Psychology of Ancient Philosophers from Parmenides to Aristotle and a
Hole in Aristotle’s Argument on Psychology Regarding Hypothetical Comatose Patients
For thousands of years, philosophers have debated the relation between body and soul. The ancient philosophers built upon one another’s ideas, expressing multiple ideologies that still hold relevance in the debate on philosophical psychology to this day. The following essay will examine the psychology expressed by Parmenides and his atomists successors, Plato and Socrates, and Aristotle, observing that each provides a correction to a perceived imbalance in their conceptions of their predecessors regarding the relationship between body and soul. It will argue that Aristotle’s resolution is best, but introduce a hypothetical case of patients in comatose states with and without brain activity to illustrate the limits of Aristotle’s conception.
Parmenides, a monist, is one of the earliest philosophers of which one can study that produced a clear psychology regarding the topic of body and soul. As a monist, Parmenides believed there to be a singular, unbreakable, and everlasting being of pure existence that encompassed all. Being would repudiate the idea of empty space or void because if Being encompasses all, there can be no such thing as nonbeing. Due to this lack of void, there would be no room for motion and change to occur in the universe, ultimately suggesting that the physical world must be illusionary as it represents change and motion in every aspect of it’s physical existence.
Thus, if the physical realm is illusionary, the physical body must be as well, but what of the soul? To Parmenides, souls would be Being. In other words, soul would be an infinite and eternal substance that coincides with the rest of Being. Thus, Parmenides believed the soul to be the same as Being and significantly more important than the illusory physical world and body.
The next set of Philosophers found the idea of discounting change and motion in the physical world unsatisfactory and instead, adapted Parmenides’s theory to better fit the physical world in which they lived. By doing so, the psychology regarding the relation between soul and body changed drastically. These philosophers were the atomists.
The atomists theorized that singular, unbreakable, and everlasting particles called atoms moved around in a void, joining together and breaking apart to create the physical world one experiences. According to the atomist theory, atoms were different sizes and shapes which held different characteristics that worked together to create the different sensations that mankind experiences. Democritus, one of the atomists of this time explained that although the atoms allowed beings to experience the different sensations of the world, the sensations were unreliable as the sensory qualities were purely due to convention. To Democritus, the only realities in the world were the atoms and void as can be seen with the following quote, “By convention, sweet; by convention, bitter; by convention, hot; by convention, cold; by convention, color; but in reality, atoms and void,” (Cohen et al. 58).
With this ideology, one can conclude that the atomists believed that although the physical world holds great importance, the body was an unreliable tool to use when searching for the truth. This leaves the question of the part the soul plays in atomist theology. To the atomists, the soul was a product of the body created when the atoms formed together to make the body. Thus, the soul is a finite product that dies with the body when the atoms break apart once more. In a hierarchical sense, for simplicities sake, atoms and void would hold the top position, then the body – which is a product of atoms moving in the void, and then the soul – which is a product of the body.
The atomist theory that the soul held less importance than the body did not cohere with the ideologies of later philosophers. Socrates and Plato were some of these philosophers. It is important to remember that Plato wrote using Socrates as a character and his psychology would mix with the supposed psychology of Socrates. So, for the purpose of this essay, we will be viewing the following as Plato’s psychology with Socrates being used as a tool to represent Plato’s ideas.
Plato theorized that there was another realm in which Forms existed. Forms are nonphysical ideas that represent different facets of the world. Every aspect of the physical world has a perfect representation in the realm of the Forms. This includes color, types of animals, and even the concept of the soul. The Forms in this other realm are perfect representations whilst what one would view in the physical realm are imperfect shadows of the Forms. For example, one can claim that they know what ‘largeness’ is but can never truly show a representation of this idea as there is no perfect example in the physical world. In the realm of the forms, the concept of ‘largeness’ does not need to be proven - as the idea, in of itself, is a perfect representation.
Plato then adds in another aspect of the realm of the forms that eventually leads to his psychology. In the realm of the Forms, the ideas of largeness and smallness, although separate, work together when transposed to the physical world. To Plato, everything must come from something else. This something else would be a subjects’ opposite. In other words, one can not have night without day, happiness without sadness, or life without death. It is this idea of being unable to have life without death that allows one to begin to understand Plato’s view of the soul.
If death comes from life and life comes from death then the human soul has no end and is instead in a continuous loop between the realm of the Forms and the physical realm. Thus, the soul is eternal even if the body were to die. Through the death of the body, the soul is able to join back with the realm of the Forms which contains ultimate truth. In Meno, Socrates as written by Plato suggests that death is the ultimate freedom for a philosopher as they are finally able to live among perfect truth as opposed to the shadow of truth that is provided in the physical word.
Plato writes, “A soul in this state,” – a pure state with no association to the body in life – “makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires, and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods” (Cohen et al. 181).
This puts the soul above the body in Plato’s ideology as it is eternal and is gifted with the opportunity to survive among the ultimate Truth in the other realm. Aristotle, a later philosopher disagrees with this concept, however.
Aristotle was a student of Plato but disagreed with the theory of Forms which shaped Plato’s Psychology. Unlike Plato, Aristotle was a materialist and looked to the physical world for explanations on questions relating to life after death. Whilst Plato believed in a separate realm in which the forms manifest, Aristotle felt that the forms were only manifest in the physical world, denying the notion of another realm entirely. Thus, the only Truth to search for exists in the physical realm of which one can experience and interact with. Due to this, Aristotle believed that the soul and body were tied together. One could not live without the other and both played an equal role in contributing to life.
Aristotle did not stop at this point, however. He continues to describe the soul and breaks it down into three parts. That of a plant, an animal, and a human.
A plant soul only searched for what is necessary to survive, that is nutrients. An animal soul, whilst also fulfilling the need for life also required a perceptual aspect of existence. That is, hunger and sexual desires. Aristotle clearly states such in the text De Anima, “To plants only the nutritive part belongs, whereas to others, it belongs together with the perceptual part” (Cohen et al. 517). The human soul has an added aspect, that is higher intellectual and rational thought.
It is important to note that as we progress through the three sections of soul, the previous section does not disappear, instead it is added to. To explain, animal souls do not cease in the need for nutrition, they only gain a need for perceptual aspects such as hunger and sex. Humans have all three, the soul of a plant which promotes nutrition, the soul of an animal which promotes perceptual desires, and the soul of a human which promotes an intellectual desire.
In the following diagram, the triangle represents the pant soul, the circle represents the animal soul, and the rectangle represents the human soul. As shown, each progressive section holds the previous section inside.
To Aristotle, a being could not truly flourish without the level of soul it was meant to have. In other words, a bear could not flourish without the animal soul as it would not have the desires necessary for survival or happiness. It would no longer feel the need to eat as it would feel no hunger, which would ultimately cause the animal to starve. For a human, higher brain function is necessary to survive in the group and thrive in society.
This leads to the question, what would occur if one were to take away one or multiple levels of a soul. It is only recently that this question has arisen as current technology has allowed mankind to keep the body from dying, even in extenuating circumstances. Take comatose patients, for example, Today, we are able to keep the body alive regardless of brain activity – something that Aristotle was not exposed to in his era. Due to these advances, parts of Aristotle’s Psychology can now be called into question. Does taking away certain aspects of the soul – plant, animal or human – take away from the humanity of a person? At what point is a comatose patient no longer living according to Aristotle’s psychology? To truly delve into these questions, we will examine two hypothetical cases of comatose patients who are being kept alive with medical intervention.
First, we will examine the hypothetical case of a patient with no brain activity that is being kept alive by medical technology. A brain dead comatose patient no longer partakes in the animal aspect of soul nor the human aspect. Thus, the body can only survive with help of machines as the higher function needed for survival is no longer working. In other words, the soul no longer exists and the body is out of balance, leading to the ultimate death of the patient once the patient is taken off of the life sustaining technology. This scenario still follows Aristotle’s psychology as this patient would not be capable of any type of life promoting actions by way of perceptual or intellectual action.
A comatose patient with brain activity, however, is another story. The medical intervention is fulfilling the plant soul desire for nourishment. However, this patient has a human soul that is still intact but an inactive animal soul. That is, the patient can no longer fulfill the perceptual aspect needed to flourish. The patient does have higher brain capability and can hear and understand what those around are saying, even if the patient can not respond. The patient has the potential to come out of the comatose state and continue living life as well. Aristotle, in this case, would be at a loss. Although the patient is partaking in the human soul which is necessary for human survival, the patient’s soul is not complete in the sense that it can not fully interact with the outside people. Ultimately, the person is alive but in a sleeping state. They have the potential to thrive but are currently at rest. This puts the person in a limbo state for an indefinite amount of time. Thus, the patient is both living in a philosopher’s ideal state but not flourishing in the way that allows a philosopher to grow their intellect.
Ultimately, this scenario is a hole in Aristotle’s Psychology that does not present an answer at the current time. Building upon each of the previous philosophers, Aristotle proved to have the most well thought out theory but it does not seem to hold against the hypothetical scenario above. Thus, no philosopher can be proven right or wrong in their psychology as each has a hole in which it can be torn down.
Cohen, S. Marc., et al. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle. 5th ed., Hackett, 2016.
Kenny, Anthony. Ancient Philosophy (A New History of Western Philosophy ; v. 1). Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2004.