Phaedo of Elis describes to his friend Echecrates the final hours of Socrates’ life and his discussions with his friends in his cell regarding life and death, the soul and the afterlife. Socrates is in good spirits, believing that the separation of body and soul is the culmination of a true philosopher’s goal, allowing him to seek Truth without the distractions and imperfections of the body.
“As long as we keep to the body and our soul is contaminated with this imperfection, there is no chance of our ever attaining satisfactorily to our object, which we assert to be Truth. …… the body fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything” (page 127)
Another friend present with Socrates, Cebes, is afraid that at death and the release of the soul from the body, the soul may cease to exist, being dispersed or destroyed. Socrates then applies several arguments for the continued existence of souls both before birth and after death, such as (i) life and death are opposites, and therefore related so that one must arise from the absence of the other, and so life must come from death, and the souls of the dead must be stored somewhere until they are restored to another body, (ii) that learning is really a case of recollection of previous knowledge, which must come from a previous life, (iii) that souls are invisible, “divine, immortal, intelligble, uniform, indissoluble, ever self-consistent and invariable” and therefore incomposite and unlikely to be dissolvable compared to the physical, compounded and variable body.
“…when the soul uses the instrumentality of the body for any inquiry, whether through sight or hearing or any other sense … [it] loses its way and becomes confused and dizzy, as though it were tipsy…. but when it investigates by itself, it passes into the realm of the pure and everlasting and deathless and changeless … and this condition of the soul we call Wisdom” (page 148)
The suggestions are then made by (i) Simmias that the soul is an attunement of the body, like the tuning of a musical instrument, which is lost when the instrument is destroyed, and (ii) Cebes that the soul can only be re-born so many times before it too finally dies, and how is anyone to know when that final earthly death is also the death of the soul? Socrates double-talks around these questions as usual.
Socrates’ arguments are still so broadly defined as to become self-fulfilling. For instance, Socrates settles for saying that something is beautiful because it has Beauty, and something else is tall because it has Tallness. He also reverses our current scientific method, by selecting the best theory, and only keeping those facts which agree with it, and discarding any that don’t. It seems a good thing for posterity that he gave up studying natural sciences early in his career for philosophy.
The conversation then takes a very interesting and unexpected turn as Socrates (or is it really Plato?) describes world geography in a manner that would do Milton, Swift or even Pratchett proud, with four large rivers weaving in and out of the Earth providing highways for the souls, and another layer of life, air, plants, animals and humans above us, just as we are above the denizens of the oceans. Magical fantastical stuff!
By the end of the philosophical discussions and with the setting of the sun, Socrates farewells his family, and without further delay and in the presence of his friends, drinks off the draught of hemlock and lies down to die.
Personal rating : Longer than the other Socratic dialogues, but the fantasy at the end and the dignity of Socrates’ death lifts this to a 7.
Next : Quite a lot of Plato still to mow through, so I think I will switch back to the Old Testament for awhile and try the Book of Proverbs.