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Essay: Explore and Compare the Ideas of The ‘Self’ and Its Immortality

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  • Published: 15 July 2019*
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In this essay, I will be analysing Shakespeare’s Sonnets 71 through 74 and Plato’s Phaedo to distil their concepts of the ‘self’ and the implications these concepts have on self’s immortality.
First, I will analyse Shakespeare’s Sonnets 71 to 74, which all revolve around the central theme of death, to argue that his definition of the self is an extrinsic one that is dependent on the remembrance and love others have for him.
In the third quatrain of Sonnet 72, the poet explains how he fears that, in trying to sing untrue praises of the poet, the reader might grow to hate the poet. He uses the oxymoron “virtuous lie” to describe the untruths the reader may speak of him. Though the untruths may be born out of the virtue of the reader’s love for him, they are still lies and lies are traditionally seen as something negative and evil. The poet fears that such “virtuous lies” would eventually taint the reader and hence the reader’s “true love may seem false in this”. The poet seems to despair at this, proclaiming that “My name be buried where my body is” to avoid such a scenario. Traditionally, one might associate’s one’s self to one’s name, yet the poet is willing to bury his name in exchange for the reader’s continued and untainted love for him. From this, we can get the idea that the poet does not think that the self is linked to the name as he ranks the reader’s love as more important than his own name. Hence, we can see that the poet’s idea of self is an extrinsic one that depends on others and how they view him.
From this definition, the self is able to attain immortality by the continued remembrance and love from others and the poet tries to ensure the immortality of his self by making the poems more memorable to the reader.
One way the poet does this is through repetition – a technique employed throughout all four poems. In Sonnet 71, the poet plays on various repetitions of “No longer” and “Nay” as he says that the reader should forget him as “if thinking on [him] then should make [the reader] woe”. Such a repetition beats itself into the reader’s brain as they keep appearing to remind the reader of what the poet is saying. Instead of doing what the poet is telling the reader to do – forget him – the reader instead remembers him all the more because of the repetition. Similarly, there is repetition of the idea of deceit and untruths in Sonnet 72 such as “devise”, “lie” and “untrue” which all just makes the reader more likely to remember the poem, and consequently, the poet. Even more significantly, the repetition of the very structure of the quatrains in Sonnet 73 makes this third sonnet more memorable as the reader can practically predict the structure of what the poet is going to say later in the quatrain. The quatrains first open with similar phrases such as “thou mayst in me behold” and “In me though seest” before going on to describe the poet metaphorically such as the season when “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” or “the glowing of such fire”. The repeated structure familiarises the reader to the poem and this familiarity thus sticks to the reader, allowing the reader to easily remember the poem. This deliberate repetition of ideas, phrases and even quatrain structure throughout these sonnets thus enhances the poems’ memorability. This deliberate attempt to make the poems memorable highlights the poet’s desire for the reader to remember him because in remembering the poem the reader also remembers the poet by association.
In fact, the very form of the sonnets allows for the memorability of the poet. The sonnets follow the structure of three quatrains followed by a couplet, with a rhyme scheme of ‘abab cdcd efef gg’. In most Shakespearean sonnets, there is a volta that occurs in the third quatrain that turns the tide of the sonnet. The volta is traditionally signposted by words such as ‘but’ but in these four sonnets, the third quatrain starts with words like “O” and “so then” and the content and tone for the rest of the poem do not differ greatly from the content and tone in the first two quatrains. These poems thus do not have a volta, thus making the content of the sonnets easier for the reader to remember as it stays consistent throughout the poem. Moreover, the regular rhyme and iambic pentameter throughout the whole poem allow for a smooth and consistent reading so the reader may find the poem more memorable. This ease of memorability thus highlights how the poet desires the reader to remember his poems, and thus himself, as this is the way for the poet’s ‘self’ to achieve immortality.
Hence, Shakespeare’s self is defined by others and is an extrinsic property and his immortality is guaranteed only through society’s remembrance and love for him. In contrast, the ‘self’ as defined in Phaedo is an intrinsic property.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the concept of the self is known as the concept of the soul, and they are both noted to be very much distinct and opposite to the notion of the body. As said by Socrates, “all the bodily senses are neither accurate nor clear” (65b) and thus one must rely only on reasoning and intellect to attain the truth. It is in this that the soul and the body are truly opposite to one another and thus the “soul of the philosopher utterly disdains the body and flees from it” (65c). In Phaedo, the definition of the soul is thus something that is reliant only on the intellect and is separated from the body upon death (64c).
More interestingly, in the Argument From Recollection, it is argued that the soul is something that has existed before the body in the realm of the Forms. In the Argument From Recollection, it is said that upon seeing something, one “recognises that thing, but also thinks of something else, which is the object not of the same knowledge but of another” and this is the idea behind remembering the new object that one has thought of in association with the thing one sees (73c). This is the idea behind remembering and in the case of the soul and knowledge, it is argued that one finds the objects in reality lacking in similarity to the object one is reminded of when one looks at the object (74a). It is argued that one recognises the objects in reality using “sense-perceptions” which had been with them since birth, yet their intellect tells them that these objects in reality are “striving for that thing which equal is, yet are inferior to it” (75a). This ‘equal’ is the idea of the Forms – the epitome of something – and that one must have gained knowledge of the Forms before one is born because one has been able to use one’s senses to judge that things in reality are inferior to the Forms since one’s birth (75c). Hence, the conclusion that the soul has learnt of the Forms before entering the body and has thus existed prior to the body. Hence, in Phaedo, the soul is defined to be not only distinct from the body but also pre-existent to the body. This definition of the self thus treats the self as its own entity, independent of not only the body but also the impressions of everyone else – a unique and intrinsic entity.
Such a definition thus means that the immortality of the self is also independent of others. In the Argument From Cyclic Processes, it is said that “opposites come to be only from their opposites” (70e) and is expounded upon with the opposite pair of sleeping and being awake. Just as being awake comes only after one is asleep, sleeping comes after one is awake. Without each other or the in-between process, it would be impossible to tell sleeping from being awake (71c). In the case of the soul, the relevant opposite pair would thus be living and death. From this argument, it is thus concluded that “living people are born from the dead no less than dead people from the living” (72a). This cycle of dead and living, with the soul being the entity passed on from each state, thus means that the soul is intrinsically immortal.
Hence, upon analysis of the two texts, it is clear to see how the definitions of the self are opposite and how these definitions of the self impact the respective writer’s take on immortality. Whilst Shakespeare views the self as an extrinsic quality and its immortality as dependent on others, Plato holds the belief that the self is a unique entity that exists regardless of everything and that its immortality is guaranteed and intrinsic. Bibliography
“A Guide to Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Owl Eyes, www.owleyes.org/text/a-guide-to-shakespeares-sonnets/read/the-sonnet-form#root-36.
Plato, and Gallop, David (emeritus Professor Of Philosophy, Trent Univ. Phaedo. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 71.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 72.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 73.
Shakespeare, William. Sonnet 74.

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