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Plato's Phaedo

            Plato’s Phaedo  recounts the last conversation of Socrates and his death (having been condemned by the Athenian jury) by drinking hemlock in prison.  The question is raised why suicide is not permissible, and why the philosopher may look forward to experience after death.  Socrates, in dialogue with Simmias and Cebes, brings forth three initial arguments in favor of the immortality of the soul:

I.  The argument from opposites

1.  Hot comes from cold, and vice-versa.

2.  [By generalization,] opposite things come from opposites.

3.  Therefore [by specification], the living come from the dead and vice-versa.


II.  The argument from our implicit grasp of supermaterial perfection

1.  When we see equal things, we recognize that they are not perfectly equal.

2.  But we have never seen perfect equality.

3.  Therefore we must have known perfect equality (the essence or form) before we came into the body.

Perceptual recognition, thus, involves recollection of prior cognition.


III.  The argument from the philosophic soul’s kinship to the forms

1.  Sensible, material things come into being and pass away.

2.  Beauty and goodness and the other forms are eternal and unchanging.  

3.  The philosophically purified soul is more akin to forms, and should not fear to be dispersed like a material thing.


A contemplative silence comes over the group.  Objections arise, however.  S warns them against distrusting philosophic logic (or hatred of the concept—misology) merely because they find some particular arguments untrustworthy.  It is necessary (S says later) to adopt what seems to be the best basis for reasoning and work out its consequences; but if someone challenges this basis, it is necessary to find another which will prove satisfactory in the discussion.

Simmias’ (Pythagorean) notion of the soul as a harmony of bodily components is refuses, since the soul can achieve mastery of the body, but a harmony cannot undertake to master its constituent elements.

Cebes’ objection—that the soul may well survive death, cut cannot theefore be certain of eternal life—requires a deeper foundation for a reply—an exploration of causation on three levels:

1.  Mechanical causation, the main modern sense of cause and effect.

2.  Purposive causation, as when mind designs things.

3.  Formal causation, e.g., that a person becomes good by participating in goodness.

Socrates refutes Cebes with his fourth argument for the immortality of soul.  Soul (psyche) is what brings life.  A thing, i.e., a body having life can, like material things, participate first in one essence (e.g., life) and then in its opposite.  But psyche itself, the essence or principle of life, can never do likewise, admit its opposite.  An essence excludes its opposite.  Psyche is essentially alive, immortal.  [Notice: there is no individual immortality here.  Aristotle perhaps held that mind in its highest intellectual function was immortal, though the individual functions of mind perish with the body.]

The key fourth proof may be spelled out in more detail:

1.  “Tallness either gives way and withdraws as its opposite, shortness, approaches, or it has already ceased to exist by the time the other arrives” (102e).  [But why are predicates pertaining to participant things, e.g., “withdraws,” applied to forms?]

2.  The opposite itself (the form, unlike opposite things) can never become opposite to itself (103b).  (This is a stable affirmation.)

3.  For example, snow can never admit head; fire will never have the courage to admit cold (103c-d).

the form                             HEAT            COLD

participant things                   fire                  snow

Is refusing to accept the opposite to life just a matter of course, or a matter of essential impossibility?  Does relying on myth indicate a withdrawal, a cowardly attitude toward death?  A fire does go out, and snow does melt.

4.  The number three does not admit evenness (104d).

the form                             ODDNESS                                         EVENNESS

            another level of form?             The number three               

participant things                   particular groups of three things

Simmias and Cebes were Pythagoreans.  Pythagoras taught that the soul is a number.  That doctrine, unmentioned here, tremendously affects the interpretation of the argument and the estimate of its validity.

5.  The forms have relations of necessary connection and exclusion.  The name of the form (eidos) is everlastingly applicable, not only to the form itself, but also to something else, which is not the form but always has its distinguishing characteristic (morphe) (103e).  (This is another stable affirmation.)

6.  A new doctrine of causation, not simple participation (105b-c), is given.  What makes a body hot?  Not simply heat, but fire, i.e., the universal cause of heat (obvious to ancient Greeks).  What makes a body diseased?  Not simply disease, but fever.

A form                                                                         FIRE

A form that participates in a higher form               DISEASE

A participant thing                                                    a diseased body

Does Plato expect his readers to accept such a simple medical doctrine?  Thus fire plays the role of participant thing (103c) and essential cause (105c).  Is this a comment about the incoherence of Heraclitean fire-cosmology, or does it prepare the keen reader to detect the coming fallacy?

7.  The clincher (105c-d).

                        LIFE (the alive itself, also a form)            DEATH (a form)

SOUL (the form)

Socrates, Cebes, participants in life

Since soul is formally, essentially, connected with life, soul cannot admit the opposite of life.  (The conclusion here is that soul does not admit death any more than three admits evenness.  But this argument proves, at best, that the form soul does not admit death, not that the individual Socrates, a participant in the form of soul, is immortal.  In Greek culture, the soul is, by definition, what makes a body alive. 

8.  Socrates concludes, “Then it is as certain as anything can be, Cebes, that soul [in general] is immortal and imperishable, and that our souls [in particular] will really exist in the next world” (107a).   Plato is likely very aware of the problems in the argument (and he returns to the problem by launching a notion of an individual essence for particular human beings in the Theaetetus).  If the soul were agreed to be a number or an individual essence, then the status of the argument would seem much stronger.


The importance of caring for the soul, then, by training and education, is evident.  It is not likely that death ends all.  S offers a likely story—not a philosophic certainty—of the experiences of the soul after it leaves the body—for punishment/correction or for the higher regions above our earthly level.

As he prepares to die, S has to rebuke his friends for their persistent incomprehension and emotion.  They will not have to bury Socrates, only his body.  Socrates departs.



 1.  Restate Socrates' reasoning against suicide (62b-e)?

 2.  How does S characterize philosophy at 64a?

 3.  What is death, according to S (64c)?

 4.  What role does the body play in the philosophic life (64d-67b)?

 5.  What are the characteristics of the "forms"--the Just itself, the Beautiful, and Good, Size, Health, Strength, etc. (74a-75e)?

6.  How can false appearances of virtue arise (68b-69b)?

7.  What do we learn about the forms from 74b-76a?

8.  What characteristics of forms and participant things are presented at 78c-79a?

9.  What questions does S first try to answer by natural science (96a-b)?  What does the range of the questions suggest about S's interest?

10.  What questions does S hope to have answered on the basis of a philosophy interpreting the cosmos as the product of a divine, purposive mind (97c-98b)?  What does the range of questions suggest about S's interest?

11.  How does S refute a materalistic explanation of human action (98c-99b)?

12.  S's proof for the immortality of the soul depends upon the essential, necessary LINK between some forms.  Which two forms are involved in the main line of S's proof (not the illustrations that S uses to make the listener familiar with the concept)?  Explain the relation between these two forms.

13.  Does S succeed in proving that the soul is immortal?  What is the best reasoning that can be given in favor of this conclusion or a similar conclusion?  Does the best reasoning amount to a proof?

14.  What is the significance of the fact that S offers a concluding myth to charm our fears of death away?  His vision of the soul’s experience after death something that we are not supposed to take seriously as philosophers?