80.

The Soul of Shakespeare’s 94th Sonnet

il_fullxfull.340648227Man possesses many attributes and abilities in common with other living things, but the attribute distinguishing man from all other things, and which he shares in common with god, is a rational principle. We will endeavor to state in detail the connection between Aristotle’s postulate of a rational principle in man and why the life lived in accord with the highest virtue, theoria, is the most elevated expression of this faculty of rationality.

Aristotelian man has within him the capacity to strive for and achieve virtue in his own life. Man’s nature is not entirely fixed or determined by outside forces, and so he necessarily has the capacity to alter his nature; man is not born ‘stuffed with all honorable virtues,’ to use Shakespeare’s phrase, but must be habituated to the life of virtue. Man can either be habituated into activities that go against his nature, or excise from himself habits that are beneath his nature. It is possible for man to form fresh habits in accord with what is most dominant in man, that being logos, for man possesses, in varying degrees of efficacy, the faculty of reason (cf. NE 1296),1 which makes this alteration possible. To speak of alterations in man’s behavior is to speak of the progress of virtue, and Aristotle treats this progression at length in the Nicomachean Ethics. Yet Aristotle disarmingly concludes the Nicomachean Ethics with a discussion of virtue in its totality by crowning the project of the life of practical virtue with the conception of the contemplative life, which, at first pass, is a palpably strange way to conclude, since the life of contemplation stands outside the realm of everyday action (i.e., practical virtue), and is, in a sense, virtue sans action.

What is commonly required for the implementation of the cardinal virtues, things such as ready money, power, opportunity, &c., are viewed not as a means to the man who would contemplate truth, but rather as hindrances. Why is this so? Aristotle tells us, ‘the man who is contemplating the truth’ (NE 1106) may only do so once he has put aside virtuous deeds and the many things needed to carry out such deeds. He may choose to do virtuous deeds, or he may not, and the choice is occasioned by the presence or absence of other men in the life of a philosopher. When the man who desires to contemplate truth excises himself from the diversions of his affairs, or the houses of his friends, or, hypothetically, when the possibility for action and production are taken away from him, all that remains for him is thought—logical being (for the only logical entity is thought).

The life of contemplation is not a life of dainty indolence and languor, but is necessarily very difficult and solitary, and Aristotle sums up his conception authoritatively:

[W]e…must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything…[i]t would be strange, then, if he [man in a broad sense] were to choose not the life of his self but that of something else (NE 1105).

The rigors of the contemplative life resolve themselves into the rigors of logic. Aristotle demands indisputability from his first principles and seeks indemonstrable premises on which to found his rational investigation of the world. Therefore, the method of rational contemplation must be an enumeration of logical inferences if the results are to be meaningful. Intuition, or some other species of mental instinct, will not do for Aristotle, since intuition is derived from particular and individual thought processes, and is most likely contingent on the individual thinker. For Aristotle, the form of the syllogism is the form taken by the activity of contemplation. The syllogism presupposes a rational ordering of the kosmos, and one contemplates this rational order with the instrument of logic as the nimble instrument of the human mind wields it. There is no mistake in Aristotle’s decision to name his logical treatises the Organon. The logical treatises, it can be said, epitomize his conception of what is produced by, and gained through, the life of contemplation:

[F]or if the gods have any care for human affairs…it would be reasonable both that they should delight in that which was best and most akin to them (i.e., reason) and that they should reward those who love and honor this most (NE 1108).

The character of the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s writings both initiates and completes the human life of contemplation. For, taking god as the archetype of thought, the contemplator of truth endeavors to imitate the divine by exercising in himself what is divine. The Greek concept of mimesis, I believe, is entirely applicable to how Aristotle conceives the method and the means of the contemplative life. To call the contemplator a mimic of god is to call a spade a spade, since god is the ultimate exemplar of such an existence. In examining the attributes god possesses, Aristotle is seeking a template for the life of contemplation that other like-minded people can understand and apply. Some of the attributes of god mimicked in the human activity of contemplation are as follows: god as the ergon (function) of theoria—the intelligible striving to appreciate the intelligible, or god taking god as the object of thought; further, god neither suffers nor undergoes affection, but is unmoved, impervious, insusceptible, &c. All of these qualities of god are commensurate with the activity of god, which, as Aristotle points out, is contemplative (NE 1107). Therefore, just as god, and the activity of god, is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained, so too is the activity of contemplation, in which there is no need for ready money, power, or opportunity. The human activity of contemplation is akin to this divine apathae, and, as Aristotle explains, this imperviousness to affection is appropriate to the degree to which humans participate in nous, viz., the understanding and grasping of eternal truths.

In Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle of man in book one of the Nicomachean Ethics, the germ of his later discussions of happiness and the contemplative life can be seen in the brief allusion he makes to the human good. This human good he calls ‘an activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete’ (NE. 943, emphasis added). The aim of Aristotle’s provisional discussion of the rational principle is the way in which it is implicitly linked to the highest good, viz., the activity of god, which, as we have seen, is thought. The link between the activities of man and god is forged by the principle of self-sufficiency, which Aristotle defines as ‘that which when isolated makes life desirable and lacking in nothing; and such we think happiness to be…’ (NE 942). Aristotle goes on to point out that,

[W]e think it [self-sufficiency] the most desirable of all things, without being counted as one good thing among others—if it were so counted it would clearly be made more desirable by the addition of even the least of goods…[h]appiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action (Ibid).

An important addition to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, and with which he concludes the passage just cited, is the claim that happiness entails an end of action. This only makes sense if the life of practical virtue is crowned by the contemplative life. In the life of practical virtue, the improvement of man’s actions and behaviors is the goal; but the final aim of the project is one of inactivity and solitude. The end of action expressed and carried out in the contemplative life is singular to the rest of Aristotle’s virtues, all of which all presuppose some means, some action, to the fulfillment of its end, be it power, ready money, or opportunity. All of the virtues are discursive, save for the activity of contemplation, which is self-contained, and for this reason is the highest good, as Aristotle calls it. Yet we should take notice that the contemplative life is, nevertheless, co-constitutive with the life of practical virtue, and is not possible outside of a specific type of social environment, viz., an environment in which excellence of soul amongst citizens is not the exception but, more likely, the rule. The contemplative life is a product of the highest forms of human society, but no society is built, conversely, from such a foundation as the type of individual who is a scholar or philosopher.

The source for this criterion of self-sufficiency as the highest good is found in Aristotle’s conception of the divine, which only the life of contemplation among the virtues approximates. Only objects of thought and desire are unmoved movers—they are the motivating force behind the multiplicity of activities in the world. God is the primary and ultimate object of thought and desire. God moves (but is himself unmoved) because he is loved: man ceases to move and becomes like god when he reasons. This, then, is why the activity that most nearly approximates the activity of the divine is itself called the highest good and naturally puts an end to action. Recall what Aristotle writes regarding the activity of god, the semblance of which is reflected in man:

Now if you take away from a living being action, and still more production, what is left but contemplation? Therefore the activity of god, which surpasses all others in blessedness, must be contemplative; and of human activities, therefore, that which is most akin to this must be most of the nature of happiness (NE 1107).

The man who contemplates the truth is nevertheless not self-sufficient to the same degree as god, but needs, in addition, what Aristotle refers to as ‘external prosperity.’ The extent to which a man must be prosperous to live the life of contemplation necessarily involves possessing the necessary resources to maintain health, &c. Aristotle points out that virtuous activity, especially the act of contemplation, is possible with a minimum of the accoutrements needed to continue in existence:

[W]e must not think the man who is to be happy will need many things or great things, merely because he cannot be supremely happy without external goods; for self-sufficiency and action do not involve excess (Ibid).

It is reasonable to conclude from this that self-sufficiency belongs more properly to the life of contemplation then to the virtues (the life of action)—but in either case excess has no part in the modifying and building up of what is best or most dominant in man’s nature, i.e., reason. Now recall what was mentioned earlier regarding the trait Aristotle assigns to god’s nature, namely, neither suffering nor undergoing any affection. What place can such a quality occupy in the life lived according to practical virtue, which is necessarily one of action? Indeed, Aristotle celebrates the wide variety of qualities present in man, and qualities of which man is capable of achieving through practical virtue, but nevertheless, what is most prominent in man’s nature is the rational principle, and the exercise of this attribute tends toward one thing, and that is the unmoved, self-sufficient divine.

Thus far we have but articulated a skeleton of what the contemplative life involves, in that it approximates the nature of god—perhaps this rudimentary anatomy can be fleshed out further if we deck it in the raiment of poetry. Examining Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet, we get a sense of what the life of contemplation participating in the divine means. Certain philosophic commentators have claimed this 94th sonnet to be a sort of reflecting-pool for quasi-Nietzschian ideas of self-sufficiency and the experience of life as an end in itself.2 Be that as it may, it can be argued that the poem is more fittingly read as a compliment to Aristotle’s conception of the contemplative life, especially since the poem is demonstrably Aristotelian in its vocabulary and thoroughly Elizabethan, rather than Nietzschian, in its poetic conceits. Here, then, is the piece itself:

They that have the power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense,

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.3

Shakespeare’s sonnet is best understood when set beside Aristotle’s conception of the life of contemplation. In not doing the thing he most does show, or is most capable of doing, the philosopher deliberately puts an end to the life he has led in the realm of practical virtue—a life he is entirely able to continue pursuing, were he to choose to do so. Yet he does not choose that life, but rather, another, the life of contemplation. In doing so, and doing so excellently, he rightly inherits heaven’s graces and moves others while remaining himself as stone. The man who would contemplate the truth, the philosopher, is the man ‘dearest to the gods;’ and insofar as he approaches god through the exercise of the faculty of reason (which in its utmost purity and enduringness neither suffers nor undergoes affection), does he give ‘delight’ to god for honoring ‘what is most akin’ to god’s nature. Further, the philosopher husbands the riches of nature from expense, viz., he rightly manages, through the practice of the highest virtue, the rewards of contemplative activity garnered from nature; viz., nature in the sense of the first principles underlying the accidents, not the accidents themselves (recall that Aristotle requires indemonstrable premises as a basis for scientific knowledge). Occupying this unique position, which Aristotle affirms is not available to every man, earns the philosopher the title of lord and owner of his face, or the rightful possessor of the enduring intellectual and virtuous qualities akin to the nature of god, and subsequently ‘most of the nature of happiness.’

That this kind of life is not inhuman or even superhuman, but as Aristotle writes, simply not available to every man, is our premise, and we must search the works of the past for examples of those who voluntarily adopted this life, having first been habituated into the excellences of virtue in a manner similar to what is described by Aristotle, then take flight from the world of deeds and affairs and actions like so many thieves, carrying off with them the rich spoils of their excellent characters, into the cloistered cell or lavish home, wherewith the retiring life of a solitary and studious existence is taken up. Indeed, such individuals are uncommon, but every age has a few in it that, through the pains and discomforts of study and seclusion, truly advance not only their own knowledge, but move and advance, so to speak, the entire age in a way similar to the movement of vast armies conquering lands and territories; save for the fact that the philosopher’s achievement is not subject to the vicissitudes of states or rulers, and so endures, resting on its own laurels, and always regarded as an amazement and wonder to the inhabitants of posterity, who see in the greatest of the philosopher’s thought both newness and evidence of what the best men are capable of, should the times be so generous and forgiving as to let such men come into being.

1 All citations in parentheses are from Richard Mckeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (Random House, 1941).

2 Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism (Princeton University Press, 1959), cf. pp 5-8.

3 Alfred Harbage, ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Viking Penguin, 1969), p. 1468.