Being all deep and stuff: Plato’s Phaedo

posted by Dr. James G. Hood
Friday, May 28, 2010

Socrates truly is a man that sees the glass as being half full, even when the glass is half full of poison. Socrates shows no fear of death nor does he have misgivings about having lived an incomplete life, and that is what amazes his contemporaries. Inevitably, Socrates is prompted to explain his notions of an immortal soul and the workings of the afterlife. After Socrates’ compelling argument, naturally, his friends find flaws. The first objection involves the definition of a soul. The philosopher argues that the soul could be a sort of harmony and when the body dies that harmony no longer exists. Socrates quickly refutes this argument by defining harmony. Harmony is the sum of its component parts; therefore, the composite of harmony could not exist in soul form before birth if it did not already have its human component parts. The second objection which states that a soul could simply be long lasting is a particularly troubling one for Socrates. In response, Socrates develops the complex notion of the Forms. Things seem to have a preexisting reality of themselves existing somewhere (the Form) and the correlate on earth is described in terms of that relationship. Some Forms encompass a broad range and some are more restrictive. Socrates seems to be arguing that the Form of soul encompasses bring life. The aspect of the soul bringing life does not encompass its opposite, namely death; therefore, the soul is deathless. The argument is convoluted and Socrates’ listeners seem wanton for more proof about immortality and the good afterlife that Socrates has briefly mentioned, so Socrates launches into a long narrative. He explains the underworld and all of its workings and then concludes: “no sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for man to risk belief” (114d). Socrates, one of the most rational people ever to have lived, is here admitting the limit of human rationality. Socrates repeats a common theme that was mentioned in the Meno and Crito that a life of hope and striving is better than nothing at all, and interestingly he parallels an idea in Pascal’s Pensées. Socrates illustrates that a life of hope and striving is better than otherwise, so people should repeat this belief (behavioral activation) until they actually believe it in the same way that Pascal feels people should change their actions in accord with godliness until they believe. Socrates’ explanation seems lacking, but quite literally that is all that can be hoped for.

Works Cited
Cohen, S. Marc., Patricia Curd, and C. Reeve. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: from Thales to Aristotle. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 2005. Print.


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