79. Plato on the Immortality of the Soul: Republic Book X, Part 1

The intellectual and dramatic flow of Plato’s dialogue Republic is driven by Socrates’ attempt to show what justice is and why being just is superior to being unjust. A character, Glaucon, presents a challenge to Socrates in Book II: why would we be just if we had the ring of Gyges that grants invisibility? Why wouldn’t we go murder, rape, steal, and do all the things which we are usually afraid to do as visible agents accountable to the social order? To face this challenge, Socrates claims he needs to give an account of the human soul. But, in order to do that, he suggests we look at an ideal state that is structurally similar to the soul. The strategy is this: since the soul is obscure and hard to see, we should look to the state that is the soul writ large. So begins an extended account of an ideal republic or utopia. This account shows how an ideal state can be constructed and how it deteriorates. And this account is used to depict an ideal soul and how it can deteriorate if not properly cared for.

We learn that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit, and reason. Our appetite represents those desires for physical pleasures like food, drink, and sex. Our spirit represents those desires for social well-being like fame, power, and recognition. And reason represents those desires we have for intellectual well-being like knowledge. Now, if the soul’s fundamental orientation is rational then it will have the virtue of reason which is wisdom. And with wise guidance the spirited function, which cooperates with reason, will manifest the virtue of courage. Reason and spirit can then help moderate appetite so it will manifest the virtue of temperance. When reason moderates appetite with the help of spirit then we have the overarching virtue of the whole soul, namely, justice. Like a well-regulated state, each aspect of the soul will know its place and will contribute to the well-being of the whole person.

Once this account of the soul is established, Socrates returns to the original challenge of the ring of Gyges. He argues that we would want to be a just even when invisible. After all, acts of injustice, far from making us wise and courageous, would strengthen our immoderate appetites for physical pleasure thus making us more ignorant and cowardly. Our soul would, in Plato’s terms, become unjust in its lack of balance and proper function. Indeed, our soul would be akin to the soul of a tyrant who, according to Socrates, is

“really the most abject slave, a parasite of the vilest scoundrels. Never able to satisfy his desires, he is always in need, and, to an eye that sees a soul in its entirety, he will seem the poorest of the poor. His condition is like that of the country he governs, haunted throughout life by terrors and convulsed with anguish. Add to this what we said before, that power is bound to exaggerate every fault and make him ever more envious, treacherous, unjust, friendless, impure, harbouring every vice in his bosom, and hence only less of calamity to all about him than he is to himself.” (578d ff.; this and all other translations will be by Cornford)

The Threat of Nothingness

This argument against a life of injustice based on the portrait of the tyrant in Book IX is certainly powerful and dramatically concludes Socrates’ efforts to show that justice is to be valued for its own sake. But Socrates had also claimed in Book II (357a ff.) that justice is valued for its good consequences. Thus in Book X (608c) Socrates begins to investigate the rewards of the just life. He begins rather oddly by asking whether there can be “anything great in a short amount of time” and noting that the lives we lead, in comparison with the totality of time, are indeed “short enough”. Glaucon’s response couldn’t be more troubling: our lives, when compared with the totality of time, are “nothing” (608c). But if this is the case then why pursue a just life over an unjust one? True, the tyrant is bound to have some problems during his life as we have seen. But the long, arduous life of rational study and burdensome service philosopher kings must undergo has its drawbacks as well! So if all our lives end in nothingness – if there are no good or bad consequences to be reaped when we die – why take the pursuit of justice and wisdom so seriously? Glaucon, finally, gets what he wants from Socrates—an account of why justice is good in-itself—only to face the troubling realization that the sum total of the lives of both the just and unjust amount to nothing. As Seth Benardete put it, “Glaucon gets what he wants and despairs”.[1]

In the face of these concerns, Socrates responds immediately by invoking the immortality of the soul: “Well, ought not an immortal thing to be more seriously concerned with all time than with so brief a span?….Are you not aware that our soul is immortal and never perishes?” (608c). Glaucon is astonished by the question; he asks a question in return: “Are you prepared to assert that?” Socrates says he is and that there is “no difficulty” in doing so. If Socrates is right then the threat of nothingness might disappear and be replaced by a threat Plato articulates through his character Cephalus in Book I of The Republic. Cephalus, in his old age, is trying to act justly by paying his debts to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Here is what he says:

“I can tell you, Socrates, that, when the prospect of dying is near at hand, a man begins to feel some alarm about things that never troubled him before. He may have laughed at those stories they tell of another world and of punishments there for wrongdoing in this life; but now the soul is tormented by doubt whether they may not be true. Maybe from the weakness of old age, or perhaps because, now that he is nearer to what lies beyond, he begins to get some glimpse of it himself – at any rate he is beset with fear and misgiving; he begins thinking over his past: is there anyone he has wronged?” (330dff)

Cephalus’ concerns are easily forgotten in the lengthy course of The Republic. But now, in Book X, they return through Socrates’ assertion of the soul’s immortality and his argument in defense of this assertion. Let’s consider the argument.

The Argument for the Immortality of the Soul from Indestructibility (608c-612a)

A note of caution: Plato wrote dialogues not treatises. These dialogues show the life of the philosophical mind at work: questioning, arguing, speculating, imagining, wondering, struggling, and understanding. They do not show finished results that we can confidently attribute to Plato himself. Rather, they are invitations to join the dialogue and engage with the issues ourselves. So whenever we talk about an issue or idea in Plato’s work—in this case the immortality of the soul—we must be sensitive to the dramatic context out of which these ideas come and the issues Plato wants to raise. I will have more to say on the dramatic context of the argument in parts 2 and 3 of this blog series. That said, it is often helpful to isolate certain ideas suggested by Plato’s characters for consideration. This is what I want to do here: I want to focus on those passages where Plato has Socrates argue for, rather than just describe or discuss, the immortality of the soul. Let’s begin with a formalization of the argument:

(1) The natural evil of y makes y bad and may destroy y by dissolving it from within (608d-609a).

(2) If there were no natural evil of y capable of destroying y, then nothing could destroy y (609b).

(3) The vice of injustice, and its vicious results like ignorance, cowardice, and intemperance, is the natural evil of the whole soul. (609b).

(4) But injustice doesn’t destroy the soul; it only makes it bad (609c-d). Indeed, the existence of evil fills the soul with an “unsleeping energy” and makes it feel “very much alive” (609d ff.).

(5) Therefore the soul cannot be destroyed: it is immortal (611a).

Now that we have the argument in front of us, it is helpful to inspect the central claim of the argument. Eric A. Brown refers to this claim as The Essential Destructibility Claim. Here is his helpful formulation of Plato’s insight:

Essential Destructibility Claim (EDC): If there were no natural evil of y capable of destroying y, then nothing could destroy y (but if there is such a natural evil, then y can be destroyed by something other than the natural evil of y).[2]

According to Brown, Plato’s EDC is often misinterpreted in at least three ways:

Misinterpretation 1: Except for the natural evil of y, nothing can contribute at all to the destruction of y.

Misinterpretation 2: Except for the natural evil of y, nothing can contribute to the destruction of y unless it brings about the natural evil of y.

Misinterpretation 3: Except for the natural evil of y, nothing can contribute to the destruction of y unless it somehow works along with the natural evil of y.

Naturally, misinterpretation 1 of the EDC leaves Plato open to endless counterexamples: wood can be burned by fire even if its natural evil is rot; rust is the natural evil of iron and copper even though we can destroy iron and copper by melting them down; and disease is the natural evil of the body but the body can be crushed beyond recognition. For example, the Cliffs Notes to Plato’s Republic includes the following objection: “Wood, for example, can be destroyed not only by rotting away but by being burned”. But Brown argues that Plato is not open to counterexamples like this because he is “making the logical point that any destructible thing must be capable of being destroyed by its natural evil….the claim is not that the natural evil of y must play some causal role in the destruction of y, but that it must be able to destroy y.” (302). If the natural evil of y need not be involved in the process of destruction then misinterpretations 2 and 3 can’t be used as objections to Plato either. The EDC says if y has a natural evil that can indeed destroy it, as is the case with wood, then y can be destroyed or made bad by something other than the natural evil of y. But if y’s natural evil cannot destroy it, then nothing else can destroy or corrupt y.

In the next post we will consider some more powerful objections to the argument (go here).

[1] Seth Benardete, Socrates’ Second Sailing: On Plato’s Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 223.

[2] For a full exposition and defense of Plato’s argument, see Brown’s excellent article “A Defense of Plato’s Argument for the Immortality of the Soul at Republic X 608c-611a” in Essays on Plato’s Psychology, edited by Ellen Wagner (Maryland: Lexington, 2001), p. 297. Hereafter, page number

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.