On the Human Psyche: Aristotle contra Plato


On the Psyche in Plato:

Plato and the concept of psyche as prisoner



[1] Plato has been said to be the most influential thinker in the Western tradition. His model of the psyche was incorporated into Christianity. His view was that psyche was the true self, but was imprisoned within the body─ a body that was disowned. Plato’s was an aspirational view of the psyche, one most famously presented in the Myth of the Cave in The Republic. The great and lasting feature of Plato’s psyche-self was that, while the body is subject to death, the psyche is not. Thus the appeal to Christianity. The psyche was taken by Plato to be subject to reincarnation, a series of rebirths culminating in a mystical experience of freedom from the body, and from death. 


[2] Plato is said by many informed scholars to have been the most influential thinker in the West. This was memorably expressed by Alfred North Whitehead in his claim that “all Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato.” Like all global statements, Whitehead’s claim is surely an exaggeration─ yet it has found a nodding acceptance among many since Whitehead first wrote it. Plato’s importance to the Western conception of the mind is indisputable. Here is a brief summation and illustration of the famous Myth of the Cave from his most important work─ The Republic.





[3] Now the good news: escape is possible. Possible, but not easy. Escape requires effort and discomfort. It entails being freed from the seat into which one finds oneself locked, turning around, seeing the real condition of the cave, making the ascent out of the cave into the sunlight, the sunlight where for the first time one is able to see realities rather than turbid shadows of realities.




[4] The figure in the upper right with arms raised in celebration— that could be YOU. Free at last; free from your wretched, distracting body, free from Nature and its grumpy laws— the grumpiest of which mandates that all living things must die. Goodbye to all that. But only if you play your cards right. In this your present life. Right according to Plato, that is.


[5] The ascent to this sunlight describes in the myth of the Cave is not only a mystical quest, it is a hero’s quest. Every step toward the sunlight is painful and confusing. Every step upward calls for a hero. Why is the ascent so difficult? Because as humans we have been habituated to take the dark circumstances of the cave as the only reality— "that's just how it is" we were told, and we believed it. Plato means to educate us. Mention of the heroic dimension of Plato’s philosophy raises an important issue in regard to his influence on traditional Christianity. It is highly likely that, because of the Jewish interest in Greek philosophy in the centuries before Jesus lived, that Plato’s ideas were incorporated into Christian thinking— especially ideas about the self and its potentials, (You can find angry confirmation of this Greek influence in the Books of the Maccabees, where the authors berate and deplore its palpable impact.)


[6] But for all its compatibility with Christianity— the Platonic psyche, like the traditional Christian conception of the soul, is dissociated from the body and from nature— Plato scripted the mystical ascent from the cave as a hero’s quest of self-realization, requiring grit, determination and a strong dose of audacity. Pride and self-esteem were indispensable.


[7] By contrast, the central Christian hope was scripted as a drama of salvation. This is so, at least, in traditional Christianity. The brassy self-assertion evident in Socrates and Plato— indeed in most of ancient Greek culture— would have been classed as a variant of the cardinal sin: pride. The traditional Christian understanding of the human self and its motives was poetically expressed by St. Paul at Romans 7:15ff:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. [RSV translation]


[8] Here is a man desperately in need of salvation. His recognition of that need is something that Paul takes as a primary virtue. And throughout most of the trajectory of traditional, mainstream Christianity, many have been darkly thrilled by the potency of Paul’s words and insights in this passage.


[9] The take-away point: although Plato’s vision of the relationship between mind and body, and between mind and nature were woven into the drama, the heroic disposition that infused Plato’s work was not; mainstream Christianity has remained first and foremost a religion of salvation, not self-realization.


And so we turn to Plato mission to educate us.

[10] Plato is well known for his metaphysical theory, but his concerns were not restricted to abstractions. He was also committed to practical aspirations─ social applications of his understanding of reality. Plato was a political thinker. He is famous for saying:

Unless. . . either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophical intelligence. . . there can be no cessation of troubles. . . for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Republic V, 743d


A mystical vision, expressed politically. But the realities of this vision, elaborated in Plato’s last work, The Laws, describe a depressing vision of a totalitarian state─ one used by George Orwell as the model for his dystopian novel, 1984.



Aristotle  (1955)

A. E. Taylor

Chapter III: First Philosophy ─ excerpts


[1] First Philosophy is defined by Aristotle as a "science which considers What Is simply in its character of Being, and the properties which it has as such." That there is, or ought to be, such a science is urged on the ground that every "special" science deals only with some restricted department of what is, and thus considers its subject-matter not universally in its character of being, or being real, but as determined by some more special condition. Thus, First Philosophy, the science which attempts to discover the most ultimate reasons of, or grounds for, the character of things in general cannot be identified with any of the "departmental" sciences. The same consideration explains why it is "First Philosophy" which has to disentangle the "principles" of the various sciences and defend them by dialectic against those who impugn them. It is no part of the duty of a geometer or a physicist to deal with objections to such universal principles of reasoning as the law of contradiction. They may safely assume such principles; if they are attacked, it is not by specifically geometrical or physical considerations that they can be defended. Even the " principles of the special sciences " have not to be examined and defended by the special sciences. They are the starting-points of the sciences which employ them; these sciences are therefore justified in requiring that they shall be admitted as a condition of geometrical, or physical, or biological demonstrations. If they are called in question, the defense of them is the business of logic.


[2] First Philosophy, then, is the study of "What Is simply as such," the universal principles of structure without which there could be no ordered system of knowable objects. But the word " is " has more than one sense. There are as many modes of being as there are types of predication. " Substances," men, horses, and the like, have their own specific mode of being— they are things; qualities, such as green or sweet, have a different mode of being— they are not things, but "affections" or "attributes" of things. Actions, again, such as building, killing, are neither things nor yet "affections" of things; their mode of being is that they are processes which produce or destroy things. First Philosophy is concerned with the general character of all these modes of being, but it is especially concerned with that mode of being which belongs to substances. For this is the most primary of all modes of being. We had to introduce a reference to it in our attempt to say what the mode of being of qualities and actions is, and it would have been the same had our illustrations been drawn from any other "categories." Hence the central and special problem of First Philosophy is to analyses the notion of substance and to show the causes of the existence of substances.


[3] Next, we have to note that the word "substance" itself has two senses. When we spoke of substance as one of the categories we were using it in a secondary sense. We meant by substances "horse," "mail," and the rest of the "real kinds" which we find in Nature, and try to reproduce in a scientific classification. In this sense of the word "substances" continuous advance towards the actual embodiment of a Form, or law of organization, in a Matter having the latent potentiality of developing along those special lines. When Aristotle is speaking most strictly he distinguishes the process by which a Form is realized, which he calls Energeia, from the manifestation of the realized Form, calling the latter Entelechy (literally "finished " or " completed " condition). Often, however, he uses the word Energeia more loosely for the actual manifestation of the Form itself, and in this he is followed by the scholastic writers, who render Energeia by actus or actus purus.


[4] One presupposition of this process must be specially noted. It is not an unending process of development of unrealized capacities, but always has an End in the perfectly simple sense of a last stage. We see this best in the case of growth. The acorn grows into the sapling and the sapling into the oak, but there is nothing related to the oak as the oak is to the sapling. The oak does not grow into something else. The process of development from potential to actual in this special case comes to an end with the emergence of the mature oak. In the organic world the end or last state is recognized by the fact that the organism can now exercise the power of reproducing its like. This tendency of organic process to culminate in a last stage of complete maturity is the key to the treatment of the problem of the "true end" of life in Aristotle's Ethics.


[5] The Four Causes.—The conception of the world involved in these antitheses of Form and Matter, Potential and Actual, finds its fullest expression in Aristotle's doctrine of the Four Causes or conditions of the production of things. This doctrine is looked on by Aristotle as the final solution of the problem which had always been the central one for Greek philosophy: What are the causes of the world-order? All the previous philosophies he regards as inadequate attempts to. formulate the answer to this question which is only given completely by his own system. Hence the doctrine requires to be stated with some fullness. We may best approach it by starting from the literal meaning of the Greek terms aitia, which Aristotle uses to convey the notion of cause. Aition is properly an adjective used as a noun, and means "that on which the legal responsibility for a given state of affairs can be laid."


[6] Similarly aitia, the substantive, means the " credit " for good or bad, the legal "responsibility," for an act. Now when we ask, " what is responsible for the fact that such and such a state of things now exists?" there are four partial answers which may be given, and each of these corresponds to one of the "causes." A complete answer requires the enumeration of them all. We may mention

(1) the matter or material cause of the thing,

(2) the law according to which it has grown or developed, the form or formal cause,

(3) the agent with whose initial impulse the development began— the "starting-point of the process," as the later Aristotelians call it, the efficient cause,

(4) the completed result of the whole process, which is present in the case of human manufacture as a preconceived idea determining the maker's whole method of handling his material, and in organic development in Nature as implied in and determining the successive stages of growth— the end or final cause.


Chapter IV: Physics ─ excerpts


[7] There is no part of Aristotle's system which has been more carefully thought out than his Physics; at the same time, it is almost wholly on account of his physical doctrines that his long ascendancy over thought is so much to be regretted. Aristotle's qualifications as a man of science have been much overrated. In one department, that of descriptive natural history, he shows himself a master of minute and careful observation who could obtain unqualified praise from so great a naturalist as Darwin. But in Astronomy and Physics proper his inferiority in mathematical thinking and his dislike for mechanical ways of explaining facts put him at a great dis-advantage, as compared with Plato and Plato's Pythagorean friends. Thus his authority was for centuries one of the chief influences which prevented the development of Astronomy on right lines. Plato had himself both taught the mobility of the earth and denied correctly that the earth is at the center of the universe, and the " Copernican" hypothesis in Astronomy probably originated in the Academy. Aristotle, however, insists on the central position of the earth, and violently attacks Plato for believing in its motion.


[8] Even in the biological sciences Aristotle shows an unfortunate proneness to disregard established fact when it conflicts with the theories for which he has a personal liking. Thus, though the importance of the brain as the central organ of the sensory-motor system had been discovered in the late sixth or early fifth century by the physician Alcmaeon of Crotona, and taught by the great Hippocrates in the fifth and by Plato in the fourth century, Aristotle's prejudices in favor of the doctrines of a different school of biologists led him to revert to the view that it is the heart which is the center of what we now call the "nervous system."


[9] It is mainly on account of these reactionary scientific views that he was attacked in the early seventeenth century by writers like our own Francis Bacon, who found in veneration for Aristotle one of the chief hindrances to the free development of natural science. The same complaints had been made long before by critics belonging to the Platonic Academy. It is a Platonist of the time of Marcus Aurelius who sums up a vigorous attack on the Aristotelian astronomy by the remark that Aristotle never understood that the true task of the physicist is not to prescribe laws to Nature, but to learn from observation of the facts what the laws followed by Nature are.


[10] In determining the scope of Physics, we have to begin by considering what is the special characteristic of things produced by nature as contrasted with those that are produced by “art.” The obvious distinction, intimate by the very etymology of the word “Nature” (physis, connected with the concept of growing, of being born; “what is by nature” is born and grows, whereas what is the result of artifice is made. Hence Nature may be defined as the totality of things which have a source of motion internal to themselves. Nature comprises all beings capable of spontaneous change. Whatever you do does not change at all, or only changes in consequence of external influences, is excluded from Aristotle’s concept of Nature.


[11] As the fundamental fact everywhere present it Nature is “change, process, and motion.” Such motion requires space through which to move and time to move in, therefore the doctrine of space and time also forms a part of Aristotle’s conception of Physics. Aristotle knows nothing of the modern questions whether space and time are “real” or only “phenomenal,” whether they are “objective” or “subjective.” Just as he simply assumes that bodies are things that really exist, whether we happen to perceive them or not, so he assumes that the space and time in which they move are real features of the world that does not depend for its existence on our perceiving it.


[12] His treatment of space is singularly naïve. He conceives it as a sort of vessel, into which you can pour different liquids. Just as the same pot may hold first wine and then water, so, if you can say, “there was water here, but now there is air here,” this implies the existence of a receptacle which once held water, but now holds air. Hence the jungle pot may be called “a place that should be carried about.” Hence the “place” of a theme may be defined as the boundary, or inner surface, of the body which immediately surrounds the thing. It follows from this that there can be no empty space.


[13] In the last resort, “absolute space” is the actual surface of the outermost “heaven” which contains everything else in itself, but is not contained in any remoter body. Thus all things whatever our “in” this heaven, which itself is not “in” anything else. Thinking along these lines, Aristotle held that this outermost heaven must be a limited distance from us. Actual space is thus finite the sense that the volume of the universe could be expressed as a finite number of cubic miles or yards, though, since it must be “continuous,” it is infinitely divisible.


[14] His treatment of time is more thoughtful. Time is inseparably connected with movement or change. We only perceive that time has elapsed when we perceive the changes occurred. But time is not the same as change. For change is of different and incommensurate kinds, change of place, change of color, etc.  


The Continuous Motion and the “Spheres.”

[15] The continuous world-process depends upon the continuous movement set up in the universe as a whole by the presence of an everlasting and unchangeable “First Mover”─ God. From the self-sameness of God, it follows that this most universal of movement must be absolutely uniform. As the source of this movement is One, and the object moved is also one─ that is, the compass of “heaven,” the movement of the First Moved─ was immediately stimulated to motion by God’s presence to it, must be mechanically simple.


[16] Aristotle held, mistakenly, that there are two forms of movement which are simple and beyond analysis, motion in a straight line, and circular motion, or rotation, around an axis. He decides that the primary unbroken movement must be the rotation of the First Moved─ that is, the heaven containing the fixed stars around its axis. This is the only movement which could go on forever at a uniform rate and in the same sense. Starting with the conviction that the Earth is at rest at the center of the universe, he proceeds to account for the alternation of day and night as the effect of such a revolution of the whole universe around an axis passing through the center of the earth.