The Stoics and SocratesThe question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body isamong the most important problems of philosophy, for with it is bound up thedoctrine of a future life. The soul may be defined as the ultimate internalprinciple by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies areanimated. The term “mind” usually denotes this principle as the subject of ourconscious states, while “soul” denotes the source of our vegetative activitiesas well. If there is life after death, the agent of our vital activities mustbe capable of an existence separate from the body. The belief in an activeprinciple in some sense distinct from the body is inference from the observedfacts of life. The lowest savages arrive at the concept of the soul almostwithout reflection, certainly without any severe mental effort. The mysteriesof birth and death, the lapse of conscious life during sleep, even the mostcommon operations of imagination and memory, which abstract a man from hisbodily presence even while awake; all such facts suggest the existence ofsomething besides the visible organism. An existence not entirely defined by thematerial and to a large extent independent of it, leading a life of its own. Inthe psychology of the savage, the soul is often represented as actuallymigrating to and fro during dreams and trances, and after death haunting theneighborhood of its body. Nearly always it is figured as something extremelyvolatile, a perfume or a breath.
In Greece, the heartland of our ancient philosophers, the first essays ofphilosophy took a positive and somewhat materialistic direction, inherited fromthe pre-philosophic age, from Homer and the early Greek religion. In Homer,while the distinction of soul and body is recognized, the soul is hardlyconceived as possessing a substantial existence of its own. Severed from thebody, it is a mere shadow, incapable of energetic life. Other philosophersdescribed the soul’s nature in terms of substance. Anaximander gives it anaeriform constitution, Heraclitus describes it as a fire. The fundamentalthought 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. ThePythagoreans taught that the soul is a harmony, its essence consisting in thoseperfect mathematical ratios which are the law of the universe and the music ofthe heavenly spheres. All these early theories were cosmological rather thanpsychological in character. Theology, physics, and mental science were not asyet distinguished.
In the “Timaeus” (p. 30), one of Plato’s writings, we find an account derivedfrom Pythagorean sources of the origin of the soul. First the world-soul iscreated according to the laws of mathematical symmetry and musical harmony. Itis composed of two elements, one an element of “sameness”, corresponding to theuniversal and intelligible order of truth, and the other an element ofdistinction or “otherness”, corresponding to the world of sensible andparticular existences. The individual human soul is constructed on the sameplan.
The Stoics taught that all existence is material, and described the soul as “abreath pervading the body”. They also called it Divine, a particle of God; itwas composed of the most refined and ethereal matter. They denied absoluteimmortality; relative immortality, ending with the universal conflagration anddestruction 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, arguingthat, 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, themost influential of philosophers, and also one of the best known, it is trulyunfortunate he left the future so little of his theories. Only through thewritings of his students have we any idea of his philosophy. In the writing ofPlato much thought is given to the concept of the human soul. Socrates presentsthe soul having three major ideas associated with it. The human soul isimmortal, immaterial, and moral. The question of immortality was a principalsubject of Plato’s speculations. In the “Phaedo” the chief argument for theimmortality of the soul is based on the nature of intellectual knowledgeinterpreted on the theory of reminiscence of past lives; this implies the pre-existence of the soul, and logically derives its eternal pre-existence. Thehuman soul is eternal, existing with neither beginning nor end.
With Socrates, the individual aspects of the soul became dominant. It’sindividuality and its strict separation with the body. In dominant thoughtprior to the introduction of Socratic ideas, the human soul was naught but asmall part of a great world-soul; a soul that included the souls of everycreature and every object upon the earth and in the universe. In this scenariothe actions of a human were of no consequence directly to the soul. There couldbe no concept of morality having any impact on personal life beyond theimmediate. To Socrates the soul is the center of all human morality, theembodiment of “the good” in the human consciousness. Rather than justproceeding to rejoin the world-soul the individual soul must pay reparation forlife on earth. A human that lives immorally, with disregard to the good willimpact the future of his soul. In Greek philosophy the souls that are damnedlive for eternity in a place of torture and torment. The individual soul giveshumans 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 thesoul becomes dominant over the body. Care for the immortal aspects of the humanand rewarding life after death will follow.
Socrates ties an abstract set of values to the existence of the soul. To lead alife that is good and just is to seek throughout ones life the ultimateunderstanding; to fully recognize the good in the universe and to understand itsplace. Without the realization of this good we are unable to fully comprehendany form of existence. I originally found fault with this assessment of lifeand the soul as a result of the seemingly complex and abstract values that asoul must live by. Upon further reflection the ultimate purpose of the soul isto seek understanding. Though abstract in nature, this goal is one that can beapplied to every individual regardless of culture, creed or religion. Though Ifirst considered this one of the week points in the Socratic theory in truth itsuniversality, is one of its strengths.
Socrates’ introduction of the individual soul includes an aspect of motive tothe nature of existence. With this new found individuality a soul must worryabout its existence, if it acted properly it would ascend to the Greek conceptof eternal bliss. In my own unworthy opinion, to act with personal benefit inmind is to act selfishly and therefore immorally. I concede to Socrates that atruly selfless act is impossible, for as humans we always have an ulteriormotive behind the closed door of our direct consciousness. Why should it bedifferent for the eternal existence of our soul? Though we may always havegoals to work towards, basing ones life on the condition of afterlife is selfdefeating. Life must be lived from day to day with actions that further onesown immediate goals, whether they are to bring joy to others or to live quietlyin peace. To have the thought of eternal salvation looming overhead is to livelife with a bit in your mouth. Actions in accord with the good will becommitted for that reason; because they are good and just, not in hope of abetter afterlife.
Socratic thought has played such a dominant role in our thinking that it is allbut useless to imagine a world without the benefit of his wisdom andunderstanding. his influence can be felt throughout all aspects of thought, forhe 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 necessarybasis for his students to carry on. In the convoluted mess of differing ideason the soul, Socrates’ is the most universal, the most encompassing and the mostrealistic.