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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

In “Phaedo”, your faithful disciple Plato recounts your view that “the mind commands the body.” It is however my experience that the body frequently commands the mind; one who drinks wine, for instance, is led to a different state of mind from one who does not. Since, thanks to the gods, you are back among us after this terrible miscarriage of justice, what do you have to retort to my objection?

With best regards,
Marc Dixmier

Dear Marc,

What you call to my attention is indeed a well-known phenomenon. Wine can affect the mind. In my own case, as you might fuzzily recollect if you had been at our little drinktogether, the Symposium, the wine put everyone under the table but yours truly. But I would be the first to acknowledge that I was a rare bird in Athens, and not only in that respect.

To what do I owe this remarkable ability to resist the stuporous effects of wine? I do not know. But it may be due to the power of my intellect, my great clear-headedness. And that comes from the great gift granted me by the gods, the experience of gazing on the Forms, those realities that remain forever pure and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutants of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life.

But even I, dear Marc, can be the victim of bodily events. For example, I have to admit that the hemlock did a number on me. At first it clouded my mind, brought me sensations of heat in my heart and cold in my limbs, and finally brought about the loss of all consciousness. In time, consciousness returned, thank the gods, which allows me to engage in conversation with you in the present moment. But I would be the first to admit that the body can affect the mind.

But is there not a difference between affecting and commanding? The winds may affect me but it does not follow from that that they command me. The winds may send me to Crete but, by the Dog, they do not command me to Crete. Only my mind can command me to Crete. How does it do that? By commanding my limbs to take me to the harbour, to clamber aboard the ship, to flop down on the deck, and to remain there until the winds have taken the ship to Crete. It is my mind that commands and it is my body that obeys. My body may rack me with hunger, chill me with cold, overcome me with the nausea of seasickness, but there are no commands here. These are only causes and effects.

If I am asked how did it come about that I am in Crete, I can point to my limbs, I can point to the ship, and I can point to the wind. But that does not explain why I am in Crete. What explains it is that my mind had a desire to be in warm and sunny Crete and also had a belief that by getting aboard the ship I would be able to satisfy my desire to be in Crete. That belief and that desire led to my intention to go down to the harbour, board the ship, and go to Crete. It is the intention in my mind that commands and my body that obeys.

I might add, dear Marc, that the body does not always obey the mind. I may intend to run the mile in four minutes but it is unlikely my body will obey. The palsied hand will not steady nor the shivering body still.

But, you may say, do not bodies sometimes command your mind, as when the jailer commands you to take the hemlock? Well, let us think about that a little. When, as we say, the jailer commands, does he not simply utter sounds, such as “Drink the hemlock, Socrates”? And when I hear those sounds, do I not have a choice? I can obey or not, as I choose. It is now up to me. As you know, I chose to drink the hemlock. But that was a choice made not in my body but in my mind. So, here again, must we not say that it was the mind that commanded and the body that obeyed?

So surely you must agree, my dear Marc, that it is the mind that commands the body and not the reverse.

And now I, Socrates, command you, Marc, to have a drink with me: wine, of course, not hemlock. And you can see that you have a choice, to drink or not to drink. How sayeth your mind, dear Marc? What is its command?

Yours as ever,

Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.demon.co.uk Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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