NOTES on Plato (427?-347 B.C.E.): The Phaedo


Head of Platon, Roman copy. The original was exhibited at the Academy after the death of the philosopher (348/347 BC).

The Phaedo is the story of a man who is condemned to death.

In the Phaedo are described the final hours of life and the death of Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.), who was condemned to die by a jury in ancient Greece. The trial of Socrates was described in Plato’s Apology.

Let me point out that Plato (427?-347 B.C.E.) was a student of Socrates, and that Socrates never wrote down his personal philosophy. In fact, there is some controversy over how much of what the character of Socrates says in Plato’s dialogues is really what the historical Socrates believed. Most scholars believe that Plato expanded on the historical Socrates’ ideas, so even though “Socrates” is the main speaker in most of Plato’s dialogues, the ideas expressed by “Socrates” may be those of Plato.

However, the character of Socrates in Plato’s “Apology,” at least, may be very close to the historical Socrates, since the “Apology” is an early dialogue, and since Plato was present at the trial. However, Plato was not present at the historical Socrates’ death.

At the end of the “Apology,” Socrates has been condemned to die, but he tells his friends and the jury that death is nothing to be afraid of. According to Socrates, death is one of two things, neither of which we should fear.

The first possibility is that death is like a long, dreamless sleep, which Socrates describes as the most peaceful sleep you can have. In this case, death is the extinguishing of consciousness, and we will no longer be able to feel pain or fear.

The second possibility is that death is a journey to another place where one can meet and talk with the souls of the dead. This is also nothing to be afraid of. In this case, there is an afterlife in which we will retain our personal identities. Socrates would enjoy this, as he could talk philosophy with dead Greek heroes.

In the Phaedo, however, Socrates rejects the first possibility and argues for the second. In doing so, he engages in metaphysics, that branch of philosophy that tries to answer the question, “What is real?” Socrates argues that the soul is a real, immortal thing, and that when we die, our soul will survive the death of our body.

In the Phaedo, Socrates explains why he is not grieved at being condemned to die: “I should be wrong … not to grieve at death, if I did not think I was going to live both with … gods who are good and wise, and with men who have died and who are better than the men of this world. … I am confident that the dead have some kind of existence, and, as has been said of old, an existence that is far better for the good than for the wicked.”

In other words, Socrates is convinced that he is immortal. He goes on to explain that he believes that a human being is composed of two things: a body and a soul. Although our body will die and decay, our soul is immortal and incorruptible (in the sense that it cannot decay). Therefore, when our body dies, our soul — which is the best part of us — will live on. This idea, of course, makes Socrates a dualist, because he thinks that each member of Humankind is composed of two things.

Socrates also says that philosophers study “only dying and death.” According to Socrates, philosophers despise the pleasures of the body, such as eating and drinking, instead choosing to pursue the pleasures of acquiring wisdom.

Why do philosophers despise the body and love the soul? Because the body is a hindrance in the acquisition of wisdom. The body gives us our five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting — but our senses deceive us. For example, a stick looks bent when part of it is placed in water.

In addition, according to Socrates, we are able to reason best when our body does not interfere. All of us know that it is difficult to study when we are hungry, or thirsty, or suffering from sunburn, or sleepy.

Socrates next makes a point that some things exist, although they are not visible. His friends agree with him that such things as absolute justice, absolute beauty, and absolute good exist although we cannot see them. In the life we lead now, we see a particular just person, a particular beautiful person, and a particular good person, but no one we see is absolutely just, beautiful, or good. However, according to Socrates, absolute justice, absolute beauty, and absolute good are real, and they are the objects of philosophic wisdom, although the body cannot sense them.

Therefore, for all these reasons, Socrates concludes that the body is a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom. Socrates points out, “Verily we have learned that if we are to have any pure knowledge at all, we must be freed from the body; the soul by herself must behold things as they are.”

This will occur only when the soul is freed from the body, as will occur at death.

Socrates then argues that our soul existed before we were born. This is one part of his argument that our soul is immortal. Later he will argue that our soul will continue to exist after we die.

To argue that our soul existed before we were born, Socrates talks about his theory of education. According to Socrates, “learning is only a process of recollection.” By that, he means that we don’t acquire knowledge in this life; instead, we merely remember things we had learned when our soul was freed from our body. These are things that we forgot during the trauma of birth.

Socrates uses the concept of equality in his argument. We recognize the concept of equality. For example, I can show you two sticks and ask you if they are equal in length. You will reply either that they are or that they are not. In formulating your answer, you are using the concept of equality.

Of course, we are using our senses to perceive the two sticks, but that does not account for our knowledge of abstract equality. Abstract equality is different from the equality of two sticks that are equal in length. Seeing the two equal sticks make us recollect the concept of absolute equality, which the soul learned when it was freed of the body.

As Socrates concludes, “Then before we began to see, and to hear, and to use the other senses, we must have received the knowledge of the nature of abstract and real equality; otherwise we could not have compared equal sensible objects with abstract equality….”

Just as we learned the knowledge of absolute equality before our soul was united with our body, Socrates states, so too we learned the knowledge of absolute good, absolute beauty, absolute justice, and absolute holiness.

Socrates sums up his argument in this way: “ … if it be the case that we lost at birth the knowledge which we received before we were born, and then afterward, by using our senses on the objects of sense, recovered the knowledge which we had previously possessed, then what we call learning is the recovering of knowledge which is already ours.” In other words, learning is recollecting.

Socrates has argued that our soul existed before we were born — that is the time when we learned about such things as absolute equality. Next he argues that our soul will continue to exist after we die. In doing this, he in part speaks about compound and composite (composed of many parts) things and things that are not (that is, things that are composed of only one part).

Our body is compound and composite and is made up of many elements. When we die, our body will decay. Its various elements will disperse and go their separate ways. Our body will become a part of the soil in which we are buried and the elements that made up our body may become a part of a living plant.

However, Socrates believes that the soul is not compound and composite — that is, that it is not made up of many parts. Because of that, it will not decay after we die. According to Socrates, there are two kinds of existence: the visible and the invisible. The visible kind of existence is always changing. For example, your body changes constantly. At one time you were an infant whose diapers frequently needed changing; now you are an adult.

Our body is an example of the visible kind of existence, but our soul is an example of the invisible kind of existence. The invisible kind of existence never changes. For example, absolute equality never changes. And since our soul is a part of this kind of existence, it can never change and so it can never cease to exist.

In conclusion, Socrates asks his friend Cebes, “… is it not the nature of the body to be dissolved quickly, and of the soul to be wholly or very nearly indissoluble?” Cebes, of course, agrees.

Note: The quotations by Plato that appear in this essay are from his dialogue Phaedo, translated by F. J. Church.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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