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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.

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

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...

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The Soul

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...

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Objections Raised and Countered

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...

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Socrates’ Death

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....

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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.


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