It has long been a perception that Plato offers what is termed a dualistic conception of the human person; which is to say that humans are the combination (at least) of soul and body. In fact, it seems the Cartesian dualism found in the Meditations on First Philosophy and the Discourse on Method (not to mention The Passions of the Soul) is often reflected anachronistically back onto Plato. But is this fair? Rather, is Plato the dualist we often take him to be? My take is that Platonic dualism is not quite so stringent or so dichotomous as is often thought.
How has this state of affairs come about? Certainly the Phaedo is a primary culprit. The Phaedo is a philosophico-dramatic account of Socrates’ last day. He has been sentenced to death and will be drinking the poison. He gathers around him his most trusted disciples, and in true philosophic fashion they discuss death and the afterlife. It is here in the Phaedo that Socrates refers to the body as the prison of the soul, from which the soul must be freed to contemplate in full the idea of the Good (or, in true classical summation, the good, the beautiful and the true). Similarly, one can find in various dialogues, such as the Parmenides, such comments that give greater weight and value to the soul over the body and matter. Indeed, the famous Charioteer of the Soul, found in the Phaedrus, presents a physically oriented appetitive aspect of the soul in the most unflattering of lights. In light of the passage from the Phaedo, it seems quite easy to assume that for Plato the body is at best a container to be preserved in good health that the soul may be freed to reach its highest end in the contemplation of the idea of the Good.
But there are some important considerations in all this. Note that the Phaedo is essentially a “deathbed” dialogue. Socrates is facing his immanent death. Given his positing of the eternality of the soul, it would make sense that his thought and attention would be turned away from his physical existence to his soulish existence. This is not to discount his talk of the body as the prisonhouse of the soul; but it is to contextualize it. Furthermore, other similar seeming disparagement of the physical body can be kept within the context of the hierarchy of Platonic knowing: the perceivable objects are the lower form of appearance, belief and opinion, the higher (mathematical) ideas are more worthy of our rational inquiries because more permanent and stable.
Indeed, given the extended discussion(s) in the Republic of the paideia (or education, transformation) of the soul, and the role the body has to play in that formation, it would seem that a radical dualism of the Cartesian kind cannot be attributed to Plato. In the paideia of the soul, music, poetry, rhythm all play an important part of the formation of human character. Plato describes the harmony of music, the cadences and rhythm of poetry entering the soul through the ear, “as through a funnel.” It is on the body, then, that the paideia is inscribed, and through the body that the soul, at least in part, is formed in the participation of the ideas.
In fact, an understanding of the ideas themselves, lends yet another close corollary between body and soul, or, more accurately, between the physical universe and the ideas instantiated in them. The beauty of the flower which our sense perceive is not fully instantiated in the flower itself. That is to say, we cannot get at the idea of beauty in the mere physicality, the simple appearance, of the flower. Only the idea of beauty itself, instantiated in the flower, can give us true knowledge of beauty. But the idea of beauty nonetheless shines, as it were, through the flower. Or, to perhaps invoke a bit more Heidegger than is warranted, the beauty instantiated in the flower, beckons us in and through the flower on to the idea of beauty itself.
I should be clear: None of this ties the soul and body together (in Plato’s thought) in the way, say, Aristotle does. Nor in the way that is true of Christian theology. Indeed, this does not at all dismiss the charge of dualism in Plato. Plato does, indeed, articulate a hierarchy of being, and the body and material universe are certainly on the lower end of that chain (to invoke a bit of Plotinus). And, Plato does distinguish the soul from the body (which does not itself lead to dualism). But dualist though Plato still is, it is not the radical Cartesian dualism, nor the Gnostic New Age hooha, that then gets read back into Plato. There are strong ties between soul and body. What happens to one happens to the other, if the soul nonetheless is the more formative of the two.
This understanding is seen, perhaps most clearly, in the Republic and its paideutic paradigm. But it is not entirely absent from the other dialogues as well. One could note, for example, the impetus toward true knowing instantiated in the erotic relationship of mentor and boy exemplified in the Symposium. The paideia of the citizen in the Laws similarly entails enforcements on the body toward the production of the good soul.
So Plato’s purported dualism is not what it’s cracked up to be. We just need to read him a bit more carefully. But that is so true of so many things.