The Phaedo Reading Recommendation

-What is it?-

The Phaedo is a Platonic Dialogue and the last of what I’ll call the “Core Four” Dialogues—Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Phaedo—which feature Socrates as a central figure and detail the final days of his life before his execution.

This particular Dialogue, which takes place in the final hours of Socrates’ execution, centers around a discussion he has with a group of friends and students in his prison cell. The group has come to ask him questions on what he thinks about the nature of death, the soul, immortality, and the afterlife.

A few key points are as follows:

  1. Socrates is adamant in his belief on the immortality of the soul and gives several defenses of his rationalizations.
  2. These examples are numerous, and tether into each other. Not all will be explained in this summary—instead two specifically will be supplied as an example of Socrates’ thinking.
    1. Socrates believes that human beings appear to have an innate knowledge or recognition of certain principles—the ability to recognize beauty; a general sense of proportion, more specifically, the notion of equality; and a talent for recalling information of a fundamental nature they, seemingly and otherwise, would not have appeared to know. He calls this ability Recollection, and says that it points to evidence that human beings draw on knowledge they inherited from past lives—or from some place beyond the purely physical existence. This position is used to support his argument that the soul is the origin of this knowledge, as such knowledge could only come from somewhere that had previously learned it—for example, an immortal vessel that is put into human form.
    2. To contend that Recollection does indeed mean that the soul is immortal—eternal, not just prone to long life—Socrates says that such an element of life and knowledge cannot be afflicted by death, no more than something that is cold be hot, or something that is odd be even. And while it’s true that something cold—such as snow—can be melted by fire, or five can be added to itself and make ten, those examples show that opposites can exist alongside each other, but never truly assume the other’s place. Snow that is melted by fire is no longer snow; five is always odd, even if it’s added to make ten. So the soul, being the source of life in a human being, cannot die—its core nature repels death of any kind, as oddness repels evenness and cold repels heat.

Socrates goes on to further explain his conception of the afterlife—where souls who freed themselves from mortal desires in their earthly life will commune at the highest levels, while others will undergo a sort of trial period, waiting to be called to a higher purpose when the time is right.

After several hours, the old man finishes, says goodbye to his friends, and the prison guard brings him the hemlock mixture. Socrates drinks, and as he’s laying down, realizes he has a debt he has forgotten to settle. He needs to give a chicken to one of his friends in repayment for a loan, and asks Crito to carry out the settlement in his stead. Crito agrees, and asks Socrates if there’s anything else he needs. Socrates is silent—he dies minutes later.

-Why is this important?-

Phaedo is usually regarded as the closest Western Philosophy, or at least the practice of Rationalism, will ever get to logically explaining the unexplainable particulars of human life—the soul, death, the afterlife, and the qualities therein.

Because the subject material is more focused on what could be called supernatural elements, this Dialogue in particular reads more as a somewhat wistful treatise than a concrete or actionable set of ideas that can be followed and practiced. There are suggestions—such as living as honestly as possible, devoting oneself to philosophy, and trying to, throughout life, seek the highest good and not the quickest pleasure—but again, these read as more religious platitudes in retrospect than specific rational or logical guidelines.

There is also the innate issue at the core of the Dialogue—the presupposition of the soul. In the modern age, with its heavy bent towards empirical study based in physical observation and material correspondence, many may disregard Phaedo purely on the basis that the Dialogue never really attempts to prove that anything like a soul, much less an immortal one, exists at all. Instead, such an assertion is taken as natural fact—and this makes sense, given the time that the Dialogue was written. But this doesn’t necessarily excuse the oversight that the very idea human beings may or may not have a soul, or anything like it, isn’t called into explicit question.

In all honesty, the author acknowledges, understands, and even empathizes with such claims; but ultimately, he finds them as baseless as the position they are calling into question.

The idea of a soul is not founded on empirical study, but rather intuition, belief, and faith. Such impulses are not to be taken at face-value—their worth is immense, but this doesn’t invalidate opposing claims that such worth is only valuable thanks to suggested phenomena that is, as far as is known, impossible to observe or evaluate. Some might even argue that such assertions of the “soul” in the name of something as fiat as “faith” is nothing more than a shallow attempt by the human psyche to prove, by name alone and little evidence to the contrary, a kind of deified exceptionalism that exempts the human being from their relationship to all other nature and the larger creation, placing them at the head of the order, or even outside of it, rather than within it. The human being may be advanced and successful—but not so much that they are separate from the natural order, as time and history do so often remind the unfortunate who forget.

These ideas hold weight, and it would do well for many, regardless of belief, to remember the intimacy with which human beings are bound to nature and its processes, both within and without, for good and for bad.

But the idea of faith cannot be evaluated empirically, no more than an odd can be even; these two forms oppose each other, one relating to the unseen, unknown, and immaterial; the other relating to the seen, the known, and the material. Whether the impulses of religion—faith, the soul, the belief of divinity—are the muses of active minds, or in actuality some sense towards a genuine higher order of things, has no bearing on the faithful in the slightest. Faith creates and fuels the ideas, feelings, pursuits, and gods it lends itself to; it is a means and an end in itself.

Therefore, instead of evaluating Phaedo and its contents along empirical lines, a more illustrative approach is perhaps necessary. Socrates, in this text, could be regarded not only as a philosopher, but a man whose death is no longer years, but hours away. And confronted with the end, he endeavors to give his friends, his students, and maybe himself, not a comfort, but a faith. He clearly, in some capacity, feels he will be fine; at the very least, he is content with his life, and is ready to die. What thoughts come out of a mind like his, in a moment such as that, is an event that could, without this text, only be confined to the realm of speculation—and with the Phaedo, that speculation transcends and becomes something much more than what the Dialogue, its central figure, and its own ideas, began as. What that “more” is, and to a degree what it becomes beyond its time, as with the previous three Dialogues, depends entirely on the readers who so choose to encounter and carry it.

-Where can you find it?-

Project Gutenberg:

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