Phaedo: The Theory of Attunement
Hello, folks. First post here. I fairly recently developed an interest in a rigorous course of self study in philosophy, and I've been utilizing your excellent suggestions of a) Going slow, b) Starting with Plato, and c) Sticking with first-hand source material. I've worked my way through the Apology/Crito/Phaedo, taking notes and such, and decided to post one mini-essay I wrote on the Theory of Attunement as expressed in The Phaedo. I've noted that when people post things such as this it doesn't usually get a great deal of a response, but any form of critique, from "you're wrong" to "your writing style is shit" would be much appreciated.
The prompt that inspired this essay is off MIT's Ancient Philosophy course. My intent is simply to explore the argument for and objections to the Theory of Attunement.
The primary focus of Plato's dialogue The Phaedo is the nature of the
soul: The questions of its existence and immortality. After Socrates
establishes the truth of the soul's existence to the satisfaction of
his companions, Simmias and Cebes, he argues that the soul -- being
most like the incorporeal, invisible, and divine -- exists eternally,
and will thus remain despite the destruction of the body. This
initial argument fails to convince both Simmias and Cebes, and they
respond with their own arguments. Simmias proposes a different
perspective on the soul, The Theory of Attunement, which uses the
tuning of an instrument as an analogy for the soul's relation to the
Harmony, Simmias' counterexample to Socrates' clean division of all
objects into the categories of unchanging/incorporeal and
changing/composite, "is invisible and incorporeal, and very beautiful
and divine in the well attuned lyre, but the lyre itself and its
strings are bodies, and corporeal and composite and earthy and akin to
that which is mortal." (86) Thus, in the same way that the destruction
of the an instrument destroy its attunement, the destruction of the
body necessarily destroys the soul. A tuning cannot exist
independently of an instrument.
Socrates' first response to this objection rests upon his prior
establishment of the concept known as anamnesis: That all knowledge is
contained within the soul, but the shock of birth causes all to be
forgotten. The attainment of knowledge then, is merely
recollection. This belief, established thoroughly in another of
Plato's dialogues, The Meno, is incompatible with Simmias' Theory of
Attunement. Anamnesis requires that the soul exist prior to the
creation of the body, but the opposite is true of attunement. "The
lyre and the strings and the sounds come into being in a tuneless
condition, and the harmony is the last of all to be composed and the
first to perish." (92c)
Simmias, having already been convinced of the truth of anamnesis, is
immediately swayed by this incompatibility, but Socrates continues,
following the Theory of Attunement to two seemingly impossible
conclusions, first showing that all souls must then be equally good,
and then showing that the body would be the guiding, powerful hand
that sways the soul.
"All souls of all living creatures will be equally good," says
- Composite things, such as harmonies, cannot be in any state other
than that in which the elements are composed.
- Harmonies follow the lead of that which they are composed of.
- No soul is "even in the slightest degree more completely and to a
greater extent a soul than another."
- A well-tuned soul is a more virtuous soul, and a soul in discord is
a wicked soul.
- "If a harmony is entirely harmony, it could have no part in
- A soul is entirely soul.
- Hence, the soul can have no wickedness. Since all souls are equally
souls, all souls are equally good.
The third premise, on the equality of souls, is accepted by Simmias
without question. He might have asked, "How can one prove that all
souls are equally souls?" The notion of a more or less perfect soul
does not otherwise clash with the beliefs enumerated thus far. With
the removal of this premise, the rest of this argument falls flat.
(Editorial note: This could be a language issue. If Socrates is
simply saying "Souls are souls." [Objects are what they are], then I
understand the lack of objection to this statement. But that still
wouldn't hold up the argument. If a soul is an attunement, and
attunements can be more or less attuned, then souls can be more or
However, Socrates' next approach is more consistent. His conception
of the soul -- as the conscious, rational entity that guides the body --
is directly in contrast with the attunement analogy. He argues that,
since the soul can tyrannize the body, drawing it away "from eating
when it is hungry" or drinking "when the body is hot and thirsty," it
is necessarily the ruler of the body. As a harmony follows the lead of
that which it is composed of, it stands in opposition to the view
of the soul as ruler. Thus, the analogy breaks down. (94b-94d)
If one takes as an article of faith that the soul exists and is the source of
man's will, Socrates' final objection to the Theory of Attunement is
enough to refute it. As both Simmias and Socrates share this
faith, Simmias is satisfied, and the dialogue moves
Consider the third premise. What does it mean to say that one soul is more a soul than another soul?
Isn't that like saying a sequoia is more a tree than an elm?
Aye, I had considered that, and was groping around for the right language to express my thoughts on it.
Doesn't the attunement analogy answer that question? If a soul is a like an attunement, and an attunement can be more or less perfectly tuned, it follows that the soul can be more or less...erm...soulful. Why would Socrates feel the need to say "Things are what they are." How can something possibly not be what it is? That statement doesn't even make sense to me.
Well, think of it this way: A harmony is only really a harmony when it's completely, er, harmonious.
If souls are harmonies, then only perfect souls are souls. But surely even Republicans have souls.
I think this is how the argument is meant to go.
You know, I think this is an interesting problem. Ultimately, Socrates just is saying that things are what they are, and thus that it doesn't make any sense to say that a soul is more or less of a soul, since by virtue of being a soul it just is, well, a soul. Think of a square, then imagine its sides to be just the tiniest bit round, then make them rounder and rounder until it becomes a circle, then go back again. We can describe this as more or less square-ness, but, technically speaking, we would never say that it is the square that is more or less square, but rather we would introduce a new category and speak of the shape which is more or less square. In other words, we would distinguish a subject from the predicates we attribute to it, and think of this subject as maintaining an identity across the changes. This is what Socrates wants to do with the soul, such that he can affirm both that everyone has a soul and that not everyone's soul is equally perfect -- that is, he is using perfection as a predication on the subject of the soul, which remains itself a soul across permutations of virtue and wickedness.
I think it would be possible to insist further on a harmony theory despite this point, but it would end us up in a strange place. For example, it would really undermine the meaningfulness of the term 'soul', which is no longer actually doing any logical work (for Socrates the soul becomes something to which we can attribute more or less virtue, but if attributing more or less virtue is the same as attributing more or less soul, why talk about the soul at all? Why not just say that it is virtue that it is a property of the body, like harmony of the lyre?) This would leave us wondering how virtue and reason can be properties of the body, although since we have agreed to property dualism already (in the case of the lyre), this problem may be solvable.
Certainly this would ultimately lead us to a worldview radically different than the Platonic. And ultimately Plato's goal here is not, I don't think, to convince you that you have a soul, but to convince you of a certain worldview oriented around eternal values.
(Personally, I would never agree that the harmony is a property of the lyre in the first place. It's a property of the soul's experience of the lyre: thus, the lyre example doesn't establish property dualism after all, since its meaningfulness already supposes the presence of a psychical substance.)
Thank you for the extensive response. Lots to chew on, here.
If attributing more or less virtue is the same as attributing more or less soul, why talk about the soul at all? Why not just say that it is virtue that it is a property of the body, like harmony of the lyre?)
Ah, this helps a lot. I did not fully understand the 93a-94b argument I outlined. I reread it with a different translation, with your words above in mind, and the notion of goodness as a property of the soul really stood out:
"How will a person who holds that the soul is an attunement account for the presence in it of goodness and badness? Will he describe them as yet another attunement or lack of it? Will he say that the good soul is in tune, and not only is an attunement itself, but contains another, whereas the bad soul is out of tune and does not contain an attunement?" (93c)
So, to restate things just so I understand: If the soul is an attunement, and it is senseless to say that a soul itself
is more or less of a soul, then to ascribe virtue to the soul requires yet another stacked attunement. Attuning the attunement.
But, what's wrong with that? Why can't we have souls as attunements and goodness/badness as additional attunements of the soul? Not all
attunements are absolutely tuned. Socrates allows for degrees of attunement earlier in the passage, but simply rejects the idea that a soul
can be more or less attuned.
Does this not narrowly save Simmias' argument? Every soul is equally a soul, but a soul can have various properties, and these properties allow for variations in perfection.
Something key here is not sinking in for me.
"If the soul is an attunement, and it is senseless to say that a soul itself is more or less of a soul, then to ascribe virtue to the soul requires yet another stacked attunement. Attuning the attunement.
But, what's wrong with that?"
Simmias' argument is already defeated at this point, what we are seeing is the working out of its defeat. Recall that the claim is that the soul is like an attunement. Simmias states that attunements can be more or less so, but that souls cannot be more or less so. That's it: that refutes his position right there, because it shows that the soul is not like an attunement.
While the human can, like the lyre, be more or less perfect, it does not have, for this reason, more or less soul -- as the lyre has more or less harmony -- but rather has a soul which is simply itself and has more or less virtue. Thus, the human's soul is something quite other than the lyre's harmony.
Recall that the claim is that the soul is like an attunement. Simmias states that attunements can be more or less so, but that souls cannot be more or less so. That's it: that refutes his position right there, because it shows that the soul is not like an attunement.
Shit! Wish I would have caught that instead of fumbling around :-P Thanks. I was completely diverted from what Socrates needed to do to refute Simmias' argument.
No, it's good that you're thinking about it. Plato is like that -- everything, even weird little aside about philosophers falling into wells, is deliberate, meaningful, and worth contemplation on its own. I'm not sure what text you're working with now, but if you're going to be spending a lot of time on Plato, I would really recommend 'Plato: Complete Works' ed. by John M. Cooper. It's got excellent translations of everything, with introductions, and -- although it's frustratingly far from exhaustive, it's still very useful -- an index. What dialogues are you planning on reading? The set of Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Meno, and Euthyphro are probably the best starting point. For later dialogues, the Timaeus (especially 27c-52d, which is worth very close reading) is probably the most important.
I'm using Plato: Collected Dialogues, which I think is universally recognized as a horrible set of translations and unhelpful introductions, but I got it for free from a friend of mine who did a philosophy minor. I've been looking at that Complete Works edition longingly, but don't want to shell out the thirty bones quite yet for a used copy.
I plan on diving into The Republic next and then starting on Aristotle afterwards, as this is what the MIT course I'm emulating does, but I have no particular reason to do so. So far I've just done Apology/Crito/Phaedo.