29 March 2005

Simple Reincarnation

I'm sure this is getting tedious, but to finish the thing.... I think Bobonich actually misinterprets Phaedo 81c-82c. Socrates is not talking about non-philosophers there, I believe, but bad human beings, and kai\ tou/twn at 82a10 means 'even among bad human beings'.

Call 'simple reincarnation' the theory that each kind of animal gets reincarnated as an animal of that kind. Ants come back as ants; lions as lions; human beings as human beings.

Call 'adjusted simple reincarnation' the theory that the bulk of each kind of animal gets reincarnated as an animal of that kind, but that especially good animals in a kind go up a class, and especially bad animals go down a class.

I think that adjusted simple reincarnation is the most natural theory for someone to hold who believes in reincarnation; who thinks that animals always existed or will always continue to exist; but who also thinks that a life is a kind of test or trial.

I believe that Plato at 81c-82c is advocating adjusted simple reincarnation. He has just given his Affinity Argument for the immateriality of the soul. Contrary to what Bobonich says, this is an optimistic not a pessimistic view of the world. It holds that every soul in every living thing has an affinity with the divine and thus a natural inclination to seek the divine and return there. The natural tendency of any soul is upwards. But in the course of life in the body most souls get caught in the body. (That's what 'stuck in the mud' means, in a riddling or allegorical sense, as Plato explains.) For human beings, souls that strive especially to detach themselves from the body and its needs get liberated and join the gods (81a). But souls of bad people (81d7) that, contrariwise, have tried to join themselves with the body as much as possible, first wander around on earth as ghosts after death, and then become reincarnated in non-human animal bodies. Even of these souls (82a10), that is, souls of especially bad human beings, it holds true that the happiest fate and best place is reserved for those that most approximate virtue. (I take it Plato has in mind persons who in private practice self-indulgence but who in public life conform to law and good custom.)

This reading is broadly consistent with what Plato says elsewhere in the dialogue and with his important remark in the misology passage, that few human beings are especially good or bad, but that most are in between.

On Bobonich's reading, we can't explain where the souls of new human beings come from. He holds that the best human beings are reincarnated as social insects. That means that all the rest of human beings are reincarnated as even lower animals. So where do the other human souls come from?


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