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:
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
argument from our implicit grasp of supermaterial perfection
1. When we see equal things, we recognize that they are not
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.
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
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
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
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
1. Mechanical causation, the main modern sense of cause and
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:
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?]
opposite itself (the form, unlike opposite things) can never become opposite to
itself (103b). (This is a stable
example, snow can never admit head; fire will never have the courage to admit
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
number three does not admit evenness (104d).
another level of form?
The number three
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.
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
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 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?
LIFE (the alive itself, also a form)
DEATH (a form)
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.
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' reasoning against suicide (62b-e)?
does S characterize philosophy at 64a?
is death, according to S (64c)?
role does the body play in the philosophic life (64d-67b)?
are the characteristics of the "forms"--the Just itself, the
Beautiful, and Good, Size, Health, Strength, etc. (74a-75e)?
can false appearances of virtue arise (68b-69b)?
do we learn about the forms from 74b-76a?
characteristics of forms and participant things are presented at 78c-79a?
questions does S first try to answer by natural science (96a-b)?
What does the range of the questions suggest about S's interest?
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?
does S refute a materalistic explanation of human action (98c-99b)?
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.
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?
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?