Episode 25: The Ideal and the Art of Dying, Part 1

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Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates 1797

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1797

 “…that those who apply themselves correctly to the pursuit of philosophy are in fact practicing nothing more nor less than death and dying.”  Plato, “Phaedo”¹

The nature of death is one of the great philosophical questions, right up there with “What am I?”  What is death?  Does something survive the death of the body?  This question, explicitly or implicitly, with its hope for or fear of survival, permeates all cultures and gives rise to their deepest myths and rituals. And yet most people seem to live their lives without regard to death except for a vague fear, kicking it down the road until they are told that they have x months to live.  Better late than never, perhaps, but I wish to argue, with Plato, that an understanding of death can be an excellent guide in knowing how to live.  We spend so much of our time and attention dealing with ephemera, or trying to keep ourselves entertained or distracted, that the appearance of the prospect of our own death or that of someone we love can automatically give us a larger perspective and a reason to think about what is important, what lasts, why we are here.

I hope it is immediately apparent that seen through the lens of the Ideal that the subject is not morbid, frightening, depressing or even particularly fascinating.  It has nothing to do with the current preoccupation with zombies or the supernatural.  “Practicing…death and dying” is not the same as being preoccupied with it, or wishing for it, or fearing it.  But it is one of the most important things we humans face in any age, and I believe it is especially important to come to terms with it in an age where medicine can keep a heartbeat going almost indefinitely and treats death as a failure.  We need to acknowledge that at some point, our bodies, and all we have invested in them, will cease to function.  We need to realize that, according to Idealism, death is a blip in consciousness.  We need to realize with a prominent contemporary Idealist, Eckhart Tolle, that “Death is not the opposite of life.  Life has no opposite.  The opposite of death is birth.  Life is eternal.”²

So in this next series of posts, we’ll be looking at what Idealism has to say about death, and in particular, this question of the immortality of the soul. We will begin with Plato, for whom the question became central after he did see someone he loved–Socrates– executed in 399 BC.  He treats the subject in a number of dialogues, but perhaps most thoroughly in the Phaedo,  which “records” the conversation of Socrates and some his followers on the day he dies.³  In many ways it is a condensed version of Plato’s thought, with a brief overview of the Ideal Forms, instruction in the virtuous life, some cosmology and a tour of the Underworld.

Plato assumes the existence of the soul, and much of the dialogue concerns itself with a “proof” of the soul’s immortality, which I will not attempt to summarize here; it will not persuade any “sensible” person.  But it is consistent with and central to Socrates’ Theory of Forms: that there are eternalities of which the things in the visible realm are just instances in time and space.  The soul is distinct from the body, and it does survive when the body dies, in the same way that Beauty survives when an individual flower dies.  The soul exists before it becomes affiliated with the body in this life, wears it like a suit of clothes, and continues to exist after the body falls away.  This conviction is at the heart of Socrates’ calmness in the face of his impending execution.

“Then, Simmias, as the true philosophers are ever studying death, to them, of all men, death is the least terrible. Look at the matter in this way: how inconsistent of them to have been always enemies of the body, and wanting to have the soul alone, and when this is granted to them, to be trembling and repining; instead of rejoicing at their departing to that place where, when they arrive, they hope to gain that which in life they loved (and this was wisdom), and at the same time to be rid of the company of their enemy.”

Socrates is rather hard on the body in this dialogue, not just because he sees its appetites for “so-called pleasures,” but also since

“… the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and also liable to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after truth: and by filling us so full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies, and idols, and every sort of folly, prevents our ever having, as people say, so much as a thought. For whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost.”4

So for Plato there is never any real question but that the soul is immortal.  “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world, to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

And the same can be said for Marsilio Ficino.  His magnum opus, The Platonic Theology5 (subtitled On the Immortality of the Soul), which runs to 18 books, (and which shows that like Plotinus he has a rather mind-numbingly pedantic side), is his own attempt at a proof, and it is generally acknowledged that it was he who made immortality part of the Catholic doctrine.6 But the standard Christian view is that the soul is immortal in one direction only–it is somehow born with the body, and then “achieves” immortality through its belief in and forgiveness by Jesus Christ.  I think it is safe to say this was not Ficino’s view.  In the introduction to The Platonic Theology, Michael Allen and James Hankins say “…he believed, with St. Augustine, not only will the soul achieve immortality, but that it is intrinsically and everlasting immortal, immortal from its creation, and therefore by nature angelic, divine, made in the image and likeness of the eternal.”  Any notion of limitation, of time or space, comes from the ego, which will persist in trying to convince you that you are limited until you have the actual experience, before death or after it, that you are not.

So immortality is not being everlasting; it is being everpresent.  We should neither hope for nor fear the inevitable future, but make ourselves unburdened and worthy at each moment.  As Emerson, from whom we will hear much more in the next episode, says in his essay Worship:

Of immortality, the soul, when well employed, is incurious. It is so well, that it is sure it will be well. It asks no questions of the Supreme Power. The son of Antiochus asked his father, when he would join battle? “Dost thou fear,” replied the King, “that thou only in all the army wilt not hear the trumpet?” ‘Tis a higher thing to confide, that, if it is best we should live, we shall live, — ’tis higher to have this conviction, than to have the lease of indefinite centuries and millenniums and aeons. Higher than the question of our duration is the question of our deserving. Immortality will come to such as are fit for it, and he who would be a great soul in future, must be a great soul now. It is a doctrine too great to rest on any legend, that is, on any man’s experience but our own. It must be proved, if at all, from our own activity and designs, which imply an interminable future for their play.7

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Graphics are not copyrighted and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Plato, Phaedo, Benjamin Jowett, trans.  Any number of editions exist, including this one.

²Phaedo gives an accounting of those present, ending with the incongruous statement, “but Plato, if I am not mistaken, was ill.”

³Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks, New World Library 2003, p. 103

4The body is also closely aligned with the ego, which as we have seen,  determines so many of the limited ideas we have about ourselves: male/female, handsome/homely, gay/straight, black/brown/white.  The family into which our body is born can make us think we are a certain religion, nationality, or political persuasion.  But the soul knows it is none of these.

5Marsilio Ficino, The Platonic Theology, Michael J.B. Allen, trans., Harvard University Press, I Tatti Renaissance Library, 2001

6In Eight Philosophers of the Italian Renaissance,  Paul Oskar Kristeller says, “Ficino’s doctrine of immortality, and his arguments for it, made a profound impression on many thinkers of the sixteenth century, and it may well be due to his direct influence that the immortality of the soul was formally pronounced a dogma of the Catholic Church in the Lateran Council of 1512.”  Stanford University Press, 1964, p. 47.

7In his essay The Over-Soul, he makes the same point:

Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois. To truth, justice, love, the attributes of the soul, the idea of immutableness is essentially associated. Jesus, living in these moral sentiments, heedless of sensual fortunes, heeding only the manifestations of these, never made the separation of the idea of duration from the essence of these attributes, nor uttered a syllable concerning the duration of the soul. It was left to his disciples to sever duration from the moral elements, and to teach the immortality of the soul as a doctrine, and maintain it by evidences. The moment the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught, man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question, or condescends to these evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.