Saturday, 29 November 2014

Further Note on Death and Plato


In a previous post I discussed how interesting it would be to compare the various perspectives on death offered in the writings of the great classic thinkers. Of particular interest to me is Plato's idea of death, and its influence on the thinking of men down through subsequent history. Plato's conception of death views it as the soul's "liberation" from the body. In a sense this is true, insofar as death is the separation of soul and body. But the added idea of liberation from the body rests on the assumption that the body is something like a cage within which the true human self, the soul, is trapped and waits to be set free. Plato viewed the human person as essentially spiritual; the body was not an essential part of the man, but a prison in which the soul was contained. Strictly and philosophically speaking, this is an incorrect view of the nature of man. C.S. Lewis once said, if I remember correctly, "I am a soul. I have a body." But in fact, according to a more Catholic and Thomistic philosophy, it would be more properly said that "I am a union of both soul and body." When we die, the soul and body will be separated, and remain awhile in a kind of imperfect state until the Last Judgment, when all the bodies of the death will be resurrected to be rejoined with their souls and glorified in heaven - or punished eternally in hell. In any case, the full perfection of the man requires both the body and the soul, because both are part of the essence of man.

Nonetheless, the Platonic way of speaking does, I think, have a mysterious appeal to the Catholic instinct, and I have seen it used in many contexts in which the Christian approach to death has been described. For example, I remember that in praying the Monastic Divine Office some weeks ago, commemorating a particular saint (whose name escapes me - she was female I know), I found that the collect described the death of the saint precisely in terms of the soul being freed from the body. I found this Platonic way of speaking quite delightful. Even if, in strict and absolute terms, it is incorrect that death is strictly a liberation from the body, in the Christian worldview this way of speaking can take on another significance - and not one entirely disconnected from the Platonic view - which is quite loaded with truth:

In this life, man is subject to the effects of Original Sin, one of the primary of which is concupiscence: the rebellion of the flesh against the spirit. The moral goodness of the human soul is thus limited and impeded - "trapped" and "encaged," so to speak - by the sinful inclinations of the body. Life is therefore a constant struggle between the "law of the members" of the body and the law of the spirit. Happiness or beatitude can only be attained after the liberation from this constant struggle with the body. Hence, in a very real sense death is the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to the concupiscence of the body, provided that the fight has been well fought during life. So the Christian ought indeed to have a vision of life and death that is semi-Platonic, inasmuch as the Platonic vision is "baptized" by the Christian understanding of the body and its concupiscence.

In closing to these reflections, I offer a segment from a long poem by the Anglican priest and "metaphysical" poet, and a fallen-away Catholic, John Donne. The entire poem is titled "On the Progress of the Soul," and the following is a profound segment wherein he speaks to the soul on the nature of death and its desirability. The description is notably Platonic, I find, and for that reason I quite admire it. The Platonic idea seems to have been adopted widely by poets and classic writers; and even if they did not employ with its Christian interpretation in mind, I still find it to be a beautiful and fascinating understanding of death. Donne, however, I would suspect to have intended the Christian understanding, since he wrote a great deal of poetry that was well inspired by his Christian theology (albeit which was Anglican). Here is the excerpt:

Think further on thyself, my soul, and think
How thou at first wast made but in a sink.
Think that it argued some infirmity,
That those two souls, which then thou found’st in me,
Thou fed’st upon, and drew’st into thee both
My second soul of sense, and first of growth.
Think but how poor thou wast, how obnoxious;
Whom a small lump of flesh could poison thus.
This curded milk, this poor unlitter’d whelp,
My body, could, beyond escape or help,
Infect thee with original sin, and thou
Couldst neither then refuse, nor leave it now.
Think that no stubborn, sullen anchorite,
Which fix’d to a pillar, or a grave, doth sit 
Bedded and bathed in all his ordures, dwells
So foully as our souls in their first-built cells.
Think in how poor a prison thou didst lie,
After, enabled but to suck, and cry.
Think, when ’twas grown to most, ’twas a poor inn,
A province pack’d up in two yards of skin;
And that usurp’d, or threaten’d with a rage
Of sicknesses, or their true mother, age.
But think that death hath now enfranchised thee; 
Thou hast thy expansion now, and liberty. 
 Think that a rusty piece, discharged, is flown
In pieces, and the bullet is his own,
And freely flies; this to thy soul allow.
Think thy shell broke, think thy soul hatch’d but now.
And think this slow-paced soul which late did cleave
To a body, and went but by the body’s leave,
Twenty perchance, or thirty mile a day,
Dispatches in a minute all the way
’Twixt heaven and earth; she stays not in the air,
To look what meteors there themselves prepare;
She carries no desire to know, nor sense,
Whether th’ air’s middle region be intense;
For th’ element of fire, she doth not know,
Whether she pass’d by such a place or no;
She baits not at the moon, nor cares to try
 Whether in that new world men live, and die;
Venus retards her not to inquire, how she
Can—being one star—Hesper and Vesper be;
He that charm’d Argus’ eyes, sweet Mercury,
Works not on her, who now is grown all eye;
Who if she meet the body of the sun,
Goes through, not staying till his course be run;
Who finds in Mars his camp no corps of guard,
Nor is by Jove, nor by his father barr’d;
But ere she can consider how she went,
At once is at, and through the firmament;
And as these stars were but so many beads
Strung on one string, speed undistinguish’d leads
Her through those spheres, as through the beads a string,
Whose quick succession makes it still one thing.
As doth the pith, which, lest our bodies slack,
Strings fast the little bones of neck and back,
So by the soul doth death string heaven and earth;
For when our soul enjoys this her third birth
—Creation gave her one, a second, grace— 
Heaven is as near and present to her face
As colours are and objects, in a room,
Where darkness was before, when tapers come.

John Donne, 1572-1631

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