Plato vs Descartes Essay

Rene Descartes and Plato are two of the best known and widely respected philosophers of their respective times. Plato lived about four hundred years BC, while Descartes lived in the 17th century. In their separate times, each attempted to understand the relationship between the body and mind and how people perceive and experience reality. Descartes, having lived so many years after Plato may have been influenced by the latter’s works. Therefore, it would follow that the theories that they developed on the relationship between the body and the mind would bear some similarities. However, each being a critical thinker of the free mind, it is inevitable that the theories they developed carry some differences. The concept of the mind and body elucidate different views from Plato and Descartes where they agree on dualism and human realities but disagree on the effect of color on the mind’s perception.

Contrasting Views between Plato and Descartes
Plato and Descartes hold different views about the effect of color on the mind’s perception. According to Plato nature can be explained in terms of mathematical associations existing between inert particles of matter. Plato determines matter using size, shape, motion, and mass. Qualities such as color, warmth, and wetness can only be explained using size or shape (Morton, 1999 p.46). Therefore, the appearance of things is not a straightforward definition of the nature of the real world. Plato believed that there exists a “relation between the perceiving mind and the physical world. However, the real qualities of objects are not defined by color, warmth, and taste” (Morton, 1999 p.47). Conversely, Descartes believes that objects provide a sensation within people. Therefore, all matter comprises of small particles whose motion produces a color which “exists in the mind as a sensation and appears to us in various hues” (Morton, 1999 p.52). Therefore, color and reality are affected by the mind’s perception.

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Despite the glaring differences in Plato’s and Descartes’ theory on perception, the two philosophies bear some similarities on duality. For instance, they both believe in the existence of a body and a soul (mind).

There exist two different realities for every individual that lives; that which is physical, referred to as the body, and that which is abstract, referred to as the soul or the mind. According to Plato, the mind is “an aspect of the soul” (Morton, 1999 p. 4). Indeed, this concept is what leads to the theory of mind-body dualism. Besides, Descartes states that “I also have a clear and distinct understanding of physical bodies simply as extended matter, without possessing any thought” (Morton, 1999 p.89). This shows that the mind and body are different entities. Plato and Descartes prove that there are two types of realities; perceived reality and experienced reality. The experienced reality is always much easier to believe in than the perceived one. The fact that people can conjure imaginations or experience dreams is evidence of the existence of the mind as Descartes posits. This, therefore, is evidence of a perceived reality and proof of dualism.

The second similarity between the two philosophers is the position on the indestructibility of the soul. The soul exists in the abstract; has no physical form. Therefore, even in the absence of the body, the soul will continue, and the destruction of the body does not translate to the destruction of the soul. Rene Descartes states “Hence I (or my soul) am distinct from my physical body and can exist without it,” (Morton, 1999 p. 89). It is upon this concept that the position of the immortality of the soul is derived. Also, according to Plato’s view, the “human body is impermanent, existing only for a short period” (Morton, 1999 p. 4). On the other hand, the soul is “impermanent and unchanging” (Morton, 1999 p. 7). Therefore, when the body becomes destroyed, the soul remains, just without a body to control. Even at death, the soul continues to exist.

Morton, P. (1999). A historical introduction to the philosophy of mind. Peterborough [etc.]: Broadview Press.

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