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65.2.Oskvig

Plato looked down on the body, and up to the soul. This has been his reputation, anyway, for a long time now. Plotinus speaks for the Western tradition when he writes that “Plato always despised perceptible things and deplored the soul's association with the body, saying that the soul is buried alive and imprisoned inside it."

Such an account is oversimplified and incorrect.  In this paper, I give a more nuanced presentation of Plato’s views on the moral status of the human body and its cultivation through exercise, using the term "bioethics" as a shorthand. I begin by examining Timaeus 87-89, where cultivation of a strong body is placed on a moral level with cultivation of a strong soul. Having established Timaeus’ optimistic valuation of the human body, I set out on a brief survey of four other dialogues to see where Plato’s traditionally disparaging treatment of the body can be found. I spread my choice of dialogues out across the conventionally Early, Middle, and Late periods of his life, presenting relevant passages from the Republic (410c, 411e), Crito (47e), Phaedo (64d-e), and Laws (795a-796a). In the Early dialogues, Phaedo and Crito, the body is almost worthless – a ball-and-chain for the soul. It should be minimally kept up, but only to avoid acute problems. In the Republic, a Middle dialogue, gymnastics take on value, but only due to the body’s relationship with the spirited part of the soul. The body in itself remains forgettable, if not entirely regrettable. In the Late dialogues, Laws and Timaeus, the body claims gymnastics for its own, and physical training is expressly prescribed for everyone, even philosophers. I conclude that Plato condemned the human body almost utterly in his conventionally Early and Middle dialogues, but evolved a more optimistic bioethic later in life, eventually investing the body and its cultivation with great moral value.

 

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