PH101 Perspectives in Philosophy/ Dr. Smillie

Plato's Phaedo (An outline and interpretation)

1. Preliminary Scene (setting) (57-59c)

Phaedo, at Echecrates' request, agrees to relate (from memory) the final day and the death of Socrates. (Its a retelling, not an actual account, like Apology. Compare to other retelling of the lives of ancient heroes.)

2. Main Discussion: Introduction (59d-69e)

a. Socrates asks Cebes to send his greetings to a mutual friend, the poet Evenus. Socrates says it would be wise for Evenus to follow him quickly, for every philosopher wishes to die. However, it is wrong to commit suicide, because, according to Socrates, our lives belong to the gods. (60c-63b)

b. Socrates goes on to defend his claim that a philosopher would not fear death; his approaching death is really only a physical expression of the dying which is the nature of the philosophical (his!) life. Philosophy, as in the Apology, is again portrayed as a threat to "human" life as we ordinarily think of it. (63b-69e)

c. Cebes objects, in essences, that this conception of philosophy will only have meaning to us (those listening to Socrates) if there is something, the soul, which will exist beyond our lives here no earth. This poses the problem of the dialogue. (70a)

3. Main Discussion: Is the soul immortal I (70c-84c)

a. The relativity of birth and death argument. Socrates cites an ancient belief in a cyclical relationship between the living and the dead. He cites the general principle that things come to be necessarily from their opposites, concluding that the dead are generated from the living and the living from the dead. (70c-72e)

b. Argument from recollection: If learning is a process of recollection, then our souls must have existed before they came into this human form. Socrates recounts the arguments for recollection with Simmias. (72e-77b)

c. Cebes does not think Socrates' account of recollection prove that the soul will survive our death. (Does Socrates?) Simplicity argument: Socrates argues that the soul is absolutely simple (uncompound) because it is unchanging, and therefore it is indestructible. The soul is unchanging because it is divine, sharing kinship to the objects it knows (the Ideas). (77b-80c)

d. Socrates concludes the discussion here with some practical reflections (again) about the philosophical life. True understanding of the soul's nature is achieved by and in philosophical experience; the purer the experience of the objects of knowledge, the better one grasps the soul's true nature, realizing its kinship to the ideas (this is a condition for the possibility of philosophy: i.e. no ideas, no philosophy is possible). The philosopher (Socrates) has an experiential certainty about the soul's immortality, and thus no fear about the outcome of death. (So Socrates is telling Cebes and Simmias, and us, that their doubts about the soul's immortality arise because they have not yet become true philosophers.) (80c-84c)

4. Two objections (84c-88c)

a. At this point the discussion stops ("there was a long silence") and both Simmias and Cebes advance objections. (They are beginning to philosophize.) Simmias thinks Socrates' argument equally applicable to a harmony in a tune lyre. But the harmony obviously does not exist beyond the destruction of the lyre. (84c-86e)

b. Cebes is still not convinced of the soul's indestructibility. Might the soul only be stronger than the body, able to last through a number of bodies, but finally worn down by one of them? Should the philosopher worry that his death might be the soul's last? (86e-88c)

5. Main discussion: Is the soul immortal II (89b-115a)

a. First Socrates encourages his friends not to be "misologues." The failure of one argument does not show the powerlessness of all intellectual enquiry. This is key if to feel Socrates' hope one must experience (with the mind) the power of philosophical discourse. (89b-91c)

b. Second he answers Simmias. Simmias' position contradicts the theory of recollection, because harmony arises after the production of the lyre and strings. Further, it leads to absurdities: if the soul is a harmony, there would be different degrees of soul, there could be no disharmony caused by contradiction and evil, nor would the soul be able to act against the body. (91c-95a)

c. In answer to Cebes, Socrates first gives an account of his philosophical career. The point of the biography is that the meaning in things is revealed to the mind not by their physical constituents as the early naturalists believed, but by the Form (or Idea) in which each thing participates. (Is Cebes looking for some indestructible piece of the soul then?) Socrates then points out that each Idea is what it is alone, and is different from all other ideas ("either [Tallness] flees and retreats whenever its opposite, the short, approaches, or it is destroyed by its approach"). Therefore, no Idea could become its opposite ("the opposite itself could never become its opposite"). This is true both for the Ideas and for things, "in us," which share in the Ideas. The Idea soul participates in is `being alive'; therefore, the soul cannot admit of the opposite Idea, i.e., death. Therefore it is immortal. Socrates ends with another practical application of this to our lives. (95a-107d)

d. Socrates concludes with a mythic account of man's fate after death. (107d-115a)

6. Concluding account of Socrates' death (115a-118)