78. Phaedo on the Soul and the Afterlife, Part 1

Phaedo :
Phaedo :

Phaedo deals with the remaining hours of Socrates’ life. As such, there is much we can learn from it. The contrast above is stark and represents what Socrates accomplished in his death: turning the West from a violence-based culture to one of reason. On the right, we have the famous Greek hero Achilles, whose death was truly a tragedy. On the left, we have the famous Greek philosopher Socrates, whose death was truly heroic.

Achilles represents an age in Greek history when men could only aspire to greatness by aspiring to glory in war. The ancient Greeks termed this kleos. Any kleos that Achilles gained in battle was to know avail, for the brooding, angry warrior ended up in the shadowy existence of the underworld.

Socrates, by his death, taught us that there was a far superior way, the way of virtue, or arete. Socrates sought to exercise reason in the face of evil and injustice, not returning evil for evil. This made him virtuous. By doing so, he set the West on a better, but not perfect, trajectory. This lasted until the French Revolution, which set the way of violence once again as the primary means of controlling populations through the all-powerful nation-state.

By studying Socrates’ death, we can hope to learn the difference between arete and kleos. If we can do that as a culture at large, then there is hope for the future. If not, then the West will descend into a new Dark Age that characterized the Greek Homeric Age. Homer collected stories about Achilles and others during that time and passed them down to future generations. Maybe Socrates can show us a better way.

This is the last post on the life of Socrates that began in Post 2. I have now come full circle in laying the foundation of Western philosophy, which is Socrates himself. The cornerstone of the foundation of this blog is Post 1 which discussed the relationship between faith and reason. From here, Lord willing, I will build upwards to the heights of what made Western Civilization great, discussing Plato, Aristotle, and the era of the Church Fathers. Eventually, I will construct a roof for this edifice that consists of the mediaeval Catholic philosophers, with St. Thomas Aquinas being the capstone.

This entire blog, though, is really a foundation for what hopefully will be an even greater edifice when the reawakening occurs after this new dark age has passed. Just like the Renaissance humanists looked back to the classical era for inspiration and guidance on moving forward, so too we must look back to the work of previous artists, philosophers, and theologians in order to build forward. Many of the good among us today seek to restore Western civilization without first looking to the past. This is foolish indeed.

Plato’s Phaedo

Also, before leaving Socrates, I want to remind you that the featured book below is an excellent primer on both the life of Socrates and Plato’s dialogues. If you are new to Greek philosophy and do not know where to begin, I suggest reading this book, which contains the following five dialogues:

Euthyphro – The Indictment of Socrates

Meno – Socrates makes enemies

Apology – Socrates’ defense at his trial

Crito – Socrates awaiting execution

Phaedo – The death of Socrates

In the final hours before one’s death, it is only natural that the conversation would turn towards topics such as the soul and the afterlife, especially for a philosopher. As always with Plato’s dialogues, and we will probably never know the answer to this, the question is: how much of the dialogue is Socrates’ ideas and how much is Plato’s? But I guess, in the long run, it really doesn’t matter because their lives and ideas were intertwined and they both were part of the same philosophical milieu. We are so used to looking at things individualistically, but really, if we look at a situation like this corporately, the problem disappears.

In regards to the soul and afterlife, these are very relevant topics for us today simply because they are not relevant topics for us today. The soul-crushing taskmaster of rank materialism rules over us, where all such ideas are at best disregarded and at worst derided. But it is precisely because of this that we are in the predicament in which we find ourselves, where governmental, educational, and medical institutions treat people like biological entities without souls and strip all dignity away. It is no wonder that mental illness and suicide are at an all-time high. With that in mind, let’s return to some sound ancient Greek thinking on this matter as we listen in to the final conversations of Socrates before his execution. 

Characters and Background

Phaedo is the principle narrator of the dialogue and is recounting the events surrounding the death of Socrates to his friend Echecrates of Phlius sometime after the execution in the Greek town of Phlius. Those present with Socrates were Apollodorus, Simmias, Cebes, Crito, and a prison attendant, but the main interlocutors of the dialogue are Socrates, Simmias, and Cebes. 1 Simmias and Cebes were possibly disciples of Pythagoras. There was a gap of about a month between Socrates’ conviction and his death due to an annual Athenian voyage to Delos for the purpose of a religious devotion to Apollo. No executions could take place until the ship returned from Delos. When the dialogue opens, Socrates’ friends learn that the execution will take place on that day since the ship from Delos has just returned. Everyone seems distraught except Socrates.

This dialogue shows once again the masterful work of Plato as a dramatist. It is one thing to construct a dialogue concerning the soul and afterlife, but it is a stroke of genius to do that in the context of an impending and immediate execution. You can feel the tension as the dialogue opens. And this is the way it should be. With no sense of immediacy, we can all treat such matters as theoretical musings. But, if our own mortality can make us feel, then such discussions become much more real and poignant. And Plato does an artful job of getting us to feel our own mortality. This is probably why Phaedo is one of the most popular and widely read of the Socratic dialogues. 

Secondly, Greek literature considers Phaedo a masterpiece. The fact that Plato draws attention to the fact that he wasn’t there (59b) may lend itself to the idea that Plato wanted us to regard these conversations as a work of fiction. 2 According to Professor Tim Connolly,

In addition to its central role in conveying Plato’s philosophy, the Phaedo is widely agreed to be a masterpiece of ancient Greek literature. Besides philosophical argumentation, it contains a narrative framing device that resembles the chorus in Greek tragedy, references to the Greek myth of Theseus and the fables of Aesop, Plato’s own original myth about the afterlife, and in its opening and closing pages, a moving portrait of Socrates in the hours leading up to his death.3

Finally, the ancient world knew this dialogue as On the Soul because it presents four effective arguments for the existence of the soul, something modern individuals should take note of today.   

The outline4 of the dialogue is as follows:

(1) An initial discussion of the philosopher and death (59c-69e)

(2) Three arguments for the soul’s immortality (69e-84b)

(3) Some objections to these arguments from Socrates’ interlocutors and his response, which includes a fourth argument (84c-107b)

(4) A myth about the afterlife (107c-115a)

(5) A description of the final moments of Socrates’ life (115a-118a)

An Initial Discussion of Death, 59c-69e

When Phaedo and the others arrived at the prison the morning of Socrates’ execution, the “Board of Eleven” told them to wait outside for a brief time. Socrates reads the official order of his execution that was to be carried out that day and, as was the custom his chains were taken off. 

When they entered the prison, they found Socrates reclining and his wife, Xanthippe, sitting next to him, holding their child. He told Crito to take his wife and child home. Xanthippe said something about this being the last time they would see each other. She left, sobbing and hitting herself. Socrates then sat up and started rubbing his legs where the chains had been. Considering the relief he felt from being free of his chains and being forever the philosopher, he opined even on that:

How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they never come to a man together, and yet he who pursues either of them is generally compelled to take the other. They are two, and yet they grow together out of one head or stem…as I find in my own case pleasure comes following after the pain in my leg, which was caused by the chain.


In prison, Socrates had been composing verse, something uncharacteristic of him, putting Aesop to verse and composing a hymn to Apollo. Evenus is particularly interested in knowing about this curious fact that Cebes, his close friend and fellow philosopher, inquires. Socrates chuckles and reports that Evenus does not have to worry about any competition from him. He turned more serious and reported that he often had a recurring dream where someone ordered him to practice the craft of the Muses. Up until then, he had thought that this meant philosophy, since Socrates considered philosophy the ultimate expression of the Muses. But, having a sensitive consciousness and drawing closer to death, he wanted to make sure that he was not being disobedient. 

He then shifted to an even more serious tone, saying that anyone who is a true philosopher should be willing to die, but only if obliged, for it is wrong to take one’s life for any other reason:

Then he, or any man who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die, though he will not take his own life, for that is held not to be right.


If there is a key sentence in Phaedo, this is it, as Plato stairstepped down to this point from the introduction. He descended, not ascended, because he is talking of death itself. Plato is taking us to the lower realms of a topic that most of us desire to avoid. Yet, in true dramatic fashion, he will bring us back out into the light on the other side of this dialogue. 

The above sentence, though, is a doorway into the poorly understood and mysterious realm of the afterlife. In the dialogue, Socrates now stands up from his bed and remains standing throughout this conversation. In this act of standing, Plato separates the main body of the dialogue from what had come before. Socrates informs his little band of companions that he will reiterate what he has heard from the philosopher Philolaus concerning the afterlife:

My words, too, are only an echo; but I am very willing to say what I have heard: and indeed, as I am going to another place, I ought to be thinking and talking of the nature of the journey which I am about to take. What can I do better in the interval between this and the setting of the sun?


Socrates goes on to explain that being alive in the body is like being in prison. This is Plato talking here with his belief in soul-body dualism, with the soul being good and the body being evil since the material world is substandard to the spiritual world. Socrates goes on to say that when one is in prison, he cannot or should not open the jail cell, for that is up to the authorities. In the same way, the gods determine when we are free from our bodies.

Then there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me.


When Socrates becomes very serious about spiritual things, he always reverts back to talking about God in the singular and not “the gods,” as the Greeks were accustomed.  I have discussed this extensively in other posts about Socrates, so I will not get into that here. Having said that, this view of suicide pretty much lines up with the traditional Catholic view. The Catholic Church teaches that if one kills oneself, it is equivalent to unlawfully killing someone else, which is a mortal sin that damns one to hell. Although I agree with this view and believe it holds under most circumstances, in light of the modern understanding of mental illness such as profound depression or schizophrenia, I think this is not always black and white. That is why, in the end, God renders the final judgment in the matter and not us. 

Death and the Human Soul

In regards to the nature of death, Socrates gives an apt description that is more precise and comprehensive than that of modern medicine, which defines death as the cessation of biological function. Socrates’ definition of death, the separation of the soul (psūkhē) from the body, comports with the traditional Christian view:

And is this anything but the separation of psūkhē and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation; when the psūkhē exists in itself, and is parted from the body and the body is parted from the psūkhē—that is death?


Of course, it would be difficult for modern materialists to come to such a conclusion, being oriented only to the physical and material. And there are those who would say that such discussions are merely theoretical and that we should go about the business of advancing “science” in order to create a more perfect existence. The problem is that beliefs about the nature of man have practical consequences, positive or negative, depending on the belief. 

For example, look at the disastrous way nursing home deaths were handled in 2020–2021 during the so-called COVID pandemic. Since Grandma was simply a biochemical bag of living systems and not a living “soul” her death was merely a cessation of biological function and nothing more. Her death, like everyone’s, was nothing special. Therefore, she could die alone. We must sacrifice all during a pandemic for the good of the body, for that’s all there is.

On the other hand, if we had recognized grandma for who she truly was—a living soul made in the image of her Creator—then that would have necessitated taking a physical risk for the sake of the soul. Grandma’s family would need to surround her, comfort her and one another, and prepare for her soul’s departure, knowing that it will live on after her physical death. These two paradigms could not be more striking. One infused with dignity and the other with contempt and disregard for the human person. The irony of this is that all of this emanates from a society that claims to be scientifically enlightened. The takeaways from this are that metaphysical beliefs do matter. Secondly, that it is very dangerous and dehumanizing to live under the tyranny of pseudo-scientific materialism. 

Phaedo :
Phaedo :
Platonic Dualism

At this point, the conversation takes a turn toward Platonic dualism. As I mentioned, it is difficult in Platonic dialogues that involve Socrates to figure out which ideas originate with Socrates and which with Plato. If I had to guess, I would say that this next section is Platonic since it emphasizes soul-body dualism, something that is strongly associated with Plato.

In soul-body dualism, the superior, immaterial, good soul is imprisoned in an evil, corrupt material body. Death, then, from this perspective, is the release of the soul from the body, and thus the ultimate good. The body is nothing but trouble, for it constantly needs attention and care, such as food, clothing, etc. It often beset with fatigue and is prone to illness, not to mention that it assails us with constant lust. In regard to this, then, death is something to look forward to and not fear.

Then, Simmias, as the true philosophers are ever studying death, to them, of all men, death is the least terrible. Look at the matter in this way: how inconsistent of them to have been always enemies of the body, and wanting to have the psūkhē alone, and when this is granted to them, to be trembling and regretting; instead of rejoicing at their departing to that place where, when they arrive, they hope to gain that which in life they loved (and this was wisdom), and at the same time to be rid of the company of their enemy. Many a man has been willing to go to the world beyond in the hope of seeing there an earthly love, or wife, or son, and conversing with them. And will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is persuaded in like manner that only in that other world over there can he worthily enjoy it, still be regretful at death? Will he not depart with joy? Surely he will, my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there only, and nowhere else, he can find wisdom in its purity. And if this be true, he would be very absurd, as I was saying, if he were to fear death.


With this view, according to Socrates, we should embrace death, not fear it.  But like the old saying goes, “everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”. It is remarkable how similar the Greek and Christian views are. The Greeks introduced the concept of the soul to the ancient world in a clear way. It makes it easier for Christian theologians to develop the concept further. The concept of the soul introduces dignity to human existence and also gives hope for an afterlife. We see this clearly in the writings of St. Paul. 

Was St. Paul a Platonist? After all, much of his teaching sounds a lot like Plato’s ideas:

 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Galatians 5: 17, 19-23

I think St. Paul was influenced by Platonic dualism and used it as a template to help define his terms. However, at the end of the day, Paul rejected Plato’s dualism. For him, “flesh” was not necessarily the body. It simply fallen human nature that seeks to fulfill its own selfish desires. Whereas the “spirit” is not the soul. The Holy Spirit imparts to man a new, regenerated nature capable of living life for God and others. 

Another giveaway that Paul was not a dualist is his affirmation that the body and material world are basically good. Even though fallen. He declares that, for the believers, our fallen bodies will be transformed. They will not be done away with as Plato taught in his description of the resurrection.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

-1 Corinthians 15: 42-44

So the difference between Plato and Paul is that, for Plato, there is no hope for the corrupt body. However, for Paul, the body will be redeemed along with the soul. But yet Plato’s view does comport with the Christian view:

And when you see a man who is feeling regretful at the approach of death, is not his reluctance a sufficient proof that he is not a lover of wisdom, but a lover of the body, and probably at the same time a lover of either money or power, or both?


This is ultimately fulfilled for the Christian. Those who seek the pleasures of this life alone will lose their soul. Whoever pursue the higher calling of wisdom in Christ will not only gain their soul but their body as well. As St. Paul states:

Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

-Philippians 3: 17-21
Living for Things Beyond this World

Despite their differences, St. Paul and Plato would admonish us not to live merely for the things of this life. No matter how good and helpful they may be, we should focus on making our souls better as we prepare for life after this one. An existence that focuses only on this life is superficial, pathetic, and dismal indeed—the very definition of nihilism. St. Peter calls those who live that way “brute beasts”, no better than animals. 6 But what is appropriate for animals is not appropriate for creatures with souls. 

We all have a strong proclivity in various ways and degrees. We have this proclivity to live on earth as though we were going to live forever. In medieval Europe, there were mechanisms in place to check those tendencies and remind people of their mortality. The cultural milieu in which the medieval people moved about was saturated with mechanisms to do this. Everything from going to Mass to beholding great artwork. The hardships that many experienced were also a stark reminder to set one’s hope on a future existence. 

The air that we breathe in the modern West fosters just the opposite sentiments. Any notion of the afterlife is denied by “science” and often scoffed at. Corporate advertising strongly reinforces this. It makes sure we spend our lives and energies fruitily chasing after things that ultimately don’t matter. It is difficult enough to check ourselves. But now, we have the entire culture feeding and encouraging us along these lines. But even though it is now doubly difficult, it is not impossible. The answer to overcoming the world is to develop virtue. It is the subject that Socrates turns to next in his dialogue on the day of his death. 

Phaedo :
Medieval Monks would often have skulls on their desks to remind them of their mortality

As always, I had unrealistic ambitions. I thought I could cover such a profound work as Phaedo in one post where I barely scratched the surface. I will continue this discussion in my next post.

Please leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe or press the follow button. Thank you!

Deo Gratias!

Featured Book:

Phaedo : Plato book
This book is the perfect primer for those wanting to get acquainted with Socrates and Plato.

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Plato: Phaedo, Tim Connolly, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. 2 Peter 2:12

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2023 Ron Gaudio

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *