The Stoics and Socrates


The question of the reality of the soul and its distinction from the body is
among the most important problems of philosophy, for with it is bound up the
doctrine of a future life. The soul may be defined as the ultimate internal
principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are
animated. The term "mind" usually denotes this principle as the subject of our
conscious states, while "soul" denotes the source of our vegetative activities
as well. If there is life after death, the agent of our vital activities must
be capable of an existence separate from the body. The belief in an active
principle in some sense distinct from the body is inference from the observed
facts of life. The lowest savages arrive at the concept of the soul almost
without reflection, certainly without any severe mental effort. The mysteries
of birth and death, the lapse of conscious life during sleep, even the most
common operations of imagination and memory, which abstract a man from his
bodily presence even while awake; all such facts suggest the existence of
something besides the visible organism. An existence not entirely defined by the
material and to a large extent independent of it, leading a life of its own. In
the psychology of the savage, the soul is often represented as actually
migrating to and fro during dreams and trances, and after death haunting the
neighborhood of its body. Nearly always it is figured as something extremely
volatile, a perfume or a breath.

In Greece, the heartland of our ancient philosophers, the first essays of
philosophy took a positive and somewhat materialistic direction, inherited from
the pre-philosophic age, from Homer and the early Greek religion. In Homer,
while the distinction of soul and body is recognized, the soul is hardly
conceived as possessing a substantial existence of its own. Severed from the
body, it is a mere shadow, incapable of energetic life. Other philosophers
described the soul\'s nature in terms of substance. Anaximander gives it an
aeriform constitution, Heraclitus describes it as a fire. The fundamental
thought is the same. The soul is the nourishing agent which imparts heat, life,
sense, and intelligence to all things in their several degrees and kinds. The
Pythagoreans taught that the soul is a harmony, its essence consisting in those
perfect mathematical ratios which are the law of the universe and the music of
the heavenly spheres. All these early theories were cosmological rather than
psychological in character. Theology, physics, and mental science were not as
yet distinguished.

In the "Timaeus" (p. 30), one of Plato\'s writings, we find an account derived
from Pythagorean sources of the origin of the soul. First the world-soul is
created according to the laws of mathematical symmetry and musical harmony. It
is composed of two elements, one an element of "sameness", corresponding to the
universal and intelligible order of truth, and the other an element of
distinction or "otherness", corresponding to the world of sensible and
particular existences. The individual human soul is constructed on the same
plan.

The Stoics taught that all existence is material, and described the soul as "a
breath pervading the body". They also called it Divine, a particle of God; it
was composed of the most refined and ethereal matter. They denied absolute
immortality; relative immortality, ending with the universal conflagration and
destruction of all things, some of them admitted in the case of the wise man.
Yet many others, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, denied even this, arguing
that, as "the soul began with the body, so it must end with it".

With Socrates came a revolution in all manners of thought. As, perhaps, the
most influential of philosophers, and also one of the best known, it is truly
unfortunate he left the future so little of his theories. Only through the
writings of his students have we any idea of his philosophy. In the writing of
Plato much thought is given to the concept of the human soul. Socrates presents
the soul having three major ideas associated with it. The human soul is
immortal, immaterial, and moral. The question of immortality was a principal
subject of Plato\'s speculations. In the "Phaedo" the chief argument for the
immortality of the soul is based on the nature of intellectual knowledge
interpreted on the theory of reminiscence of past lives; this implies the pre-
existence of the soul, and logically derives its eternal pre-existence. The
human soul is eternal, existing with neither beginning nor end.

With Socrates, the individual aspects of the soul became dominant. It\'s
individuality and its strict separation with the body.