The Phaedo, piety, and public health

While reading some passages about the relationship of the lover of wisdom to the body in Damascius’ commentary on the Phaedo this week, a mesh of associations captured me like a net, and I started thinking about something I first encountered as a teenager — the idea that, if we fall ill, or if something grave befalls us, the more spiritual position is to power through it without medical intervention; and, in parallel, that we should leave our health to the Fates and not even care about intervening. This post is not meant to convince anyone with those views — after doing divination on this topic, it became clear to me that those who believe that, or who have adjacent beliefs, will persist in thinking that way. It’s very painful to know, but it is what it is. Rather, I am sharing how I think about this and doing an exercise in analysis in the spirit of “rolling around in the text” (a phrase from a NYT article in 2011 on active reading).

I pray to Hygeia, Zeus, and Hermes that I do justice to these matters, both in terms of honoring the Goddess who governs sanitation and public health measures; the God whose winged words move hearts and minds in the agora; and the holy persuasive Zeus, who brings forth all things. I pray to Asklepios, the compassionate doctor who cares for all who take breath. I pray as well to Eir, the immortal physician whose keen skill drives away all ills, and to Hekate to drive back the material daimones who fragment us into unhealthy mental attachments to ingroups that bind us further to generation and prevent the soul from understanding.

Now, let’s take a look at the Phaedo and some commentaries.

At 63e-64c of the Phaedo, Socrates discusses the philosopher’s will to die. Damascius approaches this from a variety of angles — most notably by discussing how such a person will not shun death when it comes, but take it in stride. The exegesis focuses on the way the verb construction can be read as referring to different levels of separation from the passions — dying as the in-progress level, and being dead as the “I’ve nailed this” attainment. 

Separating the body from the passions in purification and maintaining that separation — ultimately through death, when the soul is no longer encumbered by our sloshy meat sacks — could indicate, on a less careful reading, an indifference to things like ill health and calamities. When I write indifference, I do not mean the sense of acceptance of our physical limits when we develop a chronic ailment or have an acute, brief illness, but an indifference that prevents someone from engaging in basic physical upkeep or supporting the idea of a physical upkeep regimen. While I love Plotinus, I do think that Porphyry’s description of Plotinus’ disquieted experience of embodiment was unhealthy, as it’s possible to hold a “what fresh Hell is this” mindset (see my post on menstrual cups for that body horror energy) while also bathing regularly. Plotinus was a holy person and a great philosopher, but it’s impossible to be truly perfect while embodied. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. There are also anecdotes about Proclus’ unfamiliarity with being sick, but those raise no warning flags for me because people who have generally good health are usually lost when (not if — I heard a great presentation from a nursing faculty member several years ago on death-related care who stressed that we will all eventually need compassionate end-of-life care, regardless of how much grass-fed butter we eat and energizing supplements we take) that health fails.

On a careful reading, though, there is a lesser kind of indifference: that of accepting that the outer world has needs and therefore positing that the ideal way to approach these things is with steady hands and a grounded mind. At 64e, Socrates says that the business of a lover of wisdom is that the person “stands apart from [the body] and keeps turned toward the soul as much as [one] can.” As much as one can is the part that Damascius picks up on in his commentary:

[The objects of appetites] may be necessary and natural (food) or neither (ornaments) or natural but not necessary (sex) or necessary but not natural (indispensable clothing and shelter).

But supposing the philosopher is a ruler, will he not affect the apparel that befits a king? If he becomes a priest, will he not wear the sacerdotal garments? — This is answered by the addition ‘except in so far as absolutely inevitable.’

Or rather, there is no question at all here of [people] in these functions, but only of the [person] in search of purification; if he should need sacred robes for this purpose, he will wear them as symbols, not as garments.

Damascius, Commentary on the Phaedo, §69-70

The symbol of priestly robes begs to be unpacked. First, the example of sacred garments used for a purpose (enacting rituals that bring full circle the beauty of the Gods) reminds me of the concept of seira and of partial souls like ours realizing their connection to a God — especially that section in one of Proclus commentaries (I think on the Republic) where he says that lives we choose that are in alignment with our leader-God are less rough than lives that are not. Second, I wonder if we could expand on the idea of priestly robes and link it to the diverse bodies that are grafted onto the soul on its descent, culminating in our physical bodies — the labels we use are not applied to us, but to these outer layers that will be cast off and that we should never mistake for our selves. 

That image is very powerful. It could be extended to thinking about how we care for our own health, behaving daimonically (like our guardian daimon) towards our own bodies and showing virtue as custodians who give care to them. This means keeping up with our immunizations, having conscious awareness of the cycles of cancer screenings and other life checkups, and doing what we can towards basic hygiene. (This information can be overwhelming, and at times, I have been very bad at remembering to schedule medical appointments or even to get my blood drawn. We are all works in progress.) You don’t want to get tetanus because you didn’t realize adults need boosters every 10 years. Many preventable illness are extreme time sucks. Few of us know the allotment of days, hours, and minutes in our lives, we do not know our future trajectories of sickness and health, and we often take for granted that we will have health, that we will have time, when it is often the case that we don’t. 

Someone like Damascius or Proclus might say (and Damascius sort of does at §109 of the Phaedo commentary: “the wise [person] will use both [sickness and health] in a way conducive to happiness”) that this act of steady physical maintenance sets a good foundation for engaging in learning. In addition, we are not behaving as good caretakers for what belongs to the Gods (us) if we shun what will display adeptness at self-care — we are only proving that we do still have a way to go in the process of catharsis. I find the idea of having room to grow empowering for gritting my teeth and dealing with physical maintenance activities. The idea that we would shun vaccines, blood transfusions, and life-saving surgeries becomes absurd from this perspective.

While I love praying, I would not rely on that alone for salvation from illness — in one of Aesop’s fables, a shipwrecked Athenian prays to Athene to save him, and he is heckled by other sailors for not even attempting to swim. In prayer, we form a connection with the Gods, and we ask them to guide us where we need to go, to bring us the opportunities that we need, and to purify us of the mud that covers us. The Gods will guide us because their providential love overflows without ceasing, but we have to take the steps. When you worship Gods who are addressed as doctors, as healers, as relievers of human pain and suffering, and as bestowers of health and healing technologies, how can you hate the medical field? “[T]he restoration is the good aimed at by medicine, while the preservation [is the good aimed at] by gymnastic,” as Olympiodorus says (Gorgias commentary, 13.1). The world is full of Gods. I wince sometimes when I see people spurn Asklepios in favor of Herakles, as if the two are foes and not sons of Gods who were divinized and became Gods themselves, eating at the feast with the other blessed immortals. You need both exercise and doctors.

There are also social aspects to public health, as many measures — washing hands, vaccines, sanitation — are meant to shield the entire polis from preventable illness, and yes, both the people you like and the people you’re not enthusiastic about. Not engaging in these behaviors means that someone is spurning the polis, and it is unsurprising to me that this is such a prevalent behavior in our fractured, divided, and lonely modern societies. 

Granted, modern medicine can be complicated. We have all heard horror stories of botched procedures, and the history of how many subfields developed is awash with uncomfortable, horrific truths — the reason we have implemented so many patient and study participant safety protocols today. It is as if all of the sophists in the world have descended upon Wikipedia to attempt to bribe editors of locked medical condition-related pages to mention their miracle cures. Nutrition science is still a quagmire. I find a passage from Olympiodorus very helpful for thinking about sophistic corruption, as it breaks medicine into three types:

True medicine is the kind that gives orders and spares no-one, but whether directed at rulers or kings criticizes them, saying ‘If you do not do what I have prescribed, I shall no longer see you [as a patient]. The intermediate kind [of medicine] does not aim at flattery, but knows what is beneficial. Yet it does not aim at truth either, but remains silent for the sake of money or some other gain, and does not rear up in opposition excessively, but having once enunciated what is beneficial, thereafter returns [meekly] to ground. Doubtless if [the patient] should encounter distress later, [the intermediate doctor] says ‘What? Didn’t I tell you not to do that?’”

§32.2, Olympiodorus on the Gorgias

And, through non-flattering medicine, we have made valuable improvements to health. I remember being a kid and seeing photographs of what people looked like with smallpox and other diseases, and the sympathy for the human suffering I saw is still very raw to me years later. Not everyone feels that way when seeing photographs of people who are suffering.

Above all, though, we need to use our curiosity and intelligence to understand why we react the way we do, what it is we’re afraid of when it comes to health and body, and how we can make peace with it without contributing to unhealthy imaginings or the idea that we should not use the tools around us to safeguard against ruin.


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