Phaedo is Plato’s literary and philosophical monument to the death, and to the life, of his master, Socrates. An excellent way to begin the study of philosophy is with this account of the end of the first member in the great trio in Greek thought, as written by the second. It describes the philosophic way of life as Socrates and, consequently, Plato saw it, explaining how the philosopher, so unlike other people in many ways, differs also in being unafraid of death. Its account of the soul’s immortality ranges from the fanciful myth about the various destinies of good and evil souls to what is perhaps Socrates’—and certainly Plato’s—most fundamental theory, the doctrine of forms. Although Phaedo must be complemented by the other Platonic dialogues in order to round out the picture of Socrates as a man and as a philosopher, it suggests powerfully the influence he and Plato jointly exercised in the history of Western thought.
The work consists of one dialogue within another: At the request of a friend, Phaedo recounts the conversation between Socrates and his companions and the final events of the day Socrates’ unjust death sentence is executed. The inner dialogue occurs chiefly between the master and two of the several followers present, Simmias and Cebes. Quite naturally the talk turns to the true philosopher’s attitude toward death.
Because Socrates appears willing to die and to justify this willingness, the question is raised: Is suicide legitimate? Socrates’ answer is that because we belong to the gods, the occasion of our death is in their hands, not ours. However, Cebes objects that if life is divinely directed, its continuance is desirable and voluntary escape from it would be folly. Socrates explains, however, that he expects to enjoy the company of other good and wise gods and people after death.
However, a stronger defense of his position is requested. Socrates surprises his listeners by asserting that the philosopher is always pursuing death, and that it would therefore be most inconsistent, now that death is at hand, to shun it. Simmias laughingly agrees that most people think the philosophic life is and deserves to be a kind of death, but he desires clarification. Socrates explains that the philosopher seeks and enjoys the pleasures of the body—those of food, drink, sex, and adornment—only to the extent that they are necessary to life and beyond this despises them. The bodily senses, desires, and feelings hinder the soul’s search for knowledge of true existence. Thought is clearest, then, when the influence of the body is felt least or when there is the greatest possible separation between body and soul (“soul” in this context includes “mind”). However, what is such separation, when completed, but death itself? Hence the philosopher—whose object is truth beheld with the clear eye of the soul, not with the befuddled vision of the physical organ—is constantly practicing a kind of death.
In elaborating this position, Socrates introduces the famous doctrine of forms, variously described as “essences,” “absolutes,” and “ideas.” For each class of objects and qualities (or at least for many classes), there is an absolute form or essence that is the true nature and reality shared by particular members of the class. For example, there are absolute justice, beauty, goodness, greatness, health, and strength. A beautiful object, say, is beautiful not in itself but by participation to some degree in the very essence of beauty. Each absolute is pure or self-identical, unique, eternal, and perfect in its kind—because ultimately it is the kind in reality and not simply by definition for the sake of classification. A healthy person, for instance, typically becomes more or less healthy, and eventually loses health altogether in death, but health...
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