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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

On the Soul: An Examination of Plato and Paul

All this gives priority to the soul for Plato - a priority even to the body. The ψυχη in this scheme is the oldest of all things that have a share in the creative activity, and it is the ψυχη which rules over the body.26 As we noted above, the soul as beginning, as self-originating motion, must be unbegotten, therefore the soul, without beginning, is immortal. Plato not only insists on the immortality of the soul, but he also insists on its pre-existence.27 In Phaedrus Plato purports the soul as an inhabitant - or citizen - of τοποs 'υπερουρανιοs, 'the place above the heavens,' which is said to be the dwelling place of the gods.28 The soul, in appointed order, follows the gods in the procession towards the 'upper regions' where they behold 'many blessed sights', such as the gods happily going 'to and fro . . . each one fulfilling his own work.'29 Thus, the soul is akin to the divine by nature, and likewise pre-exists in the heavens. This all of course is prior to the ascent towards the 'top of the dome of heaven' where only the souls who have properly disciplined their noble and ignoble steeds can continue upwards and feast upon 'the sight of truth' and 'pure knowledge' as they are 'beholding being' - the others, imbalanced and untrained, fall towards the earth in agony.30

The charioteer metaphor in Phaedrus serves at least two purposes. The first is to delineate an image of the soul outside and prior to its life within the human body - an image corroborated by the myth of Er.31 For Plato, this is a central concept which ties directly into his epistemological doctrine. It is the soul's kinship with the divine which makes it long for what rightfully belongs to it,32 and therefore the search of the soul for knowledge of the forms is in a sense a 'home-coming.'33 That is, because the ψυχη is naturally divine it seeks to return to the divine realm, the τοποs 'υπερουρανιοs. The only way this return can be achieved is through contemplation of the forms - Being, Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Justice, etc.34 This contemplation however is not a mere consideration of, but in fact is a union with, participation in the true object.35 Thus, philosophy is a movement of the divine towards the divine - a journey always upwards as well as always rational and intellectual.36> Not surprisingly, this process is a gradual one, since the soul has become accustomed to life in the Cave - the world of unreality - and it must unlearn the assumptions of this false reality, thereby coming to the realisation it is far from home.37

Quite clearly, the fall of the imbalanced, undisciplined soul to the earth underscores the assertion of its separate existence from the body. When the soul loses its wings and makes the descent towards the mortal realm it becomes incarnated - embodied in a life according to the quantity and quality of what it experienced in the heavens as the charioteer-ψυχη.38 The body, according to Timaeus, was put to subordination under that which was created first and more excellent. Indeed, an agent of any sort is argued to never be identified with the tools it uses; therefore the σωμα as an instrument to the ψυχη cannot be the primary cause.39 In Alcibiades I, Plato identifies the true self of the human being as the ψυχη,40 and the body as merely a possession of it, thereby creating a working definition of the human as a soul using a body.41 Moreover, Gorgias states that the body is the tomb of the soul,42 and in the Republic the ideal state of the soul is made out to be disembodiment,43 for its true nature cannot be known until the 'stones and shells' are struck off of it.44 Indeed, the body in fact hinders the nobler functions of the ψυχη, for the pleasures and pains, desires and diseases of the σωμα only serve as obstacles to the pursuit of knowledge.45 Moreover, for Plato, anything learned is merely a recollection of what the soul once knew while discarnate in its heavenly home, thereby making scientific truth a priori and further driving the point of the ψυχη's pre-existence.46 Sense-experience, while aiding in the recollection of the mind by suggestion of the Forms, are deemed inaccurate, and therefore the search for truth must be completed via methods which do not require the senses for substantiation.47 Thus, a distinct cleft is established in the thought of Plato between the soul and its encasing bodily form, which leaves death as a release and escape - as the process by which the soul achieves an independence.48

The third function of the charioteer metaphor is to portray the tripartite nature of the ψυχη. At home, in the τοποs 'υπερουρανιοs, the soul is represented as a composite: a charioteer and two horses of which one is noble and fair in feature, and the other is not.49 This image parallels that of the Republic's where the soul, corresponding to the tripartite city-state, is described as having a nature consisting of a triune recipe: the rationally calculating element (το λογιστικον)50, the appetitive element (το επιθυμητικον), and the spirited element (το θυμοειδηs).51

  1. Rexine, Religion, 31.
  2. Taylor, The Mind, 84.
  3. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1983), 2.
  4. Plato, Plato, Vol.3 p.405.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., Vol.2 pp.407-416.
  7. Deirdre Carabine, The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena (Grand Rapids, MI: W B Eerdmans, 1995), 20.
  8. Louth, Mystical, 3.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Carabine, Unknown, 20.
  12. Louth, Mystical, 5.
  13. Paul Shorey, What Plato Said (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1968), 201.
  14. Taylor, The Man, 525.
  15. Shorey, What, 417.
  16. Taylor, The Man, 525.
  17. Shorey, What, 145.
  18. Nicholas P White, A Companion to Plato's Republic (Indianapolis, IL: Hackett Publishing Company, 1979), 261.
  19. Plato, Plato, Vol.2 p.403.
  20. Taylor, The Man, 180.
  21. Taylor, The Mind, 89-90.
  22. Taylor, The Man, 180.
  23. Ibid.
  24. 'The well-conditioned horse is erect and well-formed; he has a lofty neck and an aquiline nose, and his color is white . . . Whereas the other is a large misshapen animal, put together anyhow; he has a strong short neck; he is flat-faced and of a dark color.' Plato, Plato, Vol.3 p.413.
  25. The following three Greek words for Plato's three spiritual elements are all taken from Emma Wasserman, 'Paul Among the Philosophers: The Case of Sin in Romans 6-8,' Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 30.4 (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2008), 395.
  26. Plato, Plato, Vol.2 pp.163-166.