My Body, My Soul and Plato

What am I? If my hand hurts, why do I say that ‘I am in pain’? Is my hand a part of me?

If I were to lose that same hand in an accident, has a part of me been lost? Is there less of me than previously? Am I shrunk? My body may be less, but I myself am still me. I am no less conscious than I was before. What if, with hindsight, I consider myself as having been enriched by the experience of the accident and injury? This implies there is now more of me than there was, even though I am lacking a limb. Conversely, I might go on a three-month eating binge. I put on several stone and my body is bigger than it was. Have I grown as a person? Indeed, I may be ashamed of my greed, and feel that I have diminished as a person, though the body in which I live is now larger. In other words, I have a body, but I am more than a body. My soul or spirit is my personality, mind, memories and feelings. 

If you were to cut my corpse open you’d find no mind or personality. Instead, you’d see a brain, all grey and fleshy, but with no feelings or ideas. ‘I’ have departed. ‘Me’ is not there. I am not my body. My body is meat, bones, blood and nerves. I am none of those things. 

Am I just therefore my mind? Show me a picture of myself aged 1, and I’ll show you an image of me that I cannot recall. I know it’s me because people say it’s me, but I have no memories of that day nor of the ‘me’ that is photographed. It isn’t even my body is it? It’s far smaller, and all those original cells, apart from eyes, are long gone and replaced. My memories and tastes have changed. The personality has altered and developed. What, therefore, is me? Who am I?

Most religious people would say that the person is the soul. However, just because we have such a noun does not mean it has to be real. Flying spaghetti monsters, griffins and grinches can be named and described, but this does not affirm their reality. 

Plato, a Greek philosopher and student of Socrates, claimed that the soul was the only ‘thing’ that was permanent. Everything material is decaying- our bodies, our work, our world. Souls are of the permanent, spiritual world, not the visible, material world of decay and destruction. He called it immortal- unable to die. He borrowed this idea from Pythagoras, who thought souls hop from one body to another, a belief widely held by Hindus. He argued that immortality means it can neither begin nor end; my soul therefore existed before my body according to Plato. Traces of this idea can be seen in Mormonism, whereby the heavenly father has spirit children who later inhabit human bodies.

Secondly, this table on which my laptop sits is made up of five parts. It can be unscrewed and divided. The laptop itself is made up of even more parts. The soul, in contrast, is entirely simple and indivisible. In Phaedo, he writes

‘the soul is the very likeness of the divine, immortal…indissoluble and unchangeable…the body is the very likeness of the human…mortal, unintelligible and…changeable.’

Bodies are therefore inferior to souls; death is the great release and liberation for souls to return to their perfect, spiritual state while the bodies remain in the decaying material world, rotting in the ground or burning in a fire.

Although there is some truth in Plato’s analysis, he is wrong on a number of levels. Souls are created by God and they have not always existed. I believe this happens at conception:

For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13

Secondly, there is a sense in which the souls of humans are destroyed in hell:

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28

Although the Bible seems to talk of hell as being a place of conscious suffering, there’s also a strong feeling of death and destruction mixed up with it.

Thirdly, the material work which our souls inhabit is not intrinsically wicked. Though now corrupted by sin and Adam’s Fall, God intended our spirits to reside in physical bodies, seeing ‘that it was good’. Though the spirits of believers go straight to paradise when they die, this is not the final state. The resurrection of the dead will take place, in which our souls are once more housed in bodies, ‘some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.’

Plato gets much right and much wrong. As a philosopher, he employs his fallen and unreliable reason to establish spiritual truth, which he achieves with only partial success. The Christian, on the other hand, is equipped with scripture, God’s own revelation to the human race. 

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay