Friday, July 25, 2008

Plato’s Phaedo & resurrection of the soul

I discussed the evasiveness of Plato in my previous post as a preface to my discussion of an argument of Plato’s in the Phaedo. Plato tells us that philosophy is a preparation for death (67f). The reason is because the soul persists after death, and the fate of that soul after death is determined by one’s actions in this life, and a philosophical life prepares the soul for the best possible afterlife.

The important argument is how Plato proves the resurrection of the soul. He does this with the argument that everything comes to be from it’s opposite. Day comes from night, something can only become wet from being dry, something can only become large from being small . If everything comes from its opposite, then this means that the living come from the dead (70d), since living is opposite of dead. Thus, when one dies, one goes from the living to the dead, then when is born one must become living from the dead.

If you don’t find this a compelling argument, then you and I are in agreement, but the question is why. The problem is with the definition of opposite. You see, the idea that a thing comes to be from its opposite is a sound argument, if you define opposite in a precise way. You see, when speaking we usually refer to opposites in a very informal way. We might speak of running as the opposite of walking or lying down as the opposite of standing or standing as the opposite sitting. Usually we just mean by opposites two different things within a common category (like human locomotion), which are as different from each other as can be (running and walking). But Plato requires a precise binary opposition for one to say that a thing comes to be from its opposite. If for example we say that there is a transition time between day and night called dawn, then we would say that day comes from dawn, and dawn comes from night. As well, a person needn’t necessarily come to be running from a state of walking, but could’ve been standing still, or lying down, or falling or sitting. If we defined the opposite of running more strictly as “not-running” which includes all states of motion or lack of motion that aren’t running, then we could say that a person comes to be running from a state of non-running. Day comes to be from non-day, dry comes to be from non-dry, etc.

Maybe we might need to define a realm of opposition, that is to say, for example, a hacksaw is non-day, but it would be absurd to say that day comes from a hacksaw. Thus, you’d have to define it so that non-day only includes phases of the diurnal cycle that aren’t part of day, but this is a side issue.

Back to Plato’s argument, the more precise way of putting it is to say that the living come to be from the non-living. When Plato says that the living come from the dead, the implication is that the living come from those not living who were formerly living. But if we are more precise about it, we realize that the realm of non-living includes both those not living who were formerly living and those not living who never were living. In other words, when we are born, the stuff we come from may or may not have been formerly living stuff come from a previous life.

Plato’s argument fails because an unspoken assumption (that the dead only includes those not living who were formerly living) and imprecise definitions (in particular, of what is an “opposite”). Plato exploits the informal nature of our usage of opposite, and he won’t be the last philosopher. Hegel will, two millennia later, use the imprecision of opposition as the backbone of his whole dialectical method, which he uses to describe the movement of spirit and of ideas in general as they progress from opposite to opposite in the constant upward evolution towards absolute being. But that is another matter.

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