For Plato, the body was the prison to the soul for it limits the expression of our desires, but have we understood his words correctly?
Plato was one of the first philosophers who started the debate regarding the body in relations to the soul and our desire. Now, you may agree or disagree with this ideologies but before you pass any judgement, let’s get acquainted a bit more with Plato’s view on this particular dilemma–ultimately it is not one to be resolved, but one to help us ponder and perhaps expand our minds to different perceptions, which otherwise, we may not have considered. Besides as you read this piece, you may discovered that the phrase attributed to Plato that says “the body is a prison for the soul”, was taken out of context in an effort to distort and caricature the message of the philosopher. At no time did he deny the body or carnal sexuality as we see in the dialogue The Banquet. Medieval interpretations were what imposed this way of understanding, in order to use it as a moral justification in religious institutions, for example to impose celibacy.
The interpretations of medieval philosophers have transmitted to this day an image of Plato contrary to desires. But Plato’s “desires” are not only fundamental, they are essential to understanding what surrounds Platonic ethics, anthropology and even gnoseology.
One of the most questioned discussions is how to interpret Plato and his dialogues. Among the most widespread positions is the one which advocates understanding dialogues as a compact “dramatic unity” and philosophical; this means a unity which does not require anything foreign to the very lines of the dialogue in question or even other dialogues. Medieval, modern and contemporary thought understands desires very differently from how Plato understood them. For him, thought was not independent of desires, rather these push us to desire contradictory things–It is through thought that these contradictions are to be resolved.
In Phaedrus and The Republic, desire has the quality of having no involvement in material reality….what does this mean? it means the creation or recognition of the existence of desires will not materially affect anything; simply having desires does not have an impact on reality for this requires action–in other words, desires need an agent to fulfill them.
The Platonic soul is divided into three: a charioteer and two horses, one docile and one rebellious. The docile horse is often considered the “good” horse, it is often represented in white and is very much a follower of rules; this is not a bad thing if one is looking to get somewhere, but what happens if the horse is so docile to the point of foolish complancency that it follows blindly even to his own destruction simply because the road is nicely paved?
The other horse is the rebellious horse, often represented in black and untamed. This horse may not obey all orders; if at all; which may be cause of dismay for the charioteer. However, this horse knows how to sense danger, it knows how to survive. It does not seek comfort but freedom. However, in its need to always be on the alert or rebel, it can cause his own body exhaustion and pain.
With his allegory of the two horses, Plato intends to make an analysis of what composes us as humans: the soul and the body. According to many philosophers, including Plato, as well as other disciplines such as Sacred Teachings, Tantra, Alchemy…the union of body and soul is what is called a real “living being”, divine mortal. Everything that has to do with the body is the closest thing you are going to be to the divine, understanding that everything divine is beautiful, it is good and it is wise. The body has its own knowledge, we have just becoming deaf to its language. The body provides food for the wings of the soul, which then manages to grow, attaining or realizing his own divinity. Human souls alone lack wings or are broken, and that is why they lack divinity; in other words, in accepting dogmas that praise one and condemn the other, we choose mediocracy, we choose to remain at war within ourselves, we choose to remain broken.
Dogma teaches that the soul is imprisoned in the body, under its needs and in its non-divinity. However, the body does not represent so much that which is alien to divinity, for when understood correctly without false prudency or senseless self abuse, the body is the provider of the divinity that the soul lost.
As we have seen, the body according to Plato (whose learnings were based on very ancient wisdom and his own genius) is composed of three parts: the first is the white horse, which could also symbolize the desires which are determined in the body andanswered in a pleasant and satisfactory way–transmutation/integration. The second is the black horse, which represents those desires of the spirit that go against what we have been taught is “good” and so it causes conflict within. The more conflict, the more pain, anger, resentment, sadness–in other words the dark nature of the shadow is being fed, simply because we refuse to accept we are both sinner and saint. With that said, I am not saying one should give in to every desire the body holds, for given the ignorance or level of maturity, the body may respond to a desire that could not only endangered self but actually hurt another. As such, the third, the charioteer, is supposed to be the control center–the link between the two. This does not cover the cases of mental depravation, for within those cases, the charioteer is not in control or rather it could be fully in control but is defected in the soul…meaning, it is cruel, savage, less than animal–but that is for another topic.
The figure of the charioteer is used as the one who guides and orders–the one that decides the course of action to take. Desires move the mortal towards what is desired; that is to say, it give us as an objective to what we want; to a greater or lesser degree–it sweetens life. However, when these desires of the soul reach the body, it is the body that has to know if they correspond to its inclinations–if in agreement, action takes place and it can be fulfilling. If in disagreement, it is the charioteer whom will need to mediate.
In The Republic, Plato narrates an anecdote as an example of this: Leontius went up to Piraeus and there he found some corpses next to the executioner of the people. Leontius’ desire was to approach in order to see them up close. However, when he tried to do so, repudiation and disgust filled him. So he entered into an internal debate to be able to decide what to do and reach an agreement between those desires that are contradicted.
According to Plato and Socrates, impetus occurs based on non alignment of mind, body and soul…or what they called a disease of the soul. For it is very different to be free spirited and wild; in love with life; from being falsely rebellious and willing to abuse self or manipulate others in the name of being “free”. Discernment is needed yet in our present society, due to lack of introspection, education or the desire to simply run from one’s own shadow, the lines are blurred and two very different things are often confused as being the same.
According to Plato, the appetitive soul is the soul that loves. Plato does not reject desire: in fact, “the philosopher must give free rein to his appetite, love, encounter and union”. Philosopher is not the one who accepts the restriction of reasoning, but who imposes his love and free spirit in the face of the barriers that are imposed on him–Why would Plato say this? because he believed your desires are but the reflection of your soul–if the soul is corrupt, then no beautiful desire can be born from it. However, if the soul is “sweet symphony”, well then its desires; although they may not fit the norm or dogma; will only serve for expansion self.
For the Greek world the main difference between body and soul is nothing more than their way of being: the body as a material reality, belonging to the sentient world, and the soul as an immaterial reality, belonging to the intelligible world. Centuries later René Descartes would say about this very thing: the body is res extensa, that which has extension in space, and the soul is res cogitans because it has no extension, but, instead is a mental reality.
The soul for Plato exists linked to the body; it is forced to feel through the body and not by itself, as if in a dungeon it were found. So the body is that which anchors (chains) the soul and tries to ensure that pleasures, needs, desires and passions are fulfilled. These are desires and passions in the sense of inclinations and concerns for survival, whether determined by rejection or attachment to certain realities that are alien to the desires of the soul. However, Plato assures that what the philosopher and free spirit will seek is that the desires of the soul reign over the truths of the body. Tantra takes it further and says….your body is just as divine as your soul and can be used not just to listen to the soul, but rather by having the body and soul listen to each other in harmony, we can discover a reality past soul and body…the reality of the spirit.