Plato’s arguments for the immortality of the soul: the affinity argument

In his dialogue the Phaedo, Plato describes four arguments for the immortality of the soul through Socrates. The first two of these arguments, the cyclical and via recollection, are discussed briefly here and here (respectively).

The third argument is called the argument from affinity. In his solution to the being vs becoming dilemma and rhetorical devices such as the allegory of the cave, Plato sketches out his idea of two worlds or realities. One reality is the physical world (or the world of Heraclitus’ river) where all things are changing and impermanent, the other world is the world of the forms which is eternal and immutable. Plato considers the world of the forms or ideas a type of higher reality.

Socrates’s argument from affinity can be stated as follows:

1. There are two worlds (a) and (b). World (a) is the physical world which is composite, chaotic, perpetually changing and impermanent. World (b) is the the world of forms which is intelligible, non-composite, eternal and immutable. 

2. The soul is similar to  (b) and the body is similar to (a).

3. Ergo, upon the death of the physical body the soul makes it way to world (b).

This type of argument is probabilistic. Socrates’ contention is that because the soul is so dissimilar to the physical and visible world and so similar to the invisible world of the forms, it is only natural to assume that the soul will migrate to world (b) upon the death of the body. Think about it like mixing water and oil together, the two will naturally separate once the mixture is allowed to stand.

Socrates’s interlocutors offer counter-arguments at this point. Simmias proposes a similar argument, saying that the soul is the harmony of the body and is produced by a correct mixture of elements as the lyre produces the harmony with carefully timed notes. Simmias says that even though the harmony is invisible, it is destroyed when the lyre is destroyed. Socrates offers three arguments contra Simmias: i) soul-as-harmony fails to explain where a priori knowledge comes from as the theory of recollection does, ii) if the soul is harmony then whence wickedness and iii) to produce a harmony no components of the lyre can be in opposition, yet there are times when parts of a man are in opposition to each other (i.e. internal conflict).

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