Philosophy, the Beginning: Fourth Class
Philosophy as “Training for Dying.”
The Human Soul. The Meaning of Life
Main bibliography: the Phaedo.
Soul as an ambiguous term
According to Descartes, “God” and the “soul” are the most important issues philosophy should deal with. It is certainly true that these two issues characterize, dominate, and push forward the entire history of philosophy. “Soul” is ambiguous, though. Does it mean “intellect,” “person,” “human nature,” the “self,” the “subject,” or something different from all of them? In ancient philosophy, the discussion on the “soul” overlaps other concepts and discussions—most notably, the concepts of self and the person—with which we will deal later on in our Program.
Aristotle’s famous argument for the spirituality of the intellect (inserire qui link approfondimento) does not refer to what we would call “person” today. Plato, like all Greek philosophers, did not have the concept of person; however, his arguments for the spirituality and immortality of the soul clearly refer to a subjectivity that we easily recognize as belonging to that concept. Aquinas gives an argument for the spirituality of the soul that follows the lines of Aristotle’s argument (inserire qui link approfondimento), but, unlike Aristotle, Aquinas explicitly distinguishes the soul from the person, the self, the intellect, and human nature. In approaching the concept of soul in ancient philosophy, it is important to keep in mind that this concept, at the early stages of philosophical reflection, embraces more meanings than we would ascribe to it today.
Philosophy as “Training for Dying”
At the beginning of his dialogue Phaedo, Plato explains why “those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying and they fear death least of all men.” This is not an invitation to commit suicide—that, for Plato, is intrinsically evil. Rather, it is the sketch of a deep religious and ethical view of life that does have many similarities with the Christian tradition. For Plato, the human soul is made for a truth and a good that do not belong to the present life, which must be seen at the same time as a punishment for some past fault and as a preparation for a future and perfect life. This life should be lived as “purification” by way of measure and detachment from the needs of the body. If death is “separation of the soul from the body,” the life of the wise, who look for the truth and the good, is already a “dying” and a training for the complete separation of death and for the next life. Plato’s thought involves a strong dualism between soul and body—which is evil—that is significantly different from Christian thought.
It is to defend his view of life that Plato, in the main part of the dialogue, tries to demonstrate “that the soul still exists after a man has died and that it still possesses some capability and intelligence”.
Plato’s idea of philosophy as “training for dying” is a particular instance of the ancient approach to philosophy as an active and genuine search for wisdom. Most of the ancient philosophers were authentically trying to figure what the overall meaning of life was in order to conform their lives to that meaning. Philosophy was meant to be the search for what fulfils human beings, for what makes life worth being lived, or, in another (famous) word, for what makes life “happy.” So, philosophy was not just a theoretical enterprise, but also a moral one: i.e., an enterprise supposed to result in living a wise life.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle, in his ethics, tries to give an account of human fulfillment, or happiness, that includes also things and pleasures that belong to our bodily life: i.e., to the life we live in this earth. With Aristotle, philosophy searches for a wisdom able to harmonize with each other the highest and the lowest dimensions of human life. While there is a strong dispute about Aristotle’s concept of happiness, there is no doubt that he does not share Plato’s dualistic account of human nature.
In medieval times, philosophy becomes ancilla theologiae (handmaid of philosophy) because medieval people commonly accepted that the ultimate truth of human life comes from Christian revelation. There is a fulfillment (a “natural happiness,” in the Aristotelian sense) that man is supposed to aim at and achieve in the present life; but the ultimate fulfillment (or “supernatural happiness,” or beatitude) will come from a next life in which the soul and the body will be reunited in the human person. Philosophy can take reason up to the threshold of the mystery of life; then, faith should come to give the final answer...
Further suggested readings:
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I, X
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio
The Soul and Plato’s Theory of knowledge
In the Phaedo, Plato’s theory of knowledge (and/or Recollection) is explained in order to support his discussion on the soul.
It is important to highlight that the way in which Plato looks at the knowledge issue is mostly similar to the way in which other Greek philosophers—most notably, Aristotle—look at it. The difference between Plato and Aristotle is, so to speak, only in the final solution they give to the problem of the universals.
Difference between “act” and “potency,” or “being in act” and “being potential.” Only “being in act” means to exist: i.e., it is the “action” of being something. What exists “potentially” exists due to another different act (a pure potentiality cannot exist by definition).
Difference between “res” (thing) and “object”. The object is not a real thing but a thing “as known.” The object is in the knower.
Some basic principles in the theory of knowledge:
Knowledge as possession of a form:
ü The known object is part of the knowing being; it is a way in which the knowing being has been “configured” (like the file in the hard disk).
ü Knowledge is a contact between two things that alters one of them (the knower) according to the form of the other.
ü By “form” we can just mean a set of information that configures the knower according to the being of the known thing.
Similarity between the knower (of which the known object is part) and the thing known:
ü otherwise there would be no knowledge at all because knowledge is real if it refers the knower to what the thing known is.
ü The knower knows by “becoming” the thing known.
Not a destroying change in the knower:
ü knowledge is an accidental change in the knower that at the same time preserves his nature and “turns” him into the thing known.
Simultaneous actuality of the knowing faculty and the known thing:
ü e.g., the ear hearing and the thing “sounding” (this way of speaking is clear but not perfect because the thing cannot be “sounding” if the ear is not “hearing” it).
All these principles, as such, are shared by both Plato and Aristotle, but the last one raises a very relevant problem that will be solved very differently by Plato and by Aristotle.
Problem: material things are “in act” knowable according to sentient knowledge but not according to intellectual knowledge. They are not in act “intelligible.” To the human mind, only the universal is in act intelligible, but material things are essentially particular. If they were in act intelligible they wouldn’t be material beings. But, according to the last principle we listed, universals must be in act as universals before they can be received/known by the knowing faculty (i.e., the human intellect). And since the universals are not in act in the material (particular) things we see around us, Plato deduces that we (our souls) must have known them previously (in a past life) in an intellectual world made of actual intelligible objects. According to Aristotle, on the other hand, our intellect is able to abstract the universals from the material particular things, making them actual before receiving them into itself.
Plato’s proofs in the Phaedo
In the Phaedo, Plato gives three or four main proofs for the spirituality and immortality of the soul (the exact number is questioned by the interpreters). Both Plato’s general approach to life and his proofs for the spirituality and immortality of the soul depend on some powerful philosophical insights, which ground his so-called “theory of recollection”.
Plato’s proof from the “immortal and unchanging” truths, and his proof from the “ideal opposites” are two of the more fascinating proofs for the immortality and spirituality of the soul in the history of philosophy. Even those who want to criticize Plato cannot deny that his insights on the intelligible universals are very powerful and require strong philosophical answers. The intelligible universals must come before the several particulars, both in reality and in our knowledge. Aristotle neglected this insight. But in Augustine it became a strong theology of creation and the eternal law; and in Aquinas it became one of the most interesting ways to prove the existence of God.
Two objections raised against the proofs in the dialogue—the one comparing the soul to a “harmony” and the one comparing the soul to “an old weaver”—are so powerful that Socrates, in order to make his proofs more convincing, undertakes the explanation of his second navigation and of his theory of forms.
v From the life-to-death and the death-to-life cycles
v From the Theory of recollection
v Affinity argument
v From the ideal opposites (or from the form of life)
o “soul” equal “life”
o “life” equal “no-death” (this is the very essence/definition of life)
o the (form of the) “soul” cannot accept “death”, by logical necessity the soul cannot die.
Aristotle’s text in the De Anima
On the Soul, III, 4, 429a10-429b9
“Turning now to the part of the soul with which the soul knows and thinks (whether this is separable from the others in definition only, or spatially as well) we have to inquire (1) what differentiates this part, and (2) how thinking can take place.
If thinking is like perceiving, it must be either a process in which the soul is acted upon by what is capable of being thought, or a process different from but analogous to that. The thinking part of the soul must therefore be, while impassible, capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Mind must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible.
Therefore, since everything is a possible object of thought, mind in order, as Anaxagoras says, to dominate, that is, to know, must be pure from all admixture; for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block: it follows that it too, like the sensitive part, can have no nature of its own, other than that of having a certain capacity. Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not actually any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none. It was a good idea to call the soul ‘the place of forms’, though (1) this description holds only of the intellective soul, and (2) even this is the forms only potentially, not actually.
Observation of the sense-organs and their employment reveals a distinction between the impassibility of the sensitive and that of the intellective faculty. After strong stimulation of a sense we are less able to exercise it than before, as e.g. in the case of a loud sound we cannot hear easily immediately after, or in the case of a bright colour or a powerful odour we cannot see or smell, but in the case of mind thought about an object that is highly intelligible renders it more and not less able afterwards to think objects that are less intelligible: the reason is that while the faculty of sensation is dependent upon the body, mind is separable from it.” (trad. by J. A. Smith)
Main passages of this text:
1) Thinking is like perceiving: namely, (a) whatever thinks or perceives, while impassible, is capable of receiving the form of an object; (b) it is potentially similar in character with its object without being the object.
2) Aristotle’s conclusion is that “intellect (nous)” is “pure from all admixture,” “cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body,” and “is separable from it.” The stress here is on being separable. [It is important to highlight that Aristotle’s conclusion does not concern the “person,” and not even the “soul” as such or the “human subject;” it just addresses what he calls “intellect”.]
3) The main argument is that (a) “everything is a possible object of thought,” (b) so intellect must be pure “for the co-presence of what is alien to its nature is a hindrance and a block”.
4) Supporting argument: the strong stimulation of the faculty of thought does not diminish the thinking ability; on the contrary, it increases it.
Terminological clarification: “impassible,” in Aristotle’s text, means that something is capable of receiving the form of something else without a substantial change in its own form (knowledge is an accidental change).
Something must be indeterminate in order to receive every kind of form. The analogy with the concept of “prime matter” can help. Prime matter, though, is not impassible. The analogy with sensory knowledge is helpful too. Sensory knowledge, though, can receive only bodily forms given by the images, and it is not perfectly impassible (see the fourth point about Aristotle’s text).
Aquinas on the spirituality and immortality of the soul
“Whether the Human Soul is Something Subsistent?”
Summa Theologiae, I, q. 75, a. 2 c.
“Objection 1. It would seem that the human soul is not something subsistent. For that which subsists is said to be "this particular thing." Now "this particular thing" is said not of the soul, but of that which is composed of soul and body. Therefore the soul is not something subsistent.
Objection 2. Further, everything subsistent operates. But the soul does not operate; for, as the Philosopher says (De Anima i, 4), "to say that the soul feels or understands is like saying that the soul weaves or builds." Therefore the soul is not subsistent.
Objection 3. Further, if the soul were subsistent, it would have some operation apart from the body. But it has no operation apart from the body, not even that of understanding: for the act of understanding does not take place without a phantasm, which cannot exist apart from the body. Therefore the human soul is not something subsistent.
On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. x, 7): "Who understands that the nature of the soul is that of a substance and not that of a body, will see that those who maintain the corporeal nature of the soul, are led astray through associating with the soul those things without which they are unable to think of any nature--i.e. imaginary pictures of corporeal things." Therefore the nature of the human intellect is not only incorporeal, but it is also a substance, that is, something subsistent.
I answer that, It must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation which we call the soul, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things. Now whatever knows certain things cannot have any of them in its own nature; because that which is in it naturally would impede the knowledge of anything else. Thus we observe that a sick man's tongue being vitiated by a feverish and bitter humor, is insensible to anything sweet, and everything seems bitter to it. Therefore, if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies. Now every body has its own determinate nature. Therefore it is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body. It is likewise impossible for it to understand by means of a bodily organ; since the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color.
Therefore the intellectual principle which we call the mind or the intellect has an operation "per se" apart from the body. Now only that which subsists can have an operation "per se." For nothing can operate but what is actual: for which reason we do not say that heat imparts heat, but that what is hot gives heat. We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called the intellect or the mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.
Reply to Objection 1. "This particular thing" can be taken in two senses.
Firstly, for anything subsistent; secondly, for that which subsists, and is complete in a specific nature. The former sense excludes the inherence of an accident or of a material form; the latter excludes also the imperfection of the part, so that a hand can be called "this particular thing" in the first sense, but not in the second. Therefore, as the human soul is a part of human nature, it can indeed be called "this particular thing," in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense, what is composed of body and soul is said to be "this particular thing."
Reply to Objection 2. Aristotle wrote those words as expressing not his own opinion, but the opinion of those who said that to understand is to be moved, as is clear from the context. Or we may reply that to operate "per se" belongs to what exists "per se." But for a thing to exist "per se," it suffices sometimes that it be not inherent, as an accident or a material form; even though it be part of something. Nevertheless, that is rightly said to subsist "per se," which is neither inherent in the above sense, nor part of anything else. In this sense, the eye or the hand cannot be said to subsist "per se"; nor can it for that reason be said to operate "per se." Hence the operation of the parts is through each part attributed to the whole. For we say that man sees with the eye, and feels with the hand, and not in the same sense as when we say that what is hot gives heat by its heat; for heat, strictly speaking, does not give heat. We may therefore say that the soul understands, as the eye sees; but it is more correct to say that man understands through the soul.
Reply to Objection 3. The body is necessary for the action of the intellect, not as its origin of action, but on the part of the object; for the phantasm is to the intellect what color is to the sight. Neither does such a dependence on the body prove the intellect to be non-subsistent; otherwise it would follow that an animal is non-subsistent, since it requires external objects of the senses in order to perform its act of perception.” (trans. by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province)
Aquinas’ proof for the spirituality of the soul follows Aristotle’s lines:
(1) the soul is incorporeal and subsistent;
(2) “for it is clear that by means of the intellect man can have knowledge of all corporeal things”; and
(3) “if the intellectual principle contained the nature of a body it would be unable to know all bodies”.
As with Aristotle’s, Aquinas’ argument does not concern the human person, or subject. In Aquinas, this is explicitly stated.
Aquinas’ terms “incorporeal” and “subsistent” correspond to Aristotle’s terms “separable” “pure from all admixture” “[not] blended with the body”.
Additional clarifications present in Aquinas’ text:
1) “It is impossible for the intellectual principle to be a body” because “every body has its own determinate nature”;
2) It is impossible for the intellectual soul “to understand by means of a bodily organ because the determinate nature of that organ would impede knowledge of all bodies; as when a certain determinate color is not only in the pupil of the eye, but also in a glass vase, the liquid in the vase seems to be of that same color”;
3) “Operation ‘per se’ apart from the body”: “only that which subsists can have an operation per se”.
It is crucial to focus on the meaning of “subsistent” (the actuality of intellectual form does not depend on its union with the body). The intellectual soul does have a proper act of existence; it is therefore “separable.” This is true if there are operations of the intellectual soul which do not depend on the union with the body.
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