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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

On the Soul: An Examination of Plato and Paul

In a world as influenced by modernity as ours, the concept of a soul is nearly laughable. To be sure, the breaking in of post-modern thought has certainly altered and broadened some perspectives; however, the juxtaposition of both stances is prevalent and filters right down to the television shows the masses watch.1 Accordingly, the ubiquitous presence and dominant nature of scientific reasoning and curiosity has not only continued - among other matters - the age-old debate of the 'seen' and 'unseen' world, but perhaps has also strengthened it. Indeed, the endless war between the two armies battling over true essence, which Plato mentions at the end of his Sophist, continues to rage2 - albeit in modified and modern ways. Such a war it would seem was as impassioned then as it is now. Questions of what lies beyond the physical world are speculations taken up by every generation, yet for some the affirmative answers are pure and simple givens of the cosmos - especially among many of the pre-modern authors who are wont to examine matters of the metaphysical. Surely, the world beyond visibility was largely assumed, and Plato may hold one of the more influential positions in this stance. For this very reason, many have argued the theo-philosophy of the apostle Paul was impacted by his Hellenistic environment and the role Plato may have played in the intellectual circles. To be sure, some forms of Christianity certainly contain several beliefs which can ostensibly be attributed to a Platonic worldview. It is the intention of this paper to examine the notions of the soul within these two highly influential individuals, comparing and contrasting, in no exhaustive manner, the developments and conceptions each have made regarding it. Thus, this paper shall be divided into three parts: an exploration into the soul within the works of Plato, followed by an exploration of Paul, and concluding with a joint assessment of the two.


To begin with Plato is to begin with the assumption that a divinity exists - a divinity which holds the beginning, middle and end of all other existence.3 The notion of atheism, the denial of any gods, is first of three heresies Plato enumerates in The Laws,4 and he argues against any conception of the cosmos which posits the universe as the product of unintelligent motions.5 Indeed, those who reject the existence of the gods are said to have 'lost and perverted natures.'6 To fully understand the Platonic cosmos and the soul which lies therein, we must expound upon the notion of κινησιs, which is to say 'motion,' or 'process.'7 All bodies within the universe involve κινησιs, and this inertia divides into two over-arching categories under which all other forms of motion fall:8 'imparted' or 'communicated motion,' which is capable of moving other objects, but not capable of moving itself; and 'self-originated motion,' which is always capable of moving itself as well as other objects.9 For Plato, the soul falls under primary causation - 'imparted motion' - which is first in time and quality.10 Because all κινησιs in the cosmos is either internal or external, any imparted movement must ultimately lead back to a prior self-originated source;11 it is only logical that communicated motion would invariably presuppose spontaneous, self-originated movement.12 Correspondingly, in Phaedrus Plato posits that which is self-moving as 'the fountain and beginning of all motion,' and this beginning by nature must be itself 'unbegotten.'13 Moreover, should that which is self-moving ever cease to exist the entire cosmos would 'collapse and stand still, and never again have motion.'14

Here Plato states that whoever equates that which is self-moving with the soul would not be incorrect or confused, for any object which exhibits internally initiated motion can be said to be 'alive,' to be εμψυχον.16 In fact, it is the self-moving motion which indicates the existence of ψυχη, for any object with the power to move itself as well as others can be said to have ψυχη.17 This posits for us a working definition of the soul as 'that which moves itself.'18 According to Phaedrus, as alluded to above, the element of the ψυχη is the source of all movement and process in the universe,19 and in Plato this line of reasoning wavers on the borders of monotheism. Plato's argument that all corporeal movements are caused by motions of the soul indicates the world is therefore the work of a soul, and it follows from this there must be one ariste ψυχη, or 'perfectly good soul.'20 Such a notion might imply a teleological creator-god, who is not only a supreme soul but also an out-going projection,21 and in this way the cosmos are established to have τεχνη at its base - 'conscious design, purpose.'22 At the least, Plato proposes that there must be at least two souls to explain the opposing factors of disorder and order, irregularity and regularity.23 There must be indeed a supreme soul which is not only the supreme cause of all movement, but which is also the source of all that is good since it is illogical to attribute disorder and evil to a good soul;24 and there must be, alongside this good soul, another soul - not necessarily singular as the opposite of the supreme may be numerous, but certainly at least one other - which is not itself wholly good in order to account for evil in the world.25

  1. The television program Bones is a quintessential example of the apposition of modernity and post-modernity, as the two main characters constantly stand in contrast to each other's worldview. Additionally, the popularity of shows such as CSI alongside The Ghost Whisperer proves that modernity and post-modernity are in a sort of symbiotic coexistence.
  2. Plato, The Works of Plato, trans. B Jowett (New York, NY: The Dial Press, 1936), Vol. 4 Pt. 2 pp.348-349.
  3. Plato, Plato, Vol.4 Pt.2 p.420. See also John E Rexine, Religion in Plato and Cicero (New York, NY: Greenwood Press, 1959), 8.
  4. Plato, Plato, Vol.4 Pt.2 p.452, and Rexine Religion, 25.
  5. A E Taylor, The Man and His Work (Edinburgh, UK: Methuen & Co Ltd., 1971), 490.
  6. Plato, Plato, Vol.4 Pt. p.456.
  7. Taylor, The Man, 491.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Rexine, Religion, 26.
  10. Ibid., 27.
  11. A E Taylor, The Mind of Plato (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 88.
  12. Taylor, The Man, 491.
  13. Plato, Plato, Vol.3 p.403.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Taylor, The Man, 491.
  17. Plato, Plato, Vol.3 p.403, and Rexine, Religion, 27.
  18. Taylor, The Man, 306.
  19. Taylor, The Mind, 88.
  20. Taylor, The Man, 490.
  21. Rexine, Religion, 29.
  22. Taylor, The Man, 490.
  23. Ibid., 491.
  24. Rexine, Religion, 28.
  25. Taylor, The Man, 492.