I’d like to preface this paper with the following quote, not because it is directly relevant to my thesis or point, but because I find it “awesomely hilarious.”
“Take what has to do with the body to the point of bare need, such as food, drink, clothing, house, household slaves, and cut out everything that is for reputation or luxury.” -Epictetus (Handbook of Epictetus pg. 23)
“It’s only through reasoning and intellect, not through the body, that the one can attain truth” After reading this quote, I became highly suspicious and even judgemental of the grounds that this claim is based upon. Being it my personality to play the devil’s advocate, I did my best to take a step back and meditate on the claim, read the context in which it was written, study the evidence in Phaedo in support of the claim, and then returned to think on and analyze the claim once more. After going through the chapters in Phaedo several times over with as open a mind as possible, the position that Socrates is asserting has no foundation supported by tangible evidence nor consistent logic, and Since Plato is referencing the soul or mind when saying “reasoning and intellect”, Epictetus would agree with “Socrates’” claim but have his own perspective on it based off of him using a different set logic.
Socrates claims that the soul, even after death, still contemplates, thinks, and maintains a level of consciousness. The argument is made that “what we call learning is really just recollection. If that is true, then surely what we recollect now we must have learned at some time before; which is impossible unless our souls existed somewhere before they entered this human shape.” (Phaedo pg. 120) By including this argument in the text, the idea is put forth that 1. The body and soul are two unique entities, and 2. Each one serves a unique function, and looking inwards towards the soul one can find truth and knowledge that they otherwise could not if the body is merely a temporary vessel for an immortal soul. What stands out to me as having some truth to it is the notion that the body is capable of breaking things into parts and can process tangible things, while the mind can understand the abstract, such as ideas, concepts, and use rational thought. This claim still holds by many of today’s metrics and is consistent with a lot of other points made by Socrates. During Socrates’ time, at least while Plato was writing of Socrates, Stoic Theory was widely circulated. A general belief of Stoics at the time was that the soul and body are two distinct entities that each serve different functions; Some viewed the body as an extension of the soul, or the soul as being an extension of the body, however, others such as Epictetus perceived the body to be a gross necessity while the mind was all that truly mattered.
Epictetus insists, more so than Plato or Socrates it seems, that the body is an extension of, or connected to the soul. Epictetus goes as far as to physically insult the body and its form while praising the higher power of the mind, he automatically creates a distinction between soul and body while still acknowledging an unfortunate but necessary link between the two. Where Socrates and Epictetus views on the soul & body diverge is when Socrates argues that the soul is something entirely separate to the body, using Socrates argument of opposites, he argues that the soul must precede the body being born, and when the body dies, the soul returns to another place until it is “reborn” alongside a body again. Epictetus however views the soul as being a separate entity but deeply connected to the body through our senses. “None of these signs is for me, but only for my petty body or my petty property or my petty judgments or children or wife. For all signs are favorable if I wish, since it is up to me to be benefited by whichever of them turns out correct.’ From this quote by Epictetus, one must conclude that regardless of what your body and senses are telling you, ultimately your mind has the authority to decide how life will be perceived.
Socrates makes several contradictions in Phaedo while distinguishing the mind from the body, and through reading all of the Handbook of Epictetus, Epictetus falls into making several hypocritical claims. Epictetus advocates strongly of others living with barely enough to sustain the body because the mind is what truly matters; And while developing his argument for that, Epictetus neglects the luxuries he chooses to afford for himself. Both philosophers offer long and complicated arguments, and after analyzing the arguments made, it is very difficult o agree with most aspects of Socrates’ idea that “only through reasoning and intellect, not through the body, one can attain truth.” The argument that the world is made of opposites does not follow the same logic as Plato’s other claim that the soul lives before and after the body is born and dies. By that I mean if something is now big, it must have been small at one point, and if something is dead, it must have been alive at one point as well. But using this logic, the soul must either die with the body or be an entirely separate entity. Since Plato, through Socrates, claims that the soul is an entirely separate entity, it must be immortal and be an outside character to the “opposite argument” that is used. Yet if the soul is immortal, why does knowledge not compound? Why is it that the reasoning and intellect that people use to seek truth is limited to what our physical bodies have experienced up until that point in a single lifetime? Within the frame of arguments that Socrates has set up, his logic is flawed, and while the mind can rationalize experiences and alter what our body senses, its ability to do so will always be limited by the experiences that our physical bodies have. After thinking about this from every possible angle I could conceive and analyzing every argument support the claim to the best of my abilities, I cannot agree with nor support Socrates or Plato in their philosophy on the soul and body. Despite not liking his character very much after reading his work, I do agree much more with Epictetus’s perspective on the relationship between mind, body, and the part each plays in pursuing the best truth.