“Phaedo” by Plato

The Death of Socrates
“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

[AKA: “The Trial and Death of Socrates“]

Four Dialogues of Plato provide an account of the trial and death of Socrates, “Euthyphro“, “Apology“, “Crito” and “Phaedo“.

Socrates, falsely accused of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youths, was condemned to death by poison. In “Euthyphro“, he discourses on piety and tears apart the covering of a man who professes to know all about piety; Apology is his speech before the Athenian judges, in which he defends and examines his own philosophic way of life; Crito relates his argument for voluntarily suffering injustice; Phaedo deals with the immortality of the soul, his life-long obsession. Of the four, “Apology” and “Phaedo” are the most dramatic, intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving.

Phaedo” gives a fascinating and moving account of the very last day of Socrates’ life. There he was, facing impending death, and yet his sleep was sound and deep, and his speeches calm and penetrating as usual. He spent his last hours discussing the very thing he had pursued all his life, wisdom and the purification of  the soul. Here he  made philosophy come alive in a most powerful manner. Because to him, the immortality of the soul was not merely a matter of speculation, but literally  a matter of life and death. If the soul was not immortal, then all his life’s travail would have been in vain. He would be the most pitiable of all men. Therefore, there are plenty of drama, suspense and wonder as the reader follows the greatest debate of Socrates’ life.

It may sound strange, but I’ve never admired and wished to converse with  a hero in a book  like Socrates.

[–Update in 2014–]

Eight Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul

1. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. Those who pursue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead, i.e., being purified from the desires and passions of the body.

2. The transition process between the living and dead state is circular (bidirectional and reversible), like waking and sleeping, increase and decrease, separation and combination. Otherwise, all things would have the same form and be acted upon in the same way and stop being generated.

3. Recollection of knowledge (Meno). The soul comprehends knowledge better without the body than with it. The forgetfulness and confusion of the soul is caused by interference from the body, like the clouds blocking the sunlight.

4. Bodily senses perceive but cannot judge, with regard to sameness and difference, etc. Therefore, the knowledge of the abstract and abstract judgment must reside in the soul, apart from the body.

5. The soul is as substantial and immortal as the abstract essence that it beholds. The abstract essence, such as absolute Beauty and Goodness, are known by the soul.

6. The soul is invisible, uniform, indivisible and unchanging–therefore immortal.

7. Contrary to the opinion that the soul is a function of the neural network, a harmony of physical elements, so to speak, which cannot effect the body but is effected by it, the soul act independently of the body, lead, oppose and rule the body.

8. Just as the number three participates in the form of Odd, the soul participates in the form of Life, never the opposite of life, i.e., death. In the case of concrete things, an opposite is generated from its opposite; whereas the abstract form of an opposite can never become its own opposite.

The Form of Contraries

Just as being asleep and awake are two states of the body, one inactive and the other active, so life and death, as can be observed by the senses, are two states of the soul. And, just as there is a reversible transition process between the two states of the body, falling sleep and waking up, there is a reversible transition process between the two states of the soul, being born (joined to a body) and dying (separated from a body).

From the Platonic point of view, the visible things are not substances, but only participate in the abstract Forms, which are substances. The abstract forms of Death and Life are distinct and contrary principles, which can have nothing in common between them, and cannot be changed into the other. The visible things can participate in contrary Forms in succession, but not at the same time,

The transition between life and death, as we observe in the corporeal world, is a visual illusion, so to speak. It’s like when we watch a motion picture in which one thing is changed into another, behind the scene, two distinct pictures are projected on the screen in succession, which generates the illusion that one thing is changed into another.

Socrates’ Quest for Cause

I am far from thinking that I know the cause of any of these things, I who do not even dare to say, when one is added to one, whether the one to which the addition was made has become two, or the one which was added, or the one which was added and the one to which it was added became two by the addition of each to the other. I think it is wonderful that when each of them was separate from the other, each was one and they were not then two, and when they were brought near each other this juxtaposition was the cause of their becoming two. And I cannot yet believe that if one is divided, the division causes it to become two; for this is the opposite of the cause which produced two in the former case; I no longer believe that I know by this method how anything is generated or is destroyed or exists.

Anaxagoras, a naturalist, explains how things come to be as they are, but not why. IOW, they describe the processes or the paths, but not the efficient cause. For instance, one might describe the parts of a body moving according to biomechanical principles, but not the mind that moves them. Yet he claims that “it is the mind that arranges and causes all things”. If so, Socrates argues, the mind would arrange each thing as it is best for it to be, as is the case in human affairs, but the naturalist has no conception of the Good. Disillusioned by Anaxagoras, Socrates, embarked upon his own voyage, and developed the idea of participation (or communion) of Form.


You seem to think I am inferior in prophetic power to the swans who sing at other times also, but when they feel that they are to die, sing most and best in their joy that they are to go to the god whose servants they are. But men, because of their own fear of death, misrepresent the swans and say that they sing for sorrow, in mourning for their own death. They do not consider that no bird sings when it is hungry or cold or has any other trouble; no, not even the nightingale or the swallow or the hoopoe which are said to sing in lamentation. I do not believe they sing for grief, nor do the swans; but since they are Apollo’s birds, I believe they have prophetic vision, and because they have foreknowledge of the blessings in the other world they sing and rejoice on that day more than ever before. And I think that I am myself a fellow-servant of the swans; and am consecrated to the same God and have received from our master a gift of prophecy no whit inferior to theirs, and that I go out from life with as little sorrow as they.



3 thoughts on ““Phaedo” by Plato

  1. Given your comments on Socrates (particularly that last line), I’m wondering if you have ever read Kierkegaard: “Let us consider Socrates. These days everyone is dabbling in a few proofs or demonstrations — one has many, another fewer. But Socrates! He poses the question objectively, problematically: if there is an immortality. So, compared with one of the modern thinkers with the three demonstrations, was he a doubter? Not at all. He stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so orered his whole life that it might be acceptable — IF there is an immortality. Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul?” (_Concluding Unscientific Postscript_, v. 1, trans. by Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton University Press, 1992: p. 201). Kierkegaard’s regard for Socrates (expressed here and elsewhere in his writings) seems to equal yours.

    1. I hadn’t read Kierkegaard back then, and was still looking for “objective certainty” concerning the immortality of the soul. So part of that last line was my wish to pry it out of Socrates before he could escape my grasp. 🙂 Kierkegaard has helped sharpen my understanding of Socrates, and vice versa.

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