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Lecture Eighth: The Immortality of the Soul and the Idea of God

IN the last lecture I endeavoured to show how Plato was led by a consideration of the opposing theories of the Eleatic and Heraclitean schools, to develop and correct his own theory of ideas. In his earlier account of that theory he had dwelt, with somewhat one-sided emphasis, on the contrast between the relative and shifting character of phenomena and the absolute unity and permanence of the ideal objects of knowledge. He had sometimes even spoken as if each of these objects was an independent and unchangeable unity, which was to be apprehended by itself, apart from all relation to the others. It is probable, however, that such statements were intended by Plato only to bring out clearly the difference between knowledge and opinion; and their inadequacy was partly corrected by the way in which all the ideas were referred back to the one central Idea of Good. Still the difficulty was not removed till, by the conflict of the earlier schools, Plato was led to realise the equal importance of analysis and synthesis, and to define the idea as the unity of identity and difference, of rest and motion. When this step was taken, the vague consciousness of the unity of all ideas with each other through the Idea of Good, which had been expressed in the Republic, at once developed into the conception of a community or connexion of ideas, as distinct yet organically related elements of one intelligible whole.

At the same time, another process is going on in the mind of Plato. His early idealism had been essentially objective. The idea was primarily that which is absolutely real in the objective world as contrasted with the appearances of sense. It was the permanent essence of the thing which the name designated; in Plato's own words, it was ‘the good itself,’ ‘the beautiful itself,’ ‘the equal itself’; and the fact that it was recognised as such by the mind was secondary and derivative. But already in the Republic more attention is drawn to the subjective aspect of the intelligible reality, and the Idea of Good is regarded as at once and co-ordinately the principle of knowing and the principle of being. And in the Phaedrus and the Sophist this change is carried still farther, and soul or mind is treated as itself the principle of all thought and reality.

Now, these stages in the development of Plato's thought are clearly reflected in his argument for the immortality of the soul, an argument which does not remain stationary, but is extended, modified, and developed through a succession of dialogues. In its earliest and most imperfect form, it is an attempt to prove the immortality of the soul through the special nature of its idea; but this gradually passes into an endeavour to show that the soul is immortal in its own right. Thus souls or minds come to be regarded, not as beings whose substantial reality has to be proved by anything else, but as beings which contain in themselves the principle of all reality, and therefore of all proof. Finally, there is a still farther regress, by which all individual minds are referred back to one supreme intelligence, who is the ‘first mover’ of all things, and who communicates life and intelligence to all other minds or souls. It is, therefore, essential to a comprehension of Plato's idealism, or rather, as we may call it, his spiritualism, that we should carefully follow out the different phases of this argument.

In the beginning of the Phaedo the immortality of the soul is conceived as involving, and involved in, its pre-existence; and the proof of both is derived from the somewhat mythical conception of knowledge as reminiscence, a conception of which I have already spoken in an earlier lecture. As the knowledge of universals is drawn out of the soul, and not simply put into it by direct experience or by teaching, it is attributed to the memory of a former state of existence, a memory which has become dulled and obscured by the descent of the spirit into the world of sense. This memory may be revived by reflexion and dialectic, though it cannot be completely restored till death liberates the soul from the body and its affections. The soul, therefore, is to be conceived as remaining unchanged in its essential nature through all the processes of birth and death; as being many times born into the sensible world and departing from it again, but ever maintaining the continuity of its life, and carrying with it, in a more or less explicit form, all the knowledge it ever possessed.

This suggestive poetic conception has been used by a modern poet for the same purpose. In his great “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood,” Wordsworth, like Plato, connects the idea of immortality with that of pre-existence, and finds the proof of both in those ‘shadowy recollections’ of something better, which haunt us from our earliest years: in

“Those first affections, those shadowy recollections,

Which, be they what they may,

Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,

Are yet the master-light of all our seeing,

Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

Of an eternal silence.”

There are, however, two great changes in the Words-worthian reproduction of the Platonic myth. In the first place, Wordsworth seems to say that the child is nearest to its heavenly origin, and most clearly remembers it, and that, as we go on in life,

“the vision dies away,

And fades into the light of common day.”

Plato, on the other hand, has no sentiment about childhood, but holds that the soul at its first coming into the body is crushed and overwhelmed by its mortal nature, and loses all memory of the higher life in which it has partaken; but that, as it grows to maturity, reminiscences of its past glories may be re-awakened in it. They may be re-awakened, in the first place, in a sensuous imaginative form, by beautiful objects which are “a shadow of good things, but not the perfect image of those things”: and then again in a more distinct and self-conscious way, they may be recalled by philosophical reflexion, which enables us to apprehend the truth in its own universal or ideal nature. And from this follows the second point of difference between Wordsworth and Plato, namely, that for Wordsworth the highest consciousness to which the soul can attain, is connected with certain vague imaginative suggestions or intuitions which cannot be defined or reduced to any distinct form:

“Those obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things,

Fallings from us, vanishings,

Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realised,

High instincts, before which our mortal nature

Doth tremble like a guilty thing surprised.”

By Plato, on the other hand, all such symbolic and imaginative modes of consciousness are regarded as a mere foretaste and anticipation of knowledge,—a preparatory stage, in which the mind is satisfied with what is at best a ‘noble untruth’; whereas the pure truth of things, as they really are, can only be apprehended by the reflexion of the philosopher, who grasps the universal and defines it, and who by it is enabled to gather all the different aspects of reality into a systematic unity.

With this half-mythical idea of reminiscence, however, Plato immediately associates the more pregnant conception that, in rising to the universal, the mind is not so much going back into the past as going deeper into itself. The intelligence that grasps the universal must have something in itself that is kindred thereto; it must have something of that permanent and substantial reality, that simplicity and unity with itself, which belongs to the ideal object it apprehends. It is, therefore, estranged from itself so long as its thought is turned only to that which is sensible and particular; and, in awaking to that which is spiritual and universal, it is, as it were, coming to itself again. Nor can it be touched by death: for death only breaks its connexion with the world of sense, and so delivers it from that “muddy vesture of decay,” which obstructs its vision of the eternal, and prevents it from recognising its kinship therewith. Here, as elsewhere in the Phaedo, Plato seems to yield to the mystic tendency to exaggerate the opposition between the intelligible and the sensible, and to dwell upon that aspect of universals in which they appear as pure ideal unities freed from all the accidents of finite existence. And his argument is simply that the soul, in so far as it is capable of grasping such ideas, must be, like them, lifted above time and change. Plato, therefore, is not yet prepared to maintain that the soul in its own right is immortal, still less to assert that it is the self-determining principle which determines all other things, the substantial being that underlies and gives origin to all other reality. He still treats it as a particular existence, which must be proved to be immortal through its special relation to the ideal and eternal.

Nor does he go much beyond this point of view even in the curious argument which concludes the dialogue, and which he seems to regard as its most important result. The idea of the soul, he there contends, presupposes the idea of life; and it cannot be separated from life, any more than the idea of evenness can be separated from the number two, or the idea of oddness from the number three. Hence, just because the idea of life is involved in the idea of the soul, the soul must live for ever.

We have here a close parallel to the ontological argument for the being of God—the argument that God necessarily exists, because existence is involved in the conception of Him as a perfect being. And both arguments seem open to the same objection. To the ontological argument it is objected that we cannot pass from thought to existence by means of another thought, but only by means of some tertium quid, if such can be found, which shall connect thought with existence. What is wanted is to prove that a being corresponding to the idea of perfection exists; and it is an obvious evasion of the point to say that this requirement is satisfied because the idea of existence is included in the idea of perfection. And equally fallacious is it to attempt to bridge the gulf between the idea of the soul and its eternal existence by saying that life is essentially involved in that idea. Hence Teichmüller contends with good reason that all that Plato has proved is that the idea of the soul—that ideal reality of which all souls partake, but with which none of them is identified—is immortal and eternal like all other ideas. In other words, he contends that Plato only gives us a relation of ideas; and that, even if we grant to him that ideas are eternal principles, yet he has himself taught us that the same does not hold good of their particular embodiments. And it is a mere quibble to say that this case is an exception, because the idea in question is the idea of life; for, ex hypothesi, an idea is distinguished from particular existences, just by the fact that it is eternal, while they are ever changing, ever becoming and passing away.

Now, there is a way of repelling the objection to the ontological argument for the being of God; though only, it must be confessed, by inverting it, or challenging the presuppositions on which it was originally based. That argument, as it is usually stated, starts with the assumption of an essential division between thought and being in general, and then seeks for some special means of transcending that division in the case of the idea of God. But, instead of assuming such a dualism to begin with, we may ask on what grounds it can be asserted. In other words, we may ask on what grounds existence is separated from thought, and thought from existence. When we look at the question in this way, as I tried to show in dealing with the Idea of Good, it becomes clear that the distinction of thought and reality is not an absolute one. It corresponds, indeed, to a real difference, but that difference presupposes an identity which is beyond it. There is an ultimate unity between thought and reality, which is postulated in the very act of opposing them, and without which that act itself would be meaningless; for consciousness always presupposes a relation between the elements it distinguishes, and therefore a unity which transcends the distinction. If the subject asserts his own existence in distinction from the existence of the objective world, he ipso facto presupposes the unity of the whole, in which both subjective and objective are factors. And the principle of that unity must be recognised by it as the principle at once of knowing and being; that is, it must be recognised as the Divine Being. Thus, if we assert the existence of the mind that knows in opposition to the world that is known, we must also assert the existence of God. We must recognise the absolute Being who transcends the distinction of self and not-self, as a principle apart from which neither the one nor the other can have any reality or meaning. While, therefore, we cannot argue from the thought of God to His existence as an object, we can make a regress from the opposition of thought and reality to God as the unity implied in that opposition.

Is it possible to make a similar transformation of Plato's argument for the immortality of the soul? And, if so, does Plato himself make it? It is at once obvious that, in order to do so in the case of the soul, Plato must transcend that absolute opposition of the universal and the individual, which Teichmüller and others have regarded as the essential characteristic of his philosophy. He must conceive the soul as possessed of what might be called a ‘universal individuality,’ i.e. an individuality which is one with its idea, and which, therefore, partakes of the eternity that belongs to the idea. Now, the argument by which, in the Phaedo, Plato endeavoured to secure an exceptional position for the soul, is certainly fallacious as he has there stated it; but we find that, in later dialogues, he gave it another and less ambiguous form. For there we find him maintaining, not that the soul is immortal because it partakes in the idea of life, but that the ultimate principle of life, as of all substantial reality, is the soul. We may clearly trace the development of this thought in the Republic and the Phaedrus.

In the Republic Plato lays down the principle that a thing can be destroyed only by its own evil, by that which specially mars and corrupts its own nature. Hence the soul cannot be injured by the diseases of the body or destroyed by its death, except in so far as these bring with them evils that directly affect the soul itself, namely, the evils of injustice and intemperance, folly and ignorance. But can the soul be destroyed even by these its own diseases? On the contrary, we often find that its vitality, the intense activity of its life, shows itself just in and through its vices. “The injustice, which will murder others, keeps the murderer alive—aye, and well awake too; so far removed is her dwelling-place from being a house of death.” If, then, the soul cannot be destroyed even by its own peculiar and characteristic evils, it is absurd to think that it can receive any vital injury from the death of the body, which is not in itself connected with such evils. As no one can say that the decay of the body makes us more unjust, there is no reason to believe that the soul is affected by its death. Hence Plato contends that the soul is an absolutely permanent substance; that, therefore, the number of souls must always remain the same, neither increased nor diminished; and that all that their connexion with mortal bodies can do is for a time to obscure and dim their brightness. But, he goes on, “in order to see the soul as she really is, not as we now behold her marred by communion with the body, we must contemplate her with the eye of reason in her original purity; for, as she is now, she is like the sea-god Glaucon, whose original image can hardly be discerned, because his natural members are broken off and crushed and damaged by the waves, and incrustations have grown over them of seaweed and shells and stones, so that he is more like a monster than his natural form.” But “we must regard her higher nature as shown in her love of wisdom, and in her yearning for the divine to which she is akin.”1

Now, if we translate this into more modern terms, I think we can see that Plato means that the soul, in so far as it is capable of intellectual and moral life, has a universal principle, or perhaps we should say, the universal principle in it. Hence no influence can come to it from without which is capable of destroying it. No calamity which affects only its body or its mortal individuality can be fatal to its own life. For though, in one aspect of it, it is a particular finite being, subject to all the accidents and changes of mortality, there is that within it which lifts it above them all. We might add—though this perhaps would be going beyond what Plato says in this place and putting positively what he puts only negatively—that it can not only rise above them, but can also turn them into the means of its own development. Outward misfortune and even death, as Socrates had shown, it can treat with indifference, and even use them as an opportunity for the exercise and manifestation of its own spiritual energy. And as regards what Plato calls its own proper evils, though undoubtedly the soul may be divided against itself and weakened by vice and folly, yet even they cannot penetrate to the deepest principle of its spiritual life; they cannot destroy its self-conscious or rational nature, and therefore they cannot be incurable. Nay, the universal principle of spiritual life enables it to turn even its own failures and sins into ‘stepping-stones’ upon which it may ‘climb to higher things.’ If this is going beyond Plato's exact words, it seems to be a natural inference from the principle he here lays down, that the soul cannot be destroyed by its own evil, much less by any other kind of evil.

The more positive expression of the same idea, however, is found in the Phaedrus. In that dialogue Plato gives us a myth in which the soul of man is described as a charioteer, driving a chariot with two horses—which of course represents the reason in its control over the higher and lower impulses, θυμός and ϵ̓πιθυμία. The soul-chariot follows the procession of the gods in their journey round the universe, and tries like them to rise above the apex of heaven to the vision of ideal reality, the vision of essential truth and goodness and beauty: but its wings often fail to carry it high enough. And when they fail, it sinks downward to the earth, and becomes the tenant of a mortal body. In connexion with this wonderful symbolic myth on which Plato lavishes all the treasures of his imagination, he suddenly turns from poetry to philosophy, and argues that the soul, as such, is immortal, because it is self-moved or self-determined: “Soul in every ease is immortal,” he contends, “for what is ever in motion is immortal, but that which moves another and is moved by another, in ceasing to move, ceases also to live. Only the self-moving, as it never abandons itself, never ceases to move, and is the fountain and beginning of motion to all that moves beside. Now, a beginning or principle cannot have come into being at any time, for that which comes into being must have a beginning or principle from which it comes, but the principle itself cannot come out of anything else: for if the principle came out of anything else, it would show itself not to be a principle. But, again, what never begins to be must also be indestructible: for, if the principle were destroyed, it could not rise into being out of anything else, nor anything else out of it, since all things must come from a principle. The beginning or principle of motion must, therefore, be found in that which moves itself, and it can itself have neither death nor birth; otherwise the whole universe and the whole process of creation would collapse and be brought to a stand, and no path back into motion and existence would remain possible. If, however, we say that that is immortal which is proved by itself, we need have no scruple in asserting that this is the very essence and idea of the soul. For any body which has the principle of its motion outside of itself is ‘soulless,’ while that which has its principle of motion within and from itself, is ‘possessed of a soul,’—implying that this is the very nature of soul. But if it be granted that that which moves itself is soul, then of necessity the soul is unbegotten and immortal.”2

This idea of the soul as the first mover is a very important one in the history of philosophy and theology, and we shall have to discuss it more fully hereafter in connexion with the views of Aristotle. Here I need only say what is necessary for the explanation of its place in the system of Plato. In this view, we have, in the first place, to remember that the term ‘motion’ is used by Plato in a wider sense than we commonly attach to it, as meaning not only change of place, but activity in general. For in the former sense motion always implies the action of one thing upon another, and absolute self-movement is a contradiction in terms. What Plato means, therefore, is that the soul has in itself an original principle of activity, a principle of self-consciousness and self-determination. He thus carries the idea suggested in the Republic a step farther: for, while in that dialogue we have the negative thought, that the soul cannot be destroyed by any evil derived from another than itself, in the Phaedrus we have the positive counterpart of this, that it is determined, and can only be determined, by itself. It has a universal nature and, therefore, it transcends all limits or hindrances that can be put upon it by other things. They cannot affect it, or they can affect it only indirectly through its own action. Even its confinement in a mortal body is represented as the result of its own fall from its previous high estate; and the nature of the body in which it is imprisoned, as well as its whole lot in this world, is said to be fixed by its own inner state. “The soul is form and doth the body make”: it creates its own environment, and in successive births it rises and falls in its outward estate, according to the goodness or badness of its actions: αἰτία ϵ̓λομϵ́νου, θϵòς ἀναίτιος.3 It is then Plato's doctrine in the Phaedrus that ‘all soul’—and here he makes no distinction between different grades of souls or even between the divine being and other souls—is self-moving or self-determined, and has a spring of eternal energy in itself; and that, though its spiritual life may be darkened and obstructed, it can never be destroyed. For soul is the principle of all reality both in itself and in all other things. “The soul in its totality,” he declares,4 “has the care of all inanimate or soulless being everywhere, and traverses the whole universe, appearing in divers forms. When it is perfect and its wings have fully grown, it soars upward and orders the whole world; but when it loses its wings, it sinks downward, till it reaches the solid ground and takes up its abode in an earthly body, which seems to move of itself but is really moved by the soul. And this compound of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature: for immortal no such union can be believed to be, though our sensuous imagination, not having seen or known the nature of God, may picture him as an immortal creature having a body and a soul which are united through all time.”

It appears, then, that in the Phaedrus the soul is taken as the principle of all things, to which all movement—all activity and actuality—must ultimately be referred. It is the one absolutely universal, and therefore absolutely individual existence, which determines itself and is not determined by anything else, and which for that reason is immortal and eternal. Thus souls seem to attract to themselves the characteristics of ideas, or, at least, to take the place of ideas, as ultimate principles of being and knowing. Further, Plato seems to attribute soul in this sense, not only to men, but to all living creatures. At least he regards them all as alike in the fundamental principle of their being, however the manifestation of it may be obstructed by the kind of body with which it has become associated. In short, as I have before explained, all life for Plato is the life of intelligence, more or less adequately realised. While, therefore, in all souls that are incarnated in bodies, there is ipso facto a finite and perishable nature which cannot survive the crisis of death, there is also in them a principle which is altogether independent of the accidents of their mortal part. Hence the individual who is capable of moral and intellectual activity—who, in spite of the narrow conditions of mortal life, can become a ‘spectator of all time and existence.’ and who, in his practical efforts, is guided by a consciousness, or at least a foretaste and prophetic anticipation, of the universal good—such an individual is essentially self-determined. He has in him a universal principle of activity or life, and nothing can be imposed upon him from without which is not accepted from within. In this way Plato could maintain the originality and independence of every spiritual being, as such, even in his lowest degradation—even when, in his subjection to sense and appetite, he sinks below humanity: for in all its transmigrations the soul is conceived as remaining one with itself. There is, indeed, always a certain mythic element in Plato's statement of this view; and we are not able to say how far he means what he says of the pre-natal and the future states to be taken literally. But there cannot be any reasonable doubt that he attributes a self-determined and therefore immortal existence to the soul—or, perhaps we should rather say, to the reason or spirit; for, in his later and more definite statements, the soul is taken as the principle that connects the pure reason with the mortal body; and it is only to the spiritual part of man's being that the attribute of immortality is assigned.

It is obvious, however, that Plato could not stop at this point. As he could not rest in the thought of a multiplicity of ideas without referring them back to the one Idea of Good, so neither could he be content with the conception of a multitude of self-determined and immortal souls without referring back to one divine reason, as the source and end of their spiritual life. Hence in the Philebus we find him speaking of a “divine intelligence,” which is the ultimate cause of all order and organisation in the mixed and imperfect nature of man and of his world. And the same thought is expressed in the mythical language of the Timaeus, where Plato declares that the souls of the gods and the higher element in the souls of men are the direct work of the Creator: they are, therefore, incapable of being destroyed except by him who has created them, and he cannot will to destroy what he has himself made.5 Thus, in place of a number of independent spiritual beings, each immortal in his own right, we have the idea of a kingdom of spirits, who all, indeed, partake in the divine nature, and are therefore raised above time and change, but who, nevertheless, have a dependent and derived existence and are immortal only through their relation to God. It is in accordance with this that in the Laws, where Plato repeats the argument of the Phaedrus that the soul is immortal, because it is self-determined, he applies it only to the divine Being. God only is the first mover, the source of life and activity in all other beings. He is the sovereign will, who has ordered the world as an organic whole in which each individual has the exact part to play for which he is fitted.6 If man be immortal it is not in his own right as an individual, but because the divine life is communicated to him. In other words, we have to prove his immortality on the ground that the universal principle of reason, which is the presupposition of all being and of all knowledge, is the principle of his own life; and that all beings, in whom this principle is realised, must have this nature manifested in them. We must prove it, in short, because in the language of the New Testament “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” And perhaps this is the one argument for immortality, to which much weight can be attached.

It appears, then, that Plato's proof of the immortality of the soul ultimately resolves itself into the ontological argument for the being of God; or rather, we should say, that it is what that argument becomes when freed from its dualistic presuppositions. In other words, it is a regressive argument, which carries us back to an ultimate unity, prior to all difference, and especially to the difference of thought and being. Further, Plato maintains that this unity must be conceived as a supreme intelligence, which, as such, stands in a peculiar relation to all beings who have the principle of intelligence in them. These, and these alone, are regarded as partaking in the divine life, and, therefore, as lifted above change and death. All other things are, in comparison with them, only appearances, which are continually changing and passing away to make room for others. But they—though for a time they become denizens of this world of birth and death, of growth and decay, and may pass through many transitory forms in the rise and fall of their spiritual life—do not essentially belong to it, and their real nature cannot manifest itself clearly until they are liberated from it.

Plato, then, though in his later dialogues he gets beyond the abstract antagonism between the ideal and the sensible worlds, ends by restating that antagonism in a new form. He has shown that ideas are not to be conceived as excluding all difference and relativity, but as elements in an intelligible world, each of which has its distinct character, while yet it is essentially bound up with all the rest. In the second place, he has turned this idealism into a spiritualism by treating soul or intelligence as the only thing that can be regarded as active or self-determined, the only thing that can be taken as actual or real in the full sense of the word. Finally, he has suggested that all souls are to be viewed as derived from, or dependent on, one divine soul or spirit, who manifests himself in and to them, so that, in the words of Schiller,

“Aus dem Kelch des Seelen-reichs

Schaümt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.”

But this ideal or spiritual world, which is in perfect unity with itself through all its difference, is still conceived as standing in sharp antithesis to the world of phenomenal appearance, in which difference becomes conflict, and conflict produces endless mutation of birth and death. And the last problem of the Platonic philosophy or theology is to determine the relation of these two worlds to each other.

  • 1. Rep., 611 D.
  • 2. Phaedrus, 245 C. The great difficulty in translating this passage is that in it Plato's language is in the very process of changing from figure to thought, or, as a German would express it, from the Vorstellung to the Begriff. He is in the act of making philosophic terms out of words in common use. Thus ἀρχή is just passing from ‘beginning’ to ‘principle,’ γϵ́νϵσις from ‘birth’ to ‘becoming’ in general, and κίνησις from ‘motion’ to ‘activity’ in general.
  • 3. Rep., 417 E.
  • 4. Phaedrus, 246 B.
  • 5. Tim., 41 A: cf. Leges, 904 A.
  • 6. Leges, 903 B.