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Lecture I: Plato’s Phaedo

The starting point for our discussion this semester is the Melissa/Melinda story. In that story, certain questions arise as a result the sisters’ efforts to sort through their difficulties in determining what to do about Matthew. Even at this early stage, some of you may empathize with one sister more than the other (you may be more scientifically-minded or more sympathetic to religion). In any case, Melissa and Melinda are in a terrible quandary, and we are going to try to get help from the various philosophers we will look at this semester.

Plato and Socrates

We are starting near the beginning of our philosophical tradition, with Plato (427-347 BCE), the first of the great philosophers of the Western tradition. In the Phaedo, we find a series of reflections that are directly relevant to the Melissa/Melinda quandary. In that dialogue, Socrates is trying to comfort his followers, who are distraught at his impending death. He does this by giving them some reason to think that he (the "real" Socrates, i. e., the soul) will not be harmed by the poison. Rather, Socrates—the "real Socrates"—will be freed when his body dies.

Plato wrote his philosophical explorations in the form of dialogues in which the characters engage in extended discussions of particular philosophical issues. The early dialogues of Plato center on the figure of Socrates (469-399 BCE), but we should not simply take his characterization of Socrates as the "real" Socrates. Socrates himself did not write anything, and Plato did not write these dialogues until years after Socrates’ death. Therefore, the extreme possibilities are, on the one hand, that Plato is completely faithful to Socrates’ views, and on the other, that Plato is merely using Socrates as his own mouthpiece. The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, we are on more secure ground if we take the views defended by Socrates in Plato’s writings as Plato’s views.

We do know that Socrates had offended fellow Athenians by asking questions that seemed to them to challenge the authority of Greek tradition and of the establishment. Several of his opponents (Meletos, Anytos, and Lycon in particular) filed charges against him with the Athenian court. They charged that he was corrupting the youth of Athens (which to them meant turning the youth against their elders) and practicing impiety (because Socrates had claimed that he was merely listening to a divine voice within himself, a voice that told him not to do things that would be wrong). These were essentially political charges; it appears that Socrates’ opponents actually wanted him out of the way. They succeeded: in 399 BCE, Socrates was executed.

In order for us to understand Socrates’ death sentence, it is important for us to know a little about the Athenian judicial system. The court that tried him was composed of 501 Athenian citizens, who served more-or-less as judge, jury, and state’s attorney. They had the right to decide issues of the law, question witnesses, and, in the end, vote on the charges against the accused. During Socrates’ trial, the accusers made their case against him, and in his response, Socrates argued essentially that he had only tried to help people ask the right sorts of questions. In fact, he claimed that he had never actually promoted particular answers to these questions. Instead, he says that he is the most ignorant of people, and that his wisdom consists merely in admitting this ignorance. Others think they know the answers, but through questioning, he claimed, he had merely revealed that people were most often less knowledgeable than they pretended to be.

The vote went against Socrates, but only narrowly. After this majority decision, the punishment phase began. Since there was no punishment prescribed by the law for Socrates’ offenses, Meletos proposed the death penalty. Socrates had the option of proposing his own sentence, and he told the court that, as his punishment, he should be declared a national treasure and given a stipend to support him and his family for the rest of his life. This so incensed the jurors that they voted overwhelmingly for the death penalty. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the jurors intended for Socrates actually to be executed, since Athenian citizens under this penalty often could choose to live in exile. Socrates did not leave Athens and was imprisoned to await his sentence.

The Athenians had a tradition of making a ritual voyage (by ship) each year to Delos to honor Apollo; during this voyage, no one could be executed in Athens (because of the need for ritual purity). Socrates’ conviction occurred during this ritual voyage, and so he was imprisoned to await his sentence. This imprisonment sets the stage for the Crito and the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogues that purport to be conversations between Socrates and his followers in Socrates’ prison cell.

On one occasion (described in the Crito), Socrates’ followers visit him and offer to take him out of Athens in order to escape the sentence. Socrates responds with an argument that he could not rationally and consistently leave Athens just because the law did not suit him on this occasion, since he had been content to benefit from these same laws earlier in his life. For instance, he says, Athenian law made his existence possible, since the marriage laws permitted his parents to marry. Athenian law provided for his education, his livelihood, his own marriage, etc. Since he had benefited from Athenian law in those cases, it would be hypocritical, on his view, to refuse the legal outcome of the trial. In effect, then, Socrates chose execution.

The Phaedo: Why is Socrates so cheerful?

The Phaedo recounts the day of Socrates’ execution. In the excerpt I assigned, Socrates’ followers visit him, and in an effort to console them, Socrates engages them in a philosophical discussion about what he hopes for after death. The first issue Socrates addresses is the puzzlement his followers show at his cheerfulness in the face of his impending death. His response is that his attitude is natural, given that true philosophers pursue or practice dying throughout their lives. In this response, Socrates reveals a number of his beliefs. Obviously, he thinks that the body and the soul are distinct, and that the soul has a career of its own, because it is independent of the body. He also makes it clear that we seek truth by means of the reasoning capacity that the soul possesses, and that the body hinders this process. This is an important clue about the connection between the philosophers’ unusual interest in death and the desire for truth.

The soul seeks truth in the fullest reality (more on this later), and the body is an obstacle to its ability to grasp "being." As Socrates says, "thought is best when the mind [soul] is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her--neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure--when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling." For this reason, the proper attitude toward the soul is that it is the true self, independent of the body and the material world. On the other hand, the attitude we should adopt toward the body is that it is "external" and that it hinders us from seeking truth. On Socrates’ view, I should, to the best of my ability, separate myself from my body, in order to lessen its impact on my true nature. This is his point about "practicing dying," since death is "the separation of the soul from the body." The implication is that the soul is inherently more valuable than the body, just as "mental" or "spiritual" things are more valuable than material things.

To summarize, Socrates has explained his good attitude in the face of death by invoking a certain "picture" or basic orientation in the universe. He believes that his true nature is to be a soul, which will separate from the body when the body dies. Once separated, the soul will be free to seek truth unhindered by the body, and, to a philosopher who has tried during life to make this separation for the sake of truth, death is a welcome event. Obviously, there are a number of claims about the nature of reality built into these views. For instance, souls must exist, there must be somewhere for souls to "go," etc.

An aside on Greek cosmology

The Greeks did not believe in "heaven" and "hell" as places of reward and punishment. Rather, they conceived Hades not so much as a place of reward or punishment, but as a sort of "holding tank" for souls awaiting transmigration. Socrates generally accepts this view, but adds that the souls of philosophers—who have been "practicing dying"—are best off in Hades. This is because such a soul has separated itself from the concerns of the material world and thus is free to contemplate truth. Along this line, Socrates’ explanation of ghosts suggests that they are "anti-philosophers": ghosts are souls that are so attached to the material world that they cannot depart for Hades, and consequently they remain in the material world.

What is philosophical discussion?

Having said what he believes will happen to him, Socrates goes on—at the prompting of his followers—to give reasons for accepting his views. Thus he presents a series of reflections that, he thinks, give us sufficient reason to believe that his "story" is true. This is an important illustration of the "business" of philosophy. Anyone can render an opinion, but the point of philosophical discussion is to try to give convincing reasons for one’s views. In fact, I think that the main thing Plato teaches us is the most basic rule of philosophical investigation: Faced with a philosophical quandary, ask yourself

    1. Which opinion is true?
    2. If we can’t determine which opinion is true, then which opinion is most likely to be true?
    3. If we can’t determine which opinion is most likely to be true, then which opinions are false?
    4. If we can’t determine which opinions are false, then which opinions are most likely to be false?

I think this reveals what is frustrating about philosophy: philosophical "answers" are very rarely simple. This is because philosophers are usually obsessively concerned with not claiming to know more than they can defend with an argument. So, when someone asks a philosophical question and a philosopher doesn’t think s/he can defend an affirmative opinion, s/he may analyze all the available options, throwing out those that are false (or likely to be false) and keeping those that survive.

Of course, you may wonder why someone would ever want to be a philosopher—especially if you think that all this discussion is really nothing but hairsplitting. My response is simple: sometimes we don’t have a choice. Think about the Melissa/Melinda quandary. Sometimes, life hands you philosophical problems, and then it’s up to you to do something with them. "Professional" philosophers may spend their time reading and thinking about these questions in a disciplined and systematic way, but any one of us may be compelled to think philosophically the next time the phone rings.

The argument from opposites

In any case, Socrates tries to defend his beliefs about surviving death with a series of reflections. Socrates (or Plato) did not think these were "knock-down-drag-out" arguments that proved beyond a doubt that his basic orientation is true, but these reflections are intended to give us sufficient reason to take this basic orientation seriously. Let’s look at his points more carefully.

First, he pursues a line of thought based on the relationship between opposites. Things emerge into existence from their opposites: for instance, day emerges from night, which is its opposite. Hot emerges from cold, and cold from hot, in alternation. Socrates uses sleeping and being awake to make his point: sleeping emerges from being awake, and vice versa. Applying this observation to life and death, he claims that just as death emerges from life, life must emerge from death. From this he draws the conclusion that "souls must exists in the house of Hades." This argument presupposes an important principle.

Consider any material object: what is it that separates such objects that are dead from those that are alive? In the Greek way of thinking, an object is alive when it possesses a "living principle," i.e., a soul. This is because it is the nature of a soul to be alive. Since "the living" are born from the "nonliving," i.e., the dead, there must be something that "gives life." That something can only be a soul. So, there must be souls.

This old presupposition about the soul as the "living principle" is embedded in language. The Greek word translated as "soul" is "psyche," which we find in words like psychology. The Latin word is "anima," which we retain in words like "animate" and "animal." So, noting the original meanings of these words, something "animate" is something with a soul; "inanimate" things are things that lack souls.

So, taking the soul as the "living principle," if souls did not exist, then the cycle of transitions from living to dead and dead to living would come to an end. In that case, there would be no more living—everything would be dead. Since there are living beings, souls must exist.

Let me point out a familiar strategy in this last point. Socrates "temporarily" assumes the opposite of what he wants to demonstrate, in this case that there are no souls. From this assumption, he draws a contradiction:

Assumption: There are no souls.

If there were no souls, then the transitions from dead to living would come to an end.

If the transitions from dead to living came to an end, then everything would be dead.

However, not everything is dead.

Therefore, there must be souls.

If the beginning assumption leads to a contradiction, then that assumption must be false. This strategy is called reductio ad absurdum: it is an argument strategy that attempts to show that a claim must be false because it leads to a contradiction.

The argument from recollection

The so-called "doctrine of recollection" also supports Socrates’ views on the soul, but we will need to look more closely at Plato’s "big picture" in order to see why. I am drawing from other dialogues in order to fill out this picture, especially the "myth of the cave" found in the Republic, Book VII.

The doctrine of recollection is based on a certain theory of reality, according to which the things there are in the universe can be arranged on a hierarchy. This "ladder" runs from the least real to most real. In the middle is the realm of becoming. Things in the realm of becoming are not fully real, but they are not nonreal either. Take, for instance, an acorn. It is not a complete oak tree—at least, not yet. It is in the process of becoming something that it is not. We can say the same thing about all the material things with which we are familiar—including ourselves. At this moment, Matthew exists; but Matthew also is in the process of becoming something that he is not. So, in this way Matthew is both real and nonreal.

By the same logic, things at the "top"—the most real things—do not "become" something else. This is because they already "are" everything they could be: they are complete and unchanging. So, these fully real things possess certain traits that things in the realm of becoming do not possess. For instance, the fully real things are perfect, unchanging, placeless, eternal, etc. We can characterize this "realm" of being by saying that such things transcend the material world, which is the realm of becoming.

What things possess these traits? Looking at Plato through they spectacles of two thousand years of Christian theology, we might be inclined to say that God belongs in this category of most real things. This is because Plato’s notion of ultimate reality has influenced the Christian theological explanation of God’s nature, so those traits came to be applied to God’s nature. However, Plato lived several centuries before the beginning of the Christian movement, and he did not even think the gods belonged in this highest category. Instead, this highest realm is "inhabited" by ideal forms, such as Beauty, Justice, and above all the Good—which turned up in their discussion of the philosopher's practicing dying.

What are these ideal forms? What function do they serve in Plato’s basic orientation? If you have one handy, consider an ordinary book: Why is that particular material object a book? It can’t be merely because that’s what we call it, or else we could decide that what were formerly called dogs were now books. If we started calling things-formerly-known-as-dogs "books," would that mean that things-formerly-known-as-dogs would really be books? Hardly. They would still be what we now call "dogs," and we would have given them a new (and confusing) name.

So, the word we use for something doesn’t determine what kind of thing it is. Rather, the kind of thing something is is determined by the essential traits that thing has—sort of like a job description. So, anything that meets the qualifications for being a book, will be a book. Plato calls the sum of the "qualifications" or the "essence" of a thing an ideal form. So, the "job description" for being a book is the ideal form, "bookhood." Another way to put it is that bookhood is in a way the set of   traits something has to possess in order to be a book. So, now we can give the reason that a particular material object is a book: it is because that lump of matter participates in bookhood. And the same goes for statements like "Matthew is a man." The individual thing, Matthew, participates in manhood, and that's what makes Matthew a man.

This may seem silly. Before you dismiss it, however, think about why a smart guy like Plato might have been motivated to propose such a theory. Take two books. Obviously these books are two things in some important sense: after all there are two books. Even so, these two books are also one thing—although, once we start to think about it, we may decide that what we really meant was that they are not one thing but one kind of thing. Now in the case of ordinary books, this is pretty clear, because ordinary books are all pretty much alike in a very basic sense. But consider an ordinary book as compared with an extraordinary book, say, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now, to my way of thinking one of those doesn’t even look much like an ordinary book—like the ones on my desk. Are these two things still one kind? If so—even though they don’t look much alike—there must be some reason they are still the same one kind. Plato was looking for an answer to that sort of question, and he concluded that, no matter how different two things may seem, if they both "participate" in the same ideal form then they are the same kind of thing.

There was another striking reason why he proposed such an odd theory. Consider your sense organs: they tell you a great deal about the condition the world is in at any given moment. But, as we all know, the world changes from one moment to the next. So, in a sense, our sense organs can never capture how the world is (meaning, is absolutely, without qualification), but only how the world was at a particular moment. If so, how can we have certain knowledge of the world if the only thing our sense organs tell us (at best!) is the momentary condition the world happens to be in right now? For Plato, the solution was that what we are able to know "for sure" about the world is made possible by the soul’s ability to grasp the ideal forms of things—and not the material aspect of those things. So, I can have certain knowledge that this object is a book, not because my sense organs are able to tell me that it is a book, but because my soul is able to grasp the ideal form that this object "exhibits." Since that ideal form is one of the fully real beings "at the top" of the hierarchy, it will never change. Therefore, my knowledge of bookhood is secure, even though the world changes constantly.

Now we are in a position to understand the doctrine of recollection. Whenever we seem to learn something, we are actually remembering. For instance, suppose I try to teach you the idea of "equality." I show you two things of the same length and say, "Here is an example of equality, because these are equal." Unless you already understood and recognized something like "same length" when you see it, you would never get the idea of "equality." That is, you must already have the concept of equality in order to recognize anything as a example of equality. If you could not recognize a particular case as an example, you would never be able to grasp what I was giving you an example of. This leads to the rather odd conclusion that you must have the concept of equality in order to learn it.

Plato’s explanation is that you do already have it. When I show you the two things and tell you they are equal, what I am really doing is simply jogging your memory so that you get a clearer recollection of the concept, equality. Hence, the soul, Plato argues, possesses all these ideal forms already, but we must remember them in the context of bodily life in the material world. This view links back with the "values" embedded in Socrates’ beliefs about the soul and the body: the body prevents the soul from operating at "full capacity," and that is why we must expend some effort to remember the ideal forms. (We usually think of this effort as learning; however, on Plato's view, it isn't really learning.) This takes us back to the true philosopher: since he tries to reduce the impact of the body on the soul’s operation, he is "nearer" to the truth because of a more complete grasp of the forms.

So, the argument from recollection is based on the notion that there are ideal forms. If there are, and if we therefore do not learn but only remember them, then we must have souls as a sort of "container" for these recollected forms from one bodily life to the next. If there were no souls, then, there would be no knowledge. But (see the reductio at work here?) there is knowledge, so . . . we must have souls.

The argument from the noncomposite nature of the soul

Socrates’ followers are quite impressed with these arguments, and they are willing to accept that our souls existed prior to this life. However, nothing in the previous reflections guarantees continued existence after the death of this body. After all, it is possible that my soul had existed before my birth, that it brought with it knowledge of the ideal forms which I have been recollecting, and that it will perish utterly when my body dies. Right? This is a worry for Socrates’ followers, and so he addresses the continuing existence of the soul in the argument from the noncomposite nature of the soul.

Essentially, the argument is founded on an observation about the world. Those things that are mixtures of things are more likely to "dissolve" than those things that are not mixtures. Take, for instance, any material object: it is composed of various elements, say earth and water. Since it is a composite, it is more likely to dissolve than, say water by itself. So, the "purity" of something is an indication of its permanence. If we apply this principle to souls, then if the soul is "pure"—in other words, simple, not compounded of various different things—then it will endure.

But are there any reasons to think that the soul is simple rather than compounded? First of all, we could look at the "proper" business of the soul, namely to grasp truth (the forms). Since the forms are permanent and simple, the soul must be more like them than not. Otherwise, how could the soul be so close to them? Moreover, when we consider the proper relationship between the soul and the body, the body is the "slave," ruled by the soul. Hence, the soul must be closer to the divine than the body; and "closer to the divine" implies "more enduring." Socrates’ summary of these reflections exhibits this basic orientation and its inherent values:

"The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable."

Therefore, the soul must survive the death of the body.

One final point must be addressed. Perhaps you have been wondering why anyone would believe all this about the soul when we have abundant evidence from our bodies that the material world is "most real." Plato deals with this issue by having Socrates explain why the soul is "tricked" into taking the experiences of the body as thought they were "the last word" about reality. The nature of (bodily) pain and pleasure is such that it entraps the souls within the body; imprisoned by the body, the soul is deluded into believing that this material world is "all there is." But, if the soul could be freed from the clutches of the body—even temporarily—then the true nature of things would become apparent. This is the underlying motive for the philosopher’s life-long effort to "practice dying," and the culmination of the philosopher’s work is the death of the body and the soul’s freedom.