October 21, 2009

The Rise of Dualism

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture at 12:43 am by Jeremy

In some earlier posts, I’ve looked back into prehistory to see how the pfc’s influence within human consciousness gradually began to increase through the development of language, agriculture and writing.  Writing, in particular, as a particularly powerful form of what Merlin Donald calls “external symbolic storage”[1], began to create a force external to the individual human brain but one that was increasingly influential in directing the development of those brains: what I call an “external pfc”.

But it was in the world of ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE that the external pfc began to take a bizarre, new form that has remained with us ever since.

It didn’t happen at the outset of Greek classical civilization.  As classical historian Kitto describes it:

The sharp distinction which the Christian and the Oriental world has normally drawn between the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual, was foreign to the Greek – at least until the time of Socrates and Plato.

For a couple of hundred years during what’s known as the Attic Period of classical Greece  (around 600-400 BCE), speculative philosophers began to think in new ways about the world around them.  But their speculations, unique as they were in world history, still rose from a shared shamanistic and animistic background from which other early cultures took their own traditions.  There are elements in the ever-changing cosmos of Heraclitus that can be found in early Buddhist thought, and the expansion and contraction of Empedocles’ cosmos finds echoes in Chinese theories of yin and yang.[2]

Attic red-figure kylix

Attic red-figure kylix

However, with the works of Plato in the early 4th century BCE, something truly astounding occurred: Plato’s cosmology constructed the world in the image of the pfc’s capability for abstraction.  Plato devised a strange new dualism dividing body from soul, with the immortal soul linked inextricably with universality and abstraction – the hallmark of the pfc’s unique form of conceptual thought.

Plato’s ideas have been so influential in Western thought that the European philosophical tradition has been famously described as “a series of footnotes to Plato”.[3] The fundamental element of Plato’s philosophy was a division between an abstract world of Ideas and the ever-changing, material world in which we live.  In Plato’s view, there are countless chairs in this world, but there is only one Idea of a chair, existing in an immutable dimension, of which every material chair is an imperfect replica.  The same is true for concepts such as Beauty or Goodness.  And the way in which we humans can try to make contact with this immutable, perfect world of Ideas is through our faculty of reason, the purest aspect of our mind.[4]

The ideal universe, in Plato’s conception, was a mathematical, geometric abstraction, and only through applying one’s mind to these abstractions could we ever understand it.  Above the entrance of Plato’s Academy were the words: “Let no-one enter here who does not know geometry.”

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

And for Plato, humans were constructed just like the rest of the universe, with an ideal and a material dimension.  The material aspect was our body.  The ideal part, containing our immortal soul, was the mind.  And not the whole mind.  Not the part that feels or thinks about what to do next.  The part of the mind that comprehends the ideal rather than the material, that lives in the world of abstraction.

This part of the mind is one of the defining characteristics of the pfc.  Plato had separated the pfc’s capability for abstraction from all other aspects of our human consciousness and called it immortal.  In the words of the great Greek scholar Francis Cornford:  “The world of the body is a prison, or a tomb; that other world of the soul and of Ideas is the realm of true life and reality, in which all worth resides… the intellect had become a deity.”[5]


The body: "tomb of the soul"

Plato had carried out a radical reconstruction of the cosmos that has affected Western views of our external world and our internal nature ever since.  Initially, his dualistic construct led to the Neoplatonic tradition, identified with thinkers such as Philo (20 BCE – 50 CE) and Plotinus (ca. 204-270), who took Plato’s dualistic split of body and soul to even greater excesses.

For Philo, “’there are no two things so utterly opposed as knowledge and pleasure of the flesh.’  The great impediment to the good is ‘passions pricking and wounding the soul’”.[6] Plotinus, meanwhile, “could hardly bear the thought that his soul was trapped in so base a thing as his body, which he sometimes called a ‘detestable vessel’, one which acted as an obstacle to spiritual development.  He insisted that ‘to rise up to very truth is altogether to depart from bodies.  Corporeality is contrary to soul and essentially opposed to soul’”.[7]

Most importantly, Plato’s body/soul dualism was picked up by the early fathers of Christianity, and became deeply embedded in the fundamental forms of thought we’ve all inherited.  Perhaps most of us “no longer ‘think the soul’, we no longer argue about it,” states French philosopher François Jullien, “but we inevitably… still think along the lines it laid down long ago.  It belongs to an older, ‘archaeological’ stratum of our mental landscape, and acts as a controlling idea that defines our epistemic axioms.”[8]

And this elevation of the pfc’s capacity for abstraction to an eternal status separate from the changing, feeling world of our bodies, has had profound implications for our view of ourselves.  In the words of philosopher Chad Hansen:

Ancient Greek humanism took the … road of elevating humans out of nature into the intellectual realm.  It placed us in a hybrid tension between the physical world of common sense and experience and an intellectual, rational world of meaning, knowledge, and value.  We are neither of this world nor free from it (until we die).  The identification of human worth with the impulse to transcendence has a flip side, since we accordingly devalue the physical, the material.  To be free is for our reasoning faculty to control us.  We detach ourselves from mere bodily, physical determination…

In my next post, I’ll look more closely at how – in the form of monotheism – the pfc performed the coup which gave it nearly unfettered power over our consciousness.

[1] Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[2] Marlow, A. N. (1954). “Hinduism and Buddhism in Greek Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, 4(1:April 1954), 35-45.

[3] Whitehead, A.N., (1979) Process and Reality, Free Press.

[4] Vlastos, G. (1975/2005). Plato’s Universe, Canada: Parmenides Publishing

[5] Cornford, F.M., (1912/2004). From Religion to Philosophy: A Study in the Origins of Western Speculation. New York: Dover Publications.

[6] Wright, R. (2009). The Evolution of God, New York: Hachette Book Group.

[7] Pollard, J., and Reid, H. (2006). The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, New York: Viking Penguin.

[8] Jullien, F. (2007). Vital Nourishment: Departing from Happiness, New York: Zone Books.


  1. Fabrikant said,

    I wonder how you view Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics in that case. You use a knowledge of biology to argue against the dualism of Plato (in my opinion, rightly so). How does biological knowledge come to be? Note that unlike Augustine, for Aquinas, a dualism does not exist, because the soul and body are one and that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, all knowledge of the world begins with the senses, and is consequently derived from it. There is no realm of ideas before sensation. See tabla rasa.

    Etienne Gilson provides a very interesting history of God in his book “God and Philosophy” which you might find resonates with your thinking in some ways.

  2. jeremylent said,

    I agree with your contrasting of Aristotle’s conception of the soul with Plato’s. For the most part, Aristotle’s sense of embodied soul(s) is refreshingly non-dualist, except for when he moves onto the “nous”, his “intellectual soul” which seems incompatible with the rest of his thinking.

    What’s interesting to me is how the Western tradition essentially excluded Aristotle’s approach to the soul from their narrative after Aquinas, latching on to Plato’s dualism. I believe you can see a minor key in Western thought that follows Aristotle’s non-dualism (I call it the “moonlight tradition”), which you can trace through the Stoics/Epicureans to Spinoza, Leibniz and the phenomenologists.

    But in the West, this tradition is always subordinated to the major key of dualism. In Chinese thought, by contrast, it’s the other way round. The philosophy of the primary Neo-Confucian, Chu Hsi, is fundamentally non-dualist and in some ways is comparable to Aristotle, as I discuss in my other blog, Finding the Li.

  3. Great work. Very impressive.

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