Sunday, October 02, 2005

My Phaedo Paper

Here's the text of my Phaedo paper, mentioned here. Let me know what you think!

“Now, if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:12)?” With this, St. Paul addresses at around 50 A.D. one of the foundational beliefs of his new Greek Christian flock at Corinth. It is significant that Plato, one of the greatest Greek minds of all time, addressed similar doubt in his dialogue Phaedo about 400 years earlier: “To believe this requires a good deal of faith and persuasive argument, to believe that the soul still exists after a man has died and that it still possesses some capability and intelligence (70b).” In this essay Plato’s views of the human person and the nature of the soul in Phaedo will be compared with St. Paul’s views in chapter fifteen of his first letter to the Corinthians. This will reveal how open the Corinthians were to accepting St. Paul’s message.

Phaedo, which is considered the greatest example of Greek prose literature, is a highly philosophical work in which Plato expresses his own rich theories on life, the body, the soul, and immortality in the form of a fictitious dialogue (cf. Introduction p.93 and 59b) between his preeminent teacher Socrates and Socrates’ followers and friends. The occasion is Socrates’ death by poisoning in a prison of Athens, which sets the stage perfectly for a treatment of such topics. Early in the work, Socrates expresses to his companions the view that “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder (64a).” Socrates speaks of the body as corrupt, constantly seeking pleasures and adornments in order to appease its desires. These desires, combined with the uncertain senses of the body, form an obstacle to the goals of a true philosopher: the love, grasp, and experience of absolute wisdom and truth. Socrates argues that since this should be the ultimate goal of all human beings, especially the philosopher, one must do whatever he can to free his soul from his body while still living. He does this by denying the body the pleasures and adornments it seeks and striving to always investigate the truth as far as possible. A life dedicated to this task is Socrates’ definition of the good life.

According to him, upon death, those who greatly indulged the passions of the body to the point of murder or “great sacrileges” spend an eternity in the deepest hallow of the earth, called “Tartarus (cf. 113e).” Those souls who committed grievous acts but are sorrowful spend a year there too and then, if they are granted the prayers of their victims, are reincarnated into a creature that mimics their previous behaviors (cf. 81e, 114a). Other better, but still average souls are purified by penalties, rewarded for good deeds and reincarnated as well. All souls, regardless, are immortal and all go through an eternity of births, deaths, and rebirths, except for the philosopher. Only he, who struggles to free the soul in life, thus prepares it for death when it is freed from the body and can ascend easily to the heavens to enjoy eternity with the gods, “a future altogether without a body,” (114c) and finally be able to grasp complete and True Wisdom. But this eternity, this immortality of the soul, is hard for his companions to hear, especially the characters Simmias and Cebes, and seems to not be popularly accepted either (cf. 70b and 77b).

Also in this Socratic dialogue is one of Plato’s most famous theories, the Theory of Forms, which he uses to defend the immortality of the soul. Another, the Theory of Learning as Recollection, builds on this one. In the Theory of Forms we have an understanding of two “realms” or worlds, one of the visible, composite, and changing (the world in which we live) and one of the invisible, simple, and unchanging (the world of Forms). In the latter we have absolute Forms of certain ideas like the Just, the Beautiful, the Good, Bigness, Health, Strength, etc. from which particular instances of these in the material world derive their essence (cf. 65d-e). For example, things on this earth are beautiful only because they partake, imperfectly, of Beauty itself in the realm of Forms. Applying this theory to the body and soul, Plato concludes that the body is more like the realm of the visible by virtue of its “wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense (66c).” But the soul, on the other hand, resembles the realm of the invisible and is hindered only by the burden of the body (cf. 79d). “A soul in this state [upon death] makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy (81a).”

From this, Socrates’ companions begin to accept that the soul is immortal. However, for us it is not so certain. For one, elements of this theory are dispersed and shared with other thoughts throughout the work. This makes it difficult to assemble a cohesive theory to use. Also, the theory is presented initially as an assertion and an already accepted belief (cf. 65d, 100b-c). Phaedo lacks foundational arguments for this theory; instead arguments are built from this point of acceptance on toward a reasonable conclusion.

The Theory of Learning as Recollection recalls several elements of the Theory of Forms. According to this theory, learning is really only recollection of knowledge learned from “some previous time (73a).” Applying this to Forms one can say, for example, that recognition of the equality of two objects, which can never be perfectly equal in this world, is only possible because of previous knowledge of the Form of Equality itself. Furthermore, one can only have knowledge of the Forms, those in the realm of the invisible, unless the soul has gazed upon them after separation from one body and before reincarnation in another. So, Socrates concludes, “according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal (73a).” The trouble with this theory is that Forms like Equality, Bigness, Tallness, etc. are relative in nature, which excludes the possibility of one absolute Form being shared by all its particulars. If one man is taller than another, he partakes in Tallness. But if another is taller than he, does he now partake in Smallness? This contradiction isn’t reconciled in Phaedo.

At the end of the work, Socrates’ companions are convinced of his views on the human person and the nature of the soul. But one is left to wonder if Plato’s work in this dialogue and others changed the “opinion of the majority” (77b) of his time up until the time of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. If we look at Chapter Fifteen of this letter we can see how some elements of their ancient philosophy could have helped and some could have hindered the reception of their newfound faith.

Here St. Paul teaches of “the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection, how it necessarily connects up with the resurrection of the dead in general, and what form this resurrection will take.”[1] We actually find several similarities between the teachings of Plato and those of Paul. As the god in Phaedo is “the Form of life itself,” (106d) so too is Christ, in a way, the Form that makes all resurrection possible, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22).” Furthermore, Paul, like Socrates, speaks of living the good life: “Come to your right mind, and sin no more (cf. 15:34, 58).” He even, in verse 33, quotes a Greek poet, Menander, when he says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’”[2] Interestingly enough, Socrates’ teaching of the soul eventually gaining control of the body (cf. 80a) works in this scenario as well: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44, 53).” However, the goal is different: Eternity with God, body and soul in glorified union (cf. 15:35, 42-43) rather than in eternal separation.

Here we can now see why the Corinthians could have doubted the resurrection of the dead, body and soul (cf. 15:12), especially if Plato’s teachings had indeed changed the “opinion of the majority” even up to their day. St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, in its treatment of St. Paul’s preaching in Athens, hints that this could have been the case:[3] “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this (17:32).’” Paul’s brief statements to the Corinthians on living a good life and his descriptions of Christ’s role in the resurrection would have sounded familiar to them. It is what happens to the soul at the end of life that is so drastically different from the philosophy of their ancestors.

Luckily, St. Paul knows his audience.[4] One can imagine his hope that maybe the similarities of Christ’s message through him and Plato’s message through Socrates will be enough to win over their hearts and compel them to accept the differences. Maybe with the help of those Athenians that did “hear” him, coupled with the reasonableness of Paul’s letter and God’s grace (cf. 1 Cor. 15:10-11), one can expect him to have influenced the “opinion of the majority” of the Corinthians as well and anew.

[1] The Navarre Bible: St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians in the Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition with commentary by members of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Navarre, published by Four Courts Press with an editorial committee for the English-language translation composed of James Gavigan, Brian McCarthy, and Thomas McGovern, printed in English in the year 1999. This quote is from the commentary on verses 1-58 on page 141. Also, dear reader, please excuse the verbosity of this citation as there is no standard given for this type of volume.
[2] I discovered the source of the quote from the same volume as above, in the commentary on verse 33 given on page 149. Here I also found that Menander’s quote is from his work, Thais.
[3] I was directed to this idea by the same volume as above, in the chapter titled, “Introduction to the First Epistle to the Corinthians,” and the section titled, “The Resurrection of the Dead” which gives a brief but relevant statement about Acts 17:32. This is on page 32.
[4] The section mentioned above includes a sentence that says, “This truth of faith was in conflict with traditional Greek thought – as Paul found out for himself when he spoke in the Areopagus of Athens.” (emphasis mine) The section then goes on to quote Acts 17:32, also mentioned above.

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