Persons of the Dialogue : Socrates, Phaedo, Simmias, Cebes, Crito and Apollodorus
Scene : The Prison of Socrates
The dialogue is narrated by Phaedo to Echecrates, some time after Socrates’ death. The setting is early on the last morning of Socrates’ life. Phaedo lists those present, and notes that Plato was not there. Phaedo makes a point of describing Socrates’ attitude on this day: he appeared calm and fearless. When they have taken off Socrates’ chains, he remarks that pain and pleasure are two opposites that follow one another. Cebes notes that Evenus the poet had remarked at Socrates composing poetry: translating Aesop into verse, and composing a hymn to Apollo. Socrates explains that he has had a dream all his life to make music (poetry). Before, he had assumed that this meant his practice of philosophy, but he wanted to be safe that it did not mean actual poetry.
Cebes asks why suicide is considered wrong. The implication is that Socrates is too willing to die. Socrates argues that we are the possession of the gods, so to kill ourselves would be to rob them. Socrates expresses his belief that after death he will travel to the gods who are good and wise, and will be in the company of others who are better than those he will leave behind. Simmias asks Socrates to convince them and they will no longer charge him with suicide. Socrates claims that the philosopher pursues death--the separation of soul and body when the soul exists in herself and is parted from the body. Socrates argues that the philosopher is unconcerned with pleasures of the body that he would rather turn completely to the soul. The philosopher, Socrates says, seeks to sever the soul from the body. Socrates argues that when the soul seeks truth, the body deceives it. Truth is revealed in thought and thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself. Socrates then introduces a discussion of forms: absolutes of justice, beauty and good. These, he says, are not perceived with the bodily senses. Rather, these are perceived with an intellectual vision, with the mind alone. The body, he says, is a source of trouble that creates desires in us that keeps us from seeking the truth. To attain pure knowledge, we must part from the body.
So after death, when the soul is alone and without the body, we may be able to attain truth. So the philosopher seeks to separate the soul from the body and enjoy purification and will leave this life with joy and with no fear of death. Cebes agrees with what Socrates has said, but asks how we can know that the soul does not die with the body. Socrates begins his response by mentioning the doctrine of reincarnation that souls depart at death to another world and return, and are born from the dead. The living comes from the dead, so the soul must be in another world.
Socrates supports this by discussing opposites, such as good and evil, hot and cold, pain and pleasure, where one is generated out of its opposite. In this way, life and death are opposite and the process of life becoming death is visible, but the process of death becoming life is not. Simmias reminds the group of one of Socrates’ favorite doctrines, the Doctrine of Recollection: to learn something is actually remembering what has been forgotten. This would require the pre-existence of the soul in order to have the knowledge that is recollected in this life. Socrates supports this with the example of equality…to judge two things as unequal, we must first know what equality is…but we have no experience in this life of absolute equality. Therefore, this knowledge must come from some previous existence in which the soul must have existed. This applies also to all the other absolutes or forms. For all individual things we call by one name, there must be a single, essential nature which allows us to call them by the same name. This essence is the form. This form is not visible and is never seen on earth. Nevertheless, we must use it as a standard by which we judge things to be what they are. Therefore, it comes from a pre-existence state when we were directly aware of them, and now we recollect them when we encounter things on earth that are copies of these essences.
Cebes repeats his objection that, even if the soul existed before birth, it might be destroyed at death. Socrates returns to the theory of forms and explains that there are two sorts of existences, one seen and the other unseen. The seen is the changing, and the unseen is the unchanging. The body belongs to the visible and changing; the soul belongs to the invisible and unchanging. The philosopher seeks these unchanging forms and becomes like them. He is practicing death or the separation of soul and body and is purifying the soul of bodily elements that hold it down. Socrates discusses the souls or ghosts that linger around tombs, because they are too attached to the body. Then, Socrates states that if a person loves the body, he becomes more like body and this holds on to the soul after death. Then, he will be reborn as a lower form of life. If a person loves the soul, he becomes more like soul, and, the purified soul can escape after death and rise to the heavens.
Simmias suggests that the soul and body are analogous to harmony and the lyre. Harmony is invisible, without body, and divine, while the lyre is visible, material and earthly. But when the lyre is broken or the strings cut, the harmony dies. Thus, when the body is broken and dies, the soul dies too. Cebes offers another objection. He compares the soul to a coat made by a weaver. The weaver wears the coat until he dies and then someone else wears it. The coat may outlast many men who wear it, but finally is worn out and dies. The same could apply to the soul. It may be reborn several times and outlast several bodies, but it will finally perish.
Socrates argues that harmony is not like the soul. First, he reminds Simmias that he has already agreed that knowledge is recollection and that the soul exists prior to this life. Therefore, the soul exists before the body. However, the harmony of a lyre exists only after the existence of the lyre. Another difference between harmony and the soul is that the lyre causes and controls the harmony. However, the soul is not led by the body, but the other way around. Also, Socrates argues that harmony has degrees and can be more or less harmonious. This is not the case with the soul. Socrates says that in order to refute Cebes objection, he will have to discuss the process of generation and corruption which involves the natural sciences. He proceeds to scientifically explain the reason for his sitting in jail as the contraction of muscles and positioning of bones, but the real reason is that society has sentenced him to death, and he has chosen not to escape. Socrates again refers to the theory of forms as the cause of all things. Ideas exist and other things participate in them.
For example, beautiful things come from absolute beauty. This hold for all forms: no opposites ever become mixed with each other (hot and cold, life and death). Socrates states that the soul is the creator of life and it can never be mixed with death, which would be its opposite. Socrates then stresses the importance of taking good care of our soul at all times because of its immortality.
His friends worry about the burial logistics as if the corpse they will bury is Socrates. Socrates’ family returns. Once Socrates dismisses them, the jailer brings the poison. Cebes tells Socrates that there is still time to enjoy. However, Socrates thinks that there is nothing to be gained by delay. He drinks the poison and, following his jailer’s instructions, lies down when he feels his legs heavy. Socrates’ last words are to repay a debt, a sacrifice he owes to a god.
In the Phaedo, we meet Socrates on the morning of his own execution. Socrates suggests philosophy and contemplation as a method to cast away the fear of death. He believes that the philosophical life is a preparation for death and that the true philosopher looks forward to dying. It seems that if philosophers look upon death with good cheer, then they would not love life enough to learn and examine life and, therefore, death. Socrates makes a distinction between two types of death, figurative and literal, and defines death as the release of the soul from the body. The responsibility of the philosopher is to seek the truth and to prepare for the afterlife. Socrates notes that the body leads us away from the truth. The discussion about the separation of body and soul leads to the discussion of the immortality of the soul. Socrates presents three arguments.
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