Contemplation, Intuition, and Action

Lecture 6.  September 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  In some respects, the most important legacy of Socrates to Western thought and to psychology was his insistence on being able to explain one’s actions.  No matter how virtuous one’s behavior might be, one was not truly virtuous unless one could give an account of what virtue was.  Giving an account was theoria in Greek, which more precisely meant contemplation rather than doing.  The tension between contemplation/theory and action/productivity is an important one in understanding the ideas, values, and problems of the Western tradition of which we are a part, and will play an important role in the history of science and psychology as well.   This tension has many aspects, one of which begins to appear in the thought of Plato, which we took up later in the lecture.  

Recall that although Greeks posited the existence of a soul, or breath of life, few posited the existence of a soul that constituted one’s personal essence and that could and would continue to exist outside the body. Plato, however, in his Theory of the Forms posits not only the existence of an immortal, transcendent, personal soul, but also the existence of a transcendent world of Forms that is perfect, unchanging, and the true home of the soul — the Reality he points to in Raphael’s School of Athens.  His teacher’s theoria becomes contemplation of the Real world of the Forms, detached from the inferior world of Opinion about material things that are imperfect copies of the Forms.  Socrates wanted people to think about living well in the world in which we act, but Plato turns our concern to a world in which we do not live and in which we do not act (because we do not have bodies), the World of the Forms.  I said in earlier lectures that for the ancient Greeks virtue was arete earned by action, but that this concept of virtue would change into the Christian one of a state of being anyone might possess.  Plato makes a key move to the modern conception of virtue as a state of being (remember the tension between Being and Becoming), because virtue for Plato is contemplating and grasping the Form of the Good, which can be done by the soul alone without bodily action.  More flippantly, for Plato, “Soul good; Body bad,” a thought Socrates, and other non-dualist Greeks, could not have thought.

Forethoughts.  As I said, the contemplation – action tension will be an important theme of the course; for example, it’s one reason why experimentation comes so late to science.  In our next lecture, when we finish Plato, we will see some of its implications for politics and psychology.  

Contemplation of the Good, for Plato, is the ideal way to live, and in his Republic the ultimate rulers are philosopher-kings whose education is devoted to contemplating the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  Action in the Greek sense — political action — is left to the Guardian’s inferiors and subordinates, the Auxiliaries, who protect and manage the Republic.  The mass of people belong to the most inferior class, the Productive Class, incapable of political action, and stuck with mere material production, as far from the Empyrean realm of the Forms as possible.

In Plato’s model of personality, the same trio of values and roles continues.  Personality is a chariot pulled by the Spirited Soul and the Desiring Soul under the direction of the Rational Soul.  The Rational Soul, observe, is pure contemplation — it knows (or should know) the Good  — but it is incapable of action or of production.  It somehow — and in that “somehow” is buried many of the puzzles of the psychologies of motivation, decision making, and even cognitive neuroscience — must command the body’s lesser souls to follow the path of virtue.  Can it?  Or is asking this question a fundamental mistake brought on by Plato and later Descartes, the mistake called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Descartes error?  If soul and body are one, then worrying about how they interact, and constructing theories about their interaction, are misbegotten projects from the get-go, and the get-go was long ago in a universe far far away, but remains ours nevertheless.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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