Socrates was a man who lived literally only to think of and teach philosophy. He took this so literally that he did not even want to get paid or get fed for his troubles of teaching the people of Athens. For him, studying philosophy was the highest thing man could do, as it aided him in increasing both his knowledge and wisdom, and thus become a better person.
Socrates thought that knowledge and wisdom exceeded anything else a man could have, whether it be strength, power, or riches. Thus, one of his primary philosophies was about the separation of the body and the soul. The soul to him was like what we now understand as the mind. It is the entity within man that thinks, that philosophies, and has wisdom. It is the charioteer that controls the mighty chariot known as the human body. In this sense, the body would seem as a powerless slave under the direct control of the soul. The soul, thus, is the master, and the body is beneath its boot.
Socrates believed this quite firmly. In fact, his refusal to accept payment and food while teaching illustrates quite well how lowly he thought of his own body. The only thing that mattered was the thought processes he had involved himself with, and nothing else.
Rene Descartes, who lived in the 17th century, was a man who thought much the same as Socrates did. A scientist at heart, Descartes studied law in his youth at the behest of his family, but later on switched to mathematics. He was brilliant and immersed in his craft that he went to create the Cartesian geometry, which is widely taught in schools today. Descartes was also a theologian, and was thus a fierce believer in God. Finally, Descartes was a philosopher who extensively created study upon study to figure out his own existence, and thus, the existence of all humanity.
Descartes was therefore much like Socrates in that he was purely a thinker. In his philosophical adventures concerning existence, he concludes that he exists because he was thinking. The fact that something was thinking meant that something capable of thought existed at that time. The fact that he knew it was himself that was thinking led him to believe that he is primarily a thinking being.
A “thinking being”: something that exists primarily to think and to gain knowledge and wisdom. Because of his background, Descartes naturally thought of the mind as vastly superior to the body, as Socrates did. Like Socrates, he also links the mind to the soul, and, because he was a fierce believer in God, thinks that it has a direct connection to God and thus, divine. The body, on the other hand, is merely the vessel that the mind joins in to interact with the rest of God’s creations, and thus, in this way, gain the knowledge and wisdom it so needs. The body is thus necessary in this sense, but is still much inferior to the mind. This is because the body can be damaged in certain ways and can thus deceive the mind when the senses perceive something falsely. In this sense, the body is imperfect, and is beneath the perfection of the mind.
When the 20th century came around, various thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre proposed a way of looking at the mind and body of man completely opposite to that of Descartes and Socrates. Instead of a dualistic approach that separates the two, thinkers such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, proposed such a thing as phenomenology, which takes a more monistic approach to the subject, and thus combines the two.
Phenomenology views reality and man’s interaction with it as the most important thing. Thus, while the mind is still important in that it contains man’s knowledge and wisdom, the body is equally as important because the mind only gains these things and grows by interacting with the rest of reality, particularly with other people. The body is thus not merely a slave to the mind as Socrates suggests, or as something imperfect that could be potentially deceitful as Descartes states, but as an integral part of existence, which the mind cannot do without.
To this day, both views concerning separation and unification of the body and mind exist. These philosophies even penetrate popular culture in such films as the Matrix, and more recently, the billion-dollar earning blockbuster known as Avatar.
In the Matrix, the war is fought on two fronts, both in reality and in the mind. The mind here is thought to be more powerful, as it is the primary weapon the humans have in order to survive the war against the machines. The humans hook themselves up to computers and fight the machines on the inside, using only their powers of thought and consciousness. Humans who have been enslaved by the machines since birth are shown to be able to “live” rich and full lives as mere thought constructs in an imaginary world; All mind, and no body.
In Avatar, the main character, Jake Sully, is wheelchair-bound and longs for a better existence. To this end, he allows his mind to be transferred another, stronger body, and eventually finds value in himself and in life as a whole through this manner. The alien race in the film, known as the Pandorans, are also seen as relating to others and to the planet itself through a form of physical interaction. Truly, this film has very phenomenological roots.
Then, there are other recent movies that take the separation of body and mind to more extremes, such as in Inception, where, similar to the Matrix, humans can enter others peoples’ consciousness and steal their thoughts and secrets. In another extreme, movies such as the Expendables stress the strength of the physical body and its direct interaction with others as the primary way of solving conflict.
Which do I feel is more correct, though, at least to myself? I would personally have to go with phenomenology in this one, especially since I’m so into health and fitness and thus value my body to such a high degree. I, of course, don’t mean to downplay the mind in any way when I stress this. I have earned consistently high grades throughout my academic life and have seen the respect that it brings to young people. Having an ample amount of knowledge and wisdom also aids one greatly in living on one’s own in the world, even without the help of others. This can be easily demonstrated in one’s resume, where one typically has a greater chance of earning a better living if he or she has a better academic record. A greater array of knowledge can also help the business correctly strategize his next business deal and venture.
I feel, however, that having only one side of this coin being polished isn’t enough to get you through life well enough. I feel that if the mind should be strong, then the body should be just as strong if not moreso. For the mind to function, it must still exist in reality after all, and if the body is weak, then the mind’s attainment of knowledge and wisdom from reality will be seriously impaired. If the body is strong and healthy, then constant interaction with reality will continue unabated, leaving the mind to grow as it will.
While everyone knows the value of a clean academic record and tons of degrees hanging on walls, they also know that a sound mind must live in a sound body as well. Wealthy businessmen spend literally millions when they get to a certain age, attempting to recover the body they had so neglected in their youth.
Man is also not an island, and cannot live without others. Pure contact through thought is totally unheard of, and so people must interact and gain relationships through the powers of the body, through the expressions of the voice, the sensations of touch, and so on.
I sincerely believe that the body and mind should not be classified as apart from one another, as one is just as equally important as the other. I have seen the benefits of having strength in both sides of my existence in my life thus far and I cannot fathom letting one go in favor of the other. Mind and body are one, and I intend to keep it that way.