Category: Philosophical theories

The immortality of the soul and the doctrine of reincarnation

In his dialogues of maturity, Plato endorses the distinction between a mortal body and an immortal soul. In addition, he adopts the doctrine that the soul is periodically reincarnated in a new body. In his philosophy, the two theses are intrinsically connected with the theory of the Forms.

The immortal soul

In numerous of his dialogues, Plato refers to the last days of Socrates, and does not miss on accentuating his teacher's patient and dignified bearing. For all that, in one dialogue, the Phaedo, Socrates is depicted as almost eager to die because he is convinced of the immortality of his soul. Most Platonists agree that we would be in error to attribute the doctrine of immortality to the historical Socrates. It seems more likely that Socrates was an agnostic with regards to life after death - an assumption upheld by his last words in the platonic Apology: "Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god" (42a). Therefore, we infer that, in the Meno and the Phaedo, the dramatic Socrates merely resonates Plato's views on the immortality of the soul, and the doctrine of reincarnation.

The belief in the immortality of the soul and in its reincarnation is voiced for the first time in the Meno - a dialogue positioned between the Socratic and the mature period of Plato's authorship. There, Socrates assents to a belief he heard from "wise men and women about divine matters" (their description matches the Orphic Circle), according to whom "the human soul is immortal; at times it comes to an end, which they call dying; at times it is reborn, but it is never destroyed" (81b). Phaedo, which is probably composed right after Meno, is dedicated to the subject of the immortality of the soul. In this dialogue, Socrates' imminent death provides the opportunity for Plato to adduce four "proofs" of the immortality of the soul: (a) The argument of the "opposites" (70c-72e): everything comes to being from its opposite, and by implication life is induced by death, which in turn is derived from life in a perpetual circle of successions. (b) The argument of "recollection" (72e-77a): knowledge of the Forms precedes sensory perception; therefore, our souls acquired their knowledge before our birth, and, by implication, they preexisted our body and our birth. (c) The "affinity" argument (78b-80e): in being akin to the intelligible Forms, it is plausible that the soul heads towards the realm of the intelligible and the eternal; whereas, the body towards mortality and change. (d) A final argument (102a-107a): contradictory ideas are mutually exclusive; therefore, the soul, which partakes constantly of life, is incompatible with death - and hence it is immortal.

The doctrine of the immortality of the soul and its reincarnation receives support from Plato's eschatological myths. In the myth of Er, that we find in the Republic, as well as in the myths in the Phaedo, Phaedrus, Timaeus, and the Laws, Plato talks about the post mortem judgment of the souls, about the punishment of the unjust and the reward of the just ones, and about their return in a new form of life.

The significance of the immortality of the soul

According to Plato, the world is dichotomized. On the one side, there is the obscure and chaotic reality that we have familiarized ourselves with through our daily experience. On the other side, there is the less-known stable universe of the perennial Forms. The former is the world of sense, and of belief, and the latter the world of intelligibility and truth. In this platonic sketch of a world, man is trying to find balance. In being himself volatile, impulsive and imperfect, man is attracted by the world of the senses. Nonetheless, he is inherently endowed with an antithetical element, which is stable and eternal, and which is kindred with the realm of the Forms: his soul.

In the Phaedo, man is presented as being compound of a mortal body and an immortal soul. His body is submitted to constant change, whereas the immaterial and eternal soul is by nature akin to the Forms. For the philosopher, death is not a disaster but the deliverance of the soul from its carnal prison. Philosophy is "training for death" (Phaedo 67de). With its disentanglement from the burden of the body, the soul can be devoted to the contemplation of the Forms.

In the Republic, Plato will advance unto a new division. The antithesis between the parts of our soul is more important than that between the soul and the body. The human soul is split into three parts: the "appetitive" (epithumêtikon), the "spirited" (thumoeides), and the "rational" (logistikon) (the latter being the immortal part of our soul, which accommodates reason and correct judgment). Consequently, it is not the body and the soul that play off against each other, but the antithetical powers of the soul. Ultimately, the soul, and in particular its superior and immortal part, conditions the possibility of man to connect with the Forms.

The doctrine of reincarnation

Knowledge of the Forms is facilitated when the immortal soul is unfettered by the bonds of the body; but this condition does not deter the soul from cognizing the Forms even during her course on earth. This acquisition is feasible insofar as the soul refrains from the distractions of the body, and imposes her own rule over it. Thus, the soul sets aside the sensory data, and by employing the intellect alone, reaches valid conclusions about reality. The veracious knowledge that the soul draws from the Forms is, according to Plato, a sort of "recollection". The incarnated soul recalls to memory the direct sight that she had of the Forms when she preexisted the body. This unique experience has been indelibly marked on the soul, but was obfuscated, and in a way "forgotten", when the soul recoupled with the mortal body. Therefore, practicing philosophy consists in the progressive recollection of the soul's obliterated knowledge.

Plato appears to endorse the Orphic or Pythagorean doctrine of the successive reincarnations of the immortal human soul - the truth being that such an affirmation is always mythologically contextualized. On that account, it could be claimed that the dogma of reincarnation is coming into play as an allegory. Its purpose is to flesh out the platonic conviction that human kind is endowed with innate rationality and the possibility of true knowledge.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Robinson, T.M .
  • Snell, B. Die Entdeckung des Geistes. Göttingen, 1975.
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