Some thoughts on the soul- according to the Tradition…


In explaining the prohibition against suicide, Socrates refers to the account in the Mysteries that men are in some kind of prison under the supervision of the Gods. “The reason given in the Mysteries on the subject, that we men are in some sort of prison, and that one ought not to release oneself from it or run away, seems to me a lofty idea and not easy to penetrate”. The word, phrourà, which could indicate either a prison or a garrison post: in the latter case, the soul’s sojourn in the body has to be regarded as a kind of civic obligation in the service of the Gods, a frontier tour of duty from which it would be wrong to go against. Plato in the Phaedo chose the word phrourà precisely because of its ambiguity, because it enabled him to convey the image of imprisonment of the soul in the body while tempering it with the more positive connotations of garrison duty that is owed to the Gods. Socrates is repeatedly described as being in desmoterion, in a prison (57a2, 58c5, 59d4, 59d5, 59e1) from which he will be released at his death. Likewise, the souls that go to the upper realms are described in the closing myth of the dialogue as being released as if from prisons (114c1). Just as Socrates is released at the beginning of the dialogue from his fetters (60c6), so the soul is released at death from the fetters of the body (67d1). These chains that hold the soul to the body, Socrates explains, are pleasures and pains. “Each pleasure and pain fastens the soul to the body with a sort of rivet, pins it there, and makes it corporeal, so that it takes for real whatever the body declares to be so.” These links forged by pleasure and pain as the body experiences them in turn create the prison of the soul.  The captive participates in his own imprisonment, forging the chains of desire that bind him to the world of the body. So strong are these fetters that the soul is unable to separate itself from the body at death, But it remains connected to the material, sensible, visible world of the living.


Plato emphasizes solutions to the potential problems of the transition that must be performed before death. The philosophic life, as the daily effort of separating the mind from the physical world, is the highest form of this practice for death- Damascius’  commentary: “Why does Socrates not adhere to tradition? Perhaps it was not customary to wash those who died a violent death. Rather, it is suggested that even the body should be cleansed voluntarily and before death.” (Dam. II 151).

The philosopher relies on the purifications of the philosophical life as Plato defines it in the Phaedo to separate the soul from the body on a continuous basis. The philosopher must separate himself from the concerns and afflictions of the body and the multiform world of the senses and concentrate upon exercising the mind. Philosophy thus serves both as a purifying ritual (katharmòs) to dissolve the mixture of body and soul and as a release (lysis) from the prison of the body.


The philosopher’s virtuous behavior stems from his desire for Wisdom, for an understanding of the things as they truly are and that truly are (82cd). Such a practice dissolves the chains of pain and pleasure that bind the soul to the body (83d4–6), for the pleasures and pains cease to appear real in contrast to the things that the soul apprehends by reasoning. As Socrates explains, “The soul of every man, when intensely pleased or pained at something, is forced at the same time to suppose that whatever affects it in this way is most clear and most real, when it is not so.” The prison of the soul that the unphilosophic person creates for himself from his desires (cp. 82e5–6) melts away for the philosopher as he perceives the reality of the unchanging Divine world.


Nurtured by this intellectual vision of the Divine, the soul of the philosopher grows into its own nature, coming more and more to resemble the uniform and unvarying, to the Divine itself. Since the Divine is naturally fitted to be the ruler of the mortal, the soul thus comes to rule more completely over the body, instead of being subject to it (80a1–9).No longer inextricably entwined with the body, the soul can guide the body rather than be led astray by it….





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