Socrates was one of the most influential philosophers of ancient Greece, whose impact can be traced in the development of western philosophy. In this regard, his views on the body and the soul are particularly important because he was one of the philosophers, who distinguished clearly the body and the soul. In fact, Socrates stood on the ground that body and soul are different entities, but he also believed that the soul gives life to the body. In such a way, the body and the soul are closely intertwined and, in spite of the existing difference, the body and the soul interact with each other.
Therefore, Socrates develops the concept of the soul that gives life to the body and this concept became fundamental for many philosophical views in ancient Greece as well as western philosophy. On analyzing Socrates’ views on the body and the soul, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that Socrates believes in the immortality of the soul, whereas the body is mortal. Socrates says not only that the soul is immortal, but also that it contemplates truths after its separation from the body at the time of death. Needless to say, none of the four main lines of argument that Socrates avails himself of succeeds in establishing the immortality of the soul, or in demonstrating that disembodied souls enjoy lives of thought and intelligence (Long & Sedley, 146). In such a way, Socrates stresses that the soul is immortal and the body is just a substance, which the soul gives life. At the same time, this difference between the soul and the body makes them absolutely different because the soul brings life, while the body brings death because, if the soul is immortal, then the body is doomed to the death. In such a way, the difference is absolute and it is through the unification of these contrasting characteristics of the body and the soul, the human body gets life, while the soul gets its substance for existence since with the help of the body the soul can exist in the real world. Hence, the body becomes a carrier of the soul.
At the same time, Socrates takes the soul giving life to the body to show that a creature’s death involves the continued existence of the soul in question, which persists through a period of separation from body, and then returns to animate another body in a change which is the counterpart of the previous change, dying. According to the last line of argument that Socrates offers in the Phaedo, the soul is immortal because it has life essentially, the way fire has heat essentially. It is plain that both of these arguments apply to the souls of all living things, including plants (cf. 70d, 71d). And in the final argument, Socrates explicitly appeals to the idea that it is the soul that animates the body of a living thing (Bremmer, 213). Socrates argues: What is it that, when present in a body, makes it living? — A soul (Plato, 198). In such a way, the soul gives the life to the body and that makes the body and the soul dependent on each other but their striking difference reveals that they are two different substances, which are just united in the body, when the soul gives life to it.
Furthermore, Socrates does not attribute all mental states to the soul but argues that only some mental states may be attributed to the soul, whereas others to the body. In the Phaedo is significantly narrower than our concept of mind, in that the soul, as conceived of in this particular dialogue, is not, in fact, responsible, or directly responsible, for all of a person’s mental or psychological activities and responses, but only for a rather severely limited subset of them. Socrates attributes a large variety of mental states not to the soul, but to the animate body, such as, for instance, beliefs and pleasures and desires and fears (Bremmer, 219).
Therefore, Socrates distinguishes clearly that the soul and the body are responsible for different mental states to the extent that the body can develop different mental states, whereas the soul remains unaffected by these mental states and does not interfere in the process of the formation of different mental states. In all probability, Socrates attributes different mental states to the body to stress the superiority of the soul, which remains untouched by emotions and different mental states, while the body is vulnerable to the impact of strong emotions and different mental states. Therefore, the soul turns out to be something immortal and superior, while the body is mortal and inferior.
At the same time, the soul is not narrowly intellectual: it too has desires, even passionate ones, such as the non-philosophical soul’s love [erôs] of the corporeal and pleasures as well, such as the pleasures of learning (Long & Sedley, 155). Moreover, the soul’s functions are, as we have seen already, not restricted to grasping and appreciating truth, but prominently include regulating and controlling the body and its affections, such as beliefs and pleasures, desires and fears, no doubt in light of suitable judgments, arrived at, or anyhow supported and controlled, by reasoning (Bremmer, 222). In such a way, the soul performs the controlling function. At this point, Socrates again stresses the superiority of the soul over the body. In fact, according to Socrates, it turns out that the body is vulnerable to basic emotions and actions, whereas the soul controls the body and prevents it from falling into fallacy and inadequate behavior. However, the difference is significant enough and the struggle between the body and the soul carries on. As a result, humans are in the permanent struggle between their body and their soul, for the body generates different mental states, while the soul restricts them and imposes its control and impact on the body. In this regard, the soul has the power over the body because it is the soul that gives life to the body.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned it is important to place emphasis on the fact that Socrates distinguishes clearly the soul and the body. He puts the soul into an advantageous position compared to the body because the soul brings life to the body. In addition, the soul controls the body, which may have different mental states, which are not good for humans. Even though the soul also has its desires but they are still superior to those of the body and the difference between the soul and the body defined by Socrates reveals the superiority of the soul and the inferiority of the body.
Bremmer, J. The Early Greek Concept of the Soul, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Long, A. A. & D. N. Sedley, (eds.) The Hellenistic Philosophers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Plato. Phaedo. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.