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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.

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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.

Socrates’ View of Death

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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 is what it is without relation to time. Particular things, Plato explains elsewhere, are real only on a secondary level because they are changeable and perishable; they exist only by virtue of the ideal patterns they so variously but never perfectly copy.

Socrates asks how such forms are known. Certainly not, strictly speaking, by the senses; with the eye we see only this or that imperfectly beautiful thing or observe persons merely more or less just, whereas beauty, justice, and the other absolutes are adequately apprehended only by an arduous and purely intellectual process: “He attains to the purest knowledge of them who goes to each with the mind alone, not introducing or intruding in the act of thought, sight or any other sense together with reason, but with the very light of the mind in her own clearness searches into the very truth of each.” However, if forms are known by mind alone, wisdom concerning true being can mature only after death, when the mind is wholly freed.

The Soul

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983

It has not yet been established that the soul survives; Cebes expresses the common fear that upon bodily death, the soul simply disperses into nothing. Socrates therefore offers a number of considerations supporting his confidence in immortality. One translator of the dialogue suggests that Plato does not attempt a logical proof of this belief, but even in the translation phrases such as “sufficient proof” and “logical necessity” occur. It is true, however, that the arguments used vary greatly in plausibility for a modern reader.

It is observable, Socrates holds, that all things that are “generated” or that come into and pass out of being are generated from their opposites. Particular (rather than absolute) opposites give way to each other: That which becomes weaker must have been stronger, the worse comes from the better, and so on. Thus one finds all through nature both opposite states and the processes of coming into them; otherwise, if all things passed into conditions from which there was no return, the universe would become utterly static. Imagine, for example, a world in which waking was followed only by sleeping, or in which the processes of composition were never varied by those of division. Granted this point, Socrates argues that since life and death and living and dying are opposites, and it is certain that the living die, according to this universal law of nature the living must return from the dead, and therefore the dead must exist somewhere prior to return.

Cebes suggests that the same implication follows from Socrates’ familiar account of knowledge as recollection: knowledge of true being (that is, of the forms) turns out to be a recognition of what was known in a previous existence. Take, for example, people’s comprehension of equality. If people see two similar objects, they may judge that they are equal or nearly so, but how do they recognize this relative equality? Such a judgment presupposes a concept of equality per se to serve as a standard for comparison. The concept of perfect equality cannot be derived from sensory observation because physical objects are never precisely equal. At the same time, however—and here Socrates tempers the extreme rationalism of the earlier account of knowledge of absolutes—people are reminded of absolute equality by the sight of imperfectly equal things; sensation is thus a necessary but not a sufficient condition of this recognition. However, because people have sensation at birth, knowledge of essences must be prior to the present life; it is recollection of what people had once known and had forgotten when the soul took on a body. It is clear then that preexistence of the soul and that of the absolutes are equally certain.

Nevertheless, say Simmias and Cebes, we still have insufficient proof that the soul continues to exist after physical death. However, Socrates reminds them that the latter argument, plus the one concerning opposites, does prove the point, for if the soul exists before birth (that is, in a state of “death” relative to bodily existence) and the living come from the dead, even as the dead come from the living, the soul thus exists both before and after the various bodies into which it is born. However, noticing that Simmias and Cebes still evince the natural human uneasiness about the soul’s future, Socrates adds another and perhaps sounder argument.

It hinges on comparison of the nature of the soul as compared with that of the body, and it concludes that if they are materially different, there is no reason to assign them a common fate. In general the composite or compound is unstable, subject to change and hence to dissolution, whereas the uncompounded or simple must be indissoluble, as are the invisible, simple, self-existent, and unchanging forms. Comparison of body and soul shows that body is like all other compound and perishable physical objects, but soul resembles the absolutes in some ways and presumably will share their permanence. This dichotomy of soul and body appears in the knowing process. If the soul relies on sensation, it is dragged down to earth, as it were—to the unstable and the confused; but if it relies on its own reason, it approaches the pure and eternal. Communion with the immutable breeds similarity: “The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.”

This conclusion leads Socrates to descriptions of the soul’s fate after death that approach and finally cross the border between philosophy and fiction, but which, like many of Plato’s myths, allegorically state significant hypotheses and profound insights. The soul’s future, he says, will depend on its degree of purity in the present. Those impure souls enthralled by love of sensual pleasures and by evil passions are so weighed down by the corporeal that they may be reincarnated in animals similarly miserable in nature, such as in asses or wolves. The moderately virtuous soul might be given the body of an admirable social animal such as the ant or the bee or perhaps even another human body. However, only those souls purified of all bodily taint through philosophy may enter immediately into the blissful company of the gods and escape further reincarnation.

Philosophy is thus not merely an academic discipline or a profession; in the Platonic view it is a way of life and even the soul’s salvation. Socrates describes the soul as previously shackled to the body, hoodwinked by the senses, enslaved by its own desires. Worst of all, the soul is deceived about true reality by opinions influenced by pleasure and pain—it mistakes violence of emotion for evidence of truth. Philosophy offers release from this deception and teaches the soul to rely on its own intellectual resources. Thus, “she will calm passion, and follow reason, and dwell in the contemplation of her, beholding the true and divine.”

Objections Raised and Countered

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After the almost poetic heights Socrates reaches in this account, he displays the equanimity of the truly philosophical inquirer when Simmias and Cebes still have serious doubts that he encourages them to broach. Simmias’s objection presupposes the Pythagorean concept of the soul as a sort of harmony or attunement of the elements of the body, obtaining when these are in proper tension or proportion. By analogy to his previous arguments, Socrates would have to argue that the harmony of a lyre—which harmony is also invisible, perfect, and divine—could survive the destruction of the instrument. However, the absurdity of this suggests the absurdity of the belief that the soul exists when the body is destroyed. Cebes adds that while the soul may survive several deaths and reincarnations, it is possible that it finally wears out as does a body that has survived several coats.

These objections seem so cogent to the audience, just now persuaded by Socrates’ train of thought, that a despair of the success of any argument whatever sets in. However, Socrates warns his friends of the dangers of misology; just as one may become a misanthropist by overconfidence in people, followed by disillusionment, so may one learn to distrust all argument by accepting conclusions hastily and without sufficient attention to logic, only to discover their falsity later. However, instead of adopting a cynically skeptical position that no arguments are valid, no truths about reality discoverable, one should think that the difficulty is one’s lack of ability, which can be improved by further effort. It is fallacious to attribute the invalidity of one’s own thinking to reason itself, and folly thus to forfeit the very possibility of learning the truth.

Socrates then proceeds to answer Simmias’s objection by showing that it is inconsistent with previous and present admissions. Harmony or attunement is not prior to the elements organized or tuned, but the soul has been shown to exist prior to the body. Simmias cannot hold, therefore, both that knowledge is recollection and that the soul is harmony. Furthermore, harmony occurs in degrees; an instrument may be more or less in tune. However, people do not think that souls are more or less souls either in themselves or relative to others. Again, if the soul were a harmony, it could contain no vice, which is inharmonious, and consequently all souls would be equally good, which of course is absurd. Finally, if soul were a harmony of bodily elements, it would be dependent on them, but as a matter of fact, the soul, especially the wise one, acts as a governor of the body and hence is sometimes out of harmony with it.

To meet Cebes’s objection that the soul may eventually deteriorate and vanish, Socrates appeals once more to the doctrine of forms to elaborate a theory of causation relevant to the problem. In his youth, he remembers, he studied physicalistic and mechanistic theories of causal explanation of human life and behavior. However, the detail (and presumably the mutual inconsistencies) of these frustrated and confused him. A gleam of hope appeared in the Anaxagorean view that mind (as universal rather than human) orders and causes all things, which philosophy Socrates thought would show that everything was ordered for the best. If one wished to discover the ultimate causes for the shape of the earth, the positions and movements of the heavenly bodies, one need only refer to the highest good that these arrangements serve. However, to his disappointment Socrates found Anaxagoras falling back on the familiar physical causes.

These offer partial but inadequate explanation of his own present behavior, Socrates continues. Of course he is engaging in his present activities in prison by means of bones, muscles, and their functions, but these are not the true causes of his behavior, which are that the Athenians have condemned him to die and he has thought it right to refuse escape and accept the penalty. Mechanistic philosophers ignore the distinction between conditions and causes (or between what Aristotle was later to call efficient and final causes); “of the obligatory and containing power of the good they think nothing.” However, since Socrates claims that he has been unable to discover what the nature of the best is, he offers a substitute causal theory.

Although his procedure of adopting it may appear too rationalistic, further qualifications reveal much affinity to later scientific thought. His method is to select the theory judged most sound and then to accept or reject particular propositions by reference to it. However, the original hypothesis is not wholly arbitrary; it can be justified either by derivation from an established theory or (to judge from Socrates’ practice) by examining its consequences for any inconsistencies. With this explanation, Socrates accounts for his present assumption of the theory of forms.

An implication of the theory is that participation in the forms accounts for the characteristics of objects; Socrates insists that for him this is the only intelligible cause assignable. Indeed, it applies to the very processes of becoming: There is “no other way in which anything comes into existence except by participation in its own proper essence.” Two chief characteristics of forms are uniqueness and simplicity: They cannot admit their opposites. Furthermore, some particulars are so constituted that it is impossible they should admit forms opposite to those especially characteristic of their own natures; for example, the number two, having the form “even,” cannot remain two and admit the form “odd.” When one realizes that what renders body alive is soul and nothing else, it appears that soul has an essential relation to life and hence cannot admit its opposite, death, any more than fire can admit cold. Hence, again the soul has been proved to be immortal, this time to the satisfaction of all those present.

It follows, then, that the soul deserves the greatest care in the present life, preparatory to the next. Socrates proceeds to give an imaginative description of the details of life after death and the various regions good and evil souls will occupy. The orthodox Christian reader will find here a number of counterparts anticipating the traditions of heaven, hell, and even purgatory. Socrates adds, however, that “A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. However, I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true.” The chief point is again that “there is no release or salvation from evil except the attainment of the highest virtue and wisdom.”

Socrates’ Death

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That Socrates has by his own virtue and wisdom escaped the evil of fear of death is now abundantly evident. When the discussion is finished and he has bidden his family good-bye, only Socrates among the entire assembly keeps his composure as the final preparations are made. Admonishing his friends to restrain their sorrow, Socrates quaffs the cup of poison as cheerfully as if it were wine.

Whether or not the reasoning associated with his attitude seems entirely valid, and some of it judged formally certainly is not, there is much in the Socratic teaching that is enduringly sound and recurrently fruitful. Some doctrines, such as that of the forms, may be rejected as metaphysics while renewed as logic or epistemology. However, theory aside, none can gainsay the value of Socrates’ visionary courage, or fail to wish it perpetual in the human race. For an adequate intimation of the master’s immortality, however, one must return to its original description by his most eminent disciple.


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Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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