Platonic Souls

Souls solve different problems for different people. Back in June, I wrote a post on the gradual development of the concept in pre-Socratic Greece. We now turn to Plato, who was one of the most influential philosophers in the history of souls, despite never addressing them directly. Among other things, he’s often cited as the first great defender of their immortality.

Plato touches on souls three times in his writings. In the Phaedo, Plato writes of Socrates, who is addressing his followers for the last time before drinking hemlock and dying. The emphasis of the dialogue rests in his hope for a better life after death and offers comfort to those who are left behind. In the Republic, Plato compares the three part soul of humans to the three classes of people who make up the perfect society. Finally, in Timaeus, perhaps the hardest of the dialogues to understand, Plato takes up cosmology and places the soul within the order of the cosmos.


Phaedo contains no systematic treatment of souls, but contains several arguments for their immortality and two short speculations on the afterlife. Like other philosophers of his time and place, Plato was interested in the question of change. What changes and what stays the same? In particular, Phaedo speaks to how our knowledge changes and how we change when we die.

Socrates (the main character) argues that only imperfect impressions come through our senses. Being made of matter, the sense organs are changeable and imperfect. And yet, we have knowledge of perfect things. He attributes this to memory. We must remember these ideals from a time before we were trapped in mutable bodies. Consider equality. We have never seen two equal things – all physical things differ in some way, if only in location – and yet we know what true equality is. This, says Socrates, is proof that we remember true equality from a time before we were in bodies.

If the soul existed before the body, can it exist after? Yes, claims Socrates. If the soul can perceive perfect things, it must have perfect properties itself – it must be the form of the body. Specifically, it is the form that animates or enlivens the matter to make it a living thing. If souls are the form of life, they cannot accept death as a property. Life itself cannot die, therefore our souls must be immortal.

Those two arguments were the most influential for me and I believe the most significant for the history of souls. Plato does not claim they are definitive deductions – proofs for the immortality of the soul – only suggestive arguments. In the discussion, he also introduces two speculations that tell us something interesting about how he views the soul.

In the first, a seeming digression, Socrates speaks of reincarnation. Arguing that the soul follows the character of the man, he says that the souls of true philosophers, being unattached to material things, escape materiality. The souls of the less virtuous cling to flesh according to the nature of their desire. Thus the gluttonous return as asses, the violent as wolves, etc. Even those with social virtues (but not deep philosophy) can return as social animals like bees. Souls have the power to find a circumstance according to their will. While completely undeveloped, this suggests that souls with genuine will find themselves in non-human animals.

The dialogue ends with an extended speculation on our fate after death. Socrates reiterates the fate of true philosophers: they escape the “earthly prison” for a “true home.” Socrates says he imagines the underworld, with Hades (the realm of the dead) just below the earth and Tartarus (the realm of the wicked dead) far below that. Most souls after death, ride the river Acheron where they suffer for their crimes and rewarded for their virtues before being reborn. Those whose crimes were more serious ride the rivers Cocytus and Pyriphlegethon, where they suffer, spending a year or more of torment in Tartarus before returning to the lake. This can only happen when their victims take pity on them. Finally, some souls have done such evil that they cannot be cured and fall into Tartarus forever.

I had not read these passages in nearly 20 years and was truly struck by how similar this image of eternal reward and punishment is to our modern myths of heaven and hell. Having not found them in the Bible, I had assumed they were medieval creations. But no, here they are in Plato some 400 years before the New Testament.

Plato gives us a picture of immortal souls, the truth of our existence that more purely represents the self when separated from the body. Plato speaks of a cosmos where matter always limits souls, and where souls are punished or rewarded in eternity. These ideas will be handed down in Christianity, as opposed to the more comprehensive theories of the soul to be found elsewhere in Plato and Aristotle – not to mention the Bible. In my next post, I will turn to Plato’s picture of the soul in the Republic.


2 thoughts on “Platonic Souls

  1. Pingback: More Platonic Souls | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

  2. Pingback: The Soul in Plato’s Timeaus | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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