(*Note: Since I originally published this post, I had a longish period of not feeling well. Living in a new city, I met lots of great people and maintained my friendships with those in other places. And I kept immersing myself in great books, learning from the lives of authors and characters. All of these friends “played Socrates,” reminding me that of all the beauty of the world, and while not alleviating my physical symptoms, their kindness went a long way to restoring my soul. So thanks, dudes.)
In Ancient Greek, the word psyche, the root word for psychology and psychiatry, and generally translated today as “mind,” could also be translated as soul. In all of his dialogues, Plato focuses on how one might best achieve a healthy mind or soul. By examining topics like courage, justice, friendship and love, Plato sought to investigate the characteristics of what he took to be a healthy soul and how these might be encouraged and developed.
Goodness, he understood, is ingrained in all individuals, but the stresses and struggles of our everyday and material lives has the effect of obscuring it. The work of a soul or mind, he understood, was recollecting the true goodness of our natures, natures that he believed participated in the very forms of beauty and goodness.
So how did Plato imagine this recollection might occur? In each of his dialogues, Plato represents individuals in conversation, seeking to discern the truth about any given topic. The dialogues are highly particularized – set in different places and at different times, with different people involved in the conversations, but most often including his friend and teacher Socrates.
In the Alcibiades, Socrates and a young Alcibiades try to discern the nature of justice, for Alcibiades wants to rule the city. While justice is never explicitly revealed, in the course of the conversation we do learn something important about how we might care for or cultivate our souls (and, so how a just city would care for the souls or minds of its citizens).
The key Socartes says lies in friendship. To care for yourself, Socrates says, you must “know thyself,” something that at first glance might appear to be a simple task. Yet, as we have all experienced, we are often too invested in what we want to think of ourselves to often get a wide enough perspective. To solve the problem, Socrates explains that we need a good friend in whom we are able to see ourselves. Socrates uses the image of looking into someone else’s eyes and seeing an image of yourself there (133a). In conversation with a friend who we trust and who wills our good, Socrates says we can see the state of our souls or minds: “If the soul is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially that region in which what makes a soul good, wisdom, occurs”(133b).
A good friend will find a way, just as Socrates does with countless interlocutors, to gently (or with more vigor if required) reveal our misperceptions, and, in so doing, reveal some small part of what is true and good. In conversations about the most important of things, good friends lay bare their souls, revealing what they think and what they love. Willing another’s good, for Socrates, means examining these things with the intent of discerning which parts speak to or illuminate the goodness that is inherent in all people, revealing to each other the truth that is manifest in all of us. The work of friendship, according to Socrates, is to heal our our souls.
Plato extends exactly this friendship to us. When you read his dialogues you are pulled into his conversations and the lives of his characters. You will agree with some of them, disagree with others, and come, like Socrates, to love and hope for their good. Through the beauty of his images and the sense that through his characters he is talking directly to you about the things that matter the most, Plato seeks to assist in the process of helping us recollect our own goodness and that of the world around us..