The Distinction Between the Soul and the Body

"All men's souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are immortal and divine."


Since the ancient times, the most prominent and influential minds tried to find answers to the eternal questions concerning human existence, the distinction between the soul and body. One of the first and most influential philosophers in history was Socrates. The contributions of Socrates still remain valid to this day and are studied in substantial depth.  His theories exist in the light of his followers’ perceptions.

Socrates’ conceptions regarding the puzzling aspects of life and death were considerably ahead of his time. Socrates differs from other philosophers by describing the characteristics of the body and soul.

According to Plato, Socrates considered the soul and body to be as separate and distinct substances. Each human-being is essentially identified with his or her soul but not body. Phaedo describes the execution scene of Socrates, in which the philosopher is not afraid of dying. On the contrary, he welcomes death since the death of the body does not entail the death of the self. Phaedo states, the lack of fear can be explained by his convictions regarding the existence of the soul and it's immortality. Socrates discusses the possibility of life after death with his followers, while trying to convince them to believe in immortality of the soul.(Grube, 1975).

Socrates gives four arguments to support his view on the immortality of the soul in Phaedo. First, the  cyclical or the opposites argument, in which he states that the body and soul are essentially like fire and water and when on the same pole they have to retract from each other, so if the body dies then the soul must live on. Second, the theory of recollection in which he says that the soul is the vessel for the basic knowledge we are born with. Third, the affinity argument in which he says that invisible, incorporeal things are essentially different from the visible earthly form, so if the body is earthly and decays, the soul is immortal and only continues to grow. Finally, the form of life argument in which he states that the soul is the form of life, so as long as there is life, the soul never perishes (Plato's Phaedo translated by Fowler, 1925).

In order to determine the immortality of the soul, it is crucial to define what death is. According to Socrates, death is the separation of the soul and body. The philosopher perceives the body as an obstacle for the soul on its way of seeking truth. That the body is distracted by various earthly needs and desires. By contrast, the soul is a more reliable as it is impentrable to the distractions of the world. So essentially, the soul is the source of perceiving the true nature of things. To be guided solely by the bodily perceptions means to be led astray. Thus, the only way to be free is to be disconnected from the body (Grube, 1977). So in Phaedo, Socrates welcomes instead of fearing death.

Socrates parallels the health of the body and soul. Based on the stipulation that the soul is the highest part, its health is noticeably more significant. Socrates persuades that the soul dominates over the body. Just like the body desires diverse pleasures of the flesh, so does the soul but its desires lie in acquiring wisdom. While the pleasures of the body are experienced through the senses, the accumulation of new knowledge comes only through the intellect, which helps to feed the soul's hunger for wisdom. The pursuit of truth progresses through the processes of thought rather than actions and sensations. Therefore, when the mind is free from pleasure or pain, it is open to function at its best.

In order to gain true knowledge, it is essential to rise above the physical nature. Socrates looks further into the issue suggesting that the knowledge, which the soul is capable of ascertaining, is absolute and eternal. Therefore, not only is it in touch with the eternal, but it represents eternal itself. Another argument for the immortality of the soul is that since it does not admit death like the body, it is imperishable and indestructible.

According to Socrates, the soul is the source of life for the body and, consequently, the pivotal aspect of the soul is life. The soul is the life which animates the body. The philosopher convinces his followers that death is not the end of all (Brickhouse & Smith, 2004). That the soul is the true essence of a person that lives on after death of the body.

Phaedo also raises the question of reincarnation. Socrates admits that there is no real evidence that can describe what happens with the soul once it leaves the body, with which it has been associated. Nonetheless, Socrates believes that the soul exists before entering a human body and being immortal it will exist after leaving the body. Moreover, he addresses the existence of mystery cults’ myths that cover the theme of punishments and rewards for good and evil souls. Consequently, the soul faces some judgment trial, which examines the good or evil deeds. The pure soul is guided by the basic set of values and moral standards (Grube, 1977).

Although there is a distinction between good souls and evil ones, each person is given a freedom of choice. One can decide to dwell in the world which gives preferences to the desires of the body. Material possessions and sensual pleasures are of a great value. Meanwhile, the other one can choose a road separated from the vanity of human wishes. Such a person tries to resist worldly temptations and focuses on improving the soul by gaining knowledge through the intellect. Based on these assumptions, Socrates theorizes about the existence of enduring justice, for there is a different fate in store for good and evil souls. For this reason, the philosopher admits the doctrine of reincarnation that was being developed by mystery cults. He believed that, if a soul chooses the first path, conducts evil deeds and acts depravedly, it will not deserve to be reincarnated in the form of a human being but instead that of an insect or animal. Nevertheless, it is a continuous process that grants such souls with a possibility every time to enter into a higher form of life. Consequently, the souls are being treated proportionately to the degree of their goodness and virtue. The ultimate goal of this process is eternal dwelling among the gods (Grube, 1977).

On the whole, the Socrates' conception of the soul is based on its immortality and endurance. It has no beginning and it has no end. Nevertheless, its existence is not devoid of sense. Taking into account the bigger image of being, the soul partakes of the very nature of divinity. According to Socrates, a person should not be afraid of death as it does not mean the definitive end of everything. On the contrary, they may receive entrance into the new and better life which will open unexplored horizons. The  body is but a temporary store for the soul which is immortal. The very essence of life exists in the soul.  

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