Response to Descartes
The metaphysics and epistemology of René Descartes’s mind-body dualism and Plato’s Theory of the Forms are essentially the same. Both assert that there is an eternal spiritual world which trumps the physical world; geometric figures are a part of this spiritual world, and we can learn about the spiritual world through mystical insight.
According to Descartes and Plato, our bodies belong to this world, but our souls do not. Descartes even doubts the existence of this world, saying the only things of which we can be sure are our immortal souls and an omnipotent God. Our souls must be immortal because we are so different from animals, and God must exist because we have perceived his existence even though there is no proof of Him in this world. In his Divided Line analogy, Plato said that the World of the Forms is larger and more real than the physical world, and in the Myth of Alcinous, he expresses his belief in the immortality and transmigration of souls. To prove the validity of the spiritual world, both philosophers cite our awareness of geometric concepts; we believe in them though they do not exist in reality. Since we can see these figures clearly in our mind, more clearly than our memories, they must occupy a higher, more perfect plane of being.
Both Descartes and Plato say that we gain knowledge about this physical world not from our senses but from mystical insight. According to Descartes, God must have revealed Himself to us because we could never have conceived of him ourselves. Plato says the purpose of education is to turn men’s hearts away from the illusions of the cave (the physical world) towards the brilliant light of the sun, and man could only pursue the higher forms through dialectic.
Descartes never mentions Plato in Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, but their views share striking similarity. Perhaps, they have seen something that the rest of the world has not. Perhaps, Western philosophy is locked in an eternal struggle between the Platos and the Aristotles, between the supernaturalists and the naturalists. We may not know the answers until we jump off this mortal coil. Then, as Wesley says in “The Princess Bride,” “We will see who is right, and who is dead.”