Among the earliest meditations on the relationship between the body and soul are the dialogues of Socrates. Drawing from three different works—Plato’s Apology, Phaedo, and Xenophon’s Memorabilia—Socrates argues for the broad moral appeal of improving one’s body, the significance of which far exceeds the domain of personal concern. Not one for hypocrisy, the philosopher himself was said to have trained on a daily basis and certainly seemed to be fond of walking. Unfortunately, in Western society today, we are short on both thinkers and exercisers. More worrisome, however, is the absence of any discourse that points towards a moral or ethical injunction to develop our bodies. As slogans referring to bodily autonomy and body acceptance pervade the media, it would behoove us to look back at how our philosophical ancestors understood their own fixation on the human body.
In the past decade, a movement known as “body positivity” or “body acceptance” has risen to challenge the idea of what constitutes a healthy body and an aesthetically pleasing physique. Of the many issues that so-called “fat activists” claim to represent, support for obesity is arguably one of their more controversial stances. While medical professionals are almost unanimous regarding the grave health consequences of obesity, there is little concern for this within the movement. Their motives—indeed, their worldview—regarding obesity stem more from the social activist scene than medical science. In bypassing doctors, the body acceptance movement catapults obesity into the untouchable realm of social identity.
Sonya Renee Taylor is one such proponent behind obesity’s re-categorization into an identity, on par with being a woman or being black. In, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love (2021), Taylor lays out for the reader a thesis that smacks of what used to be called self-help literature in the 1980s and ’90s, and has since become rebranded for a socially conscious youth culture that now speaks of empowerment.
Taylor argues that since our earliest memories of childhood, our parents and community have socialized us to view our bodies through the critical eyes of others. As a result, we have lost touch with how to love our bodies, irrespective of their condition. This self-loathing continues to haunt us along our life’s journey, negatively affecting the ways we interact with others. The more we begin to imbibe the impressions others have of our bodies, the more we begin to view our bodies as obstacles unworthy of kindness.
Taylor’s book is a glance into the world of those who struggle with obesity and wish to change their relationship with their bodies. Her solution is to encourage each of us to commit ourselves to “radical self-love.” The term itself is somewhat elusive and, according to Taylor, carries more currency than self-esteem and self-acceptance. In its essence, radical self-love is a narrative we tell ourselves about our bodies, inviting an overwhelming sense of empathy and love. It is radical because Taylor invites us to return to the time when the body was simply a play in the sandbox or a run through a sprinkler on a hot summer day. That is, before we understood our own ignorance of our bodies.
Much like Plato’s allegory of the cave, there comes a time, eventually, when we must exit the blissful confines of our immediate circumstances and face a world full of wonder and horror. Plato argues that both the soul and the body—which he also calls “that organ of knowledge”—are required in pursuing the very light which disturbs our cave of dark ignorance, forcing us to comprehend a reality of which we never knew. It seems that, for Taylor, it is the other way around: that for others to discover our own truth, as it were, we invite them to join us in the cave to dwell with the flickering of shadows and disarray.
This inward shift, toward having others accept our body the way we think it ought to be accepted, comes with a certain set of implications regarding what the body is. First and foremost, it is ironic that, given the scope of her thesis, Taylor never once puts forth a working definition of the body. Naturally, this begs the question: how can a subject that is not defined be put into a relationship with anything else? To radically love my body is to assume a distinction between “I” and “my body.” Taylor implores us to behold our bodies as objects worthy of emotional adoration, but is the body then nothing more than an undefined, fleshy mass?
Another consideration is that, because Taylor places a premium on how we ought to look at our bodies—that is, without a critical lens—we are given the impression that what we see is what we get. In other words, she seems to suggest that our bodies are, in some way, non-performative. They are merely static forms for us to observe. For, insofar as we convince ourselves that the mind sits in a position of privilege at the helm of our perception, it stands to reason that only the mind can be the proper recipient for intellectual or cultural edification. Is the body, then, just the chauffeur shuttling the mind from one engagement to the next, waiting in the car while the mind attends a dinner held in its honor?
This concept of the body and the mind is nothing new. The Apology, is a defense given by Socrates before the Eleven, the magistrates of Athens who charged him with atheism and the corruption of the youth. Socrates denies the accusations brought against his character. The aging philosopher insists that he has done quite the opposite, instilling in the youth a curiosity about human affairs and the will to strengthen their moral convictions. The Apology, therefore, sets the stage for what Socrates will later discuss in Phaedo, as to what the proper focus of philosophy ought to be—the soul’s drive for erudition and the disregard of bodily pleasure and corruption.
But, to understand distinction between body and soul, it is important to first consider what Socrates says of the body as a subject worthy of development. This is found in Memorabilia, Xenophon’s recollection of Socrates’s interactions with his pupils and a text in which the life and dialogues of Socrates are on display.
One of the key features of the text is a discussion on the characteristics an individual attains through the diligent training of his body. “[Socrates] did not himself neglect his body or praise those who did,” writes Xenophon. Indeed, the philosopher tended to avoid the pretensions of accumulating what he would refer to in Phaedo as “bodily pleasures.” These pleasures could be anything from gluttony or sex to acquiring the finer things in life. For Socrates, physical exercise or training was also subject to moderation, as well, as too much would “hinder the soul.” In this light, the body is seen as an accomplice in the mutual advancement of the whole person. And just as it takes the mind a certain amount of labor to develop and think through arguments and question ideas, so, too, does the body develop under intense exertion and struggle. These circumstances come about precisely when we act against our natural inclination for seeking comfort and shelter against the harsh vicissitudes of life. What matters for Socrates is that we rise to meet these challenges. In doing so, we are afforded opportunities to cultivate desirable qualities that enrich our character, forcing us to turn not inward but increasingly outward to the world around us:
[What] about those who labor so that they may acquire good friends or that they may subdue their enemies, or so that by becoming powerful in their bodies and souls they may manage their own house nobly and treat their friends well and do good deeds for their fatherland? Surely one should know that these both labor for such things with pleasure and take delight in living, since they admire themselves and are praised and emulated by others.
There is also a theological or spiritual element in what the body ought to do and how it should perform. In the absence of physical exertion, Socrates states that “[Without] labor and attentiveness the gods give humans none of the things that are good and noble.” By suggesting that the body is of concern to the gods, Socrates positions the performance of the body as a matter of sanctification. It is no wonder, then, that the ancient Olympic Games were distinctly different from the overly commercialized, nationalistic variant of them that we see today. Physical strength and athleticism were recognized by the ancient Greeks as a social good, a model one demonstrated to all onlookers, both in the mundane as well as heavenly worlds. There is little room, then, to consider how we moderns tend to see the body as strictly the domain of private concern.
Socrates makes this point forcefully when he chastises the young Epigenes for not taking care of his body:
When [Socrates] saw that one of his companions, Epigenes, was both young and maintained his body badly, he said, “How like a private individual you maintain your body, Epigenes.” And [Epigenes] said, “For I am a private individual, Socrates.” “Just as much as the competitors entered for Olympia” he retorted. “Or do you count the life and death struggle with their enemies, upon which, it may be, the Athenians will enter, but a small thing?”
Insofar as that by training the body one reveals the higher qualities of man, Socrates exhorts the youth on what happens when such training is absent. In no uncertain terms, the philosopher states that the failure to train the body brings “[a] shameful reputation … because, as opinion has it, they are cowardly.” In a particularly rousing passage, Socrates concludes his critique, stating that:
It is also shameful due to neglect, to grow old before seeing oneself in the most beautiful and strongest bodily state one might attain. But it is not possible for one who is neglectful to see these things, for they do not want to come to pass spontaneously.
In Phaedo, the last dialogue of Socrates, we are presented with a somewhat paradoxical view of the body and the soul, one that is informed by the philosopher’s final hours before consuming poison. It is paradoxical in that Socrates seems to have changed his mind on the positive attributes of training the body, in favor of the prominence of the soul. Having his chains removed by the Eleven, Socrates sits in his cell and speaks to his assembled students. These bodily pleasures, as Socrates refers to them, are a persistent distraction and, as features of the body, prevent a philosopher from truly attaining what is good in the world—wisdom and truth: “Man is in a kind of prison, and that he may not set himself free, nor escape from it…” The entombed nature of the soul is the body. It imposes needs such as eating for sustenance and desires such as love and lust. “For whence comes wars, and fighting, and factions?” asks the philosopher.
These pleasures, according to Socrates, are often thought of by society as what gives the very color to life. In the absence of earthly pursuits, the philosopher appears to men as being already dead by virtue of his or her simple way of life. For Socrates, these pleasures defy meaningful contemplation for the soul, shifting its attention towards the sense of the body, like touch or taste. As a result, the soul becomes relegated to a state of subservience to the desires of the flesh. “Because every pleasure and pain has a kind of nail,” states Socrates, “[Which] nails and pins [the soul] to the body, making her think that whatever the body says is true.”
Such a statement may appear puritanical to the modern reader. But what Socrates points out is really nothing more than a simple truism: the flesh is weak. Today, as it was well over two millennia ago, people are often attracted to the gaudy and the superfluous. Even still, for Socrates and his cohort, the body is not to be treated as a mere receptacle for food and pleasure. It, too, is a source for one’s character and qualities. The vehicle (one’s body), he believed, is as important as its passenger (the soul). Prior to his death, Socrates noted that the unexamined life is not worth living. It would be impossible to exclude the beauty and development of the body from such a bold ethos.