Classical Wisdom Weekly / Wednesday July 10th, 2013
Proof of the immortal soul and the Theory of Recollection,
Beauty of the mind, not of the body,
The Battle of Carrhae: Publius’ tragic fate at the hands of Surena…
Quotes of the Day:
“I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” – Plato, The Phaedo
“When men are interrogated in the right manner, they always give the right answer of their own accord, and they could not do this if they did not possess the knowledge and the right explanation inside them.” – Plato, The Phaedo
“Then when death comes to man, the mortal part of him dies, it seems, but his deathless part goes away safe and indestructible, yielding the place to death.” – Plato, The Phaedo
This week your editor has been traveling to the Adriatic coast on her way to Greece, to explore the region, with all its historic treasures, further. As we passed through the still scarred city of Sarajevo and arrived at the medieval fortress of Dubrovnik, we thought once again about knowledge. We’ve been learning as we go, about past wars, co-existing cultures, art and religion… all the while in places we’ve never been to before, without previous experience.
And yet, there are always elements of the recognizable. We see ‘beauty’ in buildings that are places of worship, or ‘kindness’ or ‘hatred’ in past actions between peoples. Are each of these sentiments subjective or channeling Plato’s forms? Are we learning from these new experiences or recollecting true elements?
On this line of thought, we present an article on the Theory of Recollection, as seen in Plato’s Phaedo. We also have the story of the role of Publius, and his fate, in the Battle of Carrhae… Will the Romans finally get the upper hand on the Parthians?
Classical Wisdom Weekly
The Theory of Recollection: Immortal Soul Required
By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard
The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life. The dialogue is primarily an argument for the immortality of the soul that Socrates is trying to convince his grief-ridden colleagues, and maybe indeed himself, of in order to prove that his execution is merely the separation of his soul from his body… and not his actual ‘death’.
But how does Plato/Socrates prove that there is an immortal soul? It’s not an easy task, no doubt, and so he employs the idea of recollection (or anamnesis). However, like with most of Plato’s concepts when fully investigated, it reveals far more than what is immediately obvious.
The theory of anamnesis was, in fact, first introduced in one of Plato’s earlier works, the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates informs Meno that nothing can be either taught or learnt as we already posses all the knowledge in the world. Socrates explains that, through the lifetime of our soul, we have already learnt all there is to learn and that we can answer every question, provided we are asked in the correct manner.
He goes on to prove this by getting an uneducated slave to figure out a math problem by asking him a series of extremely leading questions. ie. “Is your personal opinion that the square on the diagonal of the original square is double its area?” Socrates seems convinced that he has done nothing to ‘educate’ the slave, but merely asked him the appropriate questions that allowed him to recollect.
This argument for recollection is taken a step further in the Phaedo, as Plato claims there are two aspects of recollection. The first involves no lapse of time and is less a recollection of something, but more a reminder of it: “you know what happens to lovers, whenever they see a lyre or cloak or anything else their loves are accustomed to use: they recognise the lyre, and they get in their mind, don’t they, the form of the boy whose lyre it is?”
The second aspect of recollection is one that does involve the lapse of time and is more familiar to the theory of recollection in the Meno. Additionally, it relates to Socrates’ goal of establishing the immortality of the soul. The argument that he lays out is that we are neither capable of learning anything new, nor were we born with the knowledge of things, but that we knew these things before our birth.
But before we proceed with the Theory of Recollection, we must first examine Plato’s Theory of Forms. As many will no doubt recall, Plato believed that the Forms were ethereal entities of extremely general terms, ie. sameness, difference, justice, purity, vice, beauty, etc. The reason these things were entities, rather than concepts, was due to the fact that Plato perceived them as something very real indeed, even though it seems they were invisible… at least to our eyes.
Returning to our foremost theory, Plato uses the Form of ‘equality’ to try and transmit his views on recollection. He states that in viewing two sticks of equal length, we recognise that they posses ‘equality’. However, he also makes clear that two sticks of unequal length can also cause us to recognise ‘equality’ by its absence. He also conveys that even what appears to be perfectly equal, can, in fact, fall short of ‘equality’, for the simple reason that only the Form of ‘equality’ can be truly, purely equal.
So how do these ideas bring us to the primary aim of the dialogue, the immortality of the soul?
Essentially, in order for the theory of recollection to work, our souls would have had to exist before our earthly incarnation, as well as go on existing after it. Additionally, if the soul is immortal then it must also be eternal, because if something can never come to an end, then it must never have had a beginning in the first place.
The fact that we can identify ‘equality’ (or any Form) is due to the fact that we have experienced the true Form ‘equality’ during a time when our souls were apart from our bodies and at one with (or at least closer to) the Forms.
So, when we see double yellow lines, we can recognise the equality that they posses by recollecting the Form ‘equality’ and concluding they are the same length, width and distance apart. The conclusion then is that because we can recognize/remember the Form of ‘equality’, our soul existed before our bodies, and consequently it will exist afterwards. Hence, the soul is immortal.
Interestingly, despite the willingness of Plato to change his opinions throughout his works, the Theory of Recollection seems to be the one he particularly cares to develop, rather than disregard. What is more of a passing thought in the Meno becomes an intrinsic part of his dialogues in the Phaedo. The elaboration of the concept almost appears to be a consequence of Plato himself re-reading the Meno in search of inspiration.
That said and despite Plato’s inclinations to put words into Socrates’ mouth, the concept of recollection might actually be one we can assign to the older thinker. Cebes, in fact, comments to Socrates in the Phaedo, ‘there’s also that theory you’re always putting forward, that our learning is actually nothing but recollection.”
Although the idea of recollection is vital for the Phaedo, the Phaedo itself is not purely a dialogue about recollection, but about the soul’s immortality. As it was obviously written after the death of Socrates, it could be Plato’s attempt to not only convince the philosophic community that Socrates, and his great mind, lives on, but also his endeavor to make one of the great theories of his friend and mentor persevere throughout time. And maybe that’s how Socrates really achieved his immortality…
The Fox and the Leopard disputed which was the more beautiful of the two. The Leopard exhibited one by one the various spots which decorated his skin. But the Fox, interrupting him, said, “And how much more beautiful than you am I, who am decorated, not in body, but in mind.”
It’s the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC and the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus is under ambush by the Parthians, led by their illustrious commander, Surena. Crassus’ son, Publius has departed from the main Roman force with hopes of conquering a fraction of the enemy’s army. Unfortunately it was a ruse. Publius’ men are surrounded by the Parthians, who boasting superior weapons and armour, have kicked up dust and have showered arrows of death on the army.
The Romans would writhe in convulsion and agony as the arrows, shot by the horse archers, struck them. They would attempt to break the pointed weapons off but would end up lacerating and disfiguring their own bodies. They were trying with sheer force to tear out the barbed arrowheads that had pierced through their veins and muscles.
Many of the men would die a slow, agonizing death in this fashion.
Publius needed to act quickly. While the Romans could not engage the horse archers in close combat, they could fight with the Parthian chain of command, the cataphract, which was nearby. If the Romans could make a break for the cataphract, they may have a chance to turn the tide of battle, especially if they could reach the Parthian commander Surena and kill him.
Publius gave the order to attack the cataphract but sadly, reality set in. The Roman infantrymen who heard Publius showed him that they were unable to go on any further, for their “hands pinioned to their shields, feet nailed through into the ground, so that they were incapable of either running away or defending themselves.”
Publius was so engrossed with the battle that he was out of touch with his men. Publius likely had a weak, unfocused gaze when confronted by those who were literally pinned to their equipment and to the ground. Publius finally realized the carnage that had been inflicted upon his men, and so he gathered what remained of his Gallic cavalry and charged towards the cataphract.
Publius’ Gallic cavalry wore little armor and carried small light spears. You would think Publius would have known better than to charge towards an enemy who was considerably better equipped. The Gallic cavalry would soon realize this mistake as their light spears could do little against the breastplates of the cataphract, nor the long pikes which the Parthians would thrust into the horse or rider.
Additionally, many of the cataphract were smart enough to know the pros and cons of their armor. Being weighed down made them clumsy and moving cumbersome, so the soldiers in the cataphract knew that they were best on foot or even on their back or knees. As a result, they would get underneath the Gallic cavalryman’s horse and thrust their sword into the animal’s belly. This would cause the horse to rear up, throwing the rider off, and trample those underneath or nearby before collapsing.
With so many Gallic cavalry now dead, the only option for the hurt Publius was to retreat. What was left of his forces pulled back, and took their badly wounded leader to higher ground. This would also be a mistake.
Publius and his men retreated to a nearby sandy hill. However, even this spot provided little protection. The Roman infantry were placed in the front, but those behind them stuck out like a sore thumb due to the elevation. The horse archers once again pelted the Romans relentlessly with arrows. The Romans could do little other than watch their numbers fall.
As the situation quickly deteriorated, two Greek men from the nearby town of Carrhae offered to help Publius escape to a nearby town, called Ichnae, which was friendly to Rome. Publius refused the offer since so many men were either dead or dying on his account. Being a Roman commander, he attempted to take his own life but was unable to due to his hand being pierced by an arrow. Thus, he looked to his shield bearer and ordered him to run him through with his gladius, or sword.
The Parthians eventually made it up the hill after the horse archers had weakened the Romans a bit more. Once there, the Parthian cataphract killed and trampled the dwindling force. The surviving men then surrendered and 500 were taken prisoner.
As for the remains of Publius, the Parthians took the body and severed his head.
As Crassus waited for good news, he noticed something had changed. When Publius went charging off after the horse archers, the Parthians had slacked off attacking the main body. The reason, of course, was to kill Publius, who was a high profile target with little protection. Surena understood that if he could get Publius as far away as possible from the main Roman body, he could fix, engage, and defeat the target. This, correctly thought Surena, would send shockwaves throughout the Roman army.
As Crassus waited for his son Publius to return back from the pursuit, he began to gain confidence that his son was doing alright. Crassus placed his men in regular order and moved them to sloping ground. Meanwhile, Publius was attempting to send messages to his father Crassus. The first dispatch never made it through as the messenger was killed, but finally news, indicating that Publius needed his help immediately, got to Crassus. Crassus’ hopes that his son was doing well quickly came crashing down…
It was at this point that Crassus was unable to make a clear judgment on what to do. Should he assist his son or stay put? On top of that, he began to lose confidence and feared the worst possible outcome for his army. As Crassus was going through a tug of war in his head, he finally made the decision to move the Roman army in attempt to help Publius.
However, Crassus did not know that his son Publius was already dead.
Just as Crassus’ army moved forward the Parthians swooped in again, beating their drums and shouting aloud, but with even greater ferocity than before. As the Roman army prepared for the second wave of attack, some of the Parthian cavalry approached the Roman line. One of the cataphract had a nasty surprise for Crassus… it was the head of Publius on the tip of a spear. Additionally he had a message for Crassus: “it was impossible… that such a brave and gallant soldier could be the son of such a miserable coward as Crassus.”
If the Roman army had any confidence left, then that very moment sucked the remaining life blood out of them.
Crassus, who suffered the most from this tragedy, rode up and down the ranks, shouting, “this grief is a private thing of my own. But in you, who are safe and sound, abide the great fortune and the glory of Rome. And now, if you feel any pity for me, who have lost the best son that any father has ever had, show it in the fury with which you face the enemy.”
Crassus’ encouraging speech to fight on and think of their ancestors who fought hard battles did little to liven up the men’s spirits. Plutarch mentions that “while he was speaking these words of encouragement, Crassus could see how few there were who were listening to him with enthusiasm.” When Crassus wanted to hear the war cry of his men, it was a “weak, feeble, and unsteady shout.”
Crassus then sent his men into battle once again…
Read what happens to Crassus and Surena in next week’s edition…
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