Descartes: Summary of Some Major Points
1. Mind and body are separate substances. “Substance,” strictly speaking, for Descartes means “a thing existing in such a manner that it has need of no other thing in order to exist” (Principle LI, The Principles of Philosophy, trans. Anscombe and Geach). In this strict sense, according to Descartes, only God is really a substance. But in a derivative sense “created substances, whether corporeal or thinking, may be conceived under this common concept; for they are things which need only the concurrence of God in order to exist” (Principle LII, trans. Haldane and Ross). Descartes goes on to say that “there is always one principal property of substance which constitutes its nature and essence, and on which all the others depend. Thus extension in length, breadth and depth, constitutes the nature of corporeal substance; and thought constitutes the nature of thinking substance. For all else that may be attributed to body presupposes extension, and is but a mode of this extended thing; as everything that we find in mind is but so many diverse forms of thinking.” So the essence of mind is thinking; other mental properties are “modes” of thinking (e.g. sensation, imagination, understanding, . . .). The essence of matter is extension; other physical properties are modes of extension (e.g. mass, volume, shape, movement . . .). Each person is a mind, a mental substance; each person is also attached to a body with which he or she interacts.
This interaction, however, poses a problem for Descartes. How do two substances as radically different as mind and body, two substances which indeed have no properties in common (mind doesn’t have extension and body doesn’t think, according to Descartes), have any effect on each other? Here is a fragment from a letter from Princess Elizabeth to Descartes (written May 6-16, 1643): “I beg of you to tell me how the human should can determine the movement of the animal spirits in the body so as to perform voluntary acts — being as it is merely a conscious substance. For the determination of movement seems always to come about from the moving body’s being propelled — to depend on the kind of impulse it gets from what sets it in motion, or again, on the nature and shape of this latter thing’s surface. Now the first two conditions involve contact, and the third involves that the impelling thing has extension; but you utterly exclude extension from your notion of soul, and contact seems to me incompatible with a thing’s being immaterial.” (From Anscombe and Geach, ed., Descartes: Philosophical Writings, Nelson, 1964, pp. 274-75.) Descartes attempts to reply, but the worry seems to many to remain.
2. Freedom of the will. Descartes does not engage in an extended discussion of problems about free will. But he clearly thinks that the will is free: remember that this figures crucially in his explanation in Meditation Four of the possibility of error. We can make mistakes in judgment, despite God’s not being a deceiver, he there argues, because the will extends further than the understanding, so that we sometimes freely assent to propositions which we don’t completely understand.
Notice, however, that Descartes thinks that in a sense the will can be completely determined and yet nevertheless be free. Remember the following passage from Meditation IV: “In order for me to be free it is unnecessary for me to be moved in neither direction; on the contrary, the more I am inclined toward one direction . . . the more I choose that direction more freely. . . . The indifference that I observe when no reason moves me more in one direction than in another is the lowest level of freedom; it evinces no perfection in it, but rather a defect in my knowledge, or a certain negation. Were I always to see clearly what is true and good, I would never deliberate about what is to be judged or chosen. Thus, although I may be entirely free, I could never for that reason be indifferent.” Elsewhere, Descartes goes so far as to say that “upon a great illumination of the intellect there follows a great inclination of the will; thus, if we see very clearly that a thing is suitable for us, then it is difficult for us (I think, even impossible), so long as we remain in this state of mind, to stay the course of our desire” (Anscombe and Geach, p. 289), and he endorses the Platonic view that no one who acts wrongly clearly understands that what they are doing is wrong: “If we saw clearly that it is bad, we could not possibly sin — not so long as we did see it in this way” (p. 290).
3. Religion and Science. Notice that Descartes has tried to make theology compatible with natural science by insisting that God, and indeed the spiritual or mental side of human nature, is completely different from the corporeal world and hence need not be subject to the laws of physics, which are the laws of corporeal substance. We will see a radically different attempt to reconcile theology and physics in Spinoza.
4. Skepticism. In the First Meditation, Descartes launches a devastating skeptical attack on our received views. Notice that for Descartes, the gap between what we can be certain of and what, until later in the Meditations, we cannot, coincides with the gap between mental substance and physical substance: we can be certain about the contents of our own minds; the main skeptical problem is how we can ever get from that knowledge to knowledge of the physical world. In the remainder of the Meditations, Descartes tries to win back our certainty about a good many of our beliefs, arguing that we can trust our clear and distinct perceptions, those perceptions made possible by the light of nature, to be true. This theme will virtually disappear in Spinoza and Leibniz, who seem even more sanguine about clear and distinct perception than Descartes. But skepticism will begin to reemerge in Locke, and for Berkeley and Hume it will be a major focus of attention.
5. The source of knowledge. We’ve seen Descartes’ conviction that sensation and imagination are not reliable sources of knowledge; only understanding or reason can be trusted. This aspect of Descartes’ thought will not be questioned by Spinoza or Leibniz, but will come under sharp attack by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume.
6. Subjective and objective. Which of the features we perceive the world to have are objectively present, and which are due simply to the nature of our own perceptual or cognitive apparatus? This is an important question for Descartes, who in the Sixth Meditation concludes that sensory properties — taste, warmth, colors, and so on — are not really features of objects, while the properties made use of by mathematical physics are. (You may want to remember the passage on p. 442: “Although I feel heat upon drawing closer to the fire, and I feel pain upon drawing even closer to it, there is indeed no argument that convinces me that there is something in the fire that is similar either to the heat or to the pain, but only that there is something in the fire that causes in us these feelings of heat or pain.” We will later see a very similar argument in Locke.
Apollodorus relates to an unnamed companion a story he learned from Aristodemus about a symposium, or dinner-party, given in honor of the tragedian Agathon. Socrates arrives at the party late, as he was lost in thought on the neighboring porch. After they have finished eating, Eryximachus picks up on a suggestion of Phaedrus’, that each person should in turn make a speech in praise of the god of Love.
Phaedrus begins by saying that Love is one of the oldest of the gods, and the one that does the most to promote virtue in people. Pausanias follows Phaedrus, drawing a distinction between Common Love, which involves simple and mindless desire, and Heavenly Love, which always takes place between a man and a boy. In the case of Heavenly Love, the boy, or loved one, sexually gratifies the man, or lover, in exchange for education in wisdom and virtue. After Pausanias, Eryximachus, the doctor, speaks, suggesting that good Love promotes moderation and orderliness. Love does not restrict itself to human interaction, but can be found in music, medicine, and much else besides.
The next to speak is the comic poet Aristophanes. Aristophanes draws an engaging myth that suggests that we were once all twice the people we are now, but that our threat to the gods prompted Zeus to cut us in half. Ever since, we have wandered the earth looking for our other half in order to rejoin with it and become whole. Agathon follows up Aristophanes, and gives a rhetorically elaborate speech that identifies Love as young, beautiful, sensitive, and wise. He also sees Love as responsible for implanting all the virtues in us. Socrates questions Agathon’s speech, suggesting that Agathon has spoken about the object of Love, rather than Love itself.
In order to correct him, Socrates relates what he was once told by a wise woman named Diotima. According to Diotima, Love is not a god at all, but is rather a spirit that mediates between people and the objects of their desire. Love is neither wise nor beautiful, but is rather the desire for wisdom and beauty. Love expresses itself through pregnancy and reproduction, either through the bodily kind of sexual Love or through the sharing and reproduction of ideas. The greatest knowledge of all, she confides, is knowledge of the Form of Beauty, which we must strive to attain.
At the end of Socrates’ speech, Alcibiades bursts in, falling-down drunk, and delivers a eulogy to Socrates himself. In spite of Alcibiades’ best efforts, he has never managed to seduce Socrates as Socrates has no interest at all in physical pleasure.
Soon the party descends into chaos and drinking and Aristodemus falls asleep. He awakes the next morning to find Socrates still conversing. When everyone else has finally fallen asleep, Socrates gets up and goes about his daily business as always.
Overall Analysis and Themes
The prominent place the Symposium holds in our canon comes as much as a result of its literary merit as its philosophical merit. While other works among Plato’s middle-period dialogues, such as the Republic and the Phaedo, contain more philosophical meat, more closely examining the Theory of Forms and intensely cross-examining interlocutors, none can match the dramatic force of the Symposium. It is lively and entertaining, with sharp and witty characterization that gives us valuable insight into the social life of Athenian intellectual circles.
From a philosophical standpoint, the Symposium is also far from bankrupt. Not only does it give us some insight into the Theory of Forms in Diotima’s discussion of the Form of Beauty, but it also gives us a number of varying perspectives on love. Significantly, we see Plato rejecting the romanticization of sexual love, valuing above all an asexual and all-consuming passion for wisdom and beauty. Ultimately, he concludes, the philosopher’s search for wisdom is the most valuable of all pursuits. In the Symposium, Plato values philosophy, as exemplified by Socrates, over a number of other arts which are given as points of comparison: medicine, as exemplified by Eryximachus, comedy as exemplified by Aristophanes, and tragedy as exemplified by Agathon.
The series of speeches in praise of Love are not simply meant as beating around the bush that leads up to the main event. They mirror Diotima’s discussion of the mysteries, where she suggests that one can approach the truth only through a slow and careful ascent. Similarly, we can see each speech, with a few exceptions, as coming closer and closer to the truth. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that Socrates alludes to all the foregoing speeches in his own speech, as if to suggest that his words could not be spoken until everyone else had said their piece. This staggered approach to truth is also reflected in the framing of the narrative, whereby we are only able to gain access to this story through a series of narrative filters.
We should note that Socrates is the exemplar of the lover of wisdom and the lover of beauty, but is neither wise nor beautiful himself. In this way, he best represents Love, which Diotima describes as a mediating spirit that moves between gods and men. Love himself never has anything, but is always desirous of happiness, beauty, and wisdom. The same is true with Socrates. Those who follow his lead will not necessarily attain wisdom, but will find fulfillment in a life-long pursuit of wisdom. The state of having attained wisdom is represented by Diotima, not Socrates, and she speaks through Socrates as a god-like and unapproachable figure.
There is also some discussion as to exactly what is being discussed in the Symposium. The Greek word eros leaves the matter ambiguous as to whether we are discussing love in the normal, human, sense of the word, or if we are discussing desire in a much broader sense. The later speeches in particular tend toward this broader interpretation. Diotima gives what is perhaps a satisfactory answer by suggesting that, while all kinds of desire might be considered love, we normally restrict use of that term to one particular kind of desire, the desire that exists between two human beings.
Philosophy aside, however, the Symposium still makes a terrific read. Aristophanes’ myth is delightful, Alcibiades’ drunken antics are entertaining, and the whole narrative shimmers with life. We also get a very clear sense of the dynamics of sexual attraction and courtship–both male-male and male-female–in ancient Athens, and we are given a beautiful portrait of one of the high-points of the Athenian scene: the symposium.