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 Explain Plato's "Immortality of the Soul"?

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sallysal1987 | Student, Undergraduate | Valedictorian

Posted March 29, 2012 at 7:02 PM via web

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 Explain Plato's "Immortality of the Soul"?

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ophelious | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted March 29, 2012 at 9:31 PM (Answer #1)

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Plato makes an argument for the "soul" being immortal.  Interestingly, he does this very shortly before he poisons himself to avoid being executed by the state for not accepting the local gods and corrupting young people with his ideas.

His argument is a little hard to understand for most people, and I'm not entirely sure it's very effective (but that's another question alltogether!)  It has four points that I will try to give a short explanation of:

  1. The Cyclical Argument -- The essense here is that, like sleeping and waking, "life" for the soul came into being from its opposite, death.  The soul existed somewhere before birth, even if we're not aware of it, and once it leaves the human body it will go back to that place.  He says, basically, that you were "dead" before being born, and since everything comes from something, you being born created life from this death.  The soul, after leaving the body, will just return to that state without being destroyed.  It's a strange sounding argument but amounts to "the dead" being born from living things (when they die,) and "the living" being born out of the dead (upon birth.)  Either way, the soul existed in both forms.
  2. Theory of Recollection -- Socrates tells Cebes that people sometimes have knowledge of things that they have never been exposed to and never had the chance to learn.  This, he says, is the result of having learned it in some previous life and is proof the soul does not perish.  
  3. The Affinity Argument -- The body is mortal and can die, but the soul is divine and must live.  When a person dies they are still around in the form of a corpse that can been seen.  They don't simply "poof" away.  Similarly, Socrates says that death doesn't simply cause the soul to destruct.  He goes further, though, and says that if a person dies smart and balanced and understanding these things his soul will continue on in the underworld in a stable fashion.  If, though, the person who has died led a greedy and self-centered life, their soul will not be able to detach from the body that gave it so much pleasure and will be a miserable soul (perhaps even tortured in Hades.)  This argument is hard to prove and even Cebes doesn't buy into it for its lack of logical proof.
  4. Form of Life -- This goes to the idea of "forms."  A good way to think of it, according to Socrates, is the number three. Whether people are there to see it or not, there will always be the number three (and all numbers, for that matter.)  You can't make three things into four without adding or taking away.  That makes different numbers "forms" that are universal.  Socrates argues that the soul, too, is a form, and that as a form it cannot be destroyed. Three never becomes two and the existing soul can never become a non-existing soul.

These are some famous arguments that have shaped a lot of people's thinking over the years, but it's important to note that Socrates doesn't perform any slam dunks here (at least in my mind.)  Much of his "proof" are logical but require a person to accept the principles he's basing the arguments on (such as the fact that people sometimes remember things they've never learned.)  It's all very interesting, but to me a bit unconvincing. 

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