Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Philosophy, the Theory of Knowledge...and Death! by George A Gordon 1893

On the theory of knowledge the deepest minds of the world have been exercised. One class of thinkers say that knowledge consists wholly of sensation; eyes and ears, and hands and the other senses, and a brain account for the ordered and imposing structure of human science. These men say, "There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses." To this, and in behalf of another class of thinkers, Leibnitz replies, "Nothing except the intellect itself." Kant took up the problem here, and beyond him and his immediate successors the world has not yet gone, and it is not likely to go. The mind has an outfit of powers, of intellectual laws and conditions, in common phrase a soul, antecedent to the play of sensation, whose slumber is broken by the appeal of sense, whose waking state of wide-eyed wonder is induced by the stimulus of outward things, but without whose ordering spirit and understanding heart there could not be such a thing as human knowledge. So much philosophy may be said to have proved. That position vindicates the essential claim of the Greek thinker. His peculiar theory goes further. He contends that knowledge is recognition. When you see the portrait of your friend you recall the friend himself, because you have known him in other days, and because the copy carries your mind back to the reality. Similarly, Plato reasons, beautiful things and just and good and true carry the mind back to the absolute beauty, justice, goodness, and truth. We recognize these copies, we know them because we are able to refer them to the realities in a higher world. But how came we to know those eternal forms according to which we classify the things of sense? We must have beheld them before birth in the supersensible world; we must have brought the knowledge of them with us. When we wake in sense and time, it is to see before us the copies of the realities in the invisible world; to be reminded through what appears of what is, and of our high relationship to that divine realm. A gallery hung with portraits of Mr. Gladstone's contemporaries would serve, on his walking through it, to call up before his mind all the distinguished men whom he has met, with some of whom he has labored, many of whom he has forgotten. This world, according to Plato, is such a gallery. It is hung with the likenesses of the ideal world, decorated with the images of the immortal realities, and when the soul passes through it, it is reminded of the invisible world of beauty and truth and goodness from which it came forth. The argument is, since all knowledge is recognition, the soul must have existed before birth. If it was with God before birth, why may it not return to God after death?

The argument may not establish all that Plato thought it did. Still, it vindicates the non-sensuous character of the soul, its origin in the spiritual sphere, its kinship to the Mind that orders and knows the universe.

The interlocutors still appear to Socrates unsatisfied. They seem still haunted with the childish apprehension that the wind will literally blow the soul to pieces and disperse it as it issues from the body, especially when it happens that a man dies not in a calm but in a high wind. Thus the transition is made to the third argument.

That argument is from the nature of the soul. Things are divisible into compound and simple, visible and invisible, ever changing and never changing. The body is compound, visible, ever changing; the soul is simple, invisible, never changing. But here two objections come in. The soul is to the body as the harmony to the lyre. The harmony is beautiful, incorporeal, invisible, divine; yet how foolish it would be, for all that, to argue that it will survive the broken lyre! Break the lyre, and you end the tune. Kill the body, and you destroy the soul. Socrates welcomes the objection with a smile, but before he replies calls for the second objection. This is that the soul may outlive many bodies, and yet not be immortal. The weaver is more durable than the cloak that he produced for his own wearing; but you cannot infer from the existence of the cloak after the old weaver is dead that his soul still exists, because a man is more durable than a cloak. He is indeed more durable than one cloak, but not more durable than many. The old weaver outlasted many cloaks, but the cloak in which he died outlasted him. The soul is more durable than one body, but not more durable perhaps than several. Some future body may survive the destruction of this soul, as the last cloak that he wore survived the weaver's death. These two objections, that of the harmony and the lyre, and that of the weaver and his cloak, are the occasion of the fourth and fifth arguments.

The fourth argument is psychological, and contends that the soul cannot be to the body as the harmony to the lyre. We have seen that the soul is anterior to the body, whereas the harmony is subsequent to the lyre. Then, too, harmony is an effect, whereas soul is a cause. There is all the contrast between soul and harmony that there is between an active being and a passive, between a mover and doer and the thing moved and done. Besides, more and less apply to harmony, but not to soul. Partly a soul and partly not a soul is nonsense; but partly a harmony and partly a discord is thoroughly applicable to a strain of music. If you say that a harmony is not a harmony while discords mar it, and contend that the soul is like a pure harmony, in this case, also, the comparison fails. For then there would be in human life no such thing as vice, or evil, or wrong, or suffering. All that is absurd. The soul is master; the harmony is servant. The soul is in command of the body and fights it. It subjects the body to discipline, and in this way, by its office and right as commander, shows the fancifulness of the objection from the comparison of the lyre and the strain of music. The soul is anterior, causal, sovereign, akin to God. Thus the first objection is disposed of, an objection revived in modern popular philosophy, but which never would have been revived had the revivers taken the trouble to read Plato's exposure of its fancifulness and absurdity.

The second objection does not concern us here. It opens the way for Plato's fifth and final argument, the ideal. This argument is so bound up with his peculiar philosophy that it could not be stated intelligibly without large digression. His aim in the ideal argument is to establish the inherent vitality of the soul, its absolute indestructibleness through participation in the eternal life.

These, then, are Plato's arguments as given in his great dialogue on the soul. Birth and death are but gateways for the same life, out from and back to the fountain of Being. Our powers of intellect, our faculties for ordering and knowing the world, proclaim the divine origin and anterior existence of the soul. The nature of the soul as simple and incorruptible is a witness to its permanence. The relation in which it stands to the body — that of a master to a slave — attests its kinship to God, the sovereign of the world. Finally, through participation in the eternal idea of life, the soul is inherently vital and absolutely indestructible.

Plato's thoughts are greater than his arguments, wonderful as these are. Whence came these thoughts? When we bear in mind that Plato's reasonings are in vindication of a belief all but universal, rooted deep in the heart of man, the workings of this great intellect appear all the more significant and impressive. True, Plato did not compass a complete demonstration. There is evidence all through his discussion that he did not expect to do so. Still, there is in him an invincible sense that in dealing with the past and future of the soul he is dealing with reality. As one reads his pages, the conviction is inevitable that Plato's thoughts are the reflections of the everlasting truth; that they are, in the language of Christians, the inspiration of the spirit of truth.

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