Metaphysical dualism – A Comparison of Plato & Nietzsche

The nature and importance of the distinction between body and soul in Plato’s philosophy is ultimately related to his theory of immortality (the immortal soul), with the body acting simply as a ‘carrier’ before death and afterlife. Plato wrote Phaedo in 360 B.C.E. It continues to be the most telling dialogue, introducing significant ideas and metaphysical views on the souls relationship to the body. This account describes Socrates death, and introduces four arguments for the soul’s immortality: the theory of Opposites, Recollection, the argument of Affinity and the theory of Forms. It is considered by Plato, that life and death are a continuous cycle, and death simply cannot be the definitive end. Plato’s writings were greatly influenced by Greek religion. In contrast are the writings of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who adopts monism (the idea that humans are made up of one thing). Nietzsche dismisses the ‘folk-psychology’ and spiritual beliefs of the body and soul – replacing it with science. He predominantly bases his theories on a disapproval of metaphysical dualism. Nietzsche argues that philosophies of insight and judgment evolve together with consciousness, in response to physical requirements – meaning, the self stands within the body, and responds to stimuli received there. Seeking to explain a natural awareness of mankind, Nietzsche’s philosophies aim to explain the body and soul as related to discipline and science. Unlike Plato, Nietzsche believes that intellect and the body work in unison. His writings can ultimately be understood as taking a physiological approach, pushing aside abstract theoretical speculation (such as the ‘immortal soul’ by Plato & Socrates) and discusses instead the functioning of human sensory system.

Plato’s Phaedo (1930) is based in the isolated community of Philus, where men gather in a prison cell to discuss the final hours of Socrates’ life. Plato’s four arguments in Phaedo assist the reader in understanding his separation of the body and soul. Phaedo argues the theory of ‘Opposites’. ‘Let us consider whether it is a necessary law that everything which has an opposite is generated from that opposite and from no other source’, Socrates says in Phaedo, in other words concluding that the dead are produced from the living, and therefore, the living from the dead – suggesting that we do not simply stay dead, but come back to life after time. This then brings us to the theory of ‘Recollection’. Recollection hypothesizes that learning is essentially an act of remembering things we knew before we were born, but then forget. For Plato, this logically leads to the notion that knowledge therefore assists in the understanding of equality. For example, we are able to see one tree as taller than another, but unequal in width because we have an instinctive understanding of Forms, and in turn, equality. Since we are able to perceive an equality of Forms, our unconscious understanding of it has to be reminiscent of immortal knowledge that we had disregarded before birth. This theory implies that the soul existed earlier, and suggests that the soul’s life extends beyond that of the body. This leads to the argument of ‘Affinity’, which differentiates the immortal soul from the mortal body. After death, Plato’s ‘detached soul’ prospers freely in the heavens. His reasoning of the soul introduces a ‘two-world theory’ whereby the world of sense is fundamentally different to the world of Forms. Plato claims that our preconception of beauty enables us to identify a landscape or piece of art as essentially beautiful. This again leads to the idea of an eternal life, as we are gaining this knowledge of beauty from a previous experience. Plato touches on Forms in Phaedo, however the theory remains somewhat underdeveloped in his writings. Mainly, the idea of beauty in Forms represents an outer world where honesty, resolution, fairness and similar concepts exist, untouched by flaws of the visible world. This could again relate to Plato’s ideas of immortality and ‘heaven’.

When narrator Phaedo is asked, ‘Would you not say that he is entirely concerned with the soul and not with the body? He would like, as far as he can, to be quit of the body and turn to the soul’ (Plato 2008, p.92), he responds ‘in matters of this sort philosophers, above all other men, may be observed in every sort of way to dissever the soul from the body’ (Plato 2008, p.93). Plato emphasizes that it is the body that follows the soul’s direction. Our daily experience is ultimately motivated by the soul’s rule, guiding our desires and our individual state. He questions ‘don’t you think that it is in the nature of the divine to rule and direct, and that of the mortal to be subject and serve?’ (Plato 2008, p.85). It is here that Plato confirms his philosophy that the soul is equal to that of the Gods. Plato adopts influences from Pythagoreans that the soul guides the body, that intellect is the noblest part of man, a recurring theme in Phaedo. He views the soul as a mystical reality that manifests in wisdom, rationality and thought. Later he makes clear ‘the soul is most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, (subject to reason rather than sensory experience), uniform, indissoluble, ever self-consistent and invariable’ (Plato 2008, p.9). Plato suggests that the soul should lean its focus towards consistent things; in other words, that which we call ‘wisdom’ or ‘common sense’. Contrast this with Nietzsche, who has a profound focus on nothing in the world remaining ‘fixed’. Plato says ‘When soul and body are both in the same place (that is, combined together in this life), nature teaches the one to serve and be subject, the other to rule and govern’ (Plato 2008, p.95). He speaks of the soul as ‘holding aloof from the body, and practicing death all her life long’ (Plato 2008, p.9). Plato writes as though life within a body is simply practice for the afterlife. When the soul is ‘finally released from the errors and follies and passions of men, and for ever dwells in the company of the Gods’ (Plato 2008, p.10), that is when one will truly be free.

Nietzsche gives us insight into the scientific theory that everything which exists in the universe is made up of microscopic elements or ‘atoms’ – derived from the Greek word atomos, implying that which ‘cannot be divided’ (Free Dictionary 2016, p.1). Nietzsche’s philosophies aim ‘to avoid the dogmatic ‘atomism’ that ironically, is the basis of the religious view of the self and the reason why science rejects the very idea of the soul (i.e. because it finds no ‘atom’)’ (Southwell, n.d). Nietzsche’s revision of the soul rejects the philosophical argument of self. In his opinion, the soul is not ‘indestructible, eternal or indivisible’ (McCary 2010, p.1), which is opposite to the beliefs of Plato and Socrates. His attack on dualism is mainly in relation to the ‘soul’. His philosophies discuss the soul as existing only as a part of the body, a feature of the body. A typical preconception in the Western world of philosophy and religion is that human beings exist with a dual nature, the body and the soul. This is essentially the view that Nietzsche rejects, viewing it as a childish explanation of humanity. In chapter ‘IV’ titled ‘The Despisers of the Body’ from text Thus Spake Zarathustra (1899) Nietzsche states ‘body am I, and soul – thus speaks the child. But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body’ (Nietzsche 1899, p.84).

Nietzsche ‘raises objections to the supremacy of the subject considered as a conscious mental substantial unity that governs human beings and presides over their actions, thought and will’ (Rosciglione 2013, p.44). He goes on to say ‘a plurality of subjects are inside the same individual’, that ‘what we usually call the “I” is nothing but the complex and dynamic whole of manifold mental states’ (Rosciglione 2013, p.45). This presents the idea that, in contrast to the model of substantialism (that an ‘object’ is separate from its properties), a dynamic model is understood ‘according to which the human being is like a continuous course of intertwined mental and bodily processes, which are not dualistically opposed, although they differ from one another in the functions they play and the degree of complexity they support’ (Rosciglione 2013, p.45). Nietzsche, unlike many of his time, considered the body as capable of physical passions, in tune with instincts, feelings and drives, all of which are notions of the unconscious. Nietzsche views the human being as one whole organism, capable of great intelligence and emotion. His work seeks to explain the mind as simply a function of the body, not as something that is independent of the body.

Fundamental to Nietzsche’s attack on dualism, is the idea of beings and their values. With many of his philosophies based on the natural world, Nietzsche believes that ‘all creatures are driven by a desire to express their essential nature, seek dominance over others, and perpetuate the expression of their own ‘type’’ (Southwell, n.d). This idea may be created in a physical form, for example, the power of a strong over a weak lion. Or, in an intellectual form, for example, philosophers attempt to influence the way others perceive the world through their visions and judgment. Nietzsche views the unconscious and conscious mental states as not generated within themselves, but that they depend on, and emerge from, physical states. It is possible, as discussed by Rosciglione in A Non-Reductionist Physiologism Nietzsche on Body, Mind and Consciousness (2013) that a new definition of consciousness can be seen as ‘the series of conscious mental states that are not opposed either to the unconscious mental states or to the physiological bodily phenomena’ (Rosciglione 2013, p.58). Nietzsche’s adoption of anti-dualism moves further from Plato’s idea that intellect is the most important feature of a human mind. One of Nietzsche’s priorities in his writings is to expose the psychological foundations of morality. He proposes that our values are not certain or necessarily objective, but are an expression of our experiences. Nietzsche argues that Plato’s Christian views of morality are ultimately a restriction for living, devaluing human nature and encouraging weakness with the idea of the afterlife.

Nietzsche argues that the fundamental energizer of all life is a ‘will to power’, in other words, the human beings’ instinct for freedom. In Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1899) he states ‘anything which is a living and not a dying body…will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power’ (Nietzsche 1899, s.259). Character Zarathustra in Thus Spake Zarathustra represents the struggle between good and evil. Nietzsche uses this character to encourage moving beyond good and evil to become an ‘overman’. Zarathustra’s recovery from his moral crisis ultimately lies in compassionately living in the present. ‘Being begins in every moment… the center is everywhere’ (Nietzsche 1899, p.891) Zarathustra quotes. Nietzsche’s piece highlights the negative outcomes of living in the past, ‘under constraints of traditions and inherited moralities’ (Bramann 1998, p.1). Nietzsche adds that Zarathustra heals by learning to sing and dance, both acts that use intellect and the body in unison. It is from the use of his body that he finds a ‘wholeness’, which ultimately allows him to recover. Nietzsche uses dancing as a metaphor for a spirit that is not weighed down by exterior motives. He believes, those who are not concerned by absolutes (or governance), like God, morality or truth, will be incapable of dancing. Metaphorically, dancing represents an artistic, spontaneous and free spirit.

While Plato’s theories appeal to the mystics and their individual sense of spirituality, Nietzsche’s theories are, in my opinion, rationally superior. In other words, his philosophies are closer to the truth. Nietzsche dismisses ‘folk-psychology’ and divine beliefs of the soul and body, and replaces it with science, biology and physiology. Plato’s attitude towards the body dismisses the reality of bodily sensations, which can in turn be just as powerful as functions of the mind. Yes, it can be said that ultimately the soul of a being is a more valuable ‘ruler’ than that of the body. However, his criticisms seem to paint an image of the body as a vicious cage, which has trapped the soul that is ‘dying’ to be free. Plato’s works provide a framework by which Nietzsche’s alternative views arise. Nietzsche’s Cartesian (the distinction between the mind and body) philosophies such as the ‘will to power’ support a much more realistic understanding of life. It is the distinction between the body and soul, and their beliefs on metaphysical dualism which aid our understanding of human beings and life itself. Ultimately, Nietzsche’s focus on finding individual freedom through an acceptance of change in the universe, and inner satisfaction, is much more plausible to me than Plato’s ideas of a circular life that anticipates solace in death and the afterlife.











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Farlex, 2016, The Free Dictionary, Farlex, retrieved 30th of May 2016, <;.

McCary, R 2010, The Challenge of Modernity, Blogspot, retrieved 8th of May 2016, <;

McPherran, ML 1994, ‘Socrates on the immortality of the soul’, Journal Of The History Of Philosophy, 32, pp. 1-22, Humanities Source, EBSCOhost, viewed 31st of May 2016.

Nietzsche, F 1899, Beyond good and evil: prelude to a philosophy of the future, H Zimmern (trans.), Public Domain, retrieved 30th of May 2016, ibook.

Nietzsche, F 1899, Zarathustra, T Common (trans.), Public Domain, retrieved 30th of May 2016, ibook.

Plato 2008, Phaedo, B Jowett (trans.), Public Domain, retrieved 30th of May 2016, ibook.

Rosciglione, Cc 2013, ‘A Non-Reductionist Physiologism Nietzsche on Body, Mind and Consciousness’, Prolegomena: Journal Of Philosophy, 12, 1, pp. 43-60, Humanities Source, EBSCOhost, viewed 30th of May 2016.

Southwell, G 2016, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, Philosophy Online, retrieved 4th of June 2016, <;.


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