Plato, Phaedo and the ‘death’ of Socrates
Stepping from the Crito to the Phaedo dialogue, Plato moves onto more solid ground by switching the discussion to the soul; here, we might not agree with Socrates’s ideas about existence beyond death, but it is much clearer why his beliefs have led him to welcome dying as the soul’s release from the body.
The question of death hangs over much of human existence. While we might decide not to study the subject very carefully, we’re all required to take the final exam. Personally, I tend not to subscribe to either the “you die and rot” or the “you live forever in paradise schools”, since I suspect the advocates of neither position have spent a great deal of time dead. I’ll admit I’ve given more money to the live forever in paradise people, since I prefer the cut of their jib; but I often wonder if even seeing this as an open question isn’t wishful thinking. I have not given money to Hindus, although I’ll admit they offer a great bargain: if you’re not fully enlightened, your next life is absolutely free!
The dialogue records Phaedo’s reminiscences of Socrates in jail, cheerfully awaiting death as a release from the body, which he calls the true aim of philosophy. The moment has been delayed. Note: each year, Athens sent a ship to Delos to commemorate the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur and Minoan Crete. No executions were carried out until the ship returned. Socrates, therefore, had plenty of time to escape. He chose to stay and face his death. Here he explains why he welcomes death.
Socrates argues for existence beyond death by first arguing from opposites: heat arises from its opposite of cold, sleep leads to the opposite state of waking; thus, life must come into being from its opposite state of death. (Note the influence of Heraclitus here.) To be correct, heat is not really the opposite of cold, nor sleeping strictly the opposite of waking; however, life does lead to death and, according to Socrates, this implies that life originates from something like death.
His second point references the Meno dialogue, where he argues for innate knowledge preceding life. Certain concepts we seem to know without being taught and Socrates thinks this implies a state prior to embodied life and thus outside of the physical body. There is some evidence, in fact, of inherited knowledge- for example, blind-since-birth people having “knowledge” of certain images they could never have seen. Socrates uses examples drawn from the Forms: we seem to know what beauty and goodness are innately; I might add that we seem to recognize symmetry without being “taught” it. We probably don’t want to call this “race knowledge”; but Jung’s “collective unconscious” might well be based in genetic fact. While this doesn’t mean Socrates is right about a pre-life, at least he seems to be discussing a real phenomenon. Thinking genetically, it is fascinating to imagine that there are aspects of us that existed in our predecessors prior to our birth.
Socrates then argues that the soul, like the Forms, is invisible, unchanging, pure and everlasting. After death, the body decomposes, while the soul is freed to a “place that is glorious, pure, and invisible… into the presence of the good and wise God.” In terms that recall Hinduism, Socrates argues that many souls will once again be “imprisoned in the body” as animals or even humans; but the philosopher: the lover of wisdom, will “attain to the divine nature”. It’s an interesting point in an era in which we don’t tend to think of philosophy as spiritual work, but secular.
As an objection, Simmias proposes the “harmonic soul” theory, dear to the Pythagoreans: the soul is a “state of attunement”, in which all of the body’s states are held in perfect balance, similar to a lyre that is ready to be played. If the soul is this attunement, it would not survive the destruction of the body. Socrates rejects this theory as at odds with: the recollection theory, the fact that souls can be badly tuned themselves, and that there are degrees of attunement, but not of souls. The first point is logical: if we believe in a pre-life, there cannot be attunement before there’s an instrument. The latter point is confusing- Socrates thinks that the mixture of badness and goodness in the human soul is too nuanced for the attunement theory to work; but is it really? It seems that a psychologist could explain the soul as a physical instrument that simply seems bad when the chemical elements are not in the right balance, negating both Socrates’s idea of the soul and the existence of a soul as such. This might be why I get a chill whenever I read books on neurophysiology.
The student Cebes makes a more interesting objection: even if the soul is godlike and long-lasting, existing before birth, this does not necessitate it existing after death. It’s a harder objection to respond to. In response, Socrates recalls, as a young man, he was fascinated with why things come to be, cease to exist, and how they are, and studied these things avidly. He was thrilled by Anaxagoras’s concept of a Universal Intelligence organizing all things, but disappointed that Anaxagoras didn’t expand the theory.
This led Socrates to the theory that I think is most clearly identified with Plato and Platonism: that of the Forms. By the theory, what we recognize when we call something “beautiful” is that it is partaking in the eternal, unchanging, divine Idea of Beauty. Ideas like Beauty, Goodness, Duality, Largeness, and so forth, are intelligible (mental) Forms that exist outside of the physical world and our individual minds. Like our souls, they are eternal and invisible. While an object can be hot or cold, according to the Forms it partakes of, Hotness and Coldness are opposite Ideas that cannot partake of each other. Similarly, what gives a body the quality of life is the Soul, which itself, as a pure Idea, cannot partake of death and must be undying.
What’s fascinating is that it seems there must be some third thing between the Idea and the particular- an imminent subject within which the particular is manifest; however, Socrates never names it, at least not in any surviving dialogue. He just gives a vague concept of stuff that gets stamped with the Forms, and which might be some combination of earth, air, fire and water. But what is it? Perhaps there is a missing dialogue on the subject.
It’s also fascinating that Socrates seems to have an animus against the body throughout the dialogues, finally embracing death as akin to release from prison. Matthew’s interesting post recently about embodied knowledge reminded me that Socrates looks down on embodied knowledge as a knack, a sort of false knowledge. It’s hard to relate to Socrates- the kinesthetic wisdom of dancers, for example, simply floors me in much the same way as watching a brilliant philosopher thinking aloud; it’s hard to see one as “false”. Also, if Western philosophy really is a footnote to Plato, as the old line goes, one wonders how deep this antagonism between the mind and body runs in western thought.
At some points, Socrates sounds like Siddh?rtha Gautama, proposing that we overcome the delusions caused by our perceptions and desires. We heard the same among the pre-Socratics; maybe this is typical philosophical boilerplate. Nevertheless, the Buddha himself proposed a third way, a present-minded and embodied awareness that is neither voluptuousness nor asceticism. Socrates, on the other hand, goes from a somewhat Buddhist indifference to physical desires to outright rejection of being in the body. This stance seems unworkable- taken too far and we’re indifferent to anything on earth. Most traditions have mendicants who go to these extremes. I still remember the ‘wise man’ in Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta who had remained standing for seven years, heaven knows why.
Besides, plenty of wisdom comes to us through the senses. I have learned more on certain solitary walks than by reading any book of philosophy. Belief in the soul is one thing; but until death, existence means existence in the body, and life lived in rejection of the body would be spiritually enervating as well. As for what comes after death, we’ll find out soon enough (although, if I had a choice, I would be willing to take someone else’s word on it.)
1. Talking about the trial and death of Socrates has gotten me thinking about reading Aristophanes’s Clouds. Talking about the Meno has gotten me interested in reading that too. Although, given the confused order, it might seem like we’re talking about a Zombie Socrates. If anyone in Hollywood wants to option Zombie Socrates, get in touch.