The Stoics And Socr

The Stoics and Socrates
The question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body is
among the most important problems of philosophy, for with it is bound up the
doctrine of a future life. The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal
principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are
animated. The term “mind” usually denotes this principle as the subject of our
conscious states, while “soul” denotes the source of our vegetative activities
as well. If there is life after death, the agent of our vital activities must
be capable of an existence separate from the body. The belief in an active
principle in some sense distinct from the body is inference from the observed
facts of life. The lowest savages arrive at the concept of the soul almost
without reflection, certainly without any severe mental effort. The mysteries
of birth and death, the lapse of conscious life during sleep, even the most
common operations of imagination and memory, which abstract a man from his
bodily presence even while awake; all such facts suggest the existence of
something besides the visible organism. An existence not entirely defined by the
material and to a large extent independent of it, leading a life of its own. In
the psychology of the savage, the soul is often represented as actually
migrating to and fro during dreams and trances, and after death haunting the
neighborhood of its body. Nearly always it is figured as something extremely
volatile, a perfume or a breath.


In Greece, the heartland of our ancient philosophers, the first essays of
philosophy took a positive and somewhat materialistic direction, inherited from
the pre-philosophic age, from Homer and the early Greek religion. In Homer,
while the distinction of soul and body is recognized, the soul is hardly
conceived as possessing a substantial existence of its own. Severed from the
body, it is a mere shadow, incapable of energetic life. Other philosophers
described the soul’s nature in terms of substance. Anaximander gives it an
aeriform constitution, Heraclitus describes it as a fire. The fundamental
thought is the same. The soul is the nourishing agent which imparts heat, life,
sense, and intelligence to all things in their several degrees and kinds. The
Pythagoreans taught that the soul is a harmony, its essence consisting in those
perfect mathematical ratios which are the law of the universe and the music of
the heavenly spheres. All these early theories were cosmological rather than
psychological in character. Theology, physics, and mental science were not as
yet distinguished.

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In the “Timaeus” (p. 30), one of Plato’s writings, we find an account derived
from Pythagorean sources of the origin of the soul. First the world-soul is
created according to the laws of mathematical symmetry and musical harmony. It
is composed of two elements, one an element of “sameness”, corresponding to the
universal and intelligible order of truth, and the other an element of
distinction or “otherness”, corresponding to the world of sensible and
particular existences. The individual human soul is constructed on the same
plan.


The Stoics taught that all existence is material, and described the soul as “a
breath pervading the body”. They also called it Divine, a particle of God; it
was composed of the most refined and ethereal matter. They denied absolute
immortality; relative immortality, ending with the universal conflagration and
destruction of all things, some of them admitted in the case of the wise man.

Yet many others, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, denied even this, arguing
that, as “the soul began with the body, so it must end with it”.


With Socrates came a revolution in all manners of thought. As, perhaps, the
most influential of philosophers, and also one of the best known, it is truly
unfortunate he left the future so little of his theories. Only through the
writings of his students have we any idea of his philosophy. In the writing of
Plato much thought is given to the concept of the human soul. Socrates presents
the soul having three major ideas associated with it. The human soul is
immortal, immaterial, and moral. The question of immortality was a principal
subject of Plato’s speculations. In the “Phaedo” the chief argument for the
immortality of the soul is based on the nature of intellectual knowledge
interpreted on the theory of reminiscence of past lives; this implies the pre-
existence of the soul, and logically derives its eternal pre-existence. The
human soul is eternal, existing with neither beginning nor end.


With Socrates, the individual aspects of the soul became dominant. It’s
individuality and its strict separation with the body. In dominant thought
prior to the introduction of Socratic ideas, the human soul was naught but a
small part of a great world-soul; a soul that included the souls of every
creature and every object upon the earth and in the universe. In this scenario
the actions of a human were of no consequence directly to the soul. There could
be no concept of morality having any impact on personal life beyond the
immediate. To Socrates the soul is the center of all human morality, the
embodiment of “the good” in the human consciousness. Rather than just
proceeding to rejoin the world-soul the individual soul must pay reparation for
life on earth. A human that lives immorally, with disregard to the good will
impact the future of his soul. In Greek philosophy the souls that are damned
live for eternity in a place of torture and torment. The individual soul gives
humans motive for leadinglives that are good and just. In Socrates own words
“It is better to suffer injustice than to serve injustice.” The care of the
soul becomes dominant over the body. Care for the immortal aspects of the human
and rewarding life after death will follow.


Socrates ties an abstract set of values to the existence of the soul. To lead a
life that is good and just is to seek throughout ones life the ultimate
understanding; to fully recognize the good in the universe and to understand its
place. Without the realization of this good we are unable to fully comprehend
any form of existence. I originally found fault with this assessment of life
and the soul as a result of the seemingly complex and abstract values that a
soul must live by. Upon further reflection the ultimate purpose of the soul is
to seek understanding. Though abstract in nature, this goal is one that can be
applied to every individual regardless of culture, creed or religion. Though I
first considered this one of the week points in the Socratic theory in truth its
universality, is one of its strengths.


Socrates’ introduction of the individual soul includes an aspect of motive to
the nature of existence. With this new found individuality a soul must worry
about its existence, if it acted properly it would ascend to the Greek concept
of eternal bliss. In my own unworthy opinion, to act with personal benefit in
mind is to act selfishly and therefore immorally. I concede to Socrates that a
truly selfless act is impossible, for as humans we always have an ulterior
motive behind the closed door of our direct consciousness. Why should it be
different for the eternal existence of our soul? Though we may always have
goals to work towards, basing ones life on the condition of afterlife is self
defeating. Life must be lived from day to day with actions that further ones
own immediate goals, whether they are to bring joy to others or to live quietly
in peace. To have the thought of eternal salvation looming overhead is to live
life with a bit in your mouth. Actions in accord with the good will be
committed for that reason; because they are good and just, not in hope of a
better afterlife.


Socratic thought has played such a dominant role in our thinking that it is all
but useless to imagine a world without the benefit of his wisdom and
understanding. his influence can be felt throughout all aspects of thought, for
he covered them on such a universal level that they extend even to our own time.

His concept of the soul revolutionized Western concepts and gave the necessary
basis for his students to carry on. In the convoluted mess of differing ideas
on the soul, Socrates’ is the most universal, the most encompassing and the most
realistic.

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