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«Reflection: Plato and Descartes» - Great Essay Sample

«Reflection: Plato and Descartes»

1.Plato, The Apology

“The Apology” is a work of Plato which contains his version of the three speeches made by Socrates during the trial. The speeches have an outstanding historical and literary value. Moreover, they shed light on the philosophical ideas of Socrates and his personality although other Plato’s dialogs about Socrates describe the methods and ideas of Socrates in detail. Nevertheless, in his speeches, Socrates proclaims some important concepts of his philosophical findings, his beliefs and a vision of his role in the society even though the famous method of elenchus is almost not used in “The Apology” and the arguments used by Socrates to defend himself are often weak.

In the first speech, Socrates says that the accusation announced in the court is not new for him. People had always said that: "Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others." (8) Socrates denies this accusation; he says that his findings have nothing in common with the natural sciences. After this he claims that he is not wise; he does not consider himself to be a wise man. Socrates talked to many people to find out whether they were wise or not and came to a conclusion that neither politicians nor poets nor artisans were really wise; many people just pretended to know something while they knew nothing. According to Socrates, only a fool can pretend to know things he does not know. Socrates says that he has an advantage over all such people because he admits he knows nothing. This resulted in a famous paraphrase “I know one thing: that I know nothing”, which is also called a Socratic paradox. People, Socrates talked to in order to find out whether they were wise, harbored anger and became his enemies. Socrates is not afraid of death because he is not sure that death is something bad and, according to him, no one could know for sure and thus fear is worthless. This argument of Socrates seems very reasonable even nowadays because modern people know no more about death than Socrates did. He is a very religious person; he believes that those gods who guided and defended him during his life will not leave him after his death. Socrates also says that the main goal of his life was to make his fellow citizens seek truth and virtue. He used to be a politician but failed because an honest person will always come into conflict with injustice which is inherent in politics. Socrates believes in the social value of philosophy and says that he will never deserve the position of a philosopher because it is his divine mission. He ends up the first speech saying that debasing himself by trying to make the court him would be unfair and godless. In the second speech, made after the verdict, Socrates repeats that we will never stop being a philosopher.

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In the third speech, Socrates says that moral degradation could easily help to avoid death on the battlefield or in a court but he will not choose this way. Socrates believes that death will be a good for him. He finishes his speech with a phrase: “Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god.” (34)

Summing up, “The Apology” by Plato reveals many interesting facts about the personality of Socrates and the trial which resulted in his death. The philosopher describes some of his ideas and beliefs, which are still of current interest, although the arguments he uses to defend himself in the court are not very logical and strong. 

2.Plato, The Phaedo, Sections 35-61

“The Phaedo” is another work of Plato dedicated to the personality and ideas of Socrates. “The Phaedo” is written in a form of a dialog, which is typical for Plato. The work describes the last hours of Socrates’ life and his idea of the human soul`s immortality. “The Phaedo” includes many episodes where Socrates uses his famous method of elenchus to prove his ideas.

“The Phaedo” consists of the introduction and four arguments that are used by Socrates to prove that the soul is immortal. Socrates is in the prison and, according to the court’s verdict, he will have to take the poison. His friends are disappointed; Socrates tells them that his not afraid of death because the soul is immortal. According to him, a true philosopher shall not be afraid of death because in fact he is always busy with only one thing – dying. According to Socrates, a philosopher is someone who rejects all material values in order to find the truth which means that he does everything possible to separate the soul from the body while such a separation is a definition of death. In such a case, according to Socrates, death is a blessing for a philosopher because it allows a person`s soul to exist separately from his/her body, which distracts the soul from philosophical findings. Socrates states that the true knowledge of the essence of things is possible only after death. Moreover, Socrates believes that only a person who possesses moral virtue could benefit after death. One of Socrates’ followers, Cebes, expresses doubts whether the soul could exist when the body is dead. After this, Socrates gives his first argument to prove the immortality of the soul. This argument is known as “The Cyclical Argument, or Opposites Argument”. Socrates starts the argument with an ancient myth according to which the souls of living people belonged to the dead. The philosopher says that all opposite things existing in the world define and generate each other. According to him, it is impossible to explain the concept of “cold” without such a thing as “hot”; there would be no life without death. If something alive can turn into dead, then there must be an opposite process when a dead thing turns into alive. Socrates uses this argument to prove the transmigration of souls.

The second argument of Socrates is known as “The Theory of Recollection”. Here Socrates applies his idea that we learn something, we do not get the knowledge from the outer world but just recollect things that we knew before our death. According to the philosopher, the knowledge of all abstract things such as equality, beauty and justice is a priori knowledge because these things do not exist among the material objects. Socrates’ division into material and immaterial inspired him to create a theory of the world of things and the world of ideas, which laid the foundation for idealism. The second argument corroborates the first one because they both deal with the same issue – the transmigration of souls.

To sum up, “The Phaedo” by Plato consists of the introduction and four arguments provided by Socrates to prove the soul`s immortality. He uses the method of elenchus to express his arguments. The first argument deals with the idea of the metamorphosis of the opposite things, which define and generate each other; the opposite things cannot exist one without another. This means, according to Socrates, that there must be a process opposite to death. In the second argument, the philosopher lays the foundations of idealism dividing things into material and immaterial ones. Moreover, Socrates suggests the existence of a priori knowledge as a result of reincarnation.

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3 . Plato, The Phaedo, Sections 61-75

“The Phaedo” is one of Plato’s dialogs. The theme of the dialog is Socrates’ idea of the soul’s immortality. He uses the method of elenchus and four arguments to prove the existence of the afterlife. The third and the fourth arguments offered by Socrates deal with the idea of an immaterial, divine nature of the soul. Socrates also refutes the objections of his followers, which also helps to prove his own ideas.

According to the second argument of Socrates, every object consists of two sides: a changeable, unstable one and an eternal, constant one. The first is perceived with the help of senses, while the second one – due to the soul. Thus, while one`s body and soul exist as one thing, the soul is more likely to be something divine and stable and the body appears as something changeable and earthly. Consequently, the soul is something eternal and indestructible, even though one`s body does not possess such characteristics. If during the life, the soul stays away from all corporeal pleasures and temptations, it will stay with gods after the decay of the body. Simmias, one of Socrates’ followers, wonders if Socrates is right, then the soul is something similar to music played on a musical instrument. Then, why cannot the soul disappear after the death of one`s body as music disappears if an instrument is broken? Socrates refutes this conception because the harmony of sounds is indeed created by a musical instrument but body does not rule the soul. The opposite is true: the soul runs the body and creates its harmony. Socrates cites the “Odyssey” by Homer to prove the prevalence of the soul over the body. 

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The fourth argument is Socrates’ reply to Cebes, who says that the fact of transmigration of the soul does not mean that it will persist after death; Cebes suggests that the soul can wear out and disappear. Socrates uses his concept of material and immaterial things to debunk the misconceptions of Cebes. According to Socrates, we see many examples of situations when things lose some of their features and gain some new ones, which are often opposite to the former ones. Nevertheless, this does not mean that ideas can change, perish and transfer into other ones; only material objects can do that. According to Socrates, the corporeal world cannot generate ideas. Ideas can exist without things but things are unreal without ideas. The soul is an idea of the body; after death the soul does not perish but only separates from its former shell.

To sum up, in the third and fourth arguments of “The Phaedo”, Socrates continues to prove the immortality of the soul using his idea of dualism of material and immaterial. According to him, all objects have a changeable and unstable side and an eternal and constant side. A human as a creature consists of a body which represents an earthy, changeable side and the soul, which is eternal and divine. For this reason, according to Socrates, the soul cannot disappear after death. Socrates also refutes the idea of his follower Simmia, who compares the soul to music, which disappears when an instrument is broken. Socrates says that such a comparison is not correct because the soul prevails over the body and controls it. The soul is a musical instrument, which creates harmony, not the body. Socrates also believes that the world of ideas dominates over the world of objects and uses this argument to prove that the soul could change many bodies and remain unchanged.

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4 . Descartes, Mediations and First Philosophy. Dedication, Preface, Synopsis and Mediation I

“Meditations on First Philosophy” is a work written by a famous philosopher Rene Descartes, which describes the basics of his metaphysical system. The work consists of the Dedication Letter, Preface, Synopsis and five chapters called Meditations. The word “meditation” in the time when Descartes lived had another meaning than it has today; it meant to think very hard and carefully about something. The meaning of the word can help to explain the peculiarities of Descartes’ style; he describes the thought process.

The “Meditations” is dedicated "to the most wise and illustrious, the dean and doctors of the sacred faculty of theology in Paris". Descartes writes that the authority of Sorbonne is so great that the review of Sorbonne’s professors could help to destroy all false ideas about the existence of God and the nature of the human soul. In the letter, Descartes asks the professors for the objection but in fact he was waiting for praises because he highly evaluated his own work. Descartes is grateful to God for having proved the metaphysical truths more accurately than the geometrical theorems could be proved. After that, he associates his own interests with the interests of the religion and proclaims that those, who object to his arguments, are opponents of God. 

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In the Preface, Descartes answers to some objections concerning his “Meditations” and explains the importance of his work. He also claims that the arguments of atheists are all false. Then, Descartes exhorts the audience to judge his work only after reading it from the beginning to the end. Descartes states that he is not striving for the respect and recognition of small folk, he addresses the “Meditations” to “those who desire to meditate seriously with me, and who can detach their minds from affairs of sense, and deliver themselves entirely from every sort of prejudice.” (10).

In the Synopsis, Descartes gives a brief summary of each out of five “meditations”. Moreover, he explains why all his conclusions are important and explains the way he presents his arguments and findings: “I am obliged to follow a similar order to that made use of by the geometers, which is to begin by putting forward as premises all those things upon which the proposition that we seek depends, before coming to any conclusion regarding it” (16). After this, Descartes states that the human mind is an immortal substance while the body can easily die.

Descartes starts the Meditation One saying that there are many beliefs, which seemed true to him before, but turned out to be false. Descartes decided that it was the time to get rid of all the false beliefs. Rather than going through all his beliefs individually, he decides to question their foundations. Thus, if Descartes believes the foundations for his beliefs are questionable, then he has to reject all the beliefs that were formed on those particular foundations. Such an approach is known as skepticism. According to Descartes, human senses, which are one of the ways of forming a belief, are often deceiving. According to the philosopher, if our senses deceive us sometimes, why they cannot do it all the time? Descartes decides to reject all knowledge acquired with the help of senses. Then, he offers the idea of an evil being opposite to God; this evil being distorts our grip of reality. Thus, Descartes finishes the Meditation One engaged in a so-called global skepticism.

To sum up, Descartes highly evaluates his “Meditations on First Philosophy” and considers the arguments presented there very credible and important. In Meditation One, Descartes decides to reconsider his beliefs to define which of them are credible and comes to a conclusion that the foundations for all our beliefs are unreliable. Descartes finishes the Meditation One engaged in global skepticism.

5 . Descartes, Mediations and First Philosophy, Meditation 2

“Meditation 2” is the second chapter of the “Meditation on First Philosophy” by Rene Descartes. At the end of Meditation One, Descartes is engaged in global scepticism which means that he rejects all his previous beliefs and ends up thinking that the reality is different from our understanding of it. In the Meditation Two, Descartes comes to a crucial conclusion about the existence of his mind and therefore his own existence.

Descartes finishes the First Meditation doubting the existence of all things including his own body. He asks himself: “Was I not likewise persuaded that I did not exist?” (23). The answer to that question is no; although Descartes doubted all of his beliefs, he had never doubted his own existence. Descartes tries to define what he is. He offers various hypotheses: a rational animal, an embodied creature, a sensing creature, and a soul. None of these suggestions seem true to him. In contrast to Socrates, Descartes admits that he cannot make any conclusions about the soul because neither he nor anyone else knows the answer. During all of his contemplations, Descartes came to a realization: the one thing that his global skepticism has not defeated is his mental activity. Even while he doubted all his beliefs, he’s still engaged in a mental activity – the activity of doubting. This helps Descartes to reach a conclusion which became one of the most famous aphorisms: “Cogito ergo sum”. This Latin phrase means “I think, therefore I am”. In fact, this phrase is taken not from the “Meditations” but it is the most precise formulation of Descartes’ theory about his existence stated in the Meditation Two. Descartes realizes that defining himself as a thinking thing is the only conclusion he can make with no doubt. According to Descartes, an evil demon could never convince him that he existed if he did not really exist.

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Descartes uses the fact that he is a thinking thing as a foundation to regain some of his beliefs. Then, he uses a piece of wax to prove that our senses fool us but our thoughts are part of us and for this reason they are clear and distinctive. Melted wax changes its appearance and its properties but we still realize that it is the same thing (wax). Thus, Descartes states that we use not only our senses while perceiving something but also understanding, which means that we operate not with visual images of objects but rather with ideas of them which are processed in the human mind. According to Descartes, perceiving something is not the same as sensing it because we require understanding to organize the information we get from our senses.


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