One of the core values of Western civilization is the dualism of soul and body. This value goes back at least to ancient Egypt, then to classical Greece (Orphism, Platonism etc.), which in turn helped shape early Christianity two thousand years ago.

I find this dualism is a radical position, because it estranges us from ourselves: it casts us into a stark either/or world where we are encouraged to distrust, hold in contempt, deny and renounce a fundamental part of ourselves, namely our bodily or physical nature, from which springs our emotional life. I know some religious people who see life from birth onward as one long preparation for the moment of death, when we will be released from the body, as if our physical nature were a kind of frame, a cage, a prison, and the soul yearned to fly off, at death, to a better place.

Now, I have a non-philosophical take on dualism: I believe that in hyping all the freedom the soul can know sometime in the future, while treating our physical nature here and now as a kind of tyranny, people end up sleepwalking: we risk acting based on motivations we hide from ourselves, we risk going through life backwards – reacting rather than acting – without really understanding our most important experiences, because we are so intently focused on our future death and the next world. This strikes me as a form of dissociation.

Sleepwalking is like acting based on motivations we have hidden from ourselves

Probably the most compelling expression of dualism is to be found in the Platonic dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates, before taking his cup of poison (in 399 BC), speaks about body/soul dualism to his disciple Simmias of Thebes (near Karnak, in Egypt). Apparently, Plato wrote the Phaedo somewhere between 388 BC and 367 BC.

This dialogue allows Plato to place in the mouth of Socrates – retroactively – a poignant affirmation of the immortality of the soul. Of course, the dialogue form makes it seem that Simmias, the person listening to Socrates, is merely stating the obvious, in agreeing to everything his philosophical master says. I quote here from the Jowett translation:

Socrates: “Thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her—neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure,—when she takes leave of the body, and has as little as possible to do with it, when she has no bodily sense or desire, but is aspiring after true being?”

Simmias: “Certainly.”

Socrates: “And in this the philosopher dishonours the body; his soul runs away from his body and desires to be alone and by herself?”

Simmias: “That is true.”

Socrates: “Well, but there is another thing, Simmias: Is there or is there not an absolute justice?”

Simmias: “Assuredly there is.”

Socrates: “And an absolute beauty and absolute good?”

Simmias: “Of course.”

Socrates: “But did you ever behold any of them with your eyes?”

Simmias: “Certainly not.”

Socrates: “Or did you ever reach them with any other bodily sense?—and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything. Has the reality of them ever been perceived by you through the bodily organs? or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of each thing which he considers?”

Simmias: “Certainly.”

Socrates: “And he attains to the purest knowledge of them who goes to each with the mind alone, not introducing or intruding in the act of thought sight or any other sense together with reason, but with the very light of the mind in her own clearness searches into the very truth of each; he who has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and, so to speak, of the whole body, these being in his opinion distracting elements which when they infect the soul hinder her from acquiring truth and knowledge—who, if not he, is likely to attain the knowledge of true being?”

Simmias: “What you say has a wonderful truth in it, Socrates, replied Simmias.”

Socrates: “And when real philosophers consider all these things, will they not be led to make a reflection which they will express in words something like the following? ‘Have we not found,’’ they will say, ‘a path of thought which seems to bring us and our argument to the conclusion, that while we are in the body, and while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire will not be satisfied? and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth. It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves: and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things follows—either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be parted from the body and exist in herself alone. In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion with the body, and are not surfeited with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth.’ For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure. These are the sort of words, Simmias, which the true lovers of knowledge cannot help saying to one another, and thinking. You would agree; would you not?”

Simmias: “Undoubtedly, Socrates.”

I disagree with book knowledge that treats people as abstractions in either/or worlds

Socrates: “But, O my friend, if this is true, there is great reason to hope that, going whither I go, when I have come to the end of my journey, I shall attain that which has been the pursuit of my life. And therefore I go on my way rejoicing, and not I only, but every other man who believes that his mind has been made ready and that he is in a manner purified.”

Simmias: “Certainly.”

Socrates: “And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body, as I was saying before; the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself from all sides out of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone, as in another life, so also in this, as far as she can;—the release of the soul from the chains of the body?”

Simmias: “Very true.”

Socrates: “And this separation and release of the soul from the body is termed death?”

Simmias: “To be sure.”

Socrates: “And the true philosophers, and they only, are ever seeking to release the soul. Is not the separation and release of the soul from the body their especial study?”

Simmias: “That is true.”

Socrates: “And, as I was saying at first, there would be a ridiculous contradiction in men studying to live as nearly as they can in a state of death, and yet repining when it comes upon them.”

Simmias: “Clearly.”

Socrates: “And the true philosophers, Simmias, are always occupied in the practice of dying, wherefore also to them least of all men is death terrible. Look at the matter thus:—if they have been in every way the enemies of the body, and are wanting to be alone with the soul, when this desire of theirs is granted, how inconsistent would they be if they trembled and repined, instead of rejoicing at their departure to that place where, when they arrive, they hope to gain that which in life they desired—and this was wisdom—and at the same time to be rid of the company of their enemy. Many a man has been willing to go to the world below animated by the hope of seeing there an earthly love, or wife, or son, and conversing with them. And will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is strongly persuaded in like manner that only in the world below he can worthily enjoy her, still repine at death? Will he not depart with joy? Surely he will, O my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there and there only, he can find wisdom in her purity. And if this be true, he would be very absurd, as I was saying, if he were afraid of death.”

The dualism of body and soul makes it seem the body exerts power over us, like a kind of tyranny, whereas our soul should aspire to immortality in the next world – but in this moralistic hierarchy of base natures versus higher natures, I wonder what place is left for the person as she really is

I would like to come back to a key passage in this dialogue where Socrates states: “For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all.”

The way Plato put it, these were practically the dying words of Socrates, so 2400 plus years later, we can give the character of Socrates a certain latitude, long after the fact. He was admittedly resigned to death.

Whereas I would say that love, friendship and the harmony of body and soul are key values which make life worth living, and worth transmitting to the next generations.

Emotions (what Socrates calls “loves and lusts and fears and fancies of all kinds”) are not to be rejected because they distract us: on the contrary, as life moves along, we see with our emotions, we learn how vital they are in forming intuitions. Love binds us to other people. “Lust is a charged word, but desire is vital to our survival as a species. Fear is a useful emotion, because it teaches us diligence and caution (e.g. Chuck Yeager: “I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment, and kept me flying respectful of my machine and always alert in the cockpit”). Fancy – or a “what-if” way of pushing the imagination out there – is the wellspring of artistic creation. Emotions are certainly part of our physical rather than purely cerebral nature.

We hear with our emotions, as I learned while incorporating pieces of music by 18 musicians onto the soundtrack of my feature film The Blinding Sea: we composed and recorded 103 original pieces of music altogether, and also recorded four existing traditional pieces of music, for a total of 107. The emotions conveyed by music provide tone, context, a world of references that we can experience and share. The conductor Leopold Stokowski once said: “A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

When we see and hear with our emotions, we take understanding to a new level. The sounds, sights, pain and pleasure that Socrates refers to are actually important to us: they are like signposts guiding us along.

Of course, this means considering human experience outside of the realm of sheer rationality. But then, Plato himself knew he was incapable of conveying an understanding of experience through strictly rational argumentation: he resorted time and again to myths, such as the Allegory of the Cave, the myth of the winged soul, the myth of the androgyne, the Atlantis myth, etc.

And modern philosophers like Paul Ricœur do much the same, when they run out of rational arguments and resort to quoting the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, as a way of getting points across.

We are not purely rational creatures, living at the knife-edge of body and soul, like continents doomed slowly to drift apart, nor should we spend a lifetime obsessed with our future death, as if life here and now were one long test, and we should mainly fix our minds on achieving immortality.

Even so, I like the metaphor of sleepwalking, because it has to do with a disconnect between body and mind at least, with dissociation, with acting on the basis of obscure motivations and being astonished by the result. This is the stuff of fiction or film, rather than of rational philosophy.

Harmony brings moments of freedom – it is a starting-point, not an end point


The Sage of Königsberg

April 21, 2023

Back to the Drawing Board

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