Monday, May 21, 2012

The Souls of Living Things

We moderns may think of the universe as as an unimaginable vastness, with a few rocky planets sporting a curious kind of fuzz.  But Plato in the Timaeus sees the universe as a single Living Thing "that contains within itself all living things, mortal and immortal."

Plato wanted the human living thing to have both a mortal and an immortal soul, with the immortal soul containing divineness, and the mortal part the other things, "those dreadful but necessary disturbances" such as pleasure, pain, boldness, fear, "expectation easily led astray" and "fused with unreasoning sense perception and all-venturing lust."  The immortal soul resides in the head and the mortal part in the trunk, with the neck as an isthmus to keep the two types of soul safely apart.

The mortal part of the soul, safely confined to the trunk of the body, comes in two flavors.  The part "that exhibits manliness and spirit" the gods settled in the upper trunk between the midriff and the head "so that it might listen to reason" and restrain the appetitive part.  The appetitive part they put between the midriff and the navel, tied down "like a beast, a wild one."  Plants were also created by the gods, but these living things on the ground only have souls of the appetitive kind, like the human mortal soul situated between the midriff and the navel.  The plant soul is passive, and cannot "discern and reflect upon any of its own characteristics."

Plato comes up with all kinds of inventive explanations of the the body's organs.  The lungs, for instance, are there to cool the heart.  The liver is there to receive the "force of the thoughts sent down from the mind" to help tame the wild beast below.

Natural death from old age, according to Plato, comes about in this way.  Firelike triangles (actually tetrahedrons) cut up food and send nourishment all through the body.  But as the body ages, the triangles lose their ability to cut up the food and are "destroyed by the invaders from outside."  Eventually the "interlocking bonds of the triangles around the marrow can no longer hold on" and "they let the bonds of the soul go."  The soul is then released in a natural way, and finds it pleasant to take flight."  If this comes naturally, and not through disease, it can provide a "pleasant, not a painful death."

Of course, your basic human is a man.  Women only come into existence when "male-born humans who lived lives of cowardice or injustice" are "reborn as women."  Animals are descended from less than perfect men.  Birds, for instance, are descended from simpleminded men, and land animals came from men "who had no tincture of philosophy" and followed the mortal soul in their chest rather than the immortal soul in their head.  Water animals came from the most stupid and ignorant men of all!

It's easy to sneer at the natural and biological sciences of the ancients.  But mankind demands an answer to our questions, and the ancient philosophers did the best they could.  No doubt future generations will sneer at our foolish notions of the nature of life, the universe, and everything.

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