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An Excerpt from
Phaedon, or On the
Socrates teaching in ancient Athens
But is this combining and contrasting anything other than the action of our faculty for thought? And is it to be found anywhere in nature outside of the thinking being?
Simmias did not know what to answer here.
In unthinking nature, Socrates continued, individual sounds follow one another, individual stones are on and next to one another. But where is there harmony, symmetry, or regularity? If no thinking thing is added that brings together the manifold parts, places them side by side, and perceives in this comparison a harmony, then I do not know where to find it; or do you know, dear Simmias, how to seek its trace in mind-less nature?
I must acknowledge my inability, he answered, although I likewise perceive where this is going.
A happy omen! cried Socrates, when the opponent foresees his own downfall. Nevertheless, answer me without discouragement, my friend! For you will have no small part in the victory which we hope to obtain over you yourself: Can the origin of a thing be explained from its own effects?
In no way.
Order, symmetry, harmony, regularity, in general, all relations that require a combination and comparison of manifolds, are effects of the faculty of thought. Without the addition of the thinking being, without comparing and contrasting the manifold parts, the most regular building is a mere pile of sand, and the voice of the nightingale is no more harmonious than the groaning of the night owl. Indeed, without this action, there is in nature no whole that consists of many parts that exist apart from one another, because each of these parts has its own being, and they must be contrasted with one another, compared, and considered in connection if they are to make up a whole. The faculty of thought, and this alone in all of nature, is able, through an internal activity, to make comparison, combination, and contrast real; therefore, the origin of all things in combination, of numbers, magnitude, symmetry, harmony, and so forth, insofar as they require a comparison and contrast, must be sought only in this faculty of thought. And since this is admitted, this faculty of thought itself, this cause of all comparison and contrast, cannot possibly spring from these its own work, cannot possibly consist in a relation, harmony, symmetry in a whole that is combined from independently existing parts, since all these things presuppose the effects and works of the thinking being and cannot be real except through that.
This is very clear, Simmias replied.
Since any whole that consists of parts that are external to one another, presupposes a combination and comparison of these parts, and this combination and comparison must be the work of a faculty of conception, I thus cannot place the origin of this faculty of conception in a whole that consists of such independent parts without allowing a thing to come into existence through its own operations. And not even the mythmakers, as far as I know, have ever dared such an absurdity. No one has placed the origin of a flute in the harmony of its tones or the origin of sunlight in the rainbow.
It seems, my dear Socrates, that the last vestiges of our doubt is now gone.
This deserves, however, particular consideration, he replied, if I do not tire your patience with these thorny investigations.
Venture always! cried Crito, to put patience to this test. You did not spare mine at all when I early today pressed for the comments on a proposal
Nothing more of a topic, Socrates said, interrupting him, that is now reliably correct. We have here to investigate things that seem still subject to doubt. Of course, not that our ability to perceive and think is to be sought in the position, formation, order, and harmony of bodily components; this we have rejected as impossible, without moving too closely to either the omnipotence or the wisdom of God. But perhaps this faculty of thought is one of the powers of the compound thing, essentially different from the position and formation of the parts, and yet never found except in compound things? Is this not the single vestige of doubt that we challenge, my dear Simmias?
Thus, we wish to take this case, Socrates continued, and assume that our soul is a power of a compound thing. We found that all power of compound things must proceed from the powers of the components. Must, therefore, according to our presupposition, the components not have powers from which the faculty for thought results in compound things?
By all means!
But the powers of these component parts, of what nature and constitution shall we assume them to be? Shall we suppose them to be similar or dissimilar to the activity of thought?
I do not properly understand the question, Simmias replied.
A single syllable, Socrates said, has in common with the entire discourse that it is perceptible; but the entire discourse has a meaning, the syllable, none. Is that true?
While, thus, a mere single syllable excites a perceptible but meaningless sensation, there arises from their totality an understandable meaning that acts on our mind. Here, the activity of the whole results from powers of the parts that are dissimilar to it.
That is understandable.
Considering harmony, order, and beauty, we perceived something similar. The pleasure that they cause in the mind springs from the impressions of the components, none of which can cause either pleasure or displeasure.
There is another example of the activity of the whole being able to arise from the powers of the components that are dissimilar to it.
I concede it.
I do not know whether I do not perhaps go too far, my friend, but I can imagine that all activities of corporeal things could arise from such powers of the primordial stuff that are completely different from them. Colors, for example, can perhaps be resolved into such impressions that are not colored, and motion itself may arise from original powers that are nothing like motion.
This would require a proof, Simmias said.
It is perhaps not necessary, for now, that we stop here, Socrates said. It is enough that I elucidate through examples what I understand by the words: the power of the whole could arise from the powers of the components that are dissimilar to it. Is that now clear?
According to our presupposition, the powers of the components would themselves be either powers of conception, and thus similar to the power of the whole that arises from them, or of a completely different constitution and therefore dissimilar. Is there a third possibility?
But answer me this, my friend. If, from simple powers, a power different from them is produced in the compound thing, where can this difference be found? Except for the thinking being, the powers of the whole are nothing but the individual powers of the simple components as they change and limit one another through action and reaction. The dissimilarity is not found in this direction, and we must once again resort to the thinking being that conceives the powers united and taken together in a different way than it would think of them individually and not united. An example of this can be seen in colors, as well as harmony. Bring two different colors into so small a space that the eye cannot distinguish them; they will still be separate in nature and will remain isolated; but our senses will nevertheless constitute a third color from them that has nothing in common with them. There is a similar situation with taste and, if I am not mistaken, with all our feelings and sensations in general. They cannot, of course, become different in and for themselves through combination and connection than they are individually; but to the thinking being that cannot clearly separate them, they appear to be different than they would be without combination.
This can be granted, Simmias said.
Thus, can the thinking being have its origin in simple powers that do not think?
Impossible, since we saw previously that the capacity for thinking could not have its origin in a whole that consists of many parts.
Quite right! replied Socrates: The assembling of simple powers out of which a dissimilar power of the compound thing is to emerge presupposes a thinking being to which they will appear differently in combination than they are; therefore, it is impossible that the thinking being should spring from the combination, from this connection. If therefore sensing and thinking, in a word, conception, is to be a power of compound things, mustn't the powers of the components be similar to the power of the whole, and consequently also be powers of conception?
How might it be otherwise since there can be no third possibility?
And the parts of these components, insofar as divisibility can extend, mustn't these also have the same powers of conception?
Incontestably! since every component is in turn a whole that consists of smaller parts, and our arguments can be continued until we come to the fundamental parts that are simple and do not consist of many parts.
Tell me, my dear Simmias! Do we not find in our soul an almost unlimited number of concepts, thoughts, inclinations, and passions that engage us constantly?
Where would these be found in the parts? Either dispersed, some in this one, some in that one, without ever being repeated; or is there at least one among them that would unify and embrace all these thoughts, desires, and aversions, insofar as they are to be found in the soul?
Necessarily one or the other, Simmias answered, and, as it seems to me, the first must be impossible since all conceptions and inclinations of our soul are so intimately joined and unified that they must necessarily be present somewhere undivided.
You rush at me with great strides, my dear Simmias! We would be able neither to remember, nor consider, nor compare, nor think, indeed, we would not even be the person we were a moment ago, if our concepts were distributed among many components and not found somewhere together in their most intimate connection. We must, therefore, at the very least assume a substance that unifies all concepts of the components, and could this substance be composed of parts?
Impossible, otherwise we will need again a composition and comparison by which a whole would be formed from the parts, and we come again to the place from which we started.
It will therefore be simple?
Also unextended, for that which is extended is divisible and that which is divisible is not simple?
There is, therefore, in our body at least a single substance that is not extended, not compound, but is simple, that has a power of conception, and unifies all our concepts, desires, and inclinations in itself. What prevents us from calling this substance "soul"?
It is indifferent, my excellent friend, Simmias replied, what name we give it, and all the conclusions that you brought forth for the immortality of the thinking being, are now irrefutable.
Let us now consider this, Socrates interposed: If many such substances were together in a human body, indeed, if we want to consider all fundamental elements of our body as substances of this nature, would my reasons for immorality as a result lose any of their binding character? Or would such an assumption rather necessitate our allowing many rather than one immortal soul, and thus concede more than we required for our purpose? For each of these substances would, as we saw previously, encompass in itself the entire sum of all conceptions, wishes, and desires of the whole man and therefore, as concerns the extent of knowledge, their power could not be more limited than the power of the whole.
Impossible that it should be more limited.
And what about the clarity, truth, certainty, and life of knowledge? If many confused, defective, and uncertain concepts are put together, will a clear, complete, and definite concept be produced?
It seems not.
If a soul is not added that compares them and forms from those a complete knowledge through reflection and consideration, they will not in all eternity cease being many confused, deficient, and uncertain concepts.
The component parts of the human being have therefore concepts that are just as clear, just as true, just as complete, as the conceptions of the whole; from less clear, less true, etc., nothing can be brought forth through combination that has a greater degree of these perfections.
That is not to be denied.
But doesn't this mean that, instead of one rational spirit that we wish to place in each human body, we assume quite without difficulty a countless quantity of such?
And this quantity of thinking substances itself will not, probably, be all equally perfect; for that sort of useless multiplication does not occur in this well-ordered universe.
The all-highest perfection of its Creator, answered Simmias, allows us to assume that with confidence.
Thus, there will be one among the thinking substances, which we place in the human body, that is the most perfect among them, and it will have consequently the most clear and most enlightened concepts, correct?
This simple substance that is not extended, possesses the capacity for conception, and is the most perfect among the thinking substances that dwell within me, and that apprehends all concepts of which I am conscious in myself, with the same clarity, truth, and certainty, is this not my soul?
Nothing other, my dear Socrates!
My dear Simmias, now is the time to take a look behind us at the path that we have covered. We presupposed that the faculty for thought is a property of compound things, and then, how wonderful, we bring from this very assumption, through a series of rational arguments, the diametrically opposed proposition, namely, that sensation and thought must necessarily be properties of the simple, not the compound. Is this not a sufficient proof that the former assumption is impossible, contradictory, and thus to be rejected?
No one could doubt this.
Extension and motion, continued Socrates, are able to resolve all that pertains to compound things; extension is the matter, and motion the source, from which change is produced. Both are revealed in the compound in a thousand manifold shapes, and represent in corporeal nature the infinite series of wonderful structures, from the smallest speck of solar dust to the glory of the heavenly spheres that is considered by poets to be the seat of the gods. All agree in their matter being extension and their activity, motion. But to experience perception, comparison, inferring, desiring, wanting, pleasure, and pain demands a completely different capacity from extension and motion, another fundamental matter, other sources of change. Here, a simple fundamental being must conceive much, must grasp together the independently existing, contrast that which exists in a manifold way, and compare that which is different. What is distributed in the broad space of the corporeal world here is compressed together as in a point to make a whole, and what no longer exists is brought into comparison in the same present moment with that which is yet to be. Here I acknowledge neither extension nor color, neither rest nor motion, neither space nor time, but an internally active being that conceives extension and color, rest and motion, space and time, connects them, divides them, compares, chooses, and is capable of still thousands of capacities that have not the least thing in common with extension and motion. Pleasure and pain, desire and aversion, hope and fear, happiness and misery, are not changes of place of small bits of earthly dust. Modesty, human love, benevolence, the charms of friendship and the sublime feeling of piety are something more than the rush of blood and the pulsing of arteries that they are commonly accompanied by. Things of such a different kind, my dear Simmias, of such different properties, cannot be confused with one another without the most extreme carelessness.
I am completely satisfied, was Simmias' answer.
Yet another comment, the former replied, before I turn to you, my Cebes! The first thing that we know of the body and its properties, is that anything other than the way that it is presented to our senses?
Can you make that somewhat clearer, my dear Socrates!
Extension and motion are conceptions the thinking being forms of that which is real external to himself, correct?
We would like to have the most reliable reasons to be assured that things external to us are not otherwise than they normally appear to us. But does not the conception itself always come first, and the assurance that its object is real follow later?
How is it otherwise possible? replied Simmias, since we can be informed of the existence of things external to us only through their impressions on us.
In the sequence of our knowledge, therefore, thinking being always comes first, and extended being follows; we first come to know that concepts, and consequently a conceiving being, are real, and from them we conclude the real existence of body and its properties. We can convince ourselves of this truth because body, as we saw before, forms no whole without the work of the thinking being, and motion itself, without holding together of the past with the present, would not be motion. We may thus consider the subject from whichever side we want, we always first encounter the soul and its works, and then follows body and its changes. Conceiving always precedes the conceived.
This concept seems productive, my friend, said Cebes.
We can arrange the entire chain of being, Socrates continued, from the infinite to the smallest particle of dust, into three ranks. The first rank conceives, but cannot be conceived by others; this is the unique one, whose perfection transcends all finite concepts. Created spirits and souls make up the second rank: These conceive and can be conceived by others. The corporeal world is the third rank, which can only be conceived by others, but cannot conceive. The objects of this last rank, in the sequence of our knowledge as well as in existence itself, are external to us, and always the last in order since they always presupposed the reality of a conceiving being. Do we want to concede this?
We cannot do otherwise, said Simmias. After what came before, it all must be conceded.
And yet, continued Socrates, human opinion for the most part gets this order backwards. The first thing we believe we are assured of is body and its changes; this controls all our senses so much that we for a long time consider material existence to be the unique one, and everything else as properties of the same.
I am glad, Simmias said, that you yourself, as you so clearly give us to understand, went this perverted way yourself.
Of course, my dear Simmias, replied Socrates. The first opinions of all mortals are similar to one another. This is the Rhodes from which all begin their journey. They wander aimlessly in searching for the truth, up and down among the seas of opinion, until their reason and their reflection, the children of Jupiter, illuminate their sails, and proclaim a happy landing. Reason and reflection lead our soul from sensory impressions of the corporeal world back to its home, into the realm of thinking being, first to its equal, created being that, because of its finitude, can be thought and clearly conceived by others. From this, they lift it to the source of thinking and the thinkable, to that all-conceiving but by all inconceivable being of which we, to our consolation, know enough to realize that everything that is good, beautiful, and perfect in the corporeal world and the world of souls, had its reality from him and is preserved through his omnipotence. For our happiness in this and in the other life, we need no more than to be assured by this truth, touched, and penetrated by it in the deepest intimacy of our heart.
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