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Fr. 375

August 22, 2013

In the objection which spurs Socrates’ final argument in the Phaedo, Cebes grants that both life before birth and life after death are plausible. Consequently, Socrates’ earlier arguments proving the truth of these are insufficient to refute Cebes’ new point. Cebes is concerned foremost with the soul’s imperishability and eternal persistence rather than an afterlife. Socrates’ response to this objection takes the form of his final argument, which consists in two parts. First, Socrates introduces the distinction between accident and essence. Second, Socrates will detail the precise manner in which opposite qualities interact in substances.

To begin, Socrates first addresses the perceived height of Simmias as compared to Socrates and Simmias’s shortness as compared to Phaedo. Socrates notes that Simmias seems thus to simultaneously possess the qualities of tallness and shortness. Further examination reveals this initial assumption to be false. Simmias is not tall and short; these are relational properties that are operative only in comparison with other beings sharing in a quality of the same type. That is to say, tallness and shortness do not inhere in Simmias. As Socrates remarks “it’s not in Simmias’s own nature to be bigger – it’s because the height which he incidentally possess (102c).” The declaration “Simmias is tall” invokes some quality that is extraneous to Simmias’s nature or essence1.

The explanatory model of accident and essence and the oscillation between Simmias’s shortness and tallness are then exploited by Socrates to examine the underlying ontological processes. Concerning “tallness”, Socrates elaborates:

“It seems to me not only that tallness itself absolutely declines to be short as well as tall, but also that tallness “in” us never admits smallness and declines to be surpassed. It does one of two things: either it gives way and withdraws as its opposite shortness approaches, or it has already ceased to exist by the time that the other arrives” (102d-e).

Simply, two opposite qualities cannot be concurrently operative. Tallness and shortness cannot coincide by themselves or in an object without one of the two establishing a temporary primacy over the other, which then ceases to be salient within the current instantiation of this relation of opposites. Thus, heat and cold cannot be understood to coincide; similarly opposed are oddness and evenness. The ontological model is such that one opposite will subside before the other. This ontological provision of the final argument is, in the end, quite reasonable and persuasive.

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1 Consider, for example, the difference between “Simmias is tall” and “Simmias is human.” In a world where everyone is as tall as Socrates, a statement like “Simmias is tall” could be taken to convey Simmias’s essence. Conversely, in a world whose inhabitants are uniformly twelve feet tall, the statement “Simmias is tall” seems both absurd and patently false. This contrast illustrates the distinction Socrates is drawing: being tall is only an accidental (relational) property of Simmias that does not hold in all instances. By contrast, one can see how “Simmias is human” would be true in all such worlds regardless of the features of the other inhabitants. The properties of the world’s inhabitants would have no bearing on Simmias’s being human. It is in this way that Socrates would have the reader understand his distinction between accident and essence. Yet there is a way in which essential properties (such as being human) might likewise be considered accidental or contingent. A modal argument might contend that, although Simmias is a man in this world, Simmias might well be an android in another world. Thus, his “being human” is not related to his essence at all, except by way of my mistaking this contingent feature of his existence on this world as a necessary instantiation of his essence on other worlds. His essence would then consist in that by which an observer might most easily identify him, i.e. the proper name “Simmias” or some other term designating his totality rather than a constituent element of his essence or being. Given the present uncertainty surrounding the truth or falsity of an identity of the type “Simmias is human” and “Simmias is an android”, it seems fair to grant Socrates some leeway in his distinction of accident and essence. It is a reasonable and appealing position.

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