In the Gorgias, Socrates draws our attention to an important parallel between the human organism and the human psyche—both can be healthy or unhealthy. Though we are very accustomed to thinking in terms of bodily health, we can find ourselves to be quite inarticulate when we consider our psychological health.
When we think about the body, we are quick to recognize its needs and quick to acknowledge the importance of the practices that will support bodily health. We need to feed our body a balanced diet with the nutrients that maintain healthy functioning, supply energy and support growth. We need to exercise the body, whether through living a consistently active lifestyle or through intentionally working parts of the body that are otherwise not being engaged. And, in the case of illness or damage, we need to seek out the medicinal and behavioural correctives prescribed by an expert who understands human organic functioning.
Of course, we do not always follow the demands of this vision of healthy eating and acting. We take our bodies for granted, and we live from the powers they afford us without “paying back our debt” to them.
Often, we start to notice this, in ourselves or in others, sometime around the age of 40, when it’s clear that things have been handled badly and the body is in trouble. Or, maybe we do demonstrate more vigilance and pay some continuing attention to responding to these bodily needs. In either case, though, we acknowledge the issue, and we can pretty clearly recognize what is happening and what should be done.
When we turn to the health of our souls, however, we typically do not acknowledge such a systematic regime for health.
Though we notice severe breakdowns in the lives of others, and though we ourselves may face crippling problems in our emotional lives or in our behaviour in our relationships, we typically remain fundamentally blind to the demands of psychic health. We often recognize and criticize the manifest symptoms of ill health (especially in others), but we do not recognize them in their causal context—we do not see where they come from and why.
Where does psychic health (or illness) come from? At a basic level, we can identify healthy conditions for the soul on the model of healthy conditions for the body: the soul needs nutrition, which mostly means intelligent stimulation and emotional support, delivered though human companionship in the form of mutually respectful communication and shared participation in engaging activities. We need art, play, education, meaningful work, aspirations and love. And, like bodily exercise, these nutrifying activities and structures need to be introduced intentionally when they are not happening on their own.
Working out more precisely what form these healthy practices take is also possible, and, as is the case with the science of bodily nutrition, this is done well by those who have devoted themselves to developing expertise in the study of the soul. Unfortunately, public discourse in this area has been taken over by representatives of drug businesses, dishonest advocates of exploitative social policy, and the entertainment industry. In place of a regime for health, we are offered a sure route to psychological malformation and dysfunction. Fortunately, the science of the soul is still available to us in the great foundational works of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre and so on, and in the more recent works of the great existential psychologists like R.D. Laing, Salvador Minucin, D.W. Winnicott, or J.H. van den Berg. The answers are there, if we are willing to look for them.
And what should a healthy soul look like? Again, I think Socrates can help us to identify the goal at which we should be aiming. In a number of different places, Socrates identifies four basic “excellent fulfillments” of the soul: courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. These four provide an excellent model for what we should expect of ourselves.
Temperance is basically a matter of emotional self-possession. We will all undergo experiences of sadness, anger, fear, joy and so on. Temperance is being able to navigate these experiences well, neither losing ourselves to them nor suppressing their importance.
Wisdom is the developing of insight and good judgment. It is not healthy to be ignorant of our surroundings, or to be incompetent in our ability to choose an effective practical response to them.
Justice is a commitment to being a good person: to caring for others, and to holding oneself answerable to standards of right.
As we plan our lives and make our arrangements for the activities we will engage in, the people we will engage with, and the projects we will undertake, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are cultivating these virtues in ourselves and in others, or whether we pursuing the psychological equivalents of obesity, lung cancer and gum disease.