-What is it?-
The Phaedo is the last of what has been called by this author the “Core Four” Socratic Dialogues, beginning with Euthyphro, continuing with Apology and Crito, and ending with Phaedo.
This Dialogue opens on the last day of Socrates’ life. His friends have gathered around him in his jail cell, and are looking forward to speaking with him for a short time before he is executed via the imbibing of hemlock, a toxic drink made from a poisonous berry.
Most of Phaedo concerns Socrates positing and defending his positions on immortality and the soul—namely, the belief that human beings do in fact possess an immortal soul, and it is the duty of any good or just human being to recognize the inclinations of this soul towards beauty, justice, truth, temperance, and so on. This recognition allows for the practice of virtue, and in Socrates’ conception, pursuing the virtue of the soul in all its forms is the noblest cause any human being could strive for throughout their life.
Many of Socrates’ friends and students have questions they ask him regarding his positions on these subjects, and he gladly and calmly entertains them.
Eventually, the prison guard brings out the hemlock mixture, and Socrates drinks. His friends begin to weep, and before he goes, he asks his old friend Crito for a favor. He forgot to pay back a man named Asclepius, to whom he owes a chicken, and wonders if Crito will settle the debt. Crito says he will, and in a few moments after, Socrates dies.
-Why is it important?-
The modern reader may find the Phaedo unsuccessful as a philosophical work, mainly because it positions its entire argument on grounds which cannot empirically or logically be proven on all levels: namely, the existence of a soul.
This question, in the opinion of this author, cannot be answered satisfactorily by any one person or idea; perhaps that is somewhat the point.
But because of this, it is understandable as to why readers would find such a treatise somewhat frustrating. Though Socrates effectively proves in some way that the idea of immortality can exist, and that if the soul is indeed in existence, it would be immortal, his arguments can come off as somewhat myopic, operating in a closed-loop system of logic that only admits itself to the participant if they cross a threshold for which logic must momentarily be suspended. It makes for good debate and reading, but in terms of a practical application to life, at least when compared to other Dialogues, Phaedo falls short.
This author would argue that, in some way, this is possibly the point of the Dialogue.
Phaedo opens on Socrates composing a hymn for Apollo. This is an old man who, for all we know, has never written a song in his life, and his musical abilities are more likely than not average, perhaps sub-par—the evidence of this could be taken enough in what he has to say about poetry/art in The Republic.
And yet, despite the illogical nature of his action, Socrates is engaging in it. He says that he has had dreams his whole life compelling him to make music, and for a long time, he believed that in some way those dreams were related to him practicing philosophy. But given that he is close to the hour of death, he figured that he should give genuine composition a shot, for, “…being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.” (Phaedo, page 20).
There is something endearing about an old man who has never made music before trying to do so, trying something entirely new, before he dies. Most likely, Socrates composing his song would be somewhat crude, off-key, maybe even laughable, in a childish sort of way.
And it is here where the author believe a key point of the Dialogue is found—the practice of living, which often involves doing something new, as much as it involves accepting a sort of constant state found in the world.
Socrates, for his entire life, has preached philosophy. He has achieved great triumphs in logic, and reason, in his own field, for all people to one day read about—he has done enough. There’s no reason for him to believe he should ever try anything different.
But he does. He gets a guitar—lyre—some notebook paper—parchment—and under the window of the jail cell he’ll soon be put to death in, tries writing a song for the very first time.
Socrates engages in an act of faith by doing so. He knows, more likely than not, he will fail; but he pursues the action nonetheless, because the end is not the goal, but rather what occurs in the pursuit.
Though this meaning is certainly extrapolated, and idiosyncratic to the author, one can see support for it under-girding the Dialogue. Socrates paints a fantastical, almost Homeric, picture near the end of what life in the afterlife will be like for those who pass; but how could he know? As a man of logic and reason, he must have some intuition that he has no sense of what may really happen—so his entire talk leads one to believe that he is, in a way, not trying to prove immortality, or the existence of the soul, or what happens in the afterlife, to or for himself, but for his friends. He is trying to give them a kind of hope, even if it’s in a story, or a conversation, that doesn’t make much logical sense when you begin to look at it. He’s maybe trying to give them a different sort of sense. A sense of calm, and presence, and an acceptance of a normality that unifies the greatest and the smallest moments in life.
And the final scene lends itself perfectly, perhaps, to this point. Socrates’ final words are utilitarian, almost banal—he could have said that, and maybe did, at any point in his life. His last exit was not that of a supreme philosopher, an ascended master, a sacrificial messiah—he was a regular man, who lived and died in the way he did. And when it all comes down to the end, that’s perhaps one of the only really true things one could ever say about someone like him.
Though it may not appear as practical on a surface level as the other Dialogues in the “Core Four”, or other Socratic/Platonic Dialogues in general, Phaedo still has much to teach the discerning reader who is willing to look beyond what it being said in the story, and rather what is instead being lived.
“Phaedo.” Phaedo, by Plato, 29 Oct. 2008, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1658/1658-h/1658-h.htm.
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