Plato, Aristotle, & Augustine on Souls (Hillsdale College Assignment)

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In 1000 words or less, describe how the 3 philosophers thought humans could rightly order their souls.

Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics/Politics and Augustine’s City of God/On Christian Doctrine Discussions of Souls and Agency

Classical Greek philosophers and early Christian theologians contemplated how humans rightly order their souls. In The Republic, Plato described dualist relationships between physical bodies and tripartite souls that seek a permanent metaphysical realm, wherein superior otherworldly knowledge can be realized. Conversely, Aristotle described divine souls as the very essence of humans in The Nichomachean Ethics, and thus argued for worldly knowledge because of the entities’ interdependence. Like Plato, Augustine discussed in the City of God immortal souls that leave bodies, but recommended that humans avoid the “snare” of pursuing knowledge without the guidance of God so that their deference results in admission to Heaven.[1]Ultimately, Plato thought humans lacked free will because of their worldly appetites and upbringings; Aristotle emphasized the cultivation of virtue and happiness with one’s “divine reason;” and Augustine promised an “eternal peace” for humans if they obeyed God’s will. Thus, they had distinguished ideas of agency.

Plato argued that humans have tripartite souls with “appetites, spirit, and reason,” and must moderate the first two and enrich the latter in order to cultivate knowledge and temperance. However, most lack agency to do so because of their worldliness. He advanced this argument when he criticized the common man as a “drone” who supersedes his logic with “unnecessary pleasures and appetites,” such as choosing gluttony over good health.[2]Such untamed appetites may lead to destructive behavior. His shining example, however, depicts a man “sound in body and mind” who meditatively “feed[s] on high thoughts and questioning,” in order to calm anger (spirit) and other arousals before sleep and thus can “grasp the truth of things.”[3]Both examples exemplify Plato’s belief in the importance of good upbringings, since they instill “order and restraint,” and prevent the emergence of “an unmanly fool” who must grow old before his inner tumult subsides.[4]They also strengthened Plato’s Theory of Forms, a dualistic view of the body and soul. Since souls’ bodily elements of appetites and spirit often conflict with their pursuits of knowledge, Plato believed in the immortality of “just souls” that separate from bodies to reach an unchanging metaphysical realm wherein truth can be realized.[5]He noted the unreliability of worldly knowledge when he wrote, “a sensible man will remember that the eyes may be confused… by a change from light to darkness or from darkness to light.”[6]Thus, he argued that truth cannot be certain in an impermanent world, so humans must transcend beyond it. Arguably, Plato wrote these ideas to annul agency, because it takes a true determinist to view choices as bound to the appetites, upbringings, and ignorance caused by a trapped existence, and thus he wanted humans to embrace more metaphysical possibilities.

Aristotle emphasized the interdependent nature of bodies and divine souls; he argued humans should use their “divine reason” to cultivate virtuousness that “make[s] ourselves immortal.”[7]Such virtue requires reason. He thought the soul embodied humans since they constantly perform other divine acts as well, such as helping neighbors and forming “virtuous friendships.” These acts have divinity because they exemplify righteousness. Nonetheless, he saw the rational cultivation of virtue as necessary to the “best and pleasantest [life], since reason more than anything else is man.”[8]Essentially, he held that reason distinguishes humans from animals and provides humans with the agency to pursue “pleasures marvelous for their purity and their enduringness,” as opposed to temporary pleasures that do not cultivate “philosophic wisdom [which] is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities.” Furthermore, “self-sufficiency” enables the cultivation of reasonable actions that “aim at some good,” since “the philosopher,” who he believed exercises the highest level of contemplation, “by himself can contemplate truth… he is the most self-sufficient.” As for those who commit unreasonable crimes, Aristotle prescribed principles of justice that would isolate them from the civil society. Unlike Plato, Aristotle argued we must pursue knowledge in this world which implied why he pointed forward and Plato upward in the majestic School of Athens painting. Ultimately, Aristotle concluded that humans should use reason to cultivate virtue and happiness; in contrast to Plato, he believed humans have the agency to pursue a good life without mysterious metaphysical answers.

Unlike Aristotle, Augustine argued that humans must obey God’s will to enter the eternal “city of God” (Heaven) in the afterlife, and concern themselves with everything heavenly instead of “earthly.” This means repenting and avoiding sins, along with “preaching gospel” and avoiding the “miserable fellowship” of idolatrous people who “worship devils.”[9]Thus, he agreed with the Greek philosophers about the necessity of virtue for souls, along with Plato’s belief in their immortality, but differed on the technicalities. First, he agreed with Plato that immortal souls separate from their bodies after death, yet specified their destinations as the physical Heaven or Hell found in the Bible, whereas Plato obscurely described a metaphysical realm. Secondly, Augustine also agreed with Plato on the irrationality of untamed appetites and viewed rational people as harborers of “peaceful souls,” which sounded similar to Plato’s “harmonized soul.”[10]Yet, he disagreed with Plato again when he wrote “this very pursuit of knowledge may be a snare to him unless he has a divine Master.” After all, Plato did not believe in a supreme God. Essentially, the argument called for humans to do everything in order to glorify Him. Perhaps Augustine believed in free will, but he emphasized consequences to our actions because God ultimately determines where we end up.

Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine discussed the necessity for humans to order their souls with different approaches to agency. Yet they all shared common principles of truth, righteousness, and happiness, whether they require cultivation in metaphysical realms, the physical world, or in the Kingdom of Heaven. Each described serious actions that humans must take to understand the good life and be sensible citizens of their respective societies, and all believed Western Civilizations required such strong contributors. Thus, Aristotle’s “divine human”, Plato’s “transcendent man”, and Augustine’s “citizen of God” each exemplified unique standards of ideal citizenship with rightly ordered souls.

References

[1]Augustine, “City of God,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 365.

[2]  Plato, “The Republic,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 96-97.

[3]Ibid., 105.

[4]Ibid., 97.

[5]Ibid., 109.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Aristotle, “The Nichomachean Ethics,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 147.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 325.

[10]Augustine, “City of God,” in Hillsdale College History Faculty, eds., Western Heritage: A Reader (Hillsdale, Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 2014), 364-365.

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