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Plato on Ghosts

Posted in Commentary, History, Investigations with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by S. P.
Plato (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Plato (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

With the spirit realm we are dealing with the completely immaterial. This is the realm of the pure intellect. The rational beings which inhabit this realm include God, angelic beings (angels and demons), and human souls separated from their physical body. These beings have absolutely no material element whatsoever; no parts whatsoever. They are not “energy” since energy is a material phenomenon – in many cases, such as with electromagnetic radiation, we cannot see the energy with our bare eyes, yet it nevertheless remains a thing of the physical realm. Thus, beings of pure spirit cannot be called “energy;” however they do have existence and we are able to study and learn about this existence. While the natural sciences are, by definition, mute on nonmaterial things, we do have two sciences which directly study the immaterial: theology and philosophy. Theology used to be known as the “queen of the sciences” and Aristotle tells us that philosophy, particularly metaphysics (the study of being as such) and epistemology (the study of how we know what we claim to know), establishes the foundation from which all the natural sciences operate. Therefore, these are the sciences to which we should turn in order to learn more about the realm of the immaterial and what it means for an immaterial being to exist.

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to some, but the great ancient philosophers were not silent on the subject of “ghosts.” For example, in his dialogue of Socrates called the Phaedo, Plato specifically mentions how “ghosts” come to exist. Plato held to an idealist epistemology which viewed the world we inhabit as a “reflection” of the actual and unchanging world of “ideals.” Consequently, while holding to belief in the existence of an immaterial and immortal soul, Plato saw the physical body as merely the “container” or indeed the “tomb” of the soul. Death of the physical body “releases” this immaterial soul.

Having been “freed” from the body, the soul’s progress then depends on its connection to the physical world. The soul of a person who did not overly connect himself to the physical world is essentially “freed” of the physical world: “If [the soul] is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it…A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires, and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.”[1]

What about the soul of the person who did not work in life to “detach” himself from the physical world? “But I think that if the soul is polluted and impure when it leaves the body, having always been associated with it and served it, bewitched by physical desires and pleasures to the point at which nothing seems to exist for it but the physical, which one can touch and see or eat and drink or make use of for sexual enjoyment…We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthly, and visible. Through it, such a soul has become heavy and is dragged back to the visible region in fear of the unseen and of Hades. It wanders, we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen.”[2]

Interestingly, Plato proposes precisely what many who’ve never heard of him report: “ghostly” activity often seems associated with those who held a strong connection with the physical world in life. A connection indeed appears to exist between one’s attachment to the physical world in life and the likelihood of that person being associated with a “ghostly” presence after death. It logically follows that the more a person was connected to the physical world, the more difficult it would be for that person’s soul to “let go” of the physical world following death of the physical body. Certainly, this doesn’t explain every type of “haunting,” however it does seem to explain a certain type often encountered. At the same time, we don’t want to lose sight of the bigger picture of the Phaedo, which actually involves Plato making a very strong case, based on multiple arguments, for the continued existence of the immaterial and immortal soul following death of the physical body. This is merely one example of how the study of philosophy and theology brings us to an understanding of what the great thinkers of the past believed regarding what we now call “ghosts.” The more deeply we understand precisely what it is that we’re seeking to investigate, the more likely we are to actually understand the results of our investigations.

1. Plato, “Phaedo,” Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy, C.D.C. Reeve and Patrick Lee Miller, eds. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 2006), 80e-81a, p. 119-120.

2. Ibid., 81b-d, p. 120.

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