PLATO: Phaedo

The Phaedo is a Platonic dialogue that relates the conversation between Socrates and his friends on the day of his execution. Given the circumstances, the conversation naturally turns to questions concerning death, the soul, and the afterlife.

The friends of Socrates are sad about his impending death, but Socrates tells them that he is cheerful at the thought of death, and he promises to tell them why. “I desire to prove to you that the real philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to obtain the greatest good in the other world.”

Socrates explains that man can only attain wisdom after death; for it is only then that the mind is liberated from the distractions of the body. “The body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. The soul in herself must behold things in themselves: and only then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, not while we live, but after death.”

Despite Socrates’ confidence, some of his friends are not convinced that the soul will survive the death of the body. They are fearful that when the body dies, so too will the soul. To dispel their fears, Socrates presents four arguments: 1) The Cyclical Argument; 2) The Theory of Recollection; 3) The Affinity Argument; and 4) The Argument from the Form of Life.

The Cyclical Argument asserts that contraries are generated from their contraries. For example, sleeping is the contrary of waking and vice versa. The state of sleeping is generated from the state of waking and vice versa, so too with all other contraries. Swiftness is generated from slowness, bigness from littleness, etc. Life is the contrary of death; and therefore, life is generated from death just as death is generated from life. Socrates concludes that “If generation were in a straight line only, and there were no compensation or circle in nature, no turn or return of elements into their opposites, then you know that all things would at last have the same form and pass into the same state, and there would be no more generation of them. If all things which partook of life were to die, and after they were dead remained in the form of death, and did not come to life again, all would at last die, and nothing would be alive.”

The Theory of Recollection claims that we have knowledge of abstract ideas – such as Beauty, Equality, and Justice – because we became acquainted with them in a former life. To clarify this argument, let’s consider Equality. Absolute Equality does not exist in this universe. Two logs might be very similar in length, but they are not equal. Perfect circles, squares, and triangles do not exist either. Whence comes our knowledge of Absolute Equality and geometric figures then if we have never encountered them in this world? Socrates answers that we encountered them before our birth in the Realm of the Forms. This realization leads us to conclude that our soul must have existed before our birth.

The Affinity Argument claims that the soul bears an affinity to the invisible, the immortal, and the indissoluble, while the body exhibits an affinity to the visible, the mortal, and the dissoluble. Socrates first remarks that the Forms – such as Beauty, Equality, and Justice – are invisible and immutable. The soul likewise is invisible and immutable. The body, on the other hand, is visible and subject to change. Finally, the soul resembles the divine because the soul commands the body, not vice versa. Thus, Socrates concludes that because the soul bears an affinity to the Eternal forms and the Divine gods, the soul must also be immortal.

The Argument from the Form of Life claims that the soul is immortal because the soul is the Form of Life, or the cause of life. Just as things are beautiful insomuch as they partake in the Form of Beauty, so too are things alive insomuch as they partake in the Form of Life. In other words, things that are alive possess a soul. Just as fire – the bringer of heat – can never be cold; and just as snow – the bringer of cold – can never be hot; so too the soul – the bringer of life – can never be dead.

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“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 are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head. And I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed.”

“I desire to prove to you that the real philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to obtain the greatest good in the other world.”

“While we are in the body, and while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire will not be satisfied; and our desire is of the truth. For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth. It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves: and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say that we are lovers, not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body, the soul cannot have pure knowledge, one of two things follows—either knowledge is not to be attained at all, or, if at all, after death. For then, and not till then, the soul will be parted from the body and exist in herself alone. In this present life, I reckon that we make the nearest approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion with the body, and are not surfeited with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us. And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and hold converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth. For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure.”

“Will he who is a true lover of wisdom, and is strongly persuaded in like manner that only in the world below he can worthily enjoy her, still repine at death? Will he not depart with joy? Surely he will, O my friend, if he be a true philosopher. For he will have a firm conviction that there and there only, he can find wisdom in her purity. And if this be true, he would be very absurd, as I was saying, if he were afraid of death.”

“Yet the exchange of one fear or pleasure or pain for another fear or pleasure or pain, and of the greater for the less, as if they were coins, is not the exchange of virtue. O my blessed Simmias, is there not one true coin for which all things ought to be exchanged?—and that is wisdom; and only in exchange for this, and in company with this, is anything truly bought or sold, whether courage or temperance or justice.”

“Are not all things which have opposites generated out of their opposites? I will analyze one of the two pairs of opposites which I have mentioned to you, and also its intermediate processes, and you shall analyze the other to me. One of them I term sleep, the other waking. The state of sleep is opposed to the state of waking, and out of sleeping waking is generated, and out of waking, sleeping; and the process of generation is in the one case falling asleep, and in the other waking up.”

“If generation were in a straight line only, and there were no compensation or circle in nature, no turn or return of elements into their opposites, then you know that all things would at last have the same form and pass into the same state, and there would be no more generation of them.”

“You know that if there were no alternation of sleeping and waking, the tale of the sleeping Endymion would in the end have no meaning, because all other things would be asleep, too, and he would not be distinguishable from the rest. Or if there were composition only, and no division of substances, then the chaos of Anaxagoras would come again. And in like manner, my dear Cebes, if all things which partook of life were to die, and after they were dead remained in the form of death, and did not come to life again, all would at last die, and nothing would be alive—what other result could there be? For if the living spring from any other things, and they too die, must not all things at last be swallowed up in death?”

“There is no better way to spend your money than on eliminating the fear of death.”

“The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintellectual, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable.”

“The true votaries of philosophy abstain from all fleshly lusts, and hold out against them and refuse to give themselves up to them,—not because they fear poverty or the ruin of their families, like the lovers of money, and the world in general; nor like the lovers of power and honour, because they dread the dishonour or disgrace of evil deeds.”

“Each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body, until she becomes like the body, and believes that to be true which the body affirms to be true; and from agreeing with the body and having the same delights she is obliged to have the same habits and haunts, and is not likely ever to be pure at her departure to the world below, but is always infected by the body; and so she sinks into another body and there germinates and grows, and has therefore no part in the communion of the divine and pure and simple.”

“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 out of the too great confidence of inexperience;—you trust a man and think him altogether true and sound 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 when it happens among those whom he deems to be his own most trusted and familiar friends, 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.”

“Few are the good and few the evil. The great majority are in the interval between them.”

“How melancholy, if there be such a thing as truth or certainty or possibility of knowledge—that a man should have lighted upon some argument or other which at first seemed true and then turned out to be false, and instead of blaming himself and his own want of wit, because he is annoyed, should at last be too glad to transfer the blame from himself to arguments in general: and for ever afterwards should hate and revile them, and lose truth and the knowledge of realities.”

“Let us then, in the first place, he said, be careful of allowing or of admitting into our souls the notion that there is no health or soundness in any arguments at all. Rather say that we have not yet attained to soundness in ourselves, and that we must struggle manfully and do our best to gain health of mind.”

“Harmony is not like the soul, as you suppose; but first the lyre, and the strings, and the sounds exist in a state of discord, and then harmony is made last of all, and perishes first.”

“When the body is hot and thirsty, does not the soul incline us against drinking? and when the body is hungry, against eating? And this is only one instance out of ten thousand of the opposition of the soul to the things of the body. A harmony can never utter a note at variance with the tensions and relaxations and vibrations and other affections of the strings out of which she is composed; she can only follow, she cannot lead them.”

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4 thoughts on “PLATO: Phaedo”

  1. I think that opposites are faces of the same coin, however with the soul, one needs to find something more than the body, not just a mortal object, but an infinite mortal object. I think that the soul is liberated not merely from the physical attributes of the body, but also from the attributes of the mind. Thoughts are the direct opposites of the soul. The body is a meeting point of soul and thoughts. Their collaboration together brings that perfect shape that we know exists, but have never seen. In my opinion, this perfection, of mind, soul – and even body, is accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which in fact is not a religious event, but rather an overlooked philosophical truth.

    1. You make a very interesting observation that thoughts are the “direct opposites” of the soul. Can you explain the nature of the soul a little bit more? Is it physical or non-physical? How do the soul and thoughts meet at the point of the body? How does the soul interact with thoughts and with the body?

      I am very interested in this topic, and genuinely interested in reading your interpretation of the soul.

  2. Thoughts, are like the soul, they’re real and one can’t trace their source. Christ speaks about thoughts as if they are real deeds. Just thinking about something and you may very well consider that you’ve done it. Apparently thoughts do have this kind of power which is actually also being praised by many today who can talk all day long about the power of positive thinking and how one thought reflected back upon one’s life and gives it direction. So, where is the soul in all these? I think that the soul is the one whom we grow up to understand. We are not aware of our soul till our thoughts mature and till we start to think, and of course we don’t start thinking till our brain is ready for it – one can recall here the many different stages of brain development and how that affects our thinking. So, we have a soul, we are given one and we grow up to meet it with our brain and our thoughts. This is also reason to think that people whose thinking ability is faulty due to illnesses or diseases, they do have a soul, which they are limited to understand. So, what is the soul? The soul is that eternal bite with which God feeds us. We can’t put into words, can’t articulate with our thoughts what our soul makes visible to us. It’s sort of like an animal can’t explain its instincts yet it knows how to follow them. The body is the meeting point of soul, thoughts and body. The body we have is getting old and slowly dies. Christ promises a new body (and he shows that new body in his resurrection) a body where the soul and our most perfect thoughts (like perfect circles) will get to meet and live forever. In that perfect definition there will be no need for opposites. In that perfect life, or perfect dimension – all will be perfect.

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