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The Souls of Greece and Rome

A unique clash in the perspectives that lay at the base of western civilization

Rohan Arora
Dec 14, 2018 · 15 min read

Writers and thinkers over the course of western history have often concerned themselves with the notion of a soul that exists separate from a material human body. The defining characteristics of a soul, its purpose, and its ultimate fate, are features that vary greatly across cultures and manifest themselves in how individual civilizations treat both death and their dead. It’s no secret that traditional Greek thought, expressed in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, has heavily influenced later thinkers throughout Western culture, especially those belonging to Roman civiliztation. In light of this, it’s rather interesting that Plato’s original interpretation of the soul in his Republic does not align itself completely in Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, a seminal work in Roman culture that seeks to discern and establish the very “nature” of the universe. Lucretius conceives his version of the soul from a largely materialistic standpoint, assigning it no unique importance, and as a result disagrees with Plato on the issues of the afterlife and the mortality of the soul. We’ll explore how this fundamental contradiction ultimately lends itself distinct interpretations of the role a soul plays in both individual free will and as part of a larger society.

We can begin chronologically by examining Plato’s exposition of the soul in the Republic. Plato’s interest with the soul in this text relates to a larger interest in rigorously establishing it is always better to be just than unjust by essentially arguing that is justice is the highest and ultimate form of pleasure, and that all other forms of pleasure are subordinate. Only the just, then, recognize this and attempt to reach it. Plato constructs the human soul by dividing it into three parts that mimic the three classes of his ideal city, Kallipolis. His producer class, auxiliary class, and guardian class are all modeled by the part of the human soul that controls appetite, spirit, and reason, respectively. In order for Plato to derive individual justice from societal justice he must prove that the human soul parallels the structure of an ideal city in the proposed manner. His argument for this is developed throughout the second half of Book 4. Socrates argues that to desire to do something, and to be averse to doing something are opposites. Because it is possible for one to both desire to do something, and then choose not to do it, the soul must have at least two different parts. These parts are appetite — “the part with which it lusts, hungers, thirsts…” — and reason — “that which forbids in such cases come into play. . . as a result of rational calculation. . .” — and are the primary motivators and become most dominant in the souls of the producers and auxiliaries respectively. He then points a dilemma with this approach — that the two parts would by nature remain opposed, thereby continually “fighting in a civil war”. This dilemma and a number of examples are used to justify the existence of a third part of the soul, the spirit, which is “far from being [appetitive], for in the civil war in the soul it aligns itself far more with the rational part”. This division reveals Plato’s belief that the soul serves an important role in the course of human life, and as we will see, the afterlife. In fact, much of his argument from here onwards in favor of justice rests on that idea that it leads to a “form of Good”, i.e. the highest form of desire, which is only accessible by a soul ruled by reason, in the same way societal justice is only achieved in a city ruled by philosopher-kings. To Plato, the soul serves a distinct and decisive purpose, akin to the ruling class of a city. Not only is there a diversity it its composition, but whichever section dominates ultimately sets the course for an individual either towards or away from this “form of Good” for which justice is to be desired.

Speaking towards the afterlife, the “Myth of Er” in Book X of the Republic has been often debated, with some even questioning its authorship. Nonetheless, it offers a unique view into Plato’s understanding of what occurs after death, and what the ultimate purpose of the soul is. The myth concerns a warrior named Er, who is brought into some intermediate location, described by Plato as having “two openings in the earth; they were near together, and over against them were two other openings in the heaven above.” As to how Er arrives here, he explains “ when his soul left the body he went on a journey with a great company, and that they came to a mysterious place…”. With this Plato introduces the idea of the soul and body as completely separate entities, with one capable of leaving the other and existing on its own. Not only this, but the souls themselves are intelligent entities, as “those who knew one another embraced and conversed, the souls which came from earth curiously enquiring about the things above, and the souls which came from heaven about the things beneath” They are capable of knowing, of “embracing” and showing affection, of having memories that can be attributed to their past, and of being curious of their peers. In fact, he later talks of some of the souls “weeping and sorrowing at the remembrance…” and others “describing heavenly delights”. In short, for Plato, souls alone exhibit the very same qualities that humans do. And so his earlier argument that the soul is a determinant of human nature is extended by eliminating any necessity for the body, demonstrating that it not only a determinant, but the only one. Plato further establishes a duality of the soul and the body, advocating that they are separate parts with seperate reasons for existing. The soul is what makes one human, and the body is only a vessel that it can freely leave upon death, as it does in the case of Er.

Towards the latter part of the myth Er discusses how the souls are all given the opportunity to choose their destiny, with Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity charging them, “choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny”. This episode reveals a number of things: firstly and most obviously, it affirms Plato’s belief in an afterlife. The important thing about this afterlife it is that it is offered to all souls equally, regardless of their nature. Additionally the souls have the unique opportunity to choose in what manner they are resurrected. Plato uses this myth to demonstrate that those souls that are not just will ultimately choose destinies that seem to offer them pleasure but truly do not, while those driven by reason will choose destinies that maximize the “good”.

To Plato this “Form of the Good” represents the ultimate human desire; and the myth of Er when contextualized appropriately can provide valuable insight into his perception of free will. It’s firstly important to refrain from interpreting the “choice” of their destiny that is provided to the souls as evidence of a blatant free-will. After all, we can look towards the misery of Plato’s tyrant, discussed at length in Book 9. Plato asks Glaucon “Musn’t the soul be full of slavery and unfreedom with the most decent parts enslaved and with a small part, the maddest and most vicious as their master?, to which Glaucon replies, “It must.”, and Plato continues, “ The tyrannical soul — I’m talking about the whole soul — will also be least likely to do what it wants and, forcible driven by the strings of a dronish gadfly will be full of disorder and regret”. This dialogue makes clear the point that Plato alludes to in his myth — that every soul may have the ability to choose, but does not have free will. A soul that is driven primarily by appetite, or even spirit, is a “slave” this motivation, and does not act in its own best interest. In fact, much of Plato’s argument in favor of reason relies on the notion that reason is what enables a soul to understand is to be truly desired — the “Form of Good” and orient itself towards it. His argument assumes is in the self-interest of every human to achieve varying levels of desire, and so, achieving an ultimate desire, must be the ultimate goal. Only a soul directed by reason is given the capability, i.e. the freedom, to act towards this self-interest, and so reason is a precondition for free will. The myth confirms this; only the soul ruled by reason is capable of actually choosing an ensuing life, the others fall are easily fooled, blinded by lesser desires.

Lucretius’s interpretation of the soul as proposed in his On the Nature of Things is distinct from that of Plato in a number of ways. Lucretius speaks from a devout Epicurean standpoint, believing strongly in the notion that all things have a material explanation. In seeking to explain the very “Nature of Things”, writes that “Two kinds of bodies are to be distinguished: there are primary elements of things, and objects compounded of primary elements. As for the primary elements, no force has power to extinguish them… The ultimate particles are solid and contain no void… They must of necessity be everlasting. Their bodies must consist of unchanging substance…”. These primary elements he refers to here are also referred to as atoms later in the text, and he later goes on to establish that all other things, i.e. “bodies” can be defined as the composition of the two, from including the human form itself. Atoms are hard diversely-shaped objects that are of a miniscule size, invisible to the naked eye, that exist in constant motion in a “void”, or empty space. With regards to humans, Lucretius does accept the notion of the duality of the soul and body as presented by Plato earlier, but argues, unlike Plato, that it cannot exist independent of the body writing, “Divorced from the body, the soul cannot have either eyes or nose or hands or tongue or ears, and therefore cannot possess either sentience or life.” Further, Lucretius gives a special importance to “mind”, perhaps what he perceives as the manifestation of reason which Plato saw to be the a component of the soul. He writes, “The mind…in which the reasoning and the governing principle of life resides, is part of a person no less than the hand and foot… Mind and soul are intimately connected, and together from a single substance… Mind and soul consist of material substance… The mind is exceedingly subtle, being composed of the minutest particles.” Breaking this down, we recognize that although they are distinctly identified, Lucretius argues that soul and mind (and by extension, hands, feet, and all other parts of a person), are composed of the same atomic substance that Lucretius speaks of earlier. Additionally, by stating that the mind is composed of the finest particles, Lucretius is perhaps arguing that it is in some way superior to the soul. This is corroborated by another statement, that “the mind or intelligence has its seat fixed in the middle of the breast”, the central location of the body, while “the rest of the soul-substance is disseminated through all the body”. Lucretius therefore accepts from Plato the idea that reason is what is ultimately the most vital component in human nature. However, he doesn’t combine this reason with the notion of the soul, and he has no need to because for him, the soul holds no special importance. For Plato the soul can exist independent of the body, and is what ultimately determines one’s human characteristics; Lucretius argues that this is not the case; not only can the soul not manifest itself independent of the body, but the component from which reason is derived is an element of the body not the soul. What is most striking however, is Lucretia’s argument that the soul, body, and mind, are all fundamentally the same, as they are composed of the same primary elements. And so, neither is more necessary or determined than the other; but, more importantly to the notion of an afterlife, neither can outlast the other.

In Lucretius’s view, everything is mortal. Atoms come together for a time, and then they grow distant — this is death. Only the atoms and the void remain immortal, but the actually structures they compose will always decompose with time. And so, although he does fundamentally believe that the soul and body will die, and they will die together, he cannot be completely averse to the idea of a kind of resurrection. Unlike Plato, he doesn’t believe this resurrection is some institutionalized process, and doesn’t even come close to believing that we can choose what become in another life. Instead, because when life dies it decomposes into atoms, and because these atoms form the basis for everything else, all life continues to manifests itself in a variety of forms as time goes onwards, but this is done much more passively than in Plato’s exposition. Lucretius contrasts with Plato more strongly on the notion of some heaven because he has no belief in a divine; upon death, all souls and bodies disintegrate completely, and the atoms that formed them may combine with other atoms in due time to form something else.

Understanding Lucretius’s viewpoint of free will within a single life is slightly trickier. At first it seems that if everything is composed of the same atomic material, then a human would have as much free will as an object would — which from a modern standpoint is to say, none. Lucretius acknowledges the existence of reason as a component of life but provides us no insight into how reason directs the body or if it even directs it all. It’s therefore unclear to what degree he agrees with Plato’s argument that the possession of reason is a necessary precondition for directing oneself. However, early in Book 2, Lucretius does introduce the concept of atomic “swerve” — which scholars largely view as a justification for the presence of free-will in this world model. He writes, “The atoms… at scarce determined times / In scarce determined places, from their course / Decline a little- call it, so to speak / Mere changed trend” Fleeming Jenkin, writing for The North British review in 1868 is one of many who interprets Lucretius to be arguing that “Atoms with strict causation did exist, and free-will too”, and so, “We will then grant free-will to atoms, one and all, not in perpetual exercise, but at quite uncertain times.” He notes that the idea is indeed “…startling, but not illogical.” Where Plato establishes free-will as belonging only to a reasonable soul, Lucretius establishes the same concept as a essential attribute of the atoms that compose his world. Though limited by random chance, at the very basic level, everything from humans to objects attains some degree of free-will. By eliminating not only the necessity of the reason, but of the soul itself from free-will, Lucretius establishes both how little importance the soul has in his philosophy, and the degree to which he values free-will. Plato does discuss at length, beginning with book three, how to appropriately train Guardian youth such that their souls tend always towards reason, and in this way does present a path towards free-will. However, he limits his discussion only to one who “at every age, as boy and youth and in mature life, has come out of the trial victorious and pure…”, remaining in stark contrast to Lucretius’s liberal allocation of the concept by asserting that only those already born with a certain degree of reason (i.e. the “youth” in his statement ) can then be capable of honing it such that they are free-willed.

Lucretius spends much of his final book (Book 6) of On the Nature of Things on interlacing the atomic world has composed with specific events of concern to his readers. He speaks at length regarding natural phenomena and disease, before providing us with an account of a plague on Athens, a time when “a poisonous atmosphere / once filled fields in the lands of Cecrops with the dead / emptying roads and draining the city of its inhabitants.” The purpose of the section of the text has been debated at length by scholars, with some even questioning its authenticity. For us however, it provides a unique perspective towards the role of civic duty in a Lucretian society. Particularly revealing are lines 1768–1780:

“… for all those who refused

to care for their own sick from fear of death

and excessive greed for life were punished

soon afterwards by ruinous neglect

with a harsh and evil death, abandoned

and devoid of help. But those who acted

more responsibly died from contagion

and from the efforts which a sense of shame

and the soft entreaties of worn-out men,

together with their voices of complaint,

forced them to undertake. As a result,

the best people suffered this kind of death.”

Lucretius points out that those who care for the dying, and those who don’t, ultimately face the same fate at the hands of the plague. It’s not that Lucretius does not recognize civic morality (in fact, he agrees that “those who acted more responsibly” were “the best people”), but in the world he has constructed, it exists without consequence. In a similar circumstance, it may have been foolish for Plato to assert that those who had cared for the dying had themselves survived the plague (after all, surely historical evidence would have suggested otherwise); however, for a Platonic soul to be considered as one of “the best people” it would have had to be driven by reason. Plato would then have concluded that regardless of the body’s death, the soul is not neccessarily rewarded but is a superior soul it is capable of acting in true self-interest. Since Lucretius does not recognize the afterlife he confines his interpration of morality to a world where death is the end of all things, and so ones actions are not representative of any real, permenant consequences. The stratification of Plato’s soul is representative of a stratified society, in which some individuals are objectively better than others (by way of reason), and therefore have an obligation to rule. This stratification is necessary desired facet of a Platonic universe because it it is within this structure that the path by which free-will is obtained is defined, whether in regards an individual, or society as a whole. By stark contrast, in a Lucretian universe, free-will is universally acquired and occurs as the result of random chance. Additionally, everyone and everything is of similar and impermanent atomic composition and, ultimately faces the same fate — death by dissolution. However solemn this may seem, by eliminating any notion of life after death and openly dispensing free-will, Lucretius eliminates the need for objective stratification — for defining certain actions, or compositions, as better or worse than others. Following the the Epicurean ideal towards maximizing internal peace, (and somewhat echoing the Roman sentiment of “memento mori”), he establishes that we can be at harmony with our actions, no matter what they may be, for in death, we are all equal. Ultimately, as in the case of those who attempt to save the dying men of Athens only to die themselves, the actions themselves do not matter.

There is the question of whether Plato would have even interpreted the act of caring for the dying as something his reason-driven “philospher-kings” would be responsible for. It could be argued that the given action according to Plato’s distinction between reason, spirit, and appetite, is neither truly reasonable (as a reasonable individual would recognize the contagion) nor appetitive (as an appetitive person would remain selfish), but rather driven by spirit (i.e. a sense of honor or prestige). Nevertheless, assuming there is some arbitrary action that both authors agree to be civically just, the above arguement still follows. Put , in a Platonic universe souls that commit unjust actions are putting themselves at a disadvantage by chasing some temporary pleasure that leads to longterm sorrow, because it denies them the free will to act in true self-interest. In a Lucretian universe, where the concept of the “long-term” doesn’t exist, actions can surely be unjust, but with regrads to obtaining free-will, it makes no difference.

Much of the contrast between Plato and Lucretius can be attributed to perhaps the individual values of each philosopher, as examined by the time within which they write, and as they relate to the purpose of either text. Both wrote under a tumultuous period in their respective societies. During the time of the Republic, in the 5th century BCE, the Athenian democracy was overthrown as the result of a war with Sparta. This event lends itself to Plato’s chief vehicle in the text, establishing an ideal city. As Plato explores the link between the human soul and the society in which it survives, he does so with a directed purpose: to demonstrate that justice is what is ultimately necessary, a amiable goal in a time where his democracy has been toppled. In doing so, Plato concerns himself with the soul for a very directed reason, and composes it accordingly. He adapts the notions of an afterlife and a resurrection of one’s choice in order to demonstrate the necessity of justice in the Myth of Er, and establishes the permanence of the soul as a way to argue for the permanence of this necessity. A soul that is temporary and mortal cannot be compared to a city, which develops continually into eternity; further, a mortal soul would have no reason to desire justice and adopt reason in favor of appetitive desires that provide a more immediate pleasure because of its temporary existence. Lucretius writes his text in the first-century BCE, also a time of political upheaval, marked by a number of Civil Wars. Lucretius responds to his society by adopting the teachings of Epicurus, marked by a search for an internal and personal peace and a refrain from ambition and politics. In preaching these he deems the fear of death unnecessarily concerning and adversarial to such a peace, and because it is derived from an immortality of the soul, he concerns himself with establishing that the soul must be mortal. And so, the key difference between the two depictions of the soul can be derived from the personas of writers themselves; while Plato responds to societal upheaval by focusing reconstructing society as a whole to follow certain values which he deems necessary, Lucretius responds with a markedly more personal approach, turning inwards, and seeking a solemn peace over all else.

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