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The Body

A Brief Tour Of Western Dualism From Plato To Plastic Surgery

Despite its familiarity, the notion that human minds or souls are fundamentally different from human bodies is a cultural construction that took many centuries to build. Arguably all human cultures, including prehistoric peoples, have had some concept of spirit residing in the body. But this does not yet imply belief in an immaterial substance distinct from the body. For many cultures, spirit is simply "aliveness," the vital principle that animates all living things, from plants to humans, and is itself conceived as a kind of material substance. In both Homer and the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, the words spirit and breath are used interchangeably.

The notion of an immaterial substance that is separable from the body emerges in historical documents first as part of ancient Egyptian and Chinese beliefs in a "dual soul," one aspect of which is joined to the body, while the other travels, after death, to the realm of the ancestors. Greek philosophers visited Egypt and were aware of such notions; their influence is especially striking in Plato (c. 428–347 B.C.E.), who believed that the soul exists both before the birth and after the death of the body. With Plato, however, it is no longer the realm of the ancestors in which the disembodied soul resides, but the world of true knowledge—the Forms. With this innovation, Plato introduces what was to become a central ingredient in later versions of dualism: the elevation of the life of the soul (or mind, or reason, depending upon the system) to the pinnacle of human achievement, with the body imagined as the enemy of its aspirations.

The body as enemy.

For Plato, the body is the enemy of the soul primarily because it apprehends things through the senses—and the senses, notoriously, can lie, can deceive one into mistaking imperfect and transient versions—of love, beauty, and justice—for enduring realities. Reality, for Plato, is composed of eternal, universal Ideas that can only be seen with the mind's eye, and so can only be known by human beings after death (or before life—Plato believed in reincarnation) when they are liberated from their bodily prison. But although Plato mistrusted the body's perceptions, he revered the beauty of the human form and did not view the desires of the body, sexual or otherwise, as sinful. In the Symposium (360 B.C.E.), in fact, it is desire for another human being that first touches the philosopher with a passion for beauty, and initiates him into a quest for its timeless essence. The desires of the body, for the Greeks, are only a problem when they are permitted to overrule reason (as they were imagined, for example, to function in women). The Greek ideal was management of the desires of the body in the interests of self-mastery, not, as for Christian thought, denial of the desires of the body in the interests of purity.

Plato's ideas about the body do not constitute a theory but must be patched together from remarks and arguments in various dialogues. For that very reason, however, they could be selectively recruited—and significantly retooled—to serve later systems of Christian thought, where they have exerted a powerful historical influence. Saint Augustine (354–430) was a key architect of such ideas, which have shaped the theory and practice of many strains of Christianity, particularly Catholicism. In Augustine's hands, Plato's prison of the senses becomes the home of "the slimy desires of the flesh," and the judicious management of sexual desire is replaced with the requirement to totally subdue the body's "law of lust." Judaic, African, Eastern, and Greek systems of thought had not viewed sexual desire as an impediment to spirituality, except with regard to an elite, ascetic caste of philosophers or priests, or when indulged in without restraint. Now what had been regarded as a natural human need became, at best, a necessary (to procreation) evil.

The body as machine.

Despite their differences, the dualism of Plato and Augustine shared the ancient view of the living body—and the natural world—as permeated with spirit. René Descartes (1596–1650) was to decisively change that, in a reformulation of mind/body dualism that would herald the birth of modern science. For Descartes, the body is a mechanically functioning system with nothing conscious about it—simply the interaction of fluids, organs, and fleshly matter. Mind, in contrast, became pure consciousness—the famous "I think, therefore I am." This was a separation far more decisive than anything imagined before, as mind and body became defined as mutually exclusive substances.

These abstract reformulations had enormous cultural consequences. For one, the human intellect became elevated to almost God-like status, as it could be imagined as capable—given the right methods of reasoning—of seeing through the illusions of the senses to the underlying reality of things. At the same time, the notion of the body as an intricate but soulless machine made radical experimentation and intervention less troubling to religious-minded scientists and doctors, and liberated human ambitions to explore, dissect, and correct the defects of nature.

In the early-twenty-first century, the body-as-machine is no longer just a guiding metaphysics or metaphor; it has become a material realization. Every day, in hospitals throughout the world, human body parts are being repaired, reconditioned, and replaced, sometimes by the organs of other humans, sometimes by machines. Normally automatic respiratory functioning, the cessation of which used to be a marker of the death of the body, now can be prolonged indefinitely by sophisticated life-support machinery. The domain of cosmetic surgery not only includes the correction of disfiguring accidents and birth defects, but prevention and repair of the physical effects of aging, the rearranging and contouring of face and body to particular beauty ideals, and even—very recently—the promotion of extreme makeovers, composed of multiple surgeries designed to produce wholly new physical selves.

Whatever one's attitude toward such developments, what is clear is arrival of a "cyborg culture." It is not only through the achievements of science that a cyborg culture has been established—or, as others would emphasize, the marriage of medical technology and consumer capitalism—but by virtue of a conception of self for which the body is mere matter to be manipulated at the will of the true "I," the "thinking thing." Such living, historical connections between theory and practice make studying ideas about the body more than a scholarly exercise.

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