Sunday, March 30, 2008

Symmetry arguments for Platonists?

The Epicurean symmetry argument says that death is not to be feared since post mortem time is not relevantly different from pre-natal time. And since no one thinks they were harmed in the time before their birth so no one should think that they will be harmed in the time after their death. The Epicureans team this with the further thought that death is the end of one’s existence just as birth was the beginning to explain why it is that neither of these times can include any harms.

The pseudo-Platonic dialogue Axiochus has an interesting spin on this argument. It is an odd work, to be sure, which seems to lump together Epicurean, Cynic, and Platonist elements into a therapeutic programme. But it seems to me that some elements which might seem incompatible are in fact not necessarily so. One of these is the clear appearance of a version of the symmetry argument at 365d–e which is followed by some grand Platonist rhetoric about the immortality of the soul. Here is Hershbell’s translation of 365d–366a:

“In your distraction, Axiochus, you're confusing sensibility with insensibilty, without realising it. What you say and do involves internal self-contradiction; you don't realise that you're simultaneously upset by your loss of sensations and pained by your decay and the loss of your pleasures—as if by dying you entered into another life, instead of lapsing into the utter insensibility that existed before your birth. Just as during the government of Draco or Cleisthenes there was nothing bad at all that concerned you (because you did not exist then for it to concern you), nor will anything bad happen to you after your death (because you will not exist later for it to concern you).

“Away, then, with all such nonsense! Keep in mind: once the compound is dissolved and the soul has been settled in its proper place, the body which remains, being earthly and irrational, is not the human person. For each of us is a soul, an immortal living being locked up in a mortal prison; and Nature has fashioned this tent for suffering—its pleasures are superficial, fleeting, and mixed with many pains; but its pains are undiluted, long lasting, and without any share of pleasure. And while the soul is forced to share with the sense organs their diseases and inflammations and the other internal ills of the body (since it is disturbed among its pores), it longs for its native heavenly aether, nay, thirsts after it, striving upwards in hopes of feasting and dancing there. Thus being released from upwards in hopes of feasting and dancing there. Thus being released from life is a transition from something bad to something good.”

You might think that here we have an odd combination of Epicurean and Platonist arguments. And in a way that is right. But I suspect that some attempt has been made to render the Epicurean argument consistent with Platonist dualism. First, it is true even on the Platonist view that the person concerned was not ‘around’ in the time of Draco and will not be around after death. This is not, of course, for the reasons the Epicureans think this is true: namely that the soul is mortal and does not pre-exist the living body. Rather, it is because – as Socrates points our here – the soul is only temporarily imprisoned in a body during life and when liberated spends its time not in the world of Draco or Cleisthenes, but in its proper heavenly place.

Second, and similarly, since perception is made the result of this enforced incarnation then a Platonist can equally accept on his own dualist terms the Epicurean notion that before birth and after death there is no perception.

The tricky phrase for this interpretation of course is the supposed explanation for why post mortem time cannot be bad: ‘because you will not exist later for it to concern you’ (366e2; the parallel claim about pre-natal time is at 366d8) since it is claimed only a few lines later that ‘we are each of us a soul’ (366e6) and since the soul is immortal, each of us is immortal.

But perhaps Socrates is deliberately attempting to move the ailing Axiochus from a common-sense notion of his identity (he is Axiochus, born on such and such a date etc.) to a new and surprising sense of his identity (he is an immortal soul…) Certainly 366e6: ‘For we are each of us a soul’ sounds like a grand announcement, which is fleshed out further in what is to come. And it is certainly helpful, in that case, that Axiochus could go back with this new-found identification of his self with an immortal soul and see that the symmetry argument is still just as relevant.

Also, the phrases at 366d8 and e2 which are generally translated using the English ‘exist’ can perhaps be read in a less determinate way so as to lessen any explicit inconsistency. (Forgive the transliteration…I can’t get Greek to work on this machine.)

366d8: archên gar ouk ês, peri hon an ên

366e2: su gar ouk esêi peri hon estai

I wonder whether 366d8, for example, can be read as follows: ‘For in the beginning you were not such as it could concern you’; and e2 could be ‘for you will not be such as it will concern you’. Both these claims could be asserted without qualms by a dualist who accepts an immortal soul.

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