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Dialogue of Cultures
Translations of the Works of
What appellation do we give to that state, Cebes, in which all changes that happen in the animal machine tend more to the preservation than the destruction of the body? Do we not call it health?
On the contrary, the state in which the changes tend to the destruction of the animal machine, do we not call it sickness?
It approaches by imperceptible degrees. At last the structure falls to pieces, and dissolves into the smallest particles. But what farther change happens? Do these particles cease to act and suffer? Are they entirely lost?
Apparently not, said Cebes.
Impossible, replied Socrates. If the conclusion which we have just now drawn is true: for is there a medium between existing and not existing?
None at all.
To be, and not to be, therefore, must be two states which immediately follow, and are the nearest to each other: but we have seen that nature cannot produce any changes which take place suddenly, and without an intermediate state. Do you remember this to have been granted?
Very well, said Cebes.
Nature, then can neither create nor annihilate.
By the dissolution of the animal body, therefore, nothing can be lost. The parts that have fallen to pieces continue to exist, to act, to suffer, to increase and decrease, to be united and separated until they become, by innumerable transitions, parts of another composition. Some of them become dust, others moisture, this rises in the air, that passes into a plant, from the plant to a living animal, and leaves the animal to be the nourishment of a worm. Is not this confirmed by experience?
Entirely so, answered Cebes and Simmias together.
Thus we see, my friends, that death and life are not so separated in nature as they appear to the senses: they are members of a continued series of changes which are connected with each other in the closest manner. There is no moment of time at which we could, strictly speaking, say, now the animal dies; now it grows sick; now it recovers health: for although our senses lead us to imagine that these changes are separated, as they do not become visible to us till after a certain interval of time: it is sufficient, however, for us to know, that they cannot be so in fact.
I recollect an example which will throw light upon this argument. Our eyes, which are confined to a certain tract of the earth, distinguish very clearly morning, midday, evening, and midnight; and these portions of time appear separate and distinct from each other. But whoever considers the whole earth, knows perfectly that the changes of day and night follow each other uninterruptedly, and that all moments of time therefore, morning, midday, evening, and midnight, are joined inseparably together.
Homer has the liberty, as a poet only, of assigning different times of the day to the occupations of his gods; as if the day could appear to any one who is not confined to a small district of the earth, to be divided into days and nights, and that it was not at all times morning as much as evening. It is permitted to the poets to take appearances for truth: but, according to truth, Aurora, with her rosy fingers, must for ever hold the gates of heaven open, and incessantly train her yellow cloak from one place to another; so that the gods, if they would sleep in the night time only, are either perpetually, or never asleep.
Neither can the days of the week, therefore, be distinguished from each other; for time, whose moments are continued, and coherent together, can only be divided into separate and distinct parts by the imagination and the illusion of the senses; but the understanding sees very well that we must not stop where no actual separation or division is to be found. Is this comprehensible to you, my friend?
Perfectly so, replied Simmias.
With respect to the life and death of animals and plants, the case is not different. In the course of the changes which the same thing undergoes, our senses make us think an epoch commences at the time when a thing becomes palpable to them, as a plant, or an animal; which we call the growth of the plant, or the birth of the animal. A second period or point of time is when the animal or plant ceases, according to our senses, to have any motion which we call death; and a third when the animal or plant at last consumes and grows invisible, we call the decay and dissolution of the animal or plant. But in nature all these changes are members of an uninterrupted chain, a gradual development and envelopment of the same thing, as it clothes and unfolds itself in forms without number. Is there any thing doubtful here?
Not in the least.
When we say, continued Socrates, the soul dies, we must take one of these two things for granted: either her strength and power, her operations and sufferings, cease all at once; they disappear in an instant: or she sustains like the body, gradual and imperceptible changes, which proceed in a continued series; and in this series there is a period when she is no longer any human soul, but becomes something else, as the body, after innumerable variations, ceases to be a human body, and is changed into dust, into a plant, or into a part of another animal. Can you imagine any other way in which the soul may die?
Not otherwise, replied Cebes, than suddenly, or by degrees.
Well, said Socrates, those who still doubt if the soul is mortal, may choose whether they would maintain that at death she disappears suddenly, or ceases by degrees to be what she was. Will Cebes not stand in their place, and take this choice upon him?
The first question, said Cebes, is, whether they would be content with such an advocate? My counsel, therefore, is to consider both cases: for if they should not be satisfied with my choice, and declare themselves on the contrary side, tomorrow, perhaps, there would be nobody here who could refute them.
My dear Cebes, replied Socrates, Greece is a vast empire, and among the Barbarians even, there are many to whom this enquiry must be interesting. Let us, however, examine both cases. The first was, if the soul perishes suddenly, and disappears in a moment. This kind of death is possible in itself; but can it be produced by nature?
By no means, if what before was granted is true, that nature cannot effect any annihilation.
And have we not admitted this with justice? said Socrates. Between existing and not existing there is a terrible chasm which nature, acting by degrees, cannot at once overleap.
Very right, said Cebes; but may she not be annihilated by the supernatural power of the deity?
O my dear friend, exclaimed Socrates, how secure and happy might we be, had we nothing to dread but the immediate hand of heaven? What we have to fear is, whether the nature of our soul may not make her liable to death in herself, and this fear we are now to endeavor to dispel by reason; but if God, you said, the all-good Creator and preserver of things, will destroy her by a miracle? No, Cebes; let us rather be afraid that the sun will change us to ice, than fear that the Being of all Goodness will commit one of the worst actions, annihilation by a miracle.
I did not consider, said Cebes, that my objection was so near a blasphemy.
The first kind of death, therefore, that is a sudden annihilation, we need not be afraid of, for it is a sudden annihilation, we need not be afraid of, for it is impossible in nature. But let us consider this circumstance again, my friends. Suppose it was not impossible, the question then is, when? At what time should the soul disappear? Apparently at that time when the body does not any longer want her, in the moment of death.
In all probability, said Cebes.
But we have seen that there is no distinct moment when we may say, 'Now the animal dies.' The dissolution of the animal machine has begun long before its effects became visible; for it never wants such animal motions as are operating against the preservation of the whole, only that they increase gradually, till at last all the motions of the parts cease to be directed to one common aim, but, on the contrary, each has adopted its own particular aim; then the machine is dissolved.
This happens so insensibly and in so continued a process, that every state may be called a boundary, which is common to the preceding and succeeding states; an effect of the preceding, and cause of the succeeding state. Has not this been already confessed?
If the death of the body, therefore, is also the death of the soul, we cannot find a moment in which we may say, now the soul disappears; but in proportion as the motions of the parts of the body or machine cease to cooperate towards one aim, the soul must decrease in power and internal activity. Does not this appear to you equally probable?
But attend to the strange turn our enquiry has taken. It seems like one of the statues of my great grandfather, Dedalus, to present itself by means of some internal spring work, under a new form.
We have taken for granted, that our adversaries were afraid the soul might be annihilated suddenly, and we were to enquire whether this fear was well founded or not. We have, therefore, examined in what moment she might be annihilated, and this enquiry has brought us upon the reverse of the population, namely, that she was not suddenly annihilated, but decreased gradually in her internal strength and activity.
So much the better, answered Cebes. Our first opinion, therefore, apparently refutes itself.
We have now, then, only to enquire whether the internal power of the soul does not decrease as gradually and insensibly as the parts of the machine separate themselves.
Let us follow these two companions, the body and soul, who are said to have everything in common, even death, to see what becomes of them at last. As long as the body continues healthy, as long as the general motions of the machine tend to the well being and preservation of the whole, the organs of sensation retain their just nature; the soul possesses also her full power, feels, thinks, loves, abhors, conceives, and wills-Does she not?
The body grows sick. A manifest discordance takes place among the motions which go on in the machine, as a great many of them do not any longer co-operate towards the preservation of the whole, but, on the contrary, have different and opposite aims.
And the soul?
As experience teaches us, grows at the same time more weakly, feels disordered, thinks falsely, and is often made to act against her will.
To continue. The body dies; that is to say, all its motions appear no longer to tend to the life and preservation of the whole; but internally a few feeble motions of life may still remain and procure some dark ideas to the soul; to those, therefore, the power of the soul must still be confined until it perishes entirely.
Corruption follows. The parts which till now had one common aim, and made the body a single machine, take now quite different aims, become parts of entirely different machines; and the soul, Cebes, what shall we do with her? Where shall we leave her? Her machine is corrupted, is moldered. The parts of it which are yet existing are no more hers, nor any longer form one whole susceptible of animation. There are no longer any members of the senses or organs of sensation left, by means of which she could be brought to any kind of feeling. Shall every thing, therefore, be waste in her? Shall all her sensations, thoughts, imagination, desires, aversions, inclinations, and passions, disappear, and not leave the least trace behind?
Impossible, said Cebes. What would this be but total annihilation? and no annihilation, as we have already seen, is in the power of nature.
What shall we conclude then, my friends? The soul cannot be totally lost; for the last step, if we place it as far off as possible, would be a leap from existence to nothing: a transition which is inconsistent with the nature of a single being, or the general system of beings. She must therefore endure and exist for ever: if she acts and suffers, she must have conceptions: for to feel, think, and will, are the only actions and sufferings which can belong to a thinking being. The ideas always take their beginning from the impressions on the senses, and from whence shall these impressions arise, if there are no members of the senses present?
Nothing seems more true, said Cebes, than this series of conclusions, and yet they lead to a palpable contradiction.
One of these two cases must happen, continued Socrates; either the soul must be annihilated, or she must have conceptions after the decay of the body. Mankind are much inclined to think both cases impossible; yet the first or the last must take place. Let us try to find a way out of this labyrinth. On the one hand, our soul cannot be annihilated by natural means. On what is this impossibility found? Do not, my friends, think it laborious to follow me through thorny paths; they will lead us upon one of the most charming prospects that ever delighted the mind of man. Answer me. Has not a just conception of power and natural change brought us to this conclusion, that nature cannot effect any annihilation?
On this side, therefore, there is absolutely no opening to be expected. We must consequently return. The soul cannot perish; she must, after death, endure, act, suffer, and conceive. Here the impossibility of our soul having ideas without receiving impressions from external objects, stands in our way. But what voucher have we for this impossibility? Is it not our experience alone that, in this life, we were never able to think without these impressions?
But have we any right to extend experience beyond the borders of this life, and to deny nature the possibility of letting our soul think without this organized body? Tell me, Simmias, would we not think it ridiculous if a man, who had never left the walls of Athens, should conclude from his own limited experience, that day and night, summer and winter, were subject to the same revolutions over all other parts of the globe as they are with us?
Nothing would be more absurd.
If a child could think in the mother's womb, do you imagine it would be possible to persuade it, that it would one day be disengaged from its tie there, and enjoy the benign light of the fun? Would it not rather, in that situation, conceive such an event impossible?
And do we short-sighted beings judge more consistently, if, while imprisoned in this life, we will decide what is possible for nature to do after it? One look into the inexhaustible variety of her works will convince us of the unreasonableness of such a conclusion. How poor, how weak would she be, if her power was not greater than our experience!
We can therefore with much propriety reject any appeal to our experience, after having opposed to it the absolute impossibility of the soul being annihilated. Homer, with justice, makes his hero exclaim: "Certainly in the house of Orcus the soul still continues to think, although no body attends it there" The idea which Homer gives us of Orcus, and of the shades which descend there, seems not altogether consistent with truth; but this is certain, my friends; our soul triumphs over death and corruption, and leaves the body behind to fulfil, in a thousand various ways, the views of the Almighty, while she rises above the dust, according to other natural, though superterrestrial laws, to contemplate the works of the Creator, and to form ideas of the virtue and power of an infinite being. But consider, my friends; if the soul lives after the death of the body, and thinks, will she not then, as well as in her former state, seek for happiness?
Most probably, said Simmias; but I can no longer trust to my own conjectures, therefore wish to be favored with your sentiments.
My sentiments, replied Socrates, are these: -If the soul is able to think, she must have a succession of ideas, some willingly, others not so; that is, she must have a will: if she has a will, at what can it aim but at the highest degree of welfare and happiness?
This was admitted by them all.
But, continued Socrates, in what can the well-being of a spirit, which has no longer any concern with the body, consist? Meat and drink, love and sensual pleasures, can no longer constitute her desires: what in this life pleases the feelings, the palate, the eye, and the ear, will then be below her notice. Perhaps she scarcely retains a faint and rueful remembrance of the sensual enjoyments of this life. Will she strive after the objects of those passions she had when she was attended by the body?
As little as sensible men do after the playthings of children.
Will great riches be the object of her wishes?
How could that be possible in a state where no property can be enjoyed?
Ambition is a passion which it would appear may still adhere to the departed soul; for it seems to have very little connection with the necessities of the body: but to what can the spirit give that preference which should do it honor? Certainly not to power, riches, or nobleness of birth; for it leaves all those follies behind with the body on earth.
There remains nothing, therefore, but wisdom, the love of virtue, knowledge, and truth, which can distinguish and elevate her above her fellow creatures. Besides this noble ambition, she may still taste the agreeable sensations she enjoyed upon earth, from beauty, order, symmetry, and perfection; as these belong so essentially to the nature of a spirit that they never can leave it. He, therefore, who on earth has taken care of his soul, who has exercised himself in the study of virtue, wisdom, and true beauty, may entertain the greatest hopes of continuing in such contemplations after death, and of approaching step by step to the most elevated Being, who is the source of all wisdom, the compass of all perfection, and pre-eminently beauty itself. Call to your memory, my friends, those transporting moments which you have enjoyed so often while your souls were contemplating a heavenly beauty, when you forgot life and its necessities, and gave yourselves up entirely to sensations, independent of it. What emotions, what inspiration arose from them! Nothing but the nearer presence of the divinity could produce those ravishing feelings. Every idea of spiritual excellence, therefore, gives the soul a glance of the being of the deity; every thing beautiful, regular, or perfect, which we remark and admire, is but a weaker impression of him who is self subsisting beauty, order, and perfection. I remember, on a former occasion, to have expatiated on such ideas, and shall for the present, therefore, only draw these conclusions from them. If it is true that, after this life, wisdom and virtue are to be the objects of our ambition, and the study of spiritual beauty, order, and perfection, shall constitute our happiness, our existence will be nothing but an uninterrupted contemplation of the deity; a heavenly joy which, however little we now comprehend of it, will amply reward the steady efforts of the virtuous. What are all the pains of this life compared to the hope of such an eternity! What is poverty, contempt, or the most ignominious death, if we can thereby prepare ourselves for such a change. No, my friends; he who knows that he is upright in his conduct cannot possibly be troubled when he sets out on so happy a journey; he only who, in this life, has offended God and man, who studies the gratification of brutal pleasures, who has received delight from the deified honor of sacrificing human victims, and rejoiced at their miseries, may tremble on the threshold of death, as he can cast no look on the past without repentance, nor any on the future without despair. But as I, thank God, have no such reproaches to make myself, as I have searched for truth unceasingly through life, and loved virtue above all other things, I am overjoyed to hear the voice of the Almighty, who calls me hence to enjoy in the pure light of heaven, that which I have striven to know in this orb of darkness. Consider well, my friends, the grounds of my hopes; if you think them well founded, congratulate me on my approaching departure, and live so as that when death calls he may not surprise or drag you away by force. Perhaps the deity will assemble us again near himself, to taste sacred and pure friendship in each other's arms. Oh, with what transport shall we then embrace and remember the present day!
P A R T II
Our teacher ceased speaking, and walked up and down the prison absorbed in thought. We all sat silent meditating on his discourse; Cebes and Simmias only were talking in a low voice to each other. Socrates turned round to them, and said, Why so softly, my friends? Let us hear whether any part of my reasoning may not be strengthened; I know very well that the subject requires still farther illustration before it can be perfectly clear. If you were engaged in any other discourse, let me not interrupt you; but if you were still considering the subject we have just now had under discussion, declare your objections and doubts, that we may jointly endeavor either to solve them, or doubt with you. Simmias said, I must confess, Socrates, we have objections, and long ago we pressed each other to propose them to you, as we wished to have them removed. But we are unwilling to be troublesome to you in your present situation.
When Socrates heard this he smiled, and said, How difficult, O Simmias, will it be to persuade other men that I do not think my prospects uncertain when you are not yet convinced of it? And are afraid that I should be less patient and communicative now than I have been heretofore. We are told that the swans, when they are near their end, sing more pleasingly than at any other time of their life. If these birds, as it is believed, are consecrated to Apollo, that God, I would say, lets them feel, in the hour of death, a foretaste of the happiness of the life to come, and that they sing from the joy of this sensation; the same cause operates upon me. I am a priest of the same God, and he has impressed on my soul some sensation of its happiness after death, which drives away all melancholy from me, and makes me more tranquil and secure at my departing moments than ever I was during my life. Declare, therefore, your doubts and objections without reserve, and demand all the explanations which you wish for, and I can give you, as long as the eleven men permit it.
Well, replied Simmias, I will make a beginning, and Cebes may follow me. I desire in the first place, however, one thing to be remembered, which is, that if I spring any doubts of the immortality of the soul, I do not mean to apply them against the truth of this doctrine at large, but against such a proof as the lights of reason only afford, or rather against that way which you, Socrates, have chosen to convince us of it. In other respects I embrace this comforting doctrine with all my heart, not only as it has been proposed by you, but as it has been handed down to us from the eldest philosophers, those falsities, which have been added by the poets and inventors of fables, excepted. Where our soul finds no grounds of certainty, she ought to adopt such opinions as elevate and ennoble her nature, and which, like vessels on the fathomless ocean, conduct her with a serene sky securely over the waves of this life. I feel that I cannot contradict the doctrine of immortality, and the rewards due to virtue after death, without starting innumerable difficulties, and seeing every thing I thought good and true robbed of its certainty of nature. If our soul is mortal, reason is a dream which Jupiter has sent to deceive a set of wretches; and virtue loses all the splendor which makes it godly in our eyes. Then whatever we think beautiful, sublime, or moral, is no impression of God's accomplishments; for nothing perishable can imbibe or reflect the smallest ray of his perfection. Then we are sent here like the beasts to look about for food and die. Then, in a few days, it will be the same thing whether I have been an ornament or a shame to society; whether I have been endeavoring to increase the number of the happy or the miserable. Then the most reprobate of mortals has the power of withdrawing himself from under the dominion of heavenly power, and a dagger can cut asunder the chain which links men to God. If our spirit is perishable, the wisest legislators of mankind have cheated us, or themselves: the whole human race have unanimously resolved to support a falsehood, and the imposters who invented it: a state of free thinking beings is nothing more than a herd of senseless cattle, and man -I shudder at the thought of considering him in this point of degradation-is deprived of the hopes of immortality. This WONDERFUL creature is the most miserable animal on earth; and, to crown its misfortune, must reflect on its condition, fear death, and despair. Not an all-good God who delights in the happiness of his creatures, but a malignant being who enjoys calamity, must have endued man with pre-eminences that make him deserve commiseration. It is impossible to express the keen anguish which seizes my soul, when I put myself in the place of those wretched beings who dread annihilation. The perpetual apprehension of death must sicken all their pleasures. If they delight in friendship, if they acknowledge truth, if they respect virtue, if they honor their Creator, and are charmed with beauty and perfection, that terrible thought annihilation still rises like a specter before the soul, and checkers every scene of joy with despair. A breath, a beat of the pulse, deprives them of all their glories. The god-admiring being putrefies, molders, and becomes dust. I thank the gods for having delivered me from this fear, which, like the stings of scorpions, would have interrupted all the happiness of my life.
My ideas of the deity, of virtue, of the worth of man, and of the relation in which he stands to God, do not permit me to entertain any farther doubts of my destiny. The reliance on a future life solves all those difficulties, and brings those truths, of which, we are convinced in a manifold manner, again into harmony. It justifies the deity, restores to virtue its nobility, to beauty its luster, to pleasure its allurements, softens misery, and makes even the troubles of this life sacred in our sight, while we compare the brevity of their duration with the perfect and perpetual felicity to which they lead.-A doctrine which agrees with so many known and decided truths, which reconciles such a number of contradictions to our mind, we can readily adopt, and it hardly wants any farther proofs; for if none of those reasons, taken singly, carries with it the greatest degree of certainty, yet, when combined, they convince us so forcibly, that every doubt and apprehension is removed by them. The difficulty, my dear Socrates, is to have all those proofs constantly present to the mind, that we many distinctly consider their harmony. We want their assistance at all times, and in all circumstances of life do not allow us that calm collected state of the soul, which is necessary to remember them, and feel the truth which results from their united impression: as often as we lose sight of any part is but faintly represented, truth loses her strength, and the quiet of our soul is endangered.
But if the way which you, Socrates, point out to us leads through a simple series of incontrovertible principles to truth, we may hope to secure to ourselves a perpetual proof and consciousness of it, and always feel it in full force. A chain of distinct connected reasoning is easier impressed on the memory than that combination or assemblage of truths which, in some measure, require a particular disposition of mind for the recollection of them. For this reason I have no objection to set before you all the doubts which the most strenuous advocates against immortality can propose.
If I have understood you well, your proof was as follows: The soul and body exist together in the most intimate connection; the latter is gradually dissolved into its parts; the former must either be annihilated, or preserve ideas. By natural powers nothing can be annihilated; our soul, therefore, can never cease to have ideas.
But suppose I should prove, by similar reasons, that harmony must remain after the lyre which has produced it is broken to pieces, or that the symmetry of a building must exist after the stones of it are pulled asunder and reduced to powder. The harmony, as well as the symmetry, I would say, is something; nobody will deny that. The first is intimately connected with the lyre, the other with the building with the body, and the harmony or symmetry with the soul; it appears we have proved that the harmony must endure longer than the strings, the symmetry longer than the building. But with respect to harmony and symmetry, this conclusion is highly absurd; for as they show the manner and origin of their composition, they cannot exist longer than the composition itself.
Of health we may also maintain, that it is a property of the organized body, but exists only while the action of its members tend to the preservation of the whole: it is a quality of the composition which vanishes when the composition is dissolved into parts. The same case apparently holds with life. The life of a plant ceases whenever the motion of its parts tend to the dissolution of the whole. A beast has pre-eminence over a plant in the organs of the senses and feeling; and man, lastly, has pre-eminence over beasts from reason. Perhaps the feelings of the beast, and reason in man, are dependent on the composition, like life, health, harmony, etc. which cannot, from their nature, endure longer than the composition, from which they are inseparable. If the art of the structure is sufficient to give life and health to a plant, then a finer art may give feelings to animals, and reason to man. We feeble creatures do not comprehend either the first, or the last. The texture of the smallest beast surpasses all human understanding, and involves in it mysteries which will mock the ingenuity and penetration of our latest posterity; yet we would decide what can or cannot be effected by organization. Shall we set boundaries to the omnipotence or wisdom of the Creator? One of these we would limit, if we insignificant beings would maintain that the Almighty could create no power to feel, or to think by the formation of the finest matter.
You see, my dear Socrates, what is still wanting to give you scholars full and perfect conviction. If the soul is something which the Almighty has created, independent of the body, though connected with it, then it is certain that the soul will continue to endure and have conceptions after death. But who can warrant to us the justice of this supposition? Experience rather inclines us to favor the contrary opinion. The power of thinking is formed with the body, grows with it, and suffers equal changes with it. Every sickness of the body is productive of weakness, disorder, and incapacity, in the soul: the functions of the brain, and intestines in particular, have so close a connection with the operation of the powers of thinking, that we are much inclined to trace both to one source: and on that account to explain what is invisible, by that which is visible: in the same manner as we ascribe light and heat to the same cause, because they agree so much in their changes.
Simmias was silent, and Cebes began to speak. Our friend Simmias, said Cebes, seems only to wish to secure the possession of what has been promised to him: but I, my dear Socrates, wish for more than you have promised. Although your proofs remove all our objections, the utmost conclusion which can be drawn from them is, that the soul continues to exist after death, and to have conceptions. But how does she exist? Perhaps in a swoon or faint, or as in sleep. The soul of a man asleep cannot be entirely void of ideas. The objects around him must operate in weaker impressions on his senses, and excite in his soul some feeble sensations; otherwise stronger impressions could not wake him. But what sort of conceptions do they yield him? A dark feeling as it were, without knowledge of himself, or just recollection; a state without reasoning powers, in which we do not remember the past, and which we cannot remember the future. Should our soul in separating from the body sink into a state of sleep or swooning, and not awake again, what would we gain by such a continuation of her existence? A state of being, without reasoning powers, is very far distant from the immortality which you hope for; it is farther removed from it than the happiness of an animal from the happiness of a spirit, which is able to know God. If that which may happen to our soul hereafter gives us a concern, and excites our hopes and fears now whilst we have knowledge of ourselves, we must retain in another life the same self-knowledge, and remember what has past here. In order to be capable of judging of the future state of our existence, we must be able to compare what we are now, with what we may be then. Besides, if I have understood you well, my dear Socrates, you expect after death a better life, greater powers, and enlightenment of the understanding, nobler and more exalted feelings of the mind, than have been the lot of the happiest being of this earth. On what is this flattering, pleasing hope founded? The want of a clear knowledge of herself is a state which seems not impossible to our soul. Of this we are convinced by daily experience. What if such a state should continue for ever!
It is true you have already shown us that all changeable things must incessantly be changing; and from that doctrine I gather hopes that my apprehensions are without foundation: for if the series of changes which are to happen to our soul are infinite, then it is highly probable that she is not destined to sink, in her spiritual excellence, through all eternity, and to lose still more and more of her god-like virtue and beauty; but that she will, at least, in time raise herself up again, resume that station in which she stood before in the creation, and be a contemplator of the works of God. More than a high degree of probability is not necessary to support us in the presumption, that a better life awaits the virtuous. In the meantime, my dear Socrates, I wish to hear these points touched upon by you, because I know that all the words you will utter today must imprint themselves deeply on our minds, and live forever in our memories.
We all listened attentively, and, as we confessed to each other afterwards, not without extreme anxiety to hear not only objections started to a doctrine of which we thought ourselves so much convinced, but doubt and uncertainty thrown over every other truth in nature, which we had hitherto admitted and believed; for we became apprehensive that we either did not possess powers sufficient to distinguish truth from error, or that they could not be separated from each other.
EXECRATES: I do not wonder, my dear Phaedon, that you were alarmed by the observations of Simmias. I have been affected in the same manner by hearing your recital of them. The reasoning made use of by Socrates had entirely convinced and inspired me with confidence that I should never again entertain a doubt on the subject; but the objections of Simmias have renewed all my fears and uncertainty. I remember I was formerly of opinion, that the power of thinking was a qualification of the composition, and had its origin in the fine organization or harmony of the parts. But tell me, Phaedon, what impression those objections made on Socrates: Was he equally disconcerted by them, or did he hear them with his usual calmness of temper? And did his answers restore perfect conviction and peace to your minds? All this I wish to know from you as particularly as possible.
PHAEDON: If I ever admired Socrates, it was certainly upon this occasion. That he was prepared to make a reply, was no more than we expected. What won our admiration most was, the mild and patient aspect with which he listened to all the arguments and reasoning of those young people; then how quickly he remarked the impression which their objections had made upon us and hastened to our relief.
EXECRATES: How was this?
PHAEDON: I will tell you. I sat on his right hand, next the bed, upon a low chair; he sat a little higher than me. He laid his hand upon my head and smoothed down my hair, which was hanging in my neck, as he was accustomed to play with my curls. Tomorrow, Phaedon, he said, you may strew these locks over the grave of a friend.
-In all probability, I answered, I may-
Oh, do it not, he said-
Then why not, I asked.
Today, he replied, we must both cut off our hair, if our beautiful system is overthrown, and it should not be in our power to raise it up again. If I were in your place, and any person had destroyed such a doctrine to me, such a resting place for my hopes, I would make a vow like the Argive of old, to let my hair grow until I had conquered the objections of Simmias and Cebes.
It is usually, said I, observed, that Hercules himself can do nothing against two. Then, replied he, while it is yet clear day, call upon me as your Iolaus.-Good, said I: I will call upon you to help me, not, however, as Hercules did Iolaus, but as Iolaus did Hercules.
That is nothing to the matter, he replied. Above all things, we must take great care to avoid a certain false step.-Which? I asked.-That we do not become haters of reason, said he, as certain people become haters of men. No greater misfortune could befall us. Hatred to reason, and hatred to men, take their beginning from similar causes. Hatred to man arises generally from our having placed a blind confidence in some person, and regarded him as a true, just, and upright character, whom we experience afterwards to be neither true, just, nor upright; particularly if this case happens often to us, and more especially with those whom we had considered as our sincerest and best friends. Then we grow discontented, look on all the world indiscriminately with hatred, and no longer believe there is any sincerity in man. Have you not remarked this?
Very often, I replied.
But is not this shameful? And does it not imply that we are willing to derive benefits from human society, without the least knowledge of the human heart? Whoever is capable of reflection, may very easily find the middle state where truth lies. Of extremely good, or extremely bad men, there are but few instances. The majority of mankind keep between both extremes. With respect to other qualifications, what is more rare than a man, a dog, or other creature that is extremely large or extremely small, very swift or very slow, uncommonly beautiful, ugly, white or black? Have you not observed, that in all these cases the extremes are exceeding rare? The middle state is found most prevailing in them all.
I think so.
And also, that if a great price were set on extreme wickedness, very few men would deserve the price?
However, in this point, there is little analogy between reason and the human race. I was brought to this digression by your question. But if a person, without necessary enquiry or insight into the nature of human reason, admits at one time certain conclusions to be just and true, and in short time after thinks the same conclusions false, whether they are so in their own nature or not; particularly if this has occurred often, and as we stated before in the case of friendship. Such a person is then in the same condition with those ingenious sophists who will, as long as their audience pleases, defend or refute propositions, until they believe themselves the wisest of mortals, and the only persons who have perceived that human reason, like all other earthly things, has nothing certain or stable in it; but that every thing in life moves constantly to and fro like the waves on the sea of Euripus, and never rests a moment in the same place.
It is true.
But, my dear Phaedon, he continued, suppose that truth was not only certain and invariable in itself, but also not totally impenetrable by man, and that any person, upon considering two opposite doctrines, supported apparently on equally strong grounds, should conceive such disgust and chagrin as not to lay any blame on his own capacity and discernment, but to find fault with reason itself, and all the remainder of his life to hate, nay, shun all exercise of reason, so as to keep truth and knowledge at a distance from him: Would his misfortune not be pitiable?
Very pitiable, by heaven.
We must therefore beware of this error, endeavor to persuade ourselves that truth is not variable or uncertain, though our understandings are often too weak to keep hold and be master of it. We should consequently exert our utmost strength, and repeat our efforts to this purpose until we are successful. This we are bound to do, my friends; you on account of the time you have to live; I in consideration of my approaching death. I am impelled to it by motives which may make me appear, in the eyes of common and ignorant people, more eager to be thought in the right than anxious of being so: for when they have to enquire into any point which is doubtful, they do not trouble themselves to find out its certainty and truth, but are satisfied if they maintain their own opinions, and can impose them upon others. I shall differ from those people in one particular only. To persuade others is but a secondary object with me: my chief care is to convince myself, that my opinion is conformable to truth, as I find the utmost advantage in it. For, my dearest friend, thus I argue: If the doctrine which I teach is justly founded, I do well in convincing myself of it; but if our hopes for those who have departed are visionary, then I at least gain this consolation, that I do not before my death become disagreeable to my friends by complaining. I please myself often with the thought, that every thing which would bring real comfort and advantage to the human race, if it was true, has already a great deal of probability in it of being so. If sceptics allege against the doctrine of God and virtue, that it is a mere political device, calculated to promote the welfare of human society, then I would say to them, "Oh, my friends, contrive a system which is equally indispensable to mankind, and I maintain it will prove true." The human race is designed for society, as every individual is formed for happiness. Every thing which will contribute towards this end in a general, steady, and constant manner, is undoubtedly chosen by the wise original of all things as a means to it. These ideas have something extremely consoling in them, and show us the relation between the creator and man in the most striking light: I wish for nothing more strongly, therefore, than to be convinced of the truth of them. However, it would be hard if my ignorance in this point would continue much longer. No; I shall soon be resolved.
Under this impression, Simmias and Cebes, I shall now speak to your objections. If you take my counsel, you will attend to truth more than to Socrates. If you find me keep to truth, give me your applause; if not, oppose me without reserve, that I may not, from too much kindness and good will, deceive both you and myself, and quit you like a bee that leaves its sting behind it.
Now, my friends, be attentive, and check me if I overlook or mistake any part of your arguments. Simmias allowed that our faculty of thinking has either an individual existence in itself, or owes its being to the composition and structure of the body-Has he not?
I the first case, if the soul is to be considered as an immaterial thing created by itself, he will also admit the series of conclusions, by which we have proved that the soul cannot terminate her existence with the body, cannot be totally annihilated, otherwise than by the Almighty power. Is this granted, or have any of you objections?
We all readily assented to this.
And that the all-good Creator annihilates none of his works; as well as I can remember, nobody had any doubts of this.
But Simmias is afraid, perhaps, that our power to feel and to think is not a thing created by itself, but, like harmony, health, the life of plants and animals, is the property of an artificially-formed body-Was it not this which caused your fears?
This exactly, Socrates.
Let us see then, he said, if that which we know of our soul, and can so often experience, will not render your apprehensions groundless. What happens in an artificial structure or composition? Are not certain things brought near together which were before at a distance from each other?
They were combined with other things, and now they are combined among themselves, and form the constituent parts of the whole, which we call a composition.
From combination of the parts, according to the way and manner in which the constituent parts are united to each other, arises first a certain order which is more or less perfect.
The powers and activity of the constituent parts are more or less altered in the composition, according as they by action and reaction retarded, advanced, or altered in their direction-Is not his just?
So it appears.
The author of such a composition looks singly and alone upon the approximation of the parts to each other; as for example, to the arrangement and symmetry in architecture, where nothing comes into consideration but the order of setting the parts together; at another time his purpose is the varied activity of the constituent parts, and the power arising from their combination; as in a piece of machinery, or spring-work: nay, there are some cases where we see distinctly that the artist has a view to both; to the order of the parts, and to the variation of their acting powers.
Perhaps human artists, said Simmias, have these joint objects in view but seldom; but the author of nature seems to have united them always in the most perfect manner together.
Admirably observed, said Socrates. I shall not pursue these less principal considerations any farther: tell me only, Simmias, Can there arise from any composition a power in the whole which has not its source in the energy of the constituent parts?
Explain your meaning, Socrates.
If all the parts of matter were lying together in a dead calm without motion or life, would the artificial ordering and transposition of them produce in the whole any motion or action?
An active whole cannot be produced from inactive parts.
We can take this for granted, therefore. We see, however, that harmony and symmetry may be found in a whole, of which no constituent part has either harmony or symmetry in itself. How does this happen? No single tone is harmonious, but many tones together make harmony. A well-proportioned building may consist of stones, which have neither symmetry nor regularity in themselves. Why can I compose a harmonious regular whole, from unharmonious irregular parts?
Oh, replied Simmias, this is very comprehensible; symmetry, harmony, regularity, etc. cannot be conceived without variety: for they signify the proportions of different impressions as they strike us together, and in comparison with each other. With those ideas, therefore, we conceive the combination of a variety of impressions which together form a whole, and we cannot therefore derive such ideas from the single parts.
Continue, my dear Simmias, said Socrates, secretly pleased at the acuteness of his friend. Tell us also, if every single tone did not make an impression on our ear, whether harmony could be produced from many tones.
It is the same with symmetry. If that which we call symmetry arises from the union of many parts, every part must make an impression on the eye.
We see, therefore, here also, that no acting power can be produced in the whole, the source of which is not to be found in the constituent parts, and that everything else which does not owe its existence to the properties of the elementary and constituent parts, as order, symmetry, etc. originates alone from the manner of the composition-May we not rest assured of this principle?
There are, therefore, two distinct things to be considered in the most artificial composition: first, the succession and order of the constituent parts with regard to time and space; and, secondly, the combination of the original powers, and the way and manner in which they show themselves in the composition. The operations of the single powers are certainly limited, directed, and changed, by the order and situation of the parts; but an acting power can never be produced in a composition, the origin of which was not to have been found in the single parts. I dwell a little on these subtle first grounds of consideration, as a wager runner frequently exercises himself in the course, that he may at last be able to double his speed towards the goal, when the gods have destined fortune and glory to the victor.
Consider with me, my dear Simmias.
If our faculty to feel and to think has not an independent existence, but is a property of the composition, must it not either, like harmony or symmetry, be produced by a certain situation and order of the parts; or, like the power of the composition, have its origin in the activity of the constituent parts?
Certainly, as we have seen that no third case can exist.
With respect to harmony, for example, we know that no single tone is harmonious, but that harmony arises from the combination and comparison of different sounds with each other.
The case is similar with the symmetry and regularity of a building: it consists in the combination and comparison of several irregular parts.
This is not to be denied.
But this power of combining and comparing, can it be anything else than the operation of the faculty of thinking? And is it to be found anywhere else than in a thinking being?
Here Simmias knew not what to answer.
In unthinking nature, continued Socrates, single sounds follow each other, and stones appear close together: but in them, where is the harmony, symmetry, or regularity? If there is not a thinking being present which takes the varied parts together, and compares them, and in this comparison discovers a harmony, I know not where to find it: or can you point out any such thing in unanimated nature?
I must confess my inability, said Simmias, although I see the tendency of your argument.
A happy presage, said Socrates, if the adversary foresees his own defeat. But answer me, my friend, without reluctance, for you have not a little part in the victory were are about to gain over you. Can the origin of a thing be traced from its own operations? Will the shadow which a tree throws be taken for the means of its growth, or the fine odor of a flower for the cause of its existence?
Order, symmetry, harmony, regularity, and, in general, all proportioned objects which require their various parts to be contrasted and compared together, are the effects of the operations of the faculty of thinking. Without the addition of the thinking being, without comparison and combination, the regular edifice is a mere heap of stones, and the voice of the nightingale no more than the screaming of the owl. Nay further, without this operation there cannot exist in nature any whole consisting of parts which exist independent of each other; for those parts have each their own proper existence, and must be combined, compared, and viewed, united together, in order to constitute a whole. The thinking power, and it alone in all nature is able, by means of its internal energy, to make real comparisons, combinations, and contrasts; therefore the origin of all compositions, numbers, greatness, harmony, symmetry, etc. in so far as they require combination and comparison, must only be looked for the thinking power. As this must be taken for granted, the faculty of thinking, the cause of all comparisons and contrasts, cannot possibly arise from these its own operations; cannot possibly consist in proportion, harmony, symmetry, nor in a whole, which is composed of parts which exist, independent of each other; since all these things presuppose the operation and action of the thinking being, and could not become real without it.
This is very distinct.
As every whole, which consists of parts that exist independent of each other, presupposes the combination and comparison of those parts, this combination and comparison must be the operation of a conceiving power; therefore I cannot place the origin of this conceiving power in the whole that consists of those separately existing parts, without making a thing derive its existence from its own operations: for such an absurdity the poets themselves, as far as I know, have never ventured to affirm. Nobody yet has traced the origin of a flute from the harmony of its tones, or imagined the light of the sun proceeded from the hues of the rainbow.
My dear Socrates, the rest of my doubts appear to be overthrown.
If I do not tire your patience, my friends, by this long enquiry, it deserves particular consideration.
Fear not, my friend, cried Crito, to put their patience to the test; at least, you did not spare mine, when I insisted on the execution of a certain proposal which I made to you-
No more, said Socrates, interrupting him, of a point concerning which we are no longer under any uncertainty. We have at present to enquire into matters which seem yet to be subject to some doubt. It is allowed we are not to search for our power of feeling and thinking in the situation, structure, harmony, or order, of the parts of our material frame. This we have rejected as impossible, without coming too near to a decision on the omnipotence and wisdom of God. But, perhaps, this faculty of thinking is one of the acting powers of the composition, as the power of motion, extension, or cohesion, which, though essentially different from the situation and structure of the parts, are nowhere to be found but in the composition. Is not this the only remaining doubt which we have to conquer?
We shall therefore suppose this to be the case, and take it for granted, that our soul is a power of the composition. We have found that every acting power must arise from the powers of the constituent parts; according to such position then, must not the constituent parts of the thinking body have powers from which, when in composition, the power of thinking is derived?
But of what nature and qualities shall we suppose the powers of these constituent parts? Shall we suppose them similar or dissimilar to the thinking power?
This question, answered Simmias, I do not comprehend.
A single syllable, said Socrates, has this in common with a whole sentence, that it is to be heard and distinguished: a whole sentence, however, has a meaning, but a syllable none.
Although every syllable, therefore, makes a distinguishable, but no intelligent impression, yet, from the union of many, a sense is produced which operates upon our soul. Here, therefore, the operation of the whole originates in the powers of the parts which are dissimilar to it.
This said Simmias, is perfectly comprehensible.
With respect to harmony, order, and beauty, we have found that the pleasure which they impart to the soul arises from the united impression of their constituent parts, none of which singly can give pleasure or displeasure.
This is another example that the active power of the whole originates in the power of the constituent parts which are dissimilar to it.
Perhaps, my friends, I may be going too far; but I conceive, that all acting powers of corporeal things may proceed from powers of simple matter which are totally dissimilar to them. Color, for example, may proceed from things which have no color; and motion itself may proceed from original powers which have nothing of motion in them.
This requires a proof, said Simmias.
It is unnecessary, replied Socrates, to delay ourselves at present on this particular; it is enough that I illustrate by example the meaning of my words. The acting power of the whole may arise from powers of the constituent parts which are dissimilar to it. Is this more clear?
According to our supposition, therefore, the power of the constituent parts must either be the powers of conception themselves, and therefore similar to the power of the whole which shall arise from them, or be of a quite different nature, and therefore dissimilar. Or is there any third case?
But answer me, dear Simmias; if there shall arise from the combination of the single powers another quite different from them, where is this newly-produced power to be met with?
Except in the thinking being, the power of the whole is nothing else than the single powers of the simple constituent parts, as they change and limit each other by action and reaction. By action and reaction no power can be produced which is dissimilar to these acting and reacting powers. If, therefore, we would gain in the whole something dissimilar to the parts, we must have recourse to the thinking being, which views the powers united, and in the different combinations of which they are capable, otherwise then it judges of them singly, and without combination. We see an example of this in colors, as well as in harmony. If two colors are brought into so small a space together that they cannot be distinguished by the eye, they will, notwithstanding the impression made upon our sight, remain two separate and distinct colors. Our senses, however, will compose a third color from them, which has nothing in common with the other two. Taste, and, if I am not mistaken, our other senses and feelings in general, have a similar mode of acting: they cannot, from being united and connected together, become different from what they are in their single state; but to the thinking being, which cannot distinguish them clearly, they seem different from what they appear when free of combination.
This may be granted.
Can a thinking being, therefore, have its origin in single powers which cannot think?
Impossible; as we have seen that the power to think cannot have its origin in a whole which consists of many parts.
Very right, said Socrates: the combination of the single powers, from which a power arises which is dissimilar to them, pre-supposes a thinking being, to which they appear otherwise when combined than they really are. A thinking being, therefore, cannot possibly spring from this combination. If, then, feeling and thinking, in a word, the power of conception, is a power of the composition, must not the power of the constituent parts be similar to the power of the whole, and consequently be powers of conception?
They must be so, as we cannot imagine a third case.
And the parts of those constituent parts, as far as their divisibility will go, must have similar powers of conception?
Unquestionably, as every constituent part is a whole that consists of smaller parts, and our conclusions may be carried on until we come upon the elementary simple parts.
Tell me, Simmias: Do we not find in our souls an almost infinite number of ideas, inclinations, and passions, which incessantly affect us?
Are these to be found in parts? Are they scattered, some here, some there, without ever being collected? Or is there among them a single one which unites and comprehends in itself all those affections which occupy our soul.
Certainly, one or other of these cases must hold true, but the first seems to me to be impossible; for all conceptions and passions of our soul are so intimately united and knit together, that they must necessarily be somewhere inseparably present.
You hasten towards me, my dear Simmias: we should not be able to remember nor reflect, compare nor think; nay, we should not be the same persons now which we were a moment before, if our ideas were divided into parts, and were not found somewhere in the closest and strictest connection together. We must therefore, at least, admit of a substance which unites all the ideas of the constituent parts; but this substance, can it be composed of parts?
End of Section II
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