JMC : Pre-Scholastic Philosophy / by Albert Stöckl

Physics of Plato. Theology, Cosmogony, and Psychology.

§ 30.

1. To begin with the Theological system of Plato; we find a threefold proof for the existence of Good:

(a) The older Philosophy of Nature took irrational Matter as the basis of all things, and held Reason, i.e, the rational soul of man, to be evolved from it. Against this assumption Plato protests. We must begin, not with inert Matter, but with the Rational Soul. Matter is not the cause of its own motion; its motion supposes a moving cause different from itself. This moving cause cannot itself be of such kind that it also requires to be moved from without; such an hypothesis would involve us in an endless series. It must, therefore, be of that kind which is self-moving. This self-movement is the essential characteristic of the spiritual or psychical being, as contrasted with the material. Matter, according to this reasoning, necessarily postulates the existence of a "Soul." This Soul is the Divine Spirit, or Divine "Soul." Atheism, as a theory, is therefore absolutely irrational. (De Leg. X., p. 893; Phaedr. p. 245.)

(b) In the world Order and Design are everywhere manifest; they are observable in the lower regions of the universe, but more notably still in the regions of the stars. Order and Design, however, are not possible unless we suppose a Reason, and Reason (nous) can exist only in a soul (psuchê) or Personal Spirit. We are thus forced to admit a Personal Divine Spirit, which presides over the universe, and is the cause of the Order and Design which prevail in it. (Phaedr. p. 30.)

(c) The ultimate elements of things are the Unlimited and the Limit, for it is only by limitation of the Indefinite that a determinate definite object is possible. But the determination of the Undefined by limitation supposes a determining cause, which, as such, is above the thing determined. This determining cause must be some supramundane divine principle. (Phileb. p. 23.)

2. We have next to inquire what are the attributes which Plato assigns to the Divine Being. We may sum up his teaching on the point as follows:

(a) The Divine nature is supremely perfect; it is endowed with every conceivable attribute; no perfection (aretê) is wanting to it. God is, therefore, the Absolute Good -- by no other notion is his nature more perfectly represented than by the notion of the Good, for this notion combines in itself all the perfections with which the Divine Nature is endowed. For this reason God is the cause of all that is good, and of that only which is good; wickedness, evil, cannot be attributed to him as to its cause; He is the Author of good, and of good only. When the poets describe the gods as doing wicked deeds, they are dishonouring the Divine Nature. God is, furthermore, the Absolute Truth; it is impossible that He should deceive men, or lead them astray; the mythological stories of deceptions practised on men by the gods are absurd.

(b) God, being supremely perfect in his Nature, is immutable. If God could undergo any change, the cause of that change would be within His own Being, or without Him. The latter alternative is not admissible, for the nature which is supremely perfect cannot be changed by another. The former is also inconceivable, for if God could change Himself, He should change either to a more perfect or to a less perfect state: the former He cannot do, since He is already absolutely perfect; nor can He effect the latter, for no being, and least of all the most perfect, changes of its own accord from a more perfect to a less perfect condition. God is, therefore, unchangeable; He does not take one form at one time, another at another, as the poets tells us; He retains throughout eternity one simple, immutable form. (De Rep. II., p. 380.)

(c) God is a Personal Spirit, and, as such, is transcendently raised above the world. As Personal Spirit, He rules all things, and directs and guides all according to Reason and Providence. He is a supramundane being, and is therefore above the temporal order. Time affects only things of earth; God is above Time; He is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all things; the Absolute Present. (Tim. p. 37; De Leg. IV., p. 715.)

(d) In addition to the sovereign Divinity, Plato admits the existence of subordinate gods, to whom he assigns an intermediate rank between the Supreme God and the world, i.e., man. He teaches that these subordinate divinities are ministers through whom God exercises His providence and His guiding influence upon earthly things, and that through them also the prayers and sacrifices of men are transmitted to God -- for which reasons men owe them reverence. The highest rank among the subordinate gods is held by the star-gods -- the souls of the stars; next come the demons, amongst whom the aether demons, i.e., those whose bodies are formed of aether, hold the first place; below these are the Air and Water demons, with bodies formed of air or water. (Conviv., p. 202; De Leg. X., p. 895; Tim. p. 39.)

3. We pass now to Plato's theory of Cosmogony. He assumes three principles as necessary to explain the origin and present existence of the world: Matter, the underlying basis of the physical world (causa materialis); God, the Demiurgos, or efficient cause (causa efficiens); and Ideas, the models or prototypes of things (causa exemplaris). Assuming the existence of these ultimate causes, Plato, in Timaeus, explains the process of the formation of the world.

(a) Matter existed, and exists eternally, side by side with God. It was not produced by Him; it exists apart from Him, though side by side with Him. At first it was purely indeterminate, and therefore without any definite qualities. In this original condition it was without order -- a wild, fluctuating mass, a chaotic thing, assuming, without rule or law, ever-changing forms. It was blind Necessity (anagkê), the antithesis of Mind acting by a plan (nous).

(b) But God was good, and free from jealousy; He resolved that Matter should not be abandoned to this disorder. He fixed His gaze upon the eternal, unchangeable prototype (Ideas), and after this model fashioned Matter into a well-ordered world. Being Himself the Supreme Good, He made all things to be good, and to be like Himself. The formation of the world was accomplished in this order:

First God, as Demiurgos, created the Soul of the World. Combining two elements, one of which was indivisible and immutable, the other divisible and changeable, He formed a third or intermediary substance. In this way the World-Soul came into existence.{1} The Soul thus formed was placed by God in the middle of the world, and extended in the form of a cross through the entire universe.

The Demiurgos next invested the World-Soul with a body of spherical form, this form being the most perfect. This body is composed of the four elements, each of which has a mathematical figure peculiar to itself. The elements of cubical form made the Earth, the pyramidal formed Fire, while midway between these, in the order of geometrical figures, came Water, composed of icosahedral elements, and Air composed of octahedral.

The Architect of the Universe has distributed the nobler, the unchangeable element of the World-Soul along the line of the Celestial Equator; the less noble, the changeable element, along the line of the Ecliptic. The inclination of the Ecliptic is a consequence of the less perfect nature of the spheres beneath the heaven of the fixed stars. The intervals that separate the celestial spheres are proportional to the lengths of a vibrating string which emit harmonizing tones. The Earth is placed in the middle of the universe; it forms a sphere through which passes the axis of the world.

From these fundamental premises Plato deduces the following conclusions regarding the world:

The world, as such, is not eternal. It had a beginning, at the moment when God began to impress order upon Matter. Time began with the beginning of the world; it is, however, the image of eternity. The world, once formed, cannot come to an end.

The world, as at present constituted, is the only possible world; any other is wholly inconceivable. The whole system of Ideas, forming the kosmos noêtos and serving as the model or prototype of the material world, reveals itself in the world actually existent. There is no Idea of the kosmos noêtos which has not its corresponding species existent in the world of phenomena. There is only one prototype, there is only one ectype.

The world, as it exists, is the most perfect world possible. A more perfect could not be. God, who is all goodness, and free from all jealousy, has made the world as like the ideal prototype as possible. He has made it to resemble Himself as closely as the nature of Matter permitted. Being the most perfect, and the most beautiful of all the things which have come into existence, the world must be endowed with life and reason, and this perfection is given it by the World-Soul; its motion is the most perfect, and the most constant -- motion in a circle; it is in truth a second God.

4. Admitting that this world is the most perfect world possible, we are at once confronted with the question: How is it possible that evil can exist in the world, and what are the causes of this evil? In his answer to this question Plato has recourse to the nature of Matter. Good alone can come from God. But Matter is not only incapable of receiving to the full the action of the Divine, world-forming Goodness, it further withstands the formative and co-ordinating action of God upon it. In virtue of this resistance it becomes the principle of all disorder, wickedness, and evil in this world. It stands, to a certain extent, in opposition to God, and its activity in this opposition generates evil. The world, as the work of God, is perfect in good; but inasmuch as Matter withstands the action of God, evil must necessarily exist in the world. God cannot vanquish evil.

5. We pass now to Plato's Psychology. Plato discusses, in great detail, the problems of psychology, and endeavours, at all points, to find solutions in harmony with his theological and cosmological theories. He condemns emphatically the doctrine that the Soul is nothing more than a harmonious arrangement of the constituents of the body. For in such an hypothesis the strivings of the soul against the tendencies of Sense would be impossible; and furthermore, since every harmony admits of increase and diminution, one soul would be more a soul than another -- an assertion which is clearly absurd. Again, harmony is incompatible with its antithesis -- discord; if then the Soul were merely harmony, it could not admit into itself the discord of evil or of vice, it follows that we must hold the Soul to be a spiritual substance, simple in its nature, and distinct from the body. The further argument used by Plato to establish this doctrine is analogous to the proof adduced above to prove the existence of God. Psychical, or spiritual being, is of its nature prior to the material and corporeal, for the latter can receive its motion only from the former. This principle must apply to the relations between Soul and Body. The psychical element in man's nature cannot be a product of the corporeal; on the contrary, the psychical element must exist as a causa movens antecedently to the body, for without a Soul as causa movens a living body capable of movement would be impossible. The Body being a composite substance, belongs to the same order of being as the things of Sense, whereas the Soul is a simple substance, allied in nature to that unchanging, simple Being which exists above the world of phenomena. The Body we know through the senses, the Soul through reason.

6. What are the relations subsisting between Soul and Body? This question Plato answers as follows: The Soul stands to the Body in the relation of a causa movens, and in this relation only. The Soul dwells within the Body somewhat as the charioteer in the chariot; the Body is merely the organ which it uses to exert an external activity. The real man is the Soul only; in the concept "man," the notion "body" does not enter as a constituent element in the same way as the notion "Soul." Man is, properly speaking, a Soul, which uses a body as the instrument by which it exercises an activity on things without itself (anima utens corpore).

7. In accordance with this view of the relations between Soul and Body is the further opinion of Plato, that along with the rational Soul there also exists in man an irrational Soul, which is made up of two distinct parts; thus giving us, ultimately, three Souls in man.

The rational Soul, the logos, is the Soul proper of man. It is like to God, it may be called the Divine element in man; it has its seat in the head. To this Soul belongs all rational knowledge. Subordinate to this are two other Souls, dependent on the body, and subject to death (according to the Timaeus), the one is called by Plato the irascible (to thumoeides, thumos), and this he locates within the breast; the other he calls the appetitum (to epithumêtikon, epithumia), and locates in the abdomen. The functions of these two Souls are purely sensuous; on them the life of sense in man is dependent. The appetitive Soul is found in plants, the irascible Soul is possessed by brutes.

The method which Plato adopts to establish the existence of this threefold psychical element in man is interesting. We notice, in man, he says, a conflict of opposing tendencies; the appetite strives after something which the reason forbids, and anger rises up in opposition to reason. No being which is really one can come into contradiction with itself; to explain the internal conflict of these opposing tendencies which clash within us, we are forced to admit internal principles of action really different from one another. And as these conflicting movements are of three different kinds, we are obliged to admit a triple Soul in man -- the appetitive, the irascible, and the rational. (De Rep. IV. p. 456).

In what relation do these three Souls stand to one another? Plato is of opinion that the rational Soul and the appetitive are, as it were, two extremes, between which the irascible Soul takes its place as a sort of middle term. Plato compares the thumos to a lion, the epithumia to a many-headed hydra, and also to a perforated or bottomless vessel. Of its nature the thumos is on the side of reason, and supports the reason against the many-headed hydra which is always in rebellion against it.

8. Regarding the origin of the human Soul, Plato, in Timaeus, teaches that it is produced by God -- in the same way as the World-Soul -- by a mixture of those elements which he calls the "identical" and the "different."{2} This, however, applies only to the rational Soul. The irrational Soul is produced by the subordinate gods. It would be unworthy of the Supreme God to create a merely mortal thing, so He entrusted to the subordinate divinities the task of forming the mortal Soul, and uniting it to the immortal. In Phaedrus, p. 245, Plato seems to represent the Soul as not produced (agenêtos). We have already learned that the Soul is not united to the body in the first moment of its existence, that it has already existed in an incorporeal condition. We have now to inquire why it is united to a body with which it is not by nature destined to enter into union.

9. In Phaedrus, Plato furnishes an answer to this question under the form of an allegory. The Soul, before its imprisonment in the body, lived an incorporeal life among the gods. Mounted upon heavenly chariots the gods career through that ultra-celestial region whose beauty no poet has ever worthily sung; in the midst of the gods, the Soul equipped with heavenly wings, and guiding a chariot drawn by two steeds, held its course through the ultra-celestial sphere, enjoying the vision of truth. But one of the steeds was restive and ungovernable, and it happened that many souls could not control this steed. In consequence confusion was created in their ranks; in the tumult the wings of many were injured, and they fell ever lower and lower, till at last they fell to the earth to the region of material substance, i.e., to the corporeal condition. The Soul that in its previous state had enjoyed most fully the vision of Being, became the Soul of a philosopher; the Soul that stood next in rank became the Soul of a king, and so on through a graduated series of human conditions down to the tyrants and sophists who hold the lowest places of all. In this first generation Souls do not enter into the bodies of brutes.

10. The meaning of this myth seems to be that the Soul in its incorporeal state had committed some offence for which it was punished by imprisonment in the body. Hence it is that Plato everywhere speaks of its union with the body not as an advantage, but as an evil. He calls the body the grave in which the Soul is shut in as a corpse; he calls it a prison, in which the Soul is confined like a captive; a heavy chain which binds the Soul, and hinders the free expansion of its energy and its activity. The culpability which has been punished by the imprisonment of the Soul within the body must have consisted, as indicated by the myth we have quoted, in the tendency towards the objects of sense; for we can hardiy understand the restive steed to signify other than the hepithumia which we have seen to be that part of our nature which is in continual revolt against the law of reason.

11. The immortality of the (rational) Soul is emphatically asserted by Plato, and in Phaedo the theory is supported by several arguments. These arguments may be briefly stated thus:

(a) Everywhere opposites generate opposites. Death follows life, and out of death life is again generated. Man cannot form an exception to this universal law. As man, therefore, passes from life to death, so must he again awake from death to life. This would be impossible if the Soul, the principle of life, came to an end in death. It must, therefore, live on, that in its reunion with a body man may wake to life again.

(b) Being a simple substance, the Soul is kindred in nature to that which is absolutely simple and immutable (the Idea); in the same way as the body, being a composite substance, is kindred in nature to things sensible and changeable. As then the body, because of this affinity with that which is destructible, is itself destructible, so must the Soul, because of its affinity with the indestructible, be itself indestructible.

(c) If the Soul has existed by itself before its union with the body, it follows that it must exist after separation from it. Now it is proved from the peculiar character of our cognitions that the Soul existed before its union with the body, it follows then that it will outlive its separation from the body.

(d) Furthermore, nothing can be at once itself, and the opposite of itself; it is impossible that the same object should have a share in two contradictory Ideas at the same time. Now the Soul is essentially life, for life is self-movement, and self-movement is the very essence of the Soul. But if the Soul participates in the Idea of "life," and is a Soul only in so far as it participates in this Idea, it follows that it cannot admit into itself the opposite of life, i.e., death. A dead Soul is a contradiction in terms. The Soul is, therefore, not merely immortal, its life is absolutely eternal, essentially excluding every possibility of dissolution.

(e) Again, the dissolution of any being whatever can be accomplished only by some evil antagonistic to the nature of that being. The one evil which is antagonistic to the nature of the Soul is vice, i.e., moral evil. But this is clearly not capable of destroying the being of the Soul, consequently the Soul cannot be destroyed; it is therefore incorruptible, immortal (De Rep. X., p. 608). This argument gains additional force if we consider that the destruction of the Soul by moral evil would mean that the wicked have no punishment to expect -- a consequence which is wholly at variance with the Moral Order. (Phaedo, p. 107.)

(f) Lastly, Plato, in Timaeus, appeals in proof of the Soul's immortality to the goodness of God, who could not destroy a creature of beauty, even though it were a thing destructible by nature. In Phaedo he appeals to the conduct of the philosopher whose effort after knowledge is a constant effort after incorporeal existence, a striving to die.

12. Plato always connects the notion of immortality with the notion of retribution after death. The latter principle he holds as firmly as the immortality of the Soul. The good are rewarded after death, the wicked punished according to their deserts. In his exposition of this doctrine, Plato frequently introduces the ancient myths; for, according to him, nothing truer or better can be said on this theme than what is contained in these myths. The several myths which he introduces are not, however, always consistent with one another, and it would hardly be possible to explain away their differences. The fundamental notions which are put forth in these several myths may be stated as follows:

(a) The man whose life has been good and pleasing to God, and has been purified by philosophic effort, enters immediately after death into a condition of bliss; those who have cultivated the merely social virtues must pass through a previous process of purification; those who pass out of life answerable for some misdeeds, but only for such as can still be cured, have a temporary punishment to suffer; those whose misdeeds are incurable, are doomed to eternal reprobation. These who are not fully purified, retain after death something of corporeal being, which forms a shroud in which they hover restlessly over the graves of their bodies till their tutelary demons conduct them to the nether world.

(b) Souls, after death, do not remain permanently in the disembodied state, they enter into other bodies (metempsychosis), but into such as correspond to the moral condition in which they have quitted life. The good enter into the bodies of men; the less perfect into the bodies of women the wicked into the bodies of beasts; the species of brute body into which each soul enters is determined by the species of vice or passion to which it was addicted in life.

(c) All these processes are accomplished within a period of ten thousand years. When this term has been completed, all souls return to the condition out of which they passed in their first process of generation, and a new cosmical period begins. Plato sometimes speaks of an earlier period, which may be described as a golden age. There was then no evil, and no death; the earth spontaneously brought forth food in abundance; man and beast lived together in friendly concord; there was no distinction of sexes; men were produced from the earth by spontaneous generation. All this came to an end at the beginning of the next great period -- a period which was introduced by a great cosmical revolution. It was then that the world, as we know it now, first came into existence (Polit. p. 296.) It was then that the distinction of the sexes was first established, and that the human species was reproduced by carnal generation. We have here distorted traditions of a happier and more highly privileged condition of existence enjoyed by the first men.

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{1} Plato, in Timaeus, describes the former element as tauton the latter as thateron. As we have noticed above, he introduces these two elements into the world of Ideas, in order to make possible the transition from unity to plurality in the ideal order; here he seems to separate them, making tauton the Idea, and thateron Matter. In this explanation the World-Soul is not purely spiritual, it includes a material element as well.

{2} This seems to indicate that Plato hid bold the human Soul, as well as the World-Soul, to be a being not purely spiritual, but containing some admixture of matter. How this can be reconciled with his distinct assertion of the immaterial nature of the human Soul, is not easy to understand.