Questions concerning or involving soul(s) are as old as philosophy itself. What is a soul? What, if anything, is it capable of? Is it mortal or immortal? Material or immaterial? Such questions (then as now) have garnered a wide variety of responses. Pythagoras, for example, reportedly affirmed the transmigration of souls: “Once [Pythagoras] passed by as a puppy was being beaten, the story goes, and in pity said these words: ‘Stop, don’t beat him, since it is the soul of a man, a friend of mine, which I recognized when I heard it crying.’”The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius understood the soul (along with the rest of reality) to be purely material, comprised of (eternal) atoms.
The notion of the soul (psyche) is absolutely central to Plato’s thought. Though his treatment of the soul in other dialogues, especially the Republic and the Timaeus, is far more thorough, Plato’s Phaedrus contains a fascinating treatment arising in the context of love. It is the purpose of this paper to consider Plato’s account of the soul as seen in Socrates’ speech, lines 244a-250c. Our understanding will be facilitated by references to some relevant portions of Plato’s other dialogues.
As we usually encounter it in Platonic dialogues, the soul is not the focus of the Phaedrus. Such discussions typically arise from reflection on other phenomena. In the Phaedo, for example, Plato’s treatment of the soul arises out of his reflection on death: Socrates remarks, “I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death…. Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?… Is it anything else than the separation of the soul from the body?”The topic similarly arises in the Republic, in the context of just versus unjust living. Here in the Phaedrus, it is love that provides the context for discussing the soul.
Context: Lysias’ speech and Socrates’ 1st speech
Often called the ‘soulless speeches’—the word psyche, in fact, does not appear in the dialogue until line 241c—it is Lysias’ speech (which, we note, is hidden beneath Phaedrus’ coat), read by Phaedrus, and Socrates’ first speech that comprise the context for the passage under consideration, Socrates’ second speech. The context, of course, is love, which Plato introduces via Lysias’ speech. Lysias’ clever speech (lines 230e-234c) involves basically three parties, or more specifically, a love triangle: the person genuinely in love, the beloved, and the rival or non-lover. Lysias’ argues that the non-lover can be more to the advantage of the beloved than can the genuine lover, thus the beloved should grant his favors to the non-lover. In short, “Lysias is seeking to subvert the ideology of love.”
Not surprisingly, Socrates criticizes Lysias’ speech, remarking that he “wouldn’t even think that Lysias himself could be satisfied with it.”Though Phaedrus is quite take by the glamour of Lysias’ speech, Socrates derides its lack of form: his “task is to say how [Lysias] fails and writes artlessly.”Absent any logical progression, the non-lover merely itemizes what he takes to be twelve (mutual) advantages of the beloved choosing him over the genuine lover.
As a result of their exchange following the reading of Lysias’ speech, Socrates exclaims, “my breast is full and I feel I can make a different speech, even better than Lysias’.”It should be noted that Socrates forms his first speech solely as a rhetorical exercise in competition with Lysias (going so far as to commit offences against Eros, for which Socrates must purity himself at line 243a). Such an improved speech, of course, begins by defining the subject under consideration—just what we didn’t find in Lysias’ speech.“Love,” Socrates says, “is some kind of desire.”It is, we learn, a form of hubris. Socrates goes on to ground this notion of love thus: “we must realize that each of us is ruled by two principles which we follow wherever they lead: one is our inborn desire for pleasures, the other is our acquired judgment that pursues what is best.”After learning of the (occasional) conflict between these principles, one expects Socrates (to no avail) to examine also the location of the conflict, that is, the soul.
Socrates’ Great Speech
Certainly much more could (and probably should) be said concerning the preceding, but our remarks so far will suffice. We arrive, then, at our passage: lines 244a-250c, Socrates’ Great Speech. The palinode opens by immediately retracting the earlier construal of madness as bad in itself: rather, “the best things we have come from madness” (cf., the implications of “right-minded reason” eventually wresting control from “the madness of love” at lines 241a-c), which “is given us by the gods to ensure our greatest good fortune.” Thus, “we must first understand the truth about the nature of the soul…”
Immortality and Structure of the Soul
As we learn elsewhere, “the entity which we all call ‘soul’ is precisely that which is defined by the expression ‘self-generating motion’…soul, being the source of motion, is the most ancient thing there is.”The soul, then, is immortal—a claim Plato substantiates based on a principle of motion: the soul is its own source of motion (note that at this point, Plato means both human and divine souls).Whatever is its own source of motion is immortal, thus the soul is immortal. Indeed, “every bodily object that is moved from outside has no soul.” What is the implication of this reasoning? As Graeme Nicholson explains, the conclusion of Plato’s argument is “if the soul is that which moves itself, the soul is ungenerated and therefore it is immortal.”Regarding human souls, however, there may be some tension between this account and that of Plato’s Timaeus. In the latter we learn that it is the Demiurge, who is co-eternal with the Forms and the Chaos, that is, the four elements: fire and earth, linked by air and water,who, according to the blueprint of the Forms “in the fist place, set all these in order, and then out of these he constructed this present universe…containing within itself all living creatures both mortal and immortal.”The Demiurge, of course, does not touch the mortal parts, rather passing tasks such as fashioning souls into mortal man onto the lesser (Homeric) gods. Whether the seeming tensions between these accounts can be harmonized is a question for another day. Here we simply note that souls are said to be immortal, having neither birth nor death.
Having just employed reason in the form of dialectical argument, Plato switches to mythology (because that’s what a mere human is capable of) to discuss the soul’s structure: “Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer.”It is generally agreed that this tripartite image of the soul corresponds to that of the Republic.Reason corresponds with the charioteer, the spirited part with the good horse, and the appetitive part with the bad horse—that is, winged horses. What of these wings? “By their nature wings have the power to lift up heavy things and raise them aloft where the gods all dwell, and so, more than anything that pertains to the body, they are akin to the divine, which has beauty, wisdom, goodness, and everything of that sort.”
Flight of the Souls
Recall the aforementioned conflict that occurs in the soul. This is illustrated in the conflict (poor charioteer!) between the good, tempered horse and the bad, unruly horse. Despite their divine-likeness, some souls lose their wings and wander until they light on earth, at which time they become embodied—a mortal combination. How does a soul encounter such a fate, given the upward-moving nature of the wings?
Souls require sustenance. “A god’s mind is nourished by intelligence and pure knowledge, as is the mind of any soul that is concerned to take in what is appropriate to it.” A soul longs to see what is real and watch what is true. It is nourished by “the knowledge of what really is what it is.”This nourishment, however, may only be had at the heavenly banquet, which “is up a steep climb to the high tier at the rim of heaven.” The gods, who are well balanced, navigate the narrow path easily, while the other souls struggle with extreme toil to drive their warring horses (the one persisting toward the visible) along without falling. They will fall if the charioteer “has failed to train it well.” Those which make it can, though distracted by the horses, have a view of Reality, just barely. Falling down, however, may result in damage to or loss of the wings.
Now, in order to become human, a soul must look on truth, “since a human being must understand speech in terms of general forms, proceeding to bring many perceptions together into a reasoned unity.”It is only by first looking on truth that the soul is later able to recall “the things our soul saw when it was traveling with god…” Then, based upon how much truth is seen and recollected, the soul becomes a philosopher/lover, or some lesser person.
Among Plato’s most fascinating and creative dialogues, the Phaedrus treats several topics of interest, including rhetoric, love, and souls. Given the limited scope of this paper, we’ve had to content ourselves with Plato’s thoughts on the soul as seen in Socrates’ Great Speech, lines 244a-250c. But even in these few lines there is much to see. Arising in the context of love, Plato explains first the immortality of the soul (via his own reason), and then the structure of the soul (via imagery, because “to explain the soul actually” is a task for a god). With this understanding in hand, we are able to imagine the strenuous flight of the soul, illustrated in the myth of the charioteer with his two warring horses.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosopher, 8.36 (Xenophanes 21B7), in A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia, eds. Patricia Curd and Richard McKirahan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1995), p. 18.
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, with an English translation by W.H.D. Rouse, rev. with new text, intro., notes, and index by M.F. Smith (London & Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), lines 1.265 – 328 and lines 1.329, respectively (cf. line 1.418 – 421).
References will be from Plato’s Phaedrus, trans. by A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).
Plato, Phadeo, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, lines 64a-c.
Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. by C.D.C. Reeve, in Plato: Complete Works, lines 353a and following.
Graeme Nicholson, Plato’s Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999), p. 114.
Plato, Phaedrus, lines 235a2-3.
Ibid., line 262e6 (cf. the remarks on rhetoric in Plato’s Gorgias).
See Socrates’ criticisms at Phaedrus, lines 264c-d.
Ibid., line 235c6. It is noteworthy that Socrates delivers this speech with his head covered (see line 237a4: “I’ll cover my head while I’m speaking.”), as we learn he did in the Phaedo (see line 118a: “As his belly was getting cold Socrates uncovered his head—he had covered it…”). Scholars agree on the significance of this gesture, though various explanations have been offered. Whatever position is taken, the gesture surely emphasizes the importance of the subsequent palinode for which Socrates uncovers his head (see Phaedrus, line 243b: “I will try to offer my Palinode to Love…with my head bare, no longer covered in shame.”). For more on this, see the attending footnote to line 237a in Plato, Phaedrus, trans. with notes by Robin Waterfield, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 81.
As Agathon opens his speech on love, he similarly criticizes his interlocutors for simply talking around Love, rather than defining it (Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, lines 194e-195a. I owe this observation to Nicholson, Plato’s Phaedrus, p. 118.
Plato, Phaedrus, line 237d4.
Ibid., lines 237d7-9.
This omission in Socrates’ first speech is striking given his remarks elsewhere: “I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: ‘Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’” (Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, lines 30a-b, cf. 36c).
Plato, Phaedrus, line 245c3.
Plato, Laws, trans. Trevor J. Saunders, in Plato: Complete Works, lines 896a-b.
For more on this argument, see Thomas M. Robinson, “The Argument for Immortality in Plato’s Phaedrus,” and Richard Bett, “Immortality and the Nature of the Soul in the Phaedrus,” both in Essays on Plato’s Psychology, ed. Ellen Wagner (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2001). It is not my present purpose to evaluate the success (or failure) of Plato’s proofs.
Nicholson, Plato’s Phaedrus, p. 161.
Plato, Timaeus, trans. by Robert Gregg Bury (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1981), lines 32a – b; note there the resonant echoes of Pythagoras. The unordered chaos of the four elements is also known later as the Receptacle (Timaeus, lines 48e – 49).
Plato, Timaeus, lines 69c.
Plato, Timaeus, lines 41c–d.
Plato, Phaedrus, line 246a.
Plato, Republic, Book IV, lines 439b-441c (cf. Timaeus, lines 69d6-70a7).
Plato, Phaedrus, line 246d.
Ibid., line 246c.
Ibid., line 247d-e.
Ibid., line 248c-d.
Ibid., lines 249b6-c2 (On “truth” cf. the Republic, lines 514a-519d).
Ibid., lines 248d-e.