Plato on the Limits of Human Life

Plato on the Limits of Human Life

Plato on the Limits of Human Life

Plato on the Limits of Human Life

Synopsis

By focusing on the immortal character of the soul in key Platonic dialogues, Sara Brill shows how Plato thought of the soul as remarkably flexible, complex, and indicative of the inner workings of political life and institutions. As she explores the character of the soul, Brill reveals the corrective function that law and myth serve. If the soul is limitless, she claims, then the city must serve a regulatory or prosthetic function and prop up good political institutions against the threat of the soul's excess. Brill's sensitivity to dramatic elements and discursive strategies in Plato's dialogues illuminates the intimate connection between city and soul.

Excerpt

Near the end of Alcibiades I, Socrates proposes an image for attaining the knowledge of soul that he and Alcibiades have agreed is necessary for self-knowledge. Just as the eye, in attempting to see itself, must look at itself in another eye (133a) and at the image of its seeing reflected therein, so too, the soul, if it is to know itself, “must surely look at a soul, and especially at that region of it in which occurs the virtue of a soul— wisdom, and at any other part of a soul which resembles this” (133b). the uncanny image of a self-seeing eye, gazing at its reflection in the pupil opposite it, and thus gazing at the topos in which its virtue, sight, occurs (133b), is meant to set in more concrete form the means by which a soul could come to know itself. If Socrates’s comparison is to be maintained, soul must be able to understand itself in an “other,” thereby catching glimpses of its wisdom. Whether this “other” of the soul is the soul of another, whose workings are grasped in the actions, passions, and thoughts of which it is the source, or the soul sufficiently alienated from itself in order to encounter itself, it nevertheless stands that the task of self-knowledge requires the soul to become an object for itself. Exactly how it is to do so remains undetermined in this dialogue, but we are presented with a compelling portrait of soul attempting to see itself in its portrayal of Socrates’s seduction of Alcibiades, a seduction which, for all its talk of eyes, takes place in words, that medium through which (as Socrates himself points out) their souls have been interacting (130d).

This image of self-knowledge contains two strains of thought whose persistence in the investigations of soul undertaken throughout Plato’s dialogues proves useful for anyone wanting to measure the philosophical status of psychology in Plato’s work:

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