Naoya Iwata

Naoya Iwata

Title : The Generation of Desire: Plato’s Philebus and Timaeus


At Philebus 34c10–35d7 Socrates argues that desire consists in the soul’s anticipation of a bodily pleasure aroused by its memory of a past one, and therefore that it does not belong to the body but to the soul. In the course of this argument he asks what would happen to a new-born baby who suffers a pain of depletion for the first time and who has not experienced a pleasure of replenishment before (35a6–9). Most scholars have taken the question as implying that such a new-born baby would not arose desire but would do after gaining the first experience of a pleasure of replenishment and storing a memory of it in the soul. The point is, on their reading, that desire is a disposition one acquires as a result of one’s experience after birth.

In my presentation I shall argue that this construal of the generation of desire is seriously misleading about the main purpose of Socrates’ present argument, which is rather to show that we all have an innate memory of pleasure, driving us to a pleasure of replenishment even on the first occasion of a pain of depletion.

My presentation will proceed as follows. First I shall point out some textual problems which the opponent encounters in order to make sense of Socrates’ argument in question, and draw attention to Phaedrus 237d6–9 and Laws 782d10–e6, where all animals are explicitly said to have innate desire for bodily pleasure. The second section will then be devoted to discussing the Timaeus, which I believe contains some descriptions of how we all have desire by nature. The key passage is 42a3–b1, where Timaeus claims that, when human souls are implanted in bodies, ‘single innate perception’ necessarily arises from ‘violent affections’. The passage is often taken as meaning that human beings by nature have the capacity of perception in general, such as seeing and hearing. I shall argue, in contrast, that ‘violent affections’ rather refer to those which specifically produce perception of pleasure and pain. The point, on this reading, is that all human beings are supposed to be born with an innate memory of pleasure and pain, and hence desire, because of their embryonic exposure to the body’s ‘violent’ streams of nutrition.

Lastly I shall come back to Socrates’ argument about desire in the Philebus and explain how my reading makes better sense of its conclusion. At 35c12–14 Socrates says that the impulse leading to the opposite of one’s affection proves that there is a memory of it. The obvious implication is that the presence of the memory in question in the soul is regarded as dubious in common sense and therefore had to be demonstrated: Socrates is most likely referring to an innate memory of pleasure and pain. And this construal of the argument, I suggest, fits much better with his final remark at 35d1–7 that the soul, not the body, possesses the origin of every living creature.

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