Free Essay About Plato’s Symposium And Descartes’s Meditations: Thinking Versus Loving
The significance of Descartes’ (1596 - 1650) Meditation is that he offers a unique perspective on the relationship between mind and body. However, Plato (427 - 347 BCE), in his Symposium speaks about the nourishment of soul and body. The objective of this assignment is to think about the problem of Descartes’ dualism, and how he attests that mind and body are distinct but work together. However, for an ethical argument for the soul — which the Greeks thought of as the mind — and the body, we must turn to Plato. First, in this paper the issue of mind and body will be discussed in relationship to his claim that there are only two things that exist: thinking things and extended things. The argument of this paper is to show the strength of Descartes’ argument but also to show that it needs something like Plato’s concept of the soul to create a harmonious picture of the human person. In sum, one needs both love and thought, both human emotion, and cognitive ability, to be an ethical human being.
Descartes clearly cuts the world into two: thought and objects. His brutal dissection of reality leaves no room for love. First, Descartes argues that all of reality is divided up into two distinct things. For example, the tree in the backyard is separate from the tree I can think about in my mind. The key word is “separate”. Descartes’s claim is “there is a great difference between the object and its idea” (Meditation III). In other words, Descartes argues that the external world is not all that exists. He is not saying that only the external, physical tree exists separate from mine. Nor, is he saying that the tree is only a mere figment of my imagination. He is not saying that the tree as I think of it in my mind is all that exists. What separates the two for Descartes is “[T]hinking is another attribute of the soul” (Meditation II). The human being is precisely this sort of thing, “only a thinking thing, that is, a mind (mens sive animus)” (Meditation II). A thinking thing is that which “doubts, understands, [conceives], affirms, denies, wills, refuses; that imagines also, and perceives” (Meditation II). In Plato, we find a richer illustration of the soul and the body in the speech of Phaedrus. In Phaedrus’s speech, the gods breathe life into soul, such as the heroes in Homer’s Iliad (39). The soul is part of another, more perfect, world. Symposium is a conversation with Socrates’ friends and in it the party goers talk about many attributes of the soul that are good for humankind: love, the love of learning, and the search for the good life. Plato looks down on those who simply love the body, such as youth who gloat over their beauty without seeing the beauty within (44). In Diotima’s speech, one of the women philosophers in the conversation, says that the body is always changing, and so with the soul. The art of coming to nourishing the soul is through a recollection of a higher knowledge that can only be done by advancing the virtues of true beauty (70-72).
Notice that in the above interpretation on Meditation II, Descartes gives a lot of power to the thinking subject. Notice that Plato gives a lot of power to the soul, but his emphasis is on the ability of the soul to not just doubt, or to think, but also the ability of the soul to love, to have passion. Both Plato and Descartes set the body and soul into a dualism. For Descartes, the dualism is one of a thinking subject and the external world. For Plato, it is this changing world, and its incompleteness, versus the unchanging world outside of our bodies. Descartes makes it seem as if the only thing that is important is the “I think” (Meditation II). For Plato, what is most important is the care of the soul. In Descartes’ view, the thinking thing is alone. In all of the universe, it seems Descartes is saying, only thinking things we know of to exist is the human being. He places a profound amount of significance on this “thinking thing”. And he argues that what makes up the thinking thing is that it can doubt, and refuse, and it has a will. Descartes has created a philosophy that makes it seem as if the human being can do whatever it wants. If extended things are separate from thinking things, then the assumption is that thinking things are more important than extended things. However, making extended things less valued in society, gives permission to humankind to destroy the environment and to care less about the existence of animals and the state of the planet. Notice that in Descartes book there is no discussion of how a thinking thing ought to behave. In this way, Descartes is very different from Plato’s conception of the soul, for in Plato’s estimation mind and body are separate, but he also pays attention to the care of the soul when he writes in Aristophanes’ speech: “nature is prone to love and ready to return love” (53). The soul is like a pair of lost lovers, who have been split by the gods” “always looking for his other half” (53).
Reply and Objection
In Plato’s dialogue, it could be said that he relies too much on mythology. To describe the soul, he uses the story of an ancient myth of Zeus splitting ancient man into two. In this way, modern man is a split soul forever looking for his lost lover. It is a nice parable of love, but it is also very modern. For modern man is often a split self. Take for example people who are depressed, or even in a first world, industrial society, where consumerism is rampant, people still feel empty inside. Descartes’ philosophy does not account for this emptiness. For Descartes, all he is concerned about is the thinking subject. For him, the thinking think has an indubitable truth. Descartes’ project is to discover “to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable” and in this way, he is on a search for truth (Meditation II). Both Plato and Descartes do, however, think that truth is inward. However, for Descartes inward truth is buttressed by the power of thinking and the ability of the mind to think and to offer truth that cannot be doubted. For Plato, as Aristophanes’ speech indicates, truth is inward, but the human person has to get past the imperfection of the body, to reach something over and beyond the body: “human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love” (54). Descartes, unfortunately, does not give much credence to the split, lost self. For him: “And I easily understand that, in so far as I consider myself as a single whole, without reference to any other being in the universe” (Meditation IV). While Descartes talks about God — for him — the thinking self is whole in so far as it can think. The thinking self is the foundation of everything. However, this thought is dangerous for it gives permission to do whatever one wants.
In this short paper, the shortcomings of Descartes have been argued. Plato’s arguments for the harmony of the soul have been used to restore something of value to Descartes thinking subject. The strength of Descartes is that he isolates the profundity of human thought. It is the human mind that has devised mathematical theorems, spaceships to the moon, and cures for diseases. The thinking human being is a marvel, for sure. However, without any checks or balances the human thinking thing can go too far: war, genocide, treason, and deception. Plato has a psychological acuity that Descartes lacks. In the collection of conversations about love, one unified theme emerges: humans are broken beings looking for a wholeness that makes them feel complete. Rather than turn to war, devastation, or deception, looking for inner beauty and creating a more beautiful world can nurture the soul.
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