Despite all of our technology, the Greeks were, in many ways, wiser than we are. We should not mistake knowledge for wisdom, for we have much more knowledge. They were wiser for many reasons, but especially because they recognized that human beings have immortal souls, something that we have lost today. This is the subject of Plato’s Phaedo.
I have been working off of the following outline:
The outline of the dialogues in 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)
Two Objections to Socrates’ Arguments
Socrates’ three arguments were met with silence:
When Socrates had done speaking, for a considerable time there was silence; he himself and most of us appeared to be meditating on what had been said; only Cebes and Simmias spoke a few words to one another. And Socrates observing this asked them what they thought of the argument, and whether there was anything wanting.84b-c
Finally, Socrates broke the silence and asked if there were any objections. At first, Cebes and Simmias were reticent because, of course, this was the day of Socrates’ execution. But he eventually coaxed them to speak their minds, saying that he did not consider his present circumstances a misfortune:
Socrates laughed in a measured way and said: ‘Well, well,84d-e
Simmias, so I guess I am not very likely to persuade other people that I do not regard my present situation as a misfortune‘.
Socrates goes on to say that, since he has been a faithful servant to Apollo, he has prophetic insight into the good that awaits him in the afterlife.
Simmias is the first to speak. He attacks Socrates’ third argument first, that of the affinity argument. (see Post 79). In that argument, Socrates states that in this life, the invisible, divine soul and the material body are joined together. Once the body dies, the soul will return to that for which it has an affinity, the invisible, spiritual world. Cebes makes the analogy that if the body were the strings of a lyre and the soul, the harmony, After the lyre perished, the harmony would cease as well.
Cebes speaks next in regard to the same argument. He does agree that the soul exists before birth and is reincarnated. But just like a man who uses many cloaks throughout his life, replacing a worn-out one with a new one, so too a soul uses different bodies. But eventually, the soul dies just like the man. Since one never knows if this life will be his last, he should fear death.
Interlude on Misology (89b–91c)
After the first set of counterarguments, the debate takes a brief excursion into the topic of misology, or the hating of ideas. It can also be considered the hating of debate, argument, reasoning, or enlightenment. It would be tempting to skip over this section except for the fact that it describes to a tee a major problem in the West today: a hatred of reasonable discourse. We talk about many phobias today, such as homophobia, Islamophobia, etc., but how about debate phobia, or what the Greeks called misology?
In this interlude, Phaedo is recounting to Echecrates, after the fact of Socrates’ death, how pleasant Socrates was during the debates, receiving the arguments of Cebes and Simmias well without getting upset:
I tell you, Echecrates: as often as I have admired Socrates, I have never been so88e-89a
awed by him as I was when I was there at that moment. The fact that he had
something to say in response was perhaps nothing all that unusual, but the thing that really astounded me was, first, how gently and pleasantly and respectfully he received the argument of the young men [Simmias and Cebes].
Oh, that we could imitate Socrates’ example and debate like this today. But the present atmosphere is so toxic that it does not seem likely. In fact, it only seems to be getting worse.
Phaedo goes on to say that Socrates even warned his interlocutors that one danger should be avoided in debate. When they asked him what it was, he replied:
“The danger of becoming misologists,” he replied, “which is one of the very89d-e
worst things that can happen to us. For as there are misanthropists or haters of men, there are also misologists or haters of ideas, and both spring from the same cause, which is ignorance of the world. Misanthropy arises from the too great confidence of inexperience; you trust a man and think him altogether true and good and faithful, and then in a little while he turns out to be false and knavish; and then another and another, and when this has happened several times to a man, especially within the circle of his most trusted friends, as he deems them, and he has often quarreled with them, he at last hates all men, and believes that no one has any good in him at all. I dare say that you must have observed this.”
Of all the so-called hatreds that people are accused of today, perhaps, after the hatred of Christ, misanthropy is a close second. And the reason for this, Socrates states, is ignorance of the world. If one hates God, then one will be ignorant of the world God created. So this really makes perfect sense when we look at the big picture. And I found this to be true as well: it is difficult to have a reasonable discussion with ignorant people who hate knowledge and enlightenment.
Response to the Objections of Simmias and Cebes (91e–107b)
It is in response to these objections that Plato beautifully sets up the dialogue for Socrates fourth and final argument, which is followed by his execution. He at first responds to Simmias with some minor points that aren’t worth mentioning here. Then he addresses Cebes’ more substantial arguments, which lead into some fascinating discussion as Plato brings this dialogue to a crescendo. What is so fascinating about this is that Socrates recounts his intellectual history, starting as a young man, to make his points.
I want to call attention, like I have in other places, to Plato as the masterful dramatist. He simultaneously weaves Socrates’ intellectual history into the argumentation about the afterlife and the narrative about Socrates’ impending execution. The genius of this approach is that it is very organic. How natural is it, when someone is facing death, to reflect back on their life from the beginning? In this dialogue, we get to briefly reflect back with Socrates on his intellectual journey, which puts closure not only on Socrates’ philosophy but on his life as well. This is one of the reasons why Plato’s dialogues have endured for over two thousand years. Once the present storm of anti-intellectualism in the West passes, I expect a resurgence in the popularity of these dialogues as we seek to pick up the pieces of a broken culture.
Socrates’ Intellectual History (96a–102a)
After summarizing Cebes’ objection that the soul may outlast the body yet not be immortal, Socrates says that this problem requires “a thorough investigation of the cause of generation and destruction” (96a; the Greek word aitia, translated as “cause,” has the more general meaning of “explanation”). He now proceeds to relate his own examinations to this subject, recalling in turn his youthful puzzlement about the topic, his initial attraction to a solution given by the philosopher Anaxagoras (500–428 B.C.), and finally his development of his own method of explanation involving forms. It is debated whether this account is meant to describe Socrates’ intellectual autobiography or Plato’s own, since the theory of forms is generally described as the latter’s distinctive contribution. (Some commentators have suggested that it may be neither, but instead just good storytelling on Plato’s part.)
In Post 79, I discussed Socrates’ three arguments for the afterlife, one of which is the cyclical argument. The springboard for this is answering Cebes’ objection above that just because the soul returns in different bodies does not mean that it is immortal. He then recounts his thoughts and inquiries as a young man:
When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called Natural Science; this appeared to me to have lofty aims, as being the science which has to do with the causes of things, and which teaches why a thing is, and is created and destroyed; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of such questions as these: Is the growth of animals the result of some decay which the hot and cold principle contracts, as some have said? Is the blood the element with which we think, or the air, or the fire? or perhaps nothing of this sort – but the brain may be the originating power of the perceptions of hearing and sight and smell, and memory and opinion may come from them, and science may be based on memory and opinion when no longer in motion, but at rest. And then I went on to examine the decay of them, and then to the things of the sky above and the earth below, and at last I concluded that I was wholly incapable of these inquiries, as I will satisfactorily prove to you96a-96c
This is typical Socrates, starting from the point of admitting ignorance, which has been the theme throughout his life. True wisdom comes from a the starting point of admitting ignorance. As we remember Socrates’ life, this is a good lesson for us all. He finally admits his total confusion on the concept:
Nor am I any longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else either is generated or destroyed or is at all, but I have in my mind some confused notion of another method, and can never admit this.-97b
Socrates first turned to Anaxagoras to find answers. 1 Anaxagoras stated that the mind was the cause of all things.
Then I heard someone who had a book of Anaxagoras, as he said, out of which he read that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was quite delighted at the notion of this, which appeared admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place.97b-c
He found himself soon disappointed:2
What hopes I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind [98c] or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones…98b-c
He finally comes to another point of frustration, yet with a teaser about a glimmer of hope, prompting us to read on:
But as I have failed either to discover myself or to learn of anyone else, the nature of the best, I will exhibit to you, if you like, what I have found to be the second best mode of inquiring into the cause.-99c-d
This “second best mode”, or “second voyage,” as it is sometimes rendered, leads us right to Plato’s theory of forms. Plato’s theory of forms was his baby, so to speak. So it is interesting that one of the last ideas that Plato has Socrates expound, right before his death, is his theory of forms, which is probably Plato’s way of putting Socrates’ imprimatur on his main idea. After all, people will often tell you their most important ideas when their death is imminent.
Socrates and Plato were rationalists, for sure, in the pre-Enlightenment sense of the term. In other words, they exalted ideas over sense information as a guide to the truth. This statement is very revealing to that end:
That occurred to me, and I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them. And I thought that I had better have recourse to ideas, and seek in them the truth of existence.-99e
He then goes on to give examples of forms without explaining in detail what they are. That is a topic for other dialogues. Below, he discusses how beautiful things participate in the form of beauty:
I know nothing and can understand nothing of any other of those wise100c-d
causes which are alleged; and if a person says to me that the bloom of color,
or form, or anything else of that sort is a source of beauty, I leave all that, which is only confusing to me, and simply and singly, and perhaps foolishly, hold and am assured in my own mind that nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.
After getting Cebes and Simmias to agree with this idea, Socrates then proceeds to make his final argument.
The Final Argument (102b–107b)
The following five-point summary is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s article on Phaedo:
1. Nothing can become its opposite while still being itself; it either flees away or is destroyed at the approach of its opposite. (For example, “tallness” cannot become “shortness” while still being “tall.”) (102d-103a)
2. This is true not only of opposites but, in a similar way, of things that contain opposites. (For example, “fire” and “snow” are not themselves opposites, but “fire” always brings “hot” with it, and “snow” always brings “cold” with it. So “fire” will not become “cold” without ceasing to be “fire,” nor will “snow” become “hot” without ceasing to be “snow.” (103c-105b)
3. The soul always brings “life” with it. (105c-d)
4. Therefore, soul will never admit the opposite of “life,” that is, “death,” without ceasing to be soul. (105d-e)
5. But what does not admit death is also indestructible. (105e-106d)
6. Therefore, the soul is indestructible. (106e-107a)
Cebes objected to point 1 above because, earlier in his cyclical argument, Socrates based his argument on the fact that “out of the greater came the less, and out of the less the greater”. Socrates then distinguishes between things that have opposite properties and the opposites themselves, thus making some ontological distinctions. I wonder how many people have discussed ontology on their death beds.
Several ontological points are to be made here that are derived from premise 1 above. Simmias, for example, can participate in the form of tallness and in the form of shortness and still remain Simmias. The form of tallness itself, though, cannot admit its opposite. Therefore, the thing cannot admit the opposite of its form, such as Simmias’ tallness, without fleeing away or being destroyed. Premise 2 introduces the concept that there are certain things, like fire, that, by their nature, always participate in the form of hotness and cannot, therefore, participate in the form of coldness. I would add that the same substance as fire could participate in either the form of largeness or the form of smallness, but not both at the same time.
This whole concept foreshadows Aristotle’s notion of substance and accidents. Substance is what makes something what it is—its identity—whereas an accident is a changeable characteristic of a particular substance. Changing accidents do not alter the basic identity of something. For example, one dog (substance) may be large (accident), and another may be small. Or one may take a long-haired dog and shave off all of its hair, and its identity will not change as a dog or as that particular dog. Aristotle would go on to develop these concepts even though, ironically, he rejected Plato’s theory of forms.
In 100d above, when Socrates introduced his theory of forms, he gave what he called the “safe answer” that what makes something beautiful is that it participates in the form of beauty. Now he nuances it a bit more. His more “sophisticated answer” is what follows:
I think that I may begin again; and to the question which I am about to ask I will beg you to give not the old safe answer, but another, of which I will offer you an example; and I hope that you will find in what has been just said another foundation which is as safe. I mean that if anyone asks you ‘what that is, the inherence of which makes the body hot,’ you will reply not heat [105c] (this is what I call the safe and stupid answer), but fire, a far better answer, which we are now in a condition to give. Or if anyone asks you ‘why a body is diseased,’ you will not say from disease, but from fever; and instead of saying that oddness is the cause of odd numbers, you will say that the monad is the cause of them: and so of things in general, as I dare say that you will understand sufficiently without my adducing any further examples.105b-c
Here he introduces the idea of an entity of causation. So if we go back to premise 3, that the soul always brings life with it, we can say that the soul is always that entity in regards to the form of life. Later, Aristotle would put this in terms of the soul being the form of the body, which is the substance. So as fire always brings with it the form of hotness, excluding the form of coldness, so the soul will always bring with it the form of life, excluding its opposite.
If there is any weak link in Socrates’ argument, it is premise 5: “What does not admit death is also indestructible”. Premise 1 may indeed undermine it. Just as coldness can destroy the hotness of fire, the opposite of the soul’s life, death, could theoretically destroy it. I think that this is a pretty fair point. Socrates was aware of this weakness and thus tried to block the point as follows:
If the soul is really immortal, what care should be taken of it, not only in respect of the portion of time which is called life, but of eternity! And the danger of neglecting it from this point of view does indeed appear to be awful. If death had only been the end of all, the wicked would have had a good bargain in dying, for they would have been happily quit not only of their body, but of their own evil together with their soul. But now, as the soul plainly appears to be immortal, there is no release or salvation from evil except the107c-d
attainment of the highest virtue and wisdom. For the soul when on its progress to the world below takes nothing with it but nurture and education; which are indeed said greatly to benefit or greatly to injure the departed, at the very beginning of its pilgrimage in the other world. ‘For after death, as they say, the daimōn3 that is within each individual, to whom he [the daimōn] belonged in life, leads him to a certain place in which the dead are gathered together for judgment, whence they go into the world below‘.
He makes a couple arguments here, one for justice and the other for tradition. In regards to justice, and I would say that this is a strong point, everyone has an innate sense of right and wrong and, as an extension, the concept of justice, rewards, and punishments. The fabric of the cosmos interweaves the concept of justice. Therefore, the annihilation of the soul would thwart the entire concept of justice. Rewards would go unrewarded, and just punishments would not be meted out.
Secondly, Socrates appeals to widely held traditions, which, he would assume, Cebes and Simmias would concur with. He states, “For after death, as they say...” What happens after death? Well, everyone knows that the individual’s daimn, or spirit guide, ushers the person into the netherworld for judgment.
At the end of this section, Simmias concurs that Socrates’s arguments are strong but that he needed more time to sift through them. Socrates understands and says that eventually, as Simmias reviewed the arguments, he would come to the same conclusion. This is the other beauty of the Socratic dialogues. Plato never shoves truth down our throats but gives us the dignity of coming to our own conclusions, a good lesson for all of us.
This ends the “philosophical” section and segues beautifully into the afterlife and eventually Socrates’ execution.
The Myth about the Afterlife (107c–115a)
Socrates now goes on to elucidate the realities of the afterlife. I am sure that, at this point, everyone was leaning forward. In summary, there are three fates that a soul can experience upon the death of the body. The first is for the impure and those who have committed serious crimes:
But the soul which desires the body, and which, as I was relating before, has long been fluttering about the lifeless frame and the world of sight, is after many struggles and many sufferings hardly and with violence carried away by its attendant daimōn, and when it arrives at the place where the other souls are gathered, if it be impure and have done impure deeds, or been concerned in foul murders or other crimes which are the brothers of these, and the works of brothers in crime—from that soul everyone flees and turns away; no one will be its companion, no one its guide, but alone it wanders in extremity of evil until certain times are fulfilled, and when they are fulfilled, it is borne irresistibly to its own fitting habitation.108a-c
This person, either loving the body too much, i.e., having indulged in wanton pleasures, or being an actual evildoer such as a murderer, would be fated to wander around alone until the designated time of its reincarnation. As Socrates stated earlier, this does not necessarily mean as another human. But, if the person had been markedly despicable, then he may possibly return as an animal like a jackass.
The second group are those who appeared to be neither good nor totally bad:
And those who appear to have lived neither well nor ill, go to the river Acheron, and mount such conveyances as they can get, and are carried in them to the lake, and there they dwell and are purified of their evil deeds, and suffer the penalty of the wrongs which they have done to others, and are absolved, and receive the rewards of their good deeds according to their deserts. But those who appear to be incurable by reason of the greatness of their crimes – who have committed many and terrible deeds of sacrilege, murders foul and violent, or the like – such are hurled into Tartaros, which is their suitable destiny, and they never come out. Those again who have committed crimes,113d-114a
which, although great, are not unpardonable—who in a moment of anger, for
example, have done violence to a father or mother, and have repented for the
remainder of their lives, or who have taken the life of another under like extenuating circumstances—these are plunged into Tartaros, the pains of which they are compelled to undergo for a year
They go to a place of purging in the river Acheron. There, they were all purified. The authorities gave due rewards to those who were found good, while they threw those who were completely evil into Tartarus forever. They also sentenced those who had committed evil but repented to one year of confinement in Tartarus. After serving their sentence, they were released to seek mercy from their victims.
The third path is the best path of all and is reserved for those who have purified themselves with philosophy, the only true salvation.
Those also who are remarkable for having led holy lives are released from this earthly prison, and go to their pure home which is above, and dwell in the purer earth; and those who have duly purified themselves with philosophy live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansions fairer far than these, which may not be described, and of which the time would fail me to tell. ‘Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do in order to obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize [āthlon], and the hope great’.114b-c
There are a couple points to note here in closing. First of all, it is interesting that this group of people go up “to their pure home, which is above, and dwell in a purer earth… in mansions fairer than these” rather than down to Hades. Before the Christian concept of heaven and hell, everyone in the classical world and even the Jewish world, both good and bad, went down to the nether parts of the earth. This is a very unusual take, to say the least. Secondly, I find it interesting that the ideas of mansions above, a place of temporary purgation, and a place of eternal torment loosely comport with the Catholic view of the afterlife.
And finally, this is a great point for Plato to close on before Socrates’s execution, for this is Plato’s way of giving honor to his master by stating that this was the fate of his beloved teacher after his death, for he was the consummate philosopher. And by implication, we would all do well to follow his example. So really, then, Socrates death was a victory for truth and a victory for Socrates. As far as the details of his actual execution, see Post 2. This ends my post on the life of Socrates.
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Footnotes and Endnotes:
- Please see my post on Anaxagoras’ theory of the Mind as the cause of all things.
- It seems like Socrates/Plato misrepresent Anaxagoras on this matter. If you read my post, you will see that his arguments are far more sound then represented here. It is possibly because Plato wants to clear the way for his theory of Forms, but even Plato pokes many holes in this theory in his dialogue Parmenides.
- The Greek word, daimōn, from which we get the word “demon”, meant “spirit guide” or what some would term today “guardian angel”.
- Socrates uses the word muthos (myth) in 110b, to describe the afterlife. Earlier, when describing the same things, he used logos (argument). For the ancient Greeks, myth or mythology did not carry with it the same negative connotation that it does today. Plato, in other dialogues, uses the idea of myth to bolster various arguments that he makes as if they contained truth albeit a different sort of truth than logos.