79. Phaedo on the Soul and the Afterlife, Part 2


Many people think about the afterlife on a regular basis, while others avoid the subject. But coming to grips with our mortality is essential if we are going to have any sort of meaningful life. This is what Plato’s Phaedo is all about. After all, as the saying goes, if you don’t know how to die, then you don’t know how to live.

In part 1 (Post 78), I presented the outline of Phaedo as follows:

The outline of the dialogues of the Phaedo 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)

In Post 78, I only covered point 1 above. Let’s pick up where we left off.

Three arguments for the soul’s immortality, 69e-84b

In point one, Socrates established that there is a soul and stressed the importance of the existence of the soul to have meaning in life. Being the good Greek philosopher that he was, he could not make an assertion such as that without sound supporting arguments. And remember, he was doing all of this on the very day of his execution.

Of course, Socrates made his arguments against the backdrop of opposing arguments. A good Greek philosopher would have it no other way. One of the interlocutors, Cebes, confronts Socrates with the argument of the annihilation of the soul:

I think, but men find it very hard to believe what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone and is no longer anything anywhere.


This view has been and is very popular in modern times, especially among materialistic philosophers and scientists. Some religious cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, also teach it. Even people who should know better, like Pope Francis, have taught this doctrine despite the Catholic Church’s teaching to the contrary.

The problem with annihilation, besides the fact that it is not true, is that it holds no hope. I remember lying in bed in a dark room at the age of six and thinking about death. At the time, I believed death to be total non-existence—annihilation. It was very difficult for me, not to mention depressing, to think of not existing at all some day.

There would be great hope if it were only true, but first, we need to convince Cebes. 

For if it could only hold together and be itself after it was released from the evils of the body, there would be good reason to hope, Socrates, that what you say is true. But much persuasion and many arguments are required in order to prove that when the man is dead the psūkhē (soul) yet exists, and has any force of intelligence.


If we consider the two quotes above, we can distill Cebes’ challenges down to several important points. It is important to realize that the Greeks and even the medieval philosophers would formulate arguments the opposite of how we do today. Whereas we tend to make “straw man” argumentation for our opponents position, they would make “steel man” arguments, shoring up their opponents position so that their arguments seemed even more convincing in the end.

If we consider the two quotes above, we can distill Cebes’ challenges down to several important points. It is important to realize that the Greeks and even medieval philosophers would formulate arguments the opposite of how we do today. Whereas we tend to make “straw man” arguments for our opponents positions, they would make “steel man” arguments, shoring up their opponents positions so that their arguments seemed even more convincing in the end.

Cebes’ objections are as follows:

  1. He states that “men find it very hard to believe…” He is asserting that belief in an immortal soul is an uncommon belief. He is asserting that if it were true, then the majority of people would believe it.
  2. Therefore, two things need to be demonstrated if men are to believe: A) that the soul is indeed immortal, continuing after the death of the body; and B) that it possesses intelligence.

Socrates’ three main responses are as follows:

  1. The Cyclical Argument (70c–72e)
  2. The Argument from Recollection (72e–78b)
  3. The Affinity Argument (78b-84b)

The Cyclical Argument, 70c-72e

This argument addresses to Cebes’ objection 2a above. This first argument is based on the doctrine of reincarnation, which Socrates and Plato held in common with many other Greeks. 2

Socrates uses the doctrine of reincarnation as a premise for his argument. If reincarnation is indeed true, then the soul must exist. Why? When a soul dies, it goes to the underworld to await reincarnation. And just as this happens, the opposite happens as well. The living world gets its supply of souls from the dead.

We recall an ancient theory that souls arriving there come from here, and then again that they arrive here and are born here from the dead. If that is true, that the living come back from the dead, then surely our souls must exist there, for they could not come back if they did not exist.

-70 c-d

Socrates mentions an ancient theory holding that just as the souls of the dead in the underworld come from those living in this world, the living souls come back from those of the dead (70c–d). His first argument takes inspiration from this theory, which he reconstructs as follows:

  1. His first premise is that all things come from their opposite states:

Let us examine whether those that have an opposite must necessarily come to be from their opposite and from nowhere else, as for example when something comes to be larger it must necessarily become larger from having been smaller before…And the weaker comes to be from the stronger, and the swifter from the slower?


2. There are two opposite processes between each pair of opposite states:

Between each of those pairs of opposites there are two processes: from the bone to the other and then again from the other to the first; between the larger and the smaller there is increase and decrease, and we call the one increasing and the other decreasing?


3. The two opposites must balance one another, or else everything would eventually be in the same state.

And so too there is separation and combination, cooling and heating,
and all such things, even if sometimes we do not have a name for the
process, but in fact it must be everywhere that they come to be from one
another, and that there is a process of becoming from each into the other?


4. “Being alive” and “being dead” are opposite states, and “dying” and “coming to life” are the opposite processes between these states. Therefore, “dying” and “coming to life” must balance:

What shall we do then? Shall we not supply the opposite process of
becoming? Is nature to be lame in this case? Or must we provide a process of becoming opposite to dying?


5. Therefore, everything must come back to life again

Therefore, he said, if there is such a thing as coming to life again, it
would be a process of coming from the dead to the living?


I can’t say for sure, but it seems to be that Socrates and Plato are heavily borrowing from Heraclitus’ ideas of the unity of opposites and the doctrine of flux. Please see my posts on Heraclitus for a more in-depth discussion of these ideas. 3

The Argument from Recollection, 72e-78b

I just covered Plato’s theory of recollection or innate ideas in Post 76 about Meno. This idea is most definitely Plato’s. Whether or not Socrates held these beliefs is difficult to say. Regardless, in Plato’s dialogues, he took the liberty to use Socrates as a mouthpiece for his ideas. These ideas are also found in Phaedrus.

In summary, the theory of recollection states that when presented with a certain idea or sense perception, this will often trigger knowledge about something else. Often, something triggers an idea that we were not previously aware of knowing. Therefore, this innate knowledge must derive from another source. In Meno, Socrates demonstrates that a common slave can do complex geometry without any previous knowledge thereof simply by asking the right questions to the slave to trigger his innate knowledge.

Based on these ideas, Socrates’ second proof for the existence of the soul goes something like this:
  1. Anything in the world that appears to be equal is, in reality, deficient because nothing is perfectly equal in this world.

Consider, he said, whether this is the case: we say that there is something that is equal. I do not mean a stick equal to a stick or a stone to a stone, or anything of that kind, but something else beyond all these, the Equal itself. Shall we say that this exists or not?


The answer to his rhetorical question is that, of course, equality exists. Things in this world that appear to be equal to one another, like two sticks, are in reality not equal to one another since nothing is perfectly equal in this world. Nothing that appears to be equal in this world is true equality.

These equal things and the Equal itself are therefore not the same?


Yet, strangely, this imperfect “equality” brings to mind or helps us to “recollect” the perfect notion of Equality itself.

But it is definitely from the equal things, though they are different from
that Equal, that you have derived and grasped the knowledge of equality? It makes no difference. As long as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection?

-74c, d

The only way that this is possible is to have some prior knowledge of ideal equality that we can then “recollect” as we are prompt by similar earthly concepts.

Whenever someone, on seeing something, realizes that that which he
now sees wants to be like some other reality but falls short and cannot be like that other since it is inferior, do we agree that the one who thinks
this must have prior knowledge of that to which he says it is like, but
deficiently so?

-74 d-e

Socrates states the four premises of the second argument and draws the conclusion that our souls must have existed prior to our being born because this knowledge cannot be gained empirically and no true example of ideal equality exists on earth.  

If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. If these realities do not exist, then this argument is altogether futile. Is this the position, that there is an equal necessity for those realities to exist, and for our souls to exist before we were born?


This argument, to me anyway, appears stronger and more intriguing than the cyclical argument above. In fact, Plato seems to give more credence to the reconciliation argument since he refers to it later in this dialogue (77a-b, 87a, 91e-92a, and 92d-e).

Later in the Middle Ages, philosophers like Anselm would use similar arguments in regard to the existence of God. Anselm believed that arguments from sound reason, apart from revelation, could be formulated to prove the existence of God. He used the idea of perfection. Nothing on earth is perfect, yet we all have a sense of perfection. How can we have a sense of the perfect if our sense experience does not present to us anything on earth that is perfect?

Anselm would say that the only reason we know the concept of perfection is because it exists. If we therefore have an idea of a perfect being, even though we have never encountered such an entity, then the only explanation is that a perfect being must exist. Kant supposedly discredited the Ontological Argument from Perfection for the existence of God, which is what people call it.  Everyone just assumes that since Kant “discredited” the argument, it is no longer credible. I am in the minority of modern thinkers in that I disagree with Kant’s disagreement. I think Anslem’s argument is both sound and valid. Not to mention that there is a lot with which to take issue with Kant’s epistemology in general, but that is for another time.

Having said that, I would tend to agree more with Socrates and Anselm than with Kant. Of course, as a Catholic, I do not believe in reincarnation. But I do believe in an innate knowledge of some sort that gives ideas of such concepts as eternity, perfection, and infinity without ever encountering or experiencing them. How can this be? Think about this paradox: we know the concept of infinity even though our minds cannot grasp it in its fullness. How can this be?

I attribute such a phenomenon to being created in the image of God, the Imago Dei, rather than reincarnation explaining it.    As such, we can comprehend spiritual and even ethereal concepts such as the ones just mentioned. Of course, we still, as humans, need general enlightenment or illumination from God, but we have all the “hardware” capable of understanding such concepts, unlike, say, a dog or a cat.

To return to the original idea of the existence of the soul. In my opinion, we can acquire this knowledge through divine revelation, i.e., the Holy Scripture, and philosophy or natural reason. If this were not the case, then the Greeks, sans special revelation, could never have even thought of the idea of a human soul that lives on after the death of the body. The modern “enlightened” Western materialistic culture, steeped in scientism, denies the existence of the soul, which makes it the only culture that has done so. This minority culture is also considered unenlightened. However, this ignorance cannot last forever, as the truth may be suppressed temporarily but can never be destroyed.  

The Affinity Argument, 78b-84b

This is Socrates’ third major argument in this dialogue on the existence of the soul. Since it relies on the notion that the soul has a similarity to a higher level of reality, commentators have given this argument the name “affinity argument.” Plato introduces us to his theory of forms and dualism, which he is so well-known for. Socrates speaks about these Platonic ideas. This is understandable since Phaedo takes place at the beginning of Plato’s “middle period.”  It was here that he appeared to use Socrates as more of a mouthpiece for his own ideas, unlike in his earlier dialogues.

For those of us familiar with Plato’s Forms, this will sound very familiar. Basically, there are two realities. On the one hand, we have the earthly, heterogeneous, visible existence that is imperfect and constantly changing—the many. It is represented by the body. On the other hand, we have the invisible world of forms. Which is divine, eternal, homogenous, invisible, and unchanging—the One. It is represented by the mind.

For those of us familiar with Plato’s Forms, this will sound very familiar. Basically, there are two existences. One one hand, we have the earthly, heterogeneous, visible, existence that is imperfect and constantly changing – the Many. It is represented by the body. On the other hand, we have invisible world of Forms which is divine, eternal, homogenous, invisible, and unchanging – the One. It is represented by the mind.

  1. In dealing with ideal concepts such as equality and beauty versus earthly particulars. Such as, horses and sticks, etc., Socrates says the following:

These latter you could touch and see and perceive with the other senses,
but those that always remain the same can only be grasped by the reasoning power of the mind? They are not seen but are invisible? Do you then want us to assume two kinds of existences, the visible and the invisible?


2. The soul is then more like the ideal world, whereas the body is more like the world of particulars.

So the soul is more like the invisible than the body, and the body more
like the visible? Haven’t we also said some time ago that when the soul makes use of the body to investigate something, be it through hearing or seeing or some other sense, it is dragged by the body to the things that are never the same…But when the soul investigates by itself it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do so; it ceases to stray and remains in the same state as it is in touch with things of the same kind, and its experience then is what is called wisdom?


Now this is where it gets interesting, as Socrates opens the door for the discussion of the afterlife and the method of “salvation”. If the soul has been sufficiently freed of bodily influence through philosophical training, then it will most likely make its way to the ideal world of forms. If the body has polluted the soul, then the soul will remain bound to the lower existence after death. Since the soul is the divine part of man, it must rule over the earthly part if it is to realize its full potential.

Look at it also this way: when the soul and the body are together, nature
orders the one to be subject and to be ruled, and the other to rule and be
master. Then again, which do you think is like the divine and which like
the mortal? Do you not think that the nature of the divine is to rule and
to lead, whereas it is that of the mortal to be ruled and be subject?


Though we Catholics do not embrace dualism and do not consider the body to be inherently flawed in comparison to the soul, we believe that man, in his fallen state, has a tendency to be governed by what we call his “lower nature”.  This lower nature comprises sinful desires and passions of the body, such as lust, gluttony, drunkenness, and drug use. Having said that, we believe that the body, though fallen, is basically good since everything that God has created is good.

Whereas Plato would say that the body, like all matter, is intrinsically evil. So even though there are similarities in the need to master the body in both worldviews, there is a marked philosophical difference between the two. Saint Paul did not state that the body is evil but admonished Christians to “put to death the deeds of the flesh” because it has been affected by sin due to the Fall that started in the Garden of Eden.

With that in mind, I would be naive to believe that this sort of mind-body dualism with its various accompanying ascetic practices has never crept into the church. History is full of examples of such practices as wearing hair shirts and disparaging views of legitimate sexual practice within marriage. Since Catholicism has roots not only in Jewish scriptural revelation but also in Greek philosophy, this should come as no surprise. Really, though, the similarity lies in the fact that we should always seek to master our bodily appetites and not let them rule over us.

You realize, he said, that when a man dies, the visible part, the body,
which exists in the visible world, and which we call the corpse, whose
natural lot it would be to dissolve, fall apart and be blown away, does
not immediately suffer any of these things but remains for a fair time,
in fact, quite a long time if the man dies with his body in a suitable
condition and at a favorable season?


Thus the fate of the body, which we are all aware of,

3. Socrates then proceeds the fate of the soul after the death of the body:

Will the soul, the invisible part which makes its way to a region of the same kind, noble and pure and invisible, to Hades in fact, to the good and wise God whither, God willing, my soul must soon be going—will the soul, being of this kind and nature, be scattered and destroyed on leaving the body, as the majority of men say? Far from it, my dear Cebes and Simmias, but what happens is much more like this: if it is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself together by itself and always practiced this, which is no other than practicing philosophy in the right way, in fact, training to die easily. Or is this not training for death? A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.


The fate of the soul is dependent on how we live life in the body. Were we masters of our bodies, the fruit of practicing the right philosophy, or were we mastered by our bodies in our brief time on earth? This is indeed salvation: making our way, through purity, to the world of forms. Again, this has a counterpart in Christianity:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God

-Matthew 5:8

But what about the soul that did not purify itself through philosophy?

But I think that if the soul is polluted and impure when it leaves the
body, having always been associated with it and served it, bewitched by
physical desires and pleasures to the point at which nothing seems to exist for it but the physical, which one can touch and see or eat and drink or make use of for sexual enjoyment, and if that soul is accustomed to hate and fear and avoid that which is dim and invisible to the eyes but intelligible and to be grasped by philosophy—do you think such a soul will escape pure and by itself?


Of course, not to answer Socrates’ question. The fate of such a soul, according to Socrates, is to wander the earth among the tombs. This is indeed a fitting punishment, since what better fate for those who were bound to earthly things in life to be bound to them in death?

And this, my friend, may be conceived to be that heavy, weighty, earthy element of sight by which such a soul is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because it is afraid of the invisible and of the world below— prowling about tombs and sepulchers, in the neighborhood of which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed pure, but are cloyed with sight and therefore visible.


Thus philosophy purifies one fate of the soul, while the other fate is forced to wander like a phantom due to being overly enamored with the physical world.  

This third argument, then, is an argument of quality or substance. Since the soul is comprised of the same substance as the world of forms, it would not dissipate like the body after death but would instead gravitate toward that which is like itself unless, as discussed, it were compromised. In other words, the soul belongs in a different world than this because it is of a different nature than this world.

Iron filings mixed with sand form an analogy. The iron filings move towards the magnet when it is brought over the mixture because the magnet and iron are made of the same substance unlike the sand.  


This sums up Plato’s main three arguments on the soul. There are, of course, significant objections by Cebes and Simmias, and Socrates’ answers to those include a fourth argument. I will cover those in Part 3 of this series on Phaedo.

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Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Plato: Phaedo, Tim Connolly, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. For more on the Greek view of reincarnation, please see Post 56.
  3. Please see the following Post 32 on Heraclitus
  4. Plato: Phaedo, Tim Connolly
  5. Ibid.
  6. Romans 8:13

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