Monday, April 23, 2012

Confusion on Socrates' Last Day

Being a civilized community, the Athenians of Socrates' day executed people by hemlock poisoning in the evening of the day of execution. And so Socrates' young friends gathered at the prison on the day of his execution before he took the draught of poison.  Naturally they talked about immortality, and Socrates indulged in a bit of  argument by reckless analogy.  For instance, he argued, if we sleep and then wake and then sleep again, it follows that living and dying is analogous, and if we know things that we seem to have learned before we were born then we must have an immortal soul.

Socrates' young friend Simmias suggests that Socrates is wrong about the immortal soul.  After all, if you break up a lyre, then its harmony is gone forever.  So if the soul is a "kind of harmony or attunement" then it too is destroyed "when our body is relaxed or stretched beyond true measure by diseases and other evils".

In Simmias account, harmony refers to the relation between the tones from the different strings of a well-tuned lyre.  The harmony is "something invisible, without body, beautiful and divine".  Thus it is an instance, a particular of the Form of harmony, the eternal relationship between tones, the music of the spheres.  Given the context, Simmias does not think of the harmony of the instrument as the eternal Form itself, but the specific harmony of a given instrument achieved by tuning the strings.  Once you break the instrument or cut its strings you have lost the specific harmony of the instrument, its particular harmonic beauty.  Thus, he says, using a Socratic argument by analogy, the individual soul is lost when a body dies, because its particular harmonies are lost with the body.

Socrates attacks the idea of the soul as a kind of harmony.  First, if the soul is the composite of the elements of the body, then it could not have existed before birth.  But his learning-by-recollection argument proved that the soul exists before birth. Second, if a lyre can be more or less harmonized, presumably according to the specific tuning, surely that is different from a soul, which cannot be more or less of a soul: it is just a soul.  Conversely, if all souls are souls in harmony they must partake of harmony equally.  So how can "one soul have more wickedness or virtue than another"?  Thirdly, it seems impossible that the soul could rule the body if it is analogous to harmony, for "it could never by out of tune with the stress and relaxation and the striking of the strings".  In fact the soul is quite the opposite, since it rules over the elements of the body, "directing... inflicting... holding converse" with it.  So the soul cannot be like harmony.

Simmias  was too modest, and did not make the most of his argument.  The soul is indeed like the harmony of an instrument, providing you don't get too reckless with the argument from analogy.  Harmony is an ideal, an invisible quality that the lyre is designed to approach.  Yet the soul of the instrument, its harmony, is merely banished to a musical underworld if a string is broken, or the instrument is damaged.  Every recreation of a musical instrument invites the eternal soul of harmony to inhabit it once more.

Socrates demands from his young friend a much higher bar for a valid argument by analogy than he requires of himself.  He has recently argued that sleeping and waking are like death and birth, a pretty good stretch.  Why shouldn't the soul be the composite of the elements of the body?  We could say firstly, that the soul, the harmony of the body, only inhabits the body when its components all come together in birth.  Secondly, a musical instrument can be badly tuned or badly played, and this is analogous to wickedness in the soul.  Certainly a virtuoso instrumentalist can take a so-so instrument and make it sing.  Thirdly, why could not the soul be like an instrumentalist struggling to create harmony out of an instrument that is part good instrument and part bad instrument like the chariot myth of the Phaedrus.  The strings are forever going out of tune and it is up to the instrumentalist to struggle with disharmony and strive to create good harmony.

Socrates was a wily old man, and his young friends were too young and inexperienced and in awe of the great man to critique his arguments properly and wrestle them to the ground.  It is up to us to set things to rights.

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