The Doctors of Soul: Plato

The Doctors of Soul: Plato

Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Plato made an enormous contribution to depth psychology, as he did to philosophy.

Jung’s theory of the archetypes is similar to Plato’s theory of Forms. Plato would say that for everything there is a Form, which is the original blueprint of a particular thing. Just so, the archetypes of the collective unconscious are patterns of inner workings which supply a certain “inborn manner of comprehension” (Bennet 69). But, instead of placing the Forms in a world totally separate from ours, as Plato did, Jung’s archetypes are based in the primal layer of the human psyche. In other words, the soul is interwoven into the body. Not just the brain, mind you, but the entire human body.

In his use of the Greek word, metaxy, in several important dialogues, Plato gave to depth psychology the notion that there is an in-between state that is neither mortal nor divine, neither matter nor spirit, neither light nor darkness. This is what we refer to as soul. In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates argues that Eros is a daimon who is in-between (metaxy) gods and mortals. Indeed, according to Socrates,

the whole of the daimonic is between [metaxy] god and mortal” (202d11-e1).

As Rod Serling would say, referring to his famous television series,

There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. And, it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

Soul is this metaxy. Soul is “as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.” Soul is limitless. It is the most important idea ever to arise in the human imagination. In this fifth dimension, time and space are totally meaningless. They are mere creations of the human mind that facilitate the framing of our experience of the three dimensions. In other words, time and space mitigate the vastness and infinite nature of soul in order that we might live day-to-day lives and interact with this world. In this way, we see our lives as having some semblance of “normality.”

This is not the meaning given by Plato, but his usage of the word in a particular way has inspired thinkers down through the centuries to arrive at these valuable applications of his thought.

Plato wrote about the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World:

Therefore, we may consequently state that: this world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence … a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related (Plato, Timaeus, 29/30).

The world is a living being and is connected to the natural world as the human soul is connected to the body. As above, so below. This idea flourished in Neoplatonism and, later, Renaissance Hermeticism. Plotinus honed Plato’s idea into a powerful cosmological and metaphysical teaching.

By the time of the Renaissance, the idea of the Anima Mundi became a prominent teaching among many thinkers who leaned toward the esoteric. The Roman Church seemed to have problems with this view. In the late 1590’s, the Inquisition accused Giordano Bruno of pantheism simply because he espoused the teaching of the Anima Mundi. Earlier so-called heresies, such as the various Gnostic sects, adhered to this view, as well. The alchemists had adopted it too. 

In archetypal psychology, the Ars Memoria plays an important role. Plato wrote some very relevant things concerning memory and the soul. Plato believed that memory is

that power by which the soul is enabled to profer in some future period, some former energy: and the energy of this power is reminiscence. Now the very essence of intellect is energy, and all its perceptions are nothing more than visions of itself: but all the energies of soul are derived from intellectual illumination. Hence we may compare intellect to light, the soul to an eye, and Memory to that power by which the soul is converted to the light, and actually perceives. But the visions of the soul participate of greater or less reality, in proportion as she is more or less intimately converted to the divine light of intellect. In the multitude of mankind, indeed, the eye of the soul perceives with but a glimmering light, being accustomed to look constantly abroad into the dark and fluctuating regions of sense, and to contemplate solely the shadowy forms of imagination; in consequence of which, their memory is solely employed on objects obscure, external, and low. But in the few who have purified that organ of the soul, by which truth can alone be perceived, and which, as Plato says, is better worth saving than ten thousand eyes of sense; who have disengaged this eye from that barbaric clay with which it was buried, and have by this means turned it as from some benighted day, to bright and real vision: in these, Souls, Memory and Reminiscense, are entirely conversant with those divine ideal forms, so familiar to the soul before her immersion in body (From a footnote to The Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792)

Plato taught that the world of Ideas is the true reality, and that appearances and particulars are relatively unreal. The purpose of human life, in his estimation, is for souls to participate in this realm of Ideas. Basically, the soul becomes more intelligible by focusing on imperceptibles (the Forms) instead of constantly concentrating on the world of perceptibles (this world, matter, literal reality).

I would add that the realm of Ideas includes metaphor, images, dreams, myths, etc. In my thinking, these have more durable substance than perceptibles. So, I suppose I am saying that the soul is fashioned as one learns to pay attention to Imperceptibles.

Memory is the means by which Soul can join itself to matter and become more intelligible, thus having the ability to walk unfettered in the world of Ideas. Remember, this is all metaphorical. Soul is not a literal substance that sits in the pineal gland, as Descartes claimed.

Although the idea of the soul is quite important in Plato’s thinking, he views it as separate from the body, immortal, and bound for the world of the Forms after death. Plato’s dualistic position of two separate worlds, one of the Forms (mental world), and one of physical matter has its roots in Pythagoras’ discovery that our world is connected to numbers. Pythagoras probably did not conceive of these two realities as being separate. Plato, however, made them distinct by recognizing there are no perfect examples of mathematical forms, such as the triangle, anywhere in our material world. Because of this, he believed that all material objects are flawed. This drove a wedge between mind and matter that is still with us to this day. Nevertheless, his original ideas concerning the soul make him one of our Doctors of Soul.

Bibliography

Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

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