This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

NOTICE:
This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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Plato’s doctrine of the soul

We titled this section ‘Greco-Catholic Anthropology’ but have yet to discuss the doctrine of the soul as developed by Plato and Aristotle. This is necessary, not so much in order to understand the writings of the New Testament, but to understand the fully developed enunciation of Catholic anthropology produced by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aristotelian philosophy and its unique terminology are so integrated, in fact, that it is difficult to see how anyone unfamiliar with Aristotle (and Plato, for that matter) could properly understand Aquinas.

We begin, then, with Plato.

Plato famously described the body as a tomb (soma-sema) in the Gorgias, a tomb for the human soul, which is divine. One would assume from this that Plato despised the body and was the first Manichean, but the truth is not so simple.

The soul itself, although one, is divided into parts: the intellect (nous) which tends toward truth and the intelligible, situated in the head; the conscupisible or ‘appetitive’ (epithumetikon) which tends toward the corporeal and wordly domain, situated in the stomach; and the irascible (thumoeides), which is an intermediate part, situated in the heart.

Multiple images are used to symbolically convey these localizations and the part played by each. In the Timaeus the representation is identical to what was described above, but in the Republic Plato describes man as the ‘chimerical animal’ whose belly is formed by the Hydra (representing the appetitive part with its constantly multiplying desires), the chest by a lion (representing nobility and courage, but also anger), and the head by a human body, which here symbolizes the intellect.

Here we will recall what was said above—that from this we might assume that Plato’s view of the body is similar to what we get from certain isolated statements of St. Paul, wherein the flesh seems to be the source of all evil and therefore the enemy of man, who must wage war against his own limbs. Yet this is a superficial and inaccurate reading of both men.

The body, for Plato and for Christians, is not evil in itself, but is rather an instrument that has the potential to carry out evil acts and by its nature presents the ‘occasion of sin’ to the human person. The real possibility of evil resides in the soul itself, which succumbs to its appetites by way of the body. The body is the medium through which the senses are exercised, but it does not respond to what is seen, heard, or felt of its own volition: it is the soul that finds objects to desire, and which desires them in ways that might be fatal to itself.

Here is what Plato says:

“The soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars…philosophy can see that the imprisonment is ingeniously affected by the prisoner’s own active desire, which makes him first accessory to his own confinement.”[1]

What at first seemed like a precursor to gnostic dualism turns out, after an examination of the texts, to be an alchemical roadmap whereby the initial ‘prison’ becomes merely a point of departure as the individual learns organize his inner life according to a proper hierarchy which involves the intellective soul ruling the irascible soul, both of which rule the concupiscible soul, at which point the body is recruited and utilized properly. The individual, having thus achieved a healthy alignment of his inner reality, can then pursue the divine, with the ultimate goal being the ‘beatific vision’[2] familiar to Christianity.

Plato is neither trichotomist nor enemy of the body, but is merely offering anthropological framework that, in his view, would allow man to alchemically integrate all of his elements, enlisting their energies in view of a spiritual ascent.

In the end, the main difficulty for us is how the intellect of Plato is to be understood, since it seems at one moment a transcendent ‘other’ and at another moment intrinsic to the human being’s constitution. Here we find intimations of the intellect as a power in view of which our rational analysis breaks down, and this is why it is often described as ‘supernaturally natural’, straddling the line between the particular and the Universal, between Being and Beyond Being.

At this point we can move on to Aristotle, who was responsible for the continuation of Plato’s mission, albeit in a different way and with a different point of emphasis, and who would have such a profound impact on the development of later Catholic theology.

[1] Phaedo, 82e.

[2] Phaedrus, 250b.

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