Friday, July 18, 2008

Psychology in the Non posse

I’ve been thinking, prompted by the paper I gave at the Oxford Plutarch conference, about Plutarch Non posse 1092Dff. (chapter 9). Plutarch says that the Epicureans fail to include in their account of the good life a whole range of things which are pleasant, and properly pleasant to humans. For the most part, it seems to me that much of Plutarch’s case so far has drawn for its inspiration from Plato’s account of pleasure in Republic 9. But when Plutarch comes to offer his preferred characterisation of the pleasures appropriate to a rational human soul, he seems prepared to soften the restrictive account found in Republic 9. There, it is quite clear that Socrates wants true and pure pleasures, strictly understood, to be focussed only on objects which always are and are always unchanging. Most obviously, this is a reference to the Forms – the objects of knowledge of the true philosopher ruler – but perhaps a case might also be made for pure pleasures of this kind being generated by contemplation of mathematical objects of some sort. Plutarch, however, describes a significantly more expansive notion, including among his list of appropriate sources of pleasure not only mathematics (1093Dff.) but also the study of literature, history and the like. For Plutarch, we take pleasure in learning the truth even if these are truths related to contingent facts, in other words: what might be otherwise (1093A–C). All these, we are asked to agree, are rejected by the Epicureans as part of a blanket rejection of cultural and intellectual pursuits in favour of a concentration on the most basic physical needs.

This brings me to what is troubling me right now. Does Plutarch include here pleasures not belonging to the rational soul, strictly speaking, or is the expansion in the scope of pleasures assigned to the rational soul is licensed by Plutarch’s acceptance of a dual nature of that aspect of human psychology? In other words, does Plutarch have a dual account of the rational soul? At the moment, I think he does. In Non posse, he gives a reasonably clear indication that he sees the working of the rational soul being turned to two separate but related functions. At 1092E he describes the types of pleasure which a human ought properly to pursue, neither of which is grasped by the appetitive and bestial soul emphasised by the Epicureans. Rather the pleasures which we ought to pursue come...

ἐκ τοῦ θεωρητικοῦ καὶ φιλομαθοῦς ἢ πρακτικοῦ καὶ φιλοκάλου τῆς διανοίας...

from the theoretical or learning-loving part or else the action-guiding and beauty-loving part of the mind... [1]

Do the alternatives mentioned correspond to two aspects of the rational part of the soul – one theoretical and the other practical – or do they correspond to the rational and ‘spirited’ parts of the soul more or less on the model of the tripartite soul of Plato’s Republic? In favour of the former option is Plutarch’s preceding comment that the good he is discussing is the good appropriate to the soul, what is truly ‘psychic’, has no mixture of pain and the like – all of which suggests that there are somehow still meant to capture the essence of the pure pleasures which Socrates discusses in the Republic. The former alternative would also appear to give a more satisfying overall coherence to his view, since the pleasures he goes on to list are hard to assign to the thumoeides but are instead, broadly speaking, aesthetic and cultural, concerned with particular stories, works, or occasions. They are therefore just the class of items which it would be hard to assign to the theoretical aspect of reason, if that is concerned with necessary and eternal abstract objects and truths. But they are on the other hand certainly related in some sense to a rational appreciation, a general love of acquiring beliefs and information about particular or contingent facts.

[1] The full context reads: ἃς δ’ ἄξιον καὶ δίκαιον εὐφροσύνας καὶ χαρὰς νομίζεσθαι, καθαραὶ μέν εἰσι τοῦ ἐναντίου καὶ σφυγμὸν οὐδένα κεκραμένον οὐδὲ δηγμὸν οὐδὲ μετάνοιαν ἔχουσιν, οἰκεῖον δὲ τῇ ψυχῇ καὶ ψυχικὸν ἀληθῶς καὶ γνήσιον καὶ οὐκ ἐπείσακτον αὐτῶν τἀγαθόν ἐστιν οὐδ’ ἄλογον, ἀλλ’ εὐλογώτατον ἐκ τοῦ θεωρητικοῦ καὶ φιλομαθοῦς ἢ πρακτικοῦ καὶ φιλοκάλου τῆς διανοίας φυόμενον. Plutarch’s use of the term διάνοια elsewhere is not easy to pin down. It may be used perhaps as simply a synonym for ψυχή, but on other occasions has an apparently more restricted reference to the rational or ‘hegemonic’ part of the soul (Virt. mor. 441C, cf. 451B; De fato 571D; De soll. anim. 960A, 960C, 963D, 969C; Quaest. Plat. 1001D, 1002A).

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