Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo By Plato Summary and Analysis Phaedo

Summary

After an interval of some months or years, an account of the last hours of Socrates is narrated to Echecrates and other interested persons by Phaedo, a beloved disciple of the great teacher. The narration takes place at Phlius, a town of Sicyon. The dialog takes the form of a narrative because Socrates is described acting as well as speaking, and the particulars of the event are interesting to distant friends as well as to the narrator himself. Phaedo is asked if he had been present with Socrates on the day that he drank the poison. He replies that he was present, and he also mentions several of the other persons who were there at the time. These included Simmias, Cebes, Crito, Apollodorus, and several other people. Plato was not present at this meeting, having been kept away because of illness.

The chief topic of conversation had been Socrates' conception of the soul. Inasmuch as all of those present were aware of the fact that Socrates would be put to death that day, they wanted to know what their beloved teacher believed concerning the nature of the soul. There were many questions that they would like to have answered, including: What assurance or proof do we have that souls actually exist? How is the soul related to the body? What happens to the soul at the time of death? Does it disintegrate into nothingness, or does it continue to exist in some form? Are souls immortal in the sense that they have neither a beginning nor an end? Are souls influenced by contact with the body? Are there both good and bad souls, and if so, what constitutes the difference between them? Are souls either punished or rewarded in some future life? These questions, along with others closely related to them, are discussed at some length as Socrates attempts to present his ideas in a manner that is both clear and convincing.

The dialog begins with a request that Phaedo report to the group of visitors about the death of Socrates, telling them what he had to say during his last hours. Some of those who were present had heard that Socrates had been condemned to drink poison, but they knew very little about it and were anxious to learn more of the details. Phaedo explained the reason why the execution had been delayed for a month, pending the return of the ship from the island of Delos. He also described something of his own feelings as he witnessed the death of his very dear friend. He did not pity Socrates, for his mien and his language were so noble and fearless in the hour of death that he appeared to be blessed.

After having mentioned the names of several of those who were present at the time of Socrates' death, Phaedo states that he will endeavor to repeat the entire conversation as he remembers the way in which it took place. As the group entered the prison on the morning of Socrates last day, they observed that he had just been released from chains. His wife, Xanthippe, was sitting by him, holding their child in her arms. She was weeping because this was the last time she could converse with her husband. Socrates turned to Crito and asked that he have someone take her home. After this had been done and some remarks had been made concerning the readiness with which a true philosopher would approach death, Cebes asks Socrates why it is that he believes it is wrong for one to commit suicide since death is not something to be feared?

Socrates admits that there is an apparent inconsistency in his position, but a careful consideration of the problem will reveal no real inconsistency. The reason is that we as human beings are in the hands of the gods. They are our guardians and we are their possessions. Since we belong to the gods, it is wrong for us to destroy their possessions, except in those instances that are in accordance with their will. Neither Cebes nor Simmias is satisfied with this statement, and Socrates proceeds to give additional reasons in support of his position. Although he believes that suicide is wrong, he has no fear of death so long as he is acting in harmony with the will of God. He would be grieved at death if he did not believe the soul would fare better after death than when it is dwelling in the body. He is convinced, however, that after the soul is separated from the body, it will go to other gods and will be associated with the souls of departed people who are even better than those now living on the earth. Socrates admits that he has no positive proof of this, but he believes it to be true and is aware of no facts to indicate the contrary.

At this point, Crito interrupts the conversation to inform them that the jailer has requested Socrates not to talk so much lest the heat generated by his talking might interfere with the action of the poison he must take and thereby make it necessary to have it administered more than once. Socrates instructs Crito to tell the jailer to mind his own business and be prepared to give the poison as many times as is required.

Following this brief interruption, Socrates enters into a discussion with Cebes and Simmias concerning the nature of death. He says, "And now I will make answer to you, O my judges, and show that he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world. . . . For I deem that the true discipline of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying; and if this is true, why, having had the desire of death all his life long, should he repine at the arrival of that which he has been always pursuing and desiring?" Death, he explains, is nothing more than the separation of soul and body. Now, a true philosopher is one who ought not to place the highest value on the pleasures of the body, such as eating and drinking or the acquisition of costly raiment. He cares for these things only to the extent that they are necessary to meet nature's needs. His primary concern is for the soul, and for this reason, he would like to be rid of the body insofar as it interferes with the welfare of the soul. It is true that the rest of the world are of the opinion that apart from bodily pleasures life is not worth living, but in this respect they are mistaken. The philosopher knows that the soul is superior to the body and should be its master rather than its slave.

As the body desires pleasures of the flesh, so the soul desires wisdom. The pleasures of the body are experienced through the senses, but the acquisition of wisdom comes only through the intellect. Truth cannot be perceived by the senses, and so long as the search for final and absolute truth is accompanied by one's body, he is bound to be deceived. True existence, if it is revealed at all, must come through the processes of thought, and thought functions at its best when the mind is no longer troubled by sounds or sights or pains or pleasures. It must have as little as possible to do with the body as it aspires to wisdom and a knowledge of ultimate reality. It is in this respect that the philosopher dishonors the body, for his soul runs away from the body and desires to be alone and by itself.

Socrates continued his argument by calling attention to the fact that justice, beauty, and goodness in their final, or absolute, form have never been perceived by the eyes, ears, or any other bodily sense. Anyone who attains to a knowledge of them in their highest purity must do so through the mind alone, without the distraction of sight, sound, or any other sense. From this we must conclude that, so long as we are in the body and the soul is mixed with this evil, our desire for the truth will not be satisfied. The body is a source of endless trouble by reason of its requirements of food, its liability to diseases, and filling our lives with loves, lusts, and fears: "For whence come wars, and fighting, and factions? . . . For wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and in consequence of all these things the time which ought to be given to philosophy is lost." He concludes this part of the argument by pointing out that after death, the foolishness of the body will have been cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls. We will possess the light of truth. If this be true, it would be most absurd for one who is a lover of wisdom to be fearful of death. Whenever you see a man who is repining at the approach of death, you may be sure this is sufficient proof that he is not a lover of wisdom but a lover of the body and probably at the same time a lover of money or of power.

Cebes has been deeply impressed by what Socrates has said concerning the advantages to be gained by a separation of the soul from the body. He is in agreement with most of the argument, but he questions the premise on which much of it is based. He is not convinced that there are sufficient reasons for believing in the continued existence of the soul following the death of the body. He thinks it quite possible that upon its release from the body, the soul may disintegrate and like smoke or air vanish into nothingness. If Socrates has more arguments to support his belief that when a man is dead his soul still exists, having force or intelligence, he would like to hear them. So far as his present opinion is concerned, Cebes remains skeptical.

In response to this skeptical attitude on the part of Cebes, Socrates makes some reference to the Heraclitean doctrine of the strife of opposites. According to this conception, the world is in a constant state of flux. Everything is constantly changing into its opposite. Day changes into night and night changes into day. Life changes into death and death changes into life. All things that have opposites are generated out of their opposites. This is a principle that holds true universally. Anything that becomes greater must become greater after being less, and that which becomes less must have been once greater and then become less. The weaker is generated from the stronger and the swifter from the slower. This holds of all opposites. They are generated out of one another, and there is a passing or process from one to the other of them.

Life and death are opposites just as sleep and waking are opposites. Out of sleeping, waking is generated, and the process of generation is in the one case falling asleep and in the other waking up. By the same type of analysis, we may say that death is generated from life and life is generated from death. Since the living come from the dead and the dead come from the living, it follows that the souls of the dead must be in some place out of which they come again. Furthermore, we must recognize that if all things that partake of life were to die and after they were dead remained in the form of death and did not come to life again, all would at last die and nothing would be alive. Cebes admits at this point he is now convinced that the souls of the dead are in existence and what happens to the good souls is different from that of the evil souls. He believes, too, that the doctrine of reminiscence offers further proof of the thesis that Socrates has been ex-pounding. Simmias then asks for a further explanation of what this doctrine about recollection really means.

Cebes remarks that one proof of the recollection theory can be established simply by asking questions. By having the proper questions put to him in the right manner, a person will be able to answer correctly about something of which he was totally unaware before the questions were asked. He would be unable to do this if the knowledge had not in some sense been present within him. The questions that were asked served the purpose of stimulating the mind so that it was able to recall that which had been known at some previous time. It might be that this knowledge had been gained by the soul during its existence in some prior embodiment.

Socrates then adds some further remarks to strengthen the argument in support of the recollection doctrine. He asks if there is such a thing as equality? He does not mean equality of one piece of wood with another or of one stone with another, but equality in the abstract, or apart from its application to particular things. He means absolute equality. Both Cebes and Simmias agree that there is such a thing. Socrates then points out that equality in this sense cannot be perceived by the senses. Two things may appear to us to be equal to each other, but there will always be some difference between them. Perfect or absolute equality does not exist in the world of our sense experience. How then is it possible for us to know anything about this type of equality, which has never been experienced by any of our senses? Clearly, the idea of equality in its pure state must have been acquired at some time previous to birth. From this it follows that from the moment of our birth, we have been in possession of this knowledge, which is true not only for the idea of equality but of other ideas, such as justice, truth, beauty, and goodness. But if this knowledge, which we acquired be-fore out birth, has been lost in the sense that we are no longer directly aware of it and afterward by the use of the senses we recover that which we previously knew, this process that we speak of as learning is really a matter of recollection. The ideas that we recover in this way constitute the standard in comparison with which we judge the accuracy of that which is revealed through the senses. Thus, we are able to say of two objects that they are approximately equal, but insofar as their nature is revealed through the senses, they never reach perfect or absolute equality. In a similar manner, we may say that actions of a legal nature may approximate justice, but absolute justice cannot be achieved, although it is an ideal toward which one may strive. The conclusion that may be drawn from these observations is that souls must have existed prior to the time when they entered human bodies. If absolute ideas existed before we were born, then our souls must have existed before we were born, for the ideas could not have existed apart from the souls that contained them.

Simmias then states that there is nothing that to his mind is more evident than the existence of such ideas as beauty, truth, justice, and the like. This, for him, is all the proof that is needed to establish the existence of souls prior to the birth of human beings. He believes that Cebes is also convinced that this is true, but there is one further question concerning which both Cebes and Simmias are in doubt. It has to do with the continued existence of souls after death. This is the other half of the argument, the proof of which is still wanting and needs to be supplied. Socrates contends that the proof has already been given since it has been admitted that everything living has been born of the dead. If the soul existed before birth and in coming to life and being born can be born only from death and dying, it follows that it must continue to exist since it has to be born again. He perceives, however, that Cebes and Simmias are not satisfied with this argument and proceeds to probe deeper into the subject. Cebes thinks it is quite possible that souls, having entered human bodies and going out of them at the time of death, may be destroyed and come to an end.

In reply to Cebes' suggestion, Socrates calls attention to the fact that only compound or composite things are capable of being dissolved. That which is compounded, or made up of parts, is constantly changing, while that which is not compounded does not change but ever remains what it is. Things that are changing can be perceived by the senses, but that which is unchanging cannot. Now the essences, or ideas of which we have been speaking, such as justice, beauty, truth, and goodness, are simple and not compounded. They are unchanging and they cannot be perceived by the senses. Human nature contains two parts, which we call body and soul. The body is that part that is compounded, changing, and perceived by the senses. The soul in which the essences, or ideas, are present is uncompounded, changeless, and is not perceived by the senses. When the soul and the body are united, nature orders the soul to rule and govern and the body to obey and serve. In this respect, the soul resembles the divine and the body that which is mortal. From this we may draw the conclusion that the "soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable." When a man dies, the body, which is the visible part of man, becomes dissolved and decomposed, but the same cannot be said of the soul. The truth is that the soul, which is pure at the time it departs from the body, contains no bodily taint and, being invisible, departs to the invisible world, which is divine and immortal and rational. There it continues to exist in bliss, being released from the error and folly of men, with their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and dwells in the company of the gods.

While this might be true concerning the souls that were pure and uncontaminated by their contact with the body, what about those souls that had not remained pure? Was it not true that there are evil souls as well as good ones? What about the future of these evil souls when they are released from the body? Certainly, there would be no justice in treating both good and evil souls in the same way. Socrates recognizes the legitimacy of these questions and provides the best answer that he can, although he admits he has no positive proof concerning what will actually happen to the souls of men after they have been released from the bodies with which they have been associated. He is familiar with what the mystery cults of his day have to say on this matter, and he makes use of the myths that they have employed to indicate something like what he thinks would constitute an appropriate doctrine of rewards and punishments for good and evil souls, respectively.

The soul that has become polluted by being the companion and servant of the body, having become fascinated by the desires and pleasures of the body, will, therefore, be impure at the time of departure. Souls of this nature, having become engrossed by the corporeal, will be compelled to wander about, prowling among tombs and sepulchers in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life. They will continue to wander until the desires that haunt them have been satisfied, after which they will be imprisoned in another body. Those who have followed after gluttony, wantonness, and drunkenness will pass into asses and animals of that sort, while those who have chosen the part of injustice, tyranny, and violence will pass into wolves or hawks, or some other type of animal. All of them will be assigned to places corresponding to their several natures. Some of them, who have practiced the civil and social virtues by habit rather than reflection, may be expected to pass into some gentle social nature like that of bees or ants or even back again into some human form. Only those who are true lovers of wisdom and who are pure at the time of departing will be permitted to dwell with the gods.

After Socrates had finished speaking, all who were present remained silent for a few minutes, during which time they were given an opportunity to think about what they had been hearing. When asked about their opinion of the argument, Simmias replied that not all of his doubts have been removed. He mentions that both he and Cebes have certain questions that they would like to have clarified. Socrates is pleased to observe that they have open and inquiring minds and are ready to think for themselves rather than accept what has been told them without subjecting it to the test of reasonableness. He informs them that if they will state their questions, he will do his best to answer them. He is like the swan that sings its best song just prior to its final departure. His departure from this life is close at hand, and his gift of prophecy should be at its best.

Simmias is disturbed with reference to the possibility of anyone having any objective knowledge about what happens to the soul after it has departed from the body. He believes it is quite proper for one to investigate the question so far as it is humanly possible, and he would consider anyone a coward who would refuse to look for proofs in support of what he believes to be true, but from what has been said so far concerning the future existence of the soul, he finds that any positive proof is lacking. It seems to him that the argument Socrates has used about the soul could be applied with equal force to the harmony produced on a lyre. It could be said that harmony is a thing invisible, incorporeal, fair, divine, and abiding in the lyre that is harmonized but that the lyre and the strings are matter and composite, earthy, and akin to mortality. When someone breaks the lyre or cuts the strings, what happens to the harmony? Even though it is of an invisible and heavenly nature, it will perish sooner than what remains of the broken lyre and its cut strings. It is conceivable that the body is a composite thing, the parts of which are strung or held together by the elements of hot and cold, wet and dry, and that the soul is the harmony, or due proportionate admixture, of them. If this is true, would it not follow that when the strings of the body are unduly loosened or overstrained through disorder or other injury, the soul, although it is divine and immaterial, will like other harmonies of music or works of art perish at once, even before the material remains of the body have decayed or been burned?

Cebes disagrees with Simmias on one point, for he is convinced that the soul is stronger and more lasting than the body, but he is in agreement with him that the continuous existence of the soul after death has not been proved. To make his position clear, he will compare the relationship between soul and body to that of a weaver and the coat he has been wearing. After the weaver dies, someone might argue that he still lives because the coat he has been accustomed to wear is still whole and undecayed, and since a man lasts longer than his coat, it must be that he is still alive. This, of course, would be nonsense, for everyone would know that a man may outwear several coats and the last one that he wears will still be in existence after he has died. But eventually even that coat will become old and decayed and cease to exist. May not the same thing be said of the soul? It was in existence prior to its entrance into a human body, and after it departs from that body it will be born again in some other body. Just as the body of a man may outlast several coats, so the soul may outlast a number of bodies, but after a series of successive births, it seems quite possible that it may have become weary from these cycles of existence and at last succumb in one of the deaths and utterly perish.

Both Echecrates and Phaedo, after listening to these arguments, were seriously disturbed. It seemed to them that, while Socrates had presented good arguments in support of his position, Cebes and Simmias had been successful in refuting them. They were beginning to wonder whether anything was to be gained by argumentation since apparently it was leading to no definite conclusion. At this point, Socrates warns against the dangers of becoming misologists, who have no faith in the reasoning process. He explains that it is not reasoning that is at fault but rather the failure of men to reason correctly. He then proceeds to answer each of the arguments presented by Cebes and Simmias. He begins by asking Simmias if he is still in agreement with the doctrine that knowledge is recollection and that from this it can be inferred that souls have existed prior to their entrance into bodies. When Simmias replies in the affirmative, he is reminded of the fact that this is not in agreement with the idea that the soul is a harmony that is made out of strings set in the frame of the body. The reason for this is that harmony cannot exist prior to the elements out of which it is composed. The truth is that harmony is not a sort of thing like the soul. The lyre and the strings must exist first, and then harmony is made last of all, although it perishes first. Then, too, it must be recognized that there are different degrees of harmony, but this is not true of the soul. These considerations are sufficient to refute the idea that the soul is comparable to the harmony that ceases to exist when the lyre is broken or its strings have been cut.

Socrates' reply to Cebes is somewhat longer since it involves the whole question of generation and corruption. Although Cebes admits that the soul is superior to the body, he maintains it is impossible to know whether the soul, having worn out many bodies, may not perish itself, leaving its last body behind, which would mean death not only of the body but of the soul, for in the body the work of destruction never ceases. In order to convince Cebes that the soul is really immortal and will never perish, Socrates reports some of the changes that have taken place in his own thinking with reference to this problem. When he was young, he became interested in the natural sciences, for he believed they could help him to understand the causes of things and to know why they were created or destroyed. He made inquiries about the growth and decay of animals as well as the origin of thought. He soon began to doubt that growth is merely the result of eating and drinking or that the brain is the cause of thought. He came to the conclusion that the physical sciences could provide no answers to the questions he had in mind. A common error consisted in the failure to distinguish between the condition of a thing and its cause. To regard material things as the cause of thought would imply that Socrates is sitting where he is because he is made up of bones and muscles rather than giving the true reason, which is that he is sitting here because the Athenians thought it good to sentence him to death. In connection with the idea that opposites generate opposites, Socrates explains that this has been affirmed not of opposite ideas either in us or in nature, but of opposite things — not of life and death, but of individuals living and dying. Not only does life exclude death, but the soul, of which life is the inseparable attribute, also excludes death, which means that the soul is immortal.

If the soul is immortal, what manner of person ought we to be? This question must be answered not merely with reference to time but to eternity as well. Death is not the end of all, and the wicked is not released from his evil by death, for after death the soul is carried away to judgment. After receiving punishment, it returns to earth in the course of ages. The wise soul is guided through the windings of the world below, but the impure soul wanders hither and thither without a guide and is carried at last to its own place.

After Socrates had finished speaking, Crito asked if he had any requests to make concerning his children or any other matters. Socrates replied that his only wish was that they look after themselves properly and live in accordance with the principles that he has taught. That would be the greatest service that they could perform for him. When asked in what way he would like to be buried, Socrates replied, "In any way that you like; only you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not walk away from you." He then explained that he cannot make Crito believe that he is the same Socrates who has been talking. Crito fancies that he is the other Socrates, whom he will soon see as a dead body, and that is why he asks how he shall be buried. Socrates then adds these words: "Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that as is usual, and as you think best."

When he had spoken these words, Socrates arose and went to the bath chamber with Crito. After he had finished his bath, his children and the women of his family were brought to him. He talked to them and gave them a few instructions in the presence of Crito, after which he dismissed them and returned to the members of the group. The jailer soon appeared and administered the poison. When it had begun to take effect, he uncovered his face and said, "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" Crito answered that it would be paid. In a few moments, the attendants uncovered him and found that his eyes were set. Crito then closed his eyes and mouth. Phaedo then remarks, "Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known."

Analysis

The Phaedo is one of Plato's dialogs in which the dramatic form of art achieved its highest level of development. It consists of a series of conversations supposed to have taken place before a numerous audience. The purpose of these conversations was to reveal what had actually taken place in the prison on the last day that Socrates was alive. Phaedo, who for a long time had been a close and intimate friend of Socrates, was one of those who were present on that occasion, and he relates what had taken place, including the rather lengthy conversations as he remembers them. The place where this narration occurred is Phlius, a town of Sicyon, where Phaedo of Elis had stopped on his way home from Athens. The story is told to a group of Philiasian admirers of Socrates who had not yet learned of the details connected with his imprisonment and death. Echecrates, who was a member of the group, was a Pythagorean, and two other members of the group, Cebes and Simmias, were pupils of the Pythagorean teacher Philolaus. From these facts, it seems likely that the gathering took place in the meeting house of the local Pythagoreans.

We do not know the exact order in which Plato's dialogs were written, but it seems fairly certain that the Phaedo was not one of the early Socratic dialogs written during his more youthful period, nor was it a product of his late or more advanced years. Apparently, it belongs to the middle period of his literary career, when his maturity as a writer had reached its highest stage. Evidently, Plato intended his readers to regard this dialog as an accurate record of the way in which Socrates spent his last hours on earth. It would be of particular interest to note the topics on which he spoke with his intimate friends in the face of his imminent death. The authenticity of the record is indicated by the fact that a list is given of the names of the people who were present. Since most of these people were probably still living when the Phaedo was published, any errors in the account would have been noted and brought to light. Although Plato was not one of those present at the meeting, he was in all likelihood well informed concerning what had taken place. We know that after the death of Socrates, he spent some time at Megara, where he had ample opportunity to meet and talk with some of the persons mentioned in the dialog. Phaedo, who was the narrator, is represented in the dialog as a mere lad, and it is quite reasonable to imagine he was well acquainted with Plato during his later years.

Taken as a whole, the subject matter of the dialog is Socrates' conception of the soul. Its purpose was to state as clearly as possible his reasons for believing that the soul is not only immortal in the sense that it has no beginning and no end, but that it partakes of the very nature of divinity. Hence, an imitation of God becomes a right and reasonable standard of conduct for human beings. The argument of the dialog is moral insofar as it maintains that the dignity and worth of the soul affords sufficient grounds for believing that death to a good man means entrance into a better life that is something that he may face with good comfort. The dialog contains a whole series of arguments in support of belief in the immortality of the soul. No one of these should be regarded as sufficient by itself to establish complete proof of immortality. Rather, the evidence is cumulative; taken together, it constitutes a strong case for acceptance of the belief. At any rate, Socrates is able to make an adequate reply to opponents of the belief in immortality, including those who have advocated epiphenomenalism and a mechanical conception of nature.

The reader of the dialog is bound to be impressed by the courage and fortitude that Socrates possesses in the face of imminent death. Nevertheless, he has often been criticized for his role as a husband and a father. The fact that his wife, Xanthippe, and their infant son were excluded from the company of visitors who had arrived at the prison on the last day of his life has sometimes been regarded as evidence of harshness in his attitude toward them. This is not necessarily the case. They are conducted home at the beginning of the discourse because Xanthippe is said to have been on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Socrates wishes to spare both her and himself. It is also important to note that the children and the "ladies of the family" appear again toward the close of the dialog. The wife and infant son are believed to have spent the last night of his life with him. He has a final interview with the members of the family, and we are told that the interview was a lengthy one. The interview is not described because Phaedo did not witness it. Except for Crito, the oldest friend of the family, the interview was a private family affair.

When Socrates remarks that a true philosopher is one who is willing and ready to die but believes it would be wrong for anyone to put an end to his own life, Cebes wants to know why it would be wrong for one to commit suicide. Knowing that Cebes was a Pythagorean, Socrates asked if his teacher Philolaus had not explained to him the reasons for condemning actions of that type. Cebes replied that the explanations had been given, but he was never able to understand them. He was now hoping that Socrates would make it clear to him. In common with some of the mystery cults, especially the Orphic mysteries, the Pythagoreans had accepted the idea that the hardships of human life are punishments for evil deeds that were committed in some former existence. Socrates does not indicate that he is in full accord with what has been taught about one's prenatal existence, but he does find an answer to Cebes' question about suicide in the Pythagorean doctrine that human beings are chattels, or possessions, in the hands of the gods. For this reason, they are not at liberty to destroy that which is not their own but belongs to beings other than themselves.

Granting that it is wrong for one to put an end to his own life unless commanded to do so by the gods, Socrates then goes on to explain why it is that a true philosopher, or lover of wisdom, has no fear of death. He points out that the faith and hope with which the philosopher faces death is in perfect harmony with the principles by which he has regulated his whole life. The world may not be aware of it, but the fact is that the whole life of philosophy is but one long rehearsal of dying. Because the world does not understand the meaning of dying, they accuse philosophers of being morbid, but in this they are mistaken, for death is nothing other than the release of the soul from the body. It is the achievement of the soul's independence, which is what the philosopher has been trying to accomplish throughout his entire life. Placing only a lesser value on the gratification of physical appetites and the acquisition of material goods, he is concerned primarily with the development of the soul. In his pursuit of knowledge, he finds the demands of the body to be a real hindrance and tries as best he can to escape them. That is why he puts his trust in thinking rather than in what is experienced through the senses, for in thinking the soul is independent of the body in a way that is not true of the senses. Bodily wants and passions are the chief causes of war and competition in business, two occupations of the so-called active life that leave little time for thinking and the pursuit of knowledge. This is why the person who is in love with knowledge knows that his heart's desire will be achieved either after death or not at all.

Now that the philosopher's attitude toward death has been explained satisfactorily, Simmias remarks that the existence of the soul after death appears to have been assumed without any evidence or proof to support such a belief. He mentions that many persons believe the soul is dispersed like smoke at the time of death, and he sees no reason why this belief should be rejected. If Socrates can convince him that the soul does continue to exist after death, he would like for him to present the evidence on which his opinion is based. It is important to note that Simmias is not asking for complete proof, and Socrates is not promising to do anything more than show that immortality of the soul is more likely to be true than a denial of it. The argument consists of two parts, each of which is designed to support belief in the continued existence of the soul following the death of the body. The first part makes reference to the ancient belief in the doctrine of rebirth. It was a part of the teachings of the Orphic mystery cult, according to which a soul that is born into this world has come back from another world and will eventually return to it. While there is no indication that Socrates accepted everything taught by these mystery cults, the very fact that belief in the rebirth of the soul has been held by so many persons over a long period of time lends some support to the idea. A stronger reason for believing in the survival of the soul can be found in the doctrine of opposites and the way in which they are related to one another. According to this view, the world is made up of pairs of opposites such as hot and cold, great and small, good and bad. Furthermore, it can be said universally that whatever comes to be does so out of its opposite. Day comes out of night and night comes out of day. That which becomes less must have once been greater and then become less. The weaker is generated from the stronger and the swifter from the slower. Now, the opposite of life is death, and since opposites are generated out of one another, we may conclude that life is generated out of death and death is generated out of life. If all things that partake of life were to die and after they are dead remain in that form and not come to life again, eventually there would be nothing alive on the earth. From this we may conclude that death is not the final end of one's existence but only a transition.

The general conception of the world as made up of "pairs of opposites" that change from one to the other was a Greek notion that had been held for a long time. It was especially prominent in the teachings of Heraclitus, who had coordinated sleeping with waking and life with death. It was also a part of the Pythagorean philosophy, with which Cebes, Simmias, and other members of the group were familiar. It was not, however, a cogent piece of reasoning since it ignores the distinction between condition and cause, a point that Socrates apparently recognized at a later stage in the discussion. It is true that day follows night just as night follows day, but this does not mean that either one is made "out of" the other or that one is changed into the other. Cold is the opposite of heat, but it is not true that either one is changed into or actually becomes the other. Nevertheless, the doctrine concerning opposites was useful for the purpose that Socrates had in mind since it was based on assumptions that were regarded as true by members of the group to whom he was speaking. The effectiveness of the argument is strengthened when it is combined with the second part, which has to do with the doctrine of reminiscence.

According to this doctrine, what we usually refer to as learning the truth is really a matter of remembering something that has been forgotten. That which the soul possessed in a former existence can be brought to mind through the use of a proper stimulus. In some instances, this can be accomplished simply by asking a number of questions. For example, in the dialog called Meno, Socrates asks an uneducated slave about the proof of a certain theorem in geometry. At first, the slave appears to be entirely ignorant of the proof, but after he has been asked a number of questions, he sees it as clearly as anyone. Socrates then remarks that the slave now knows the proof, and yet he has not told him anything. He has merely asked him some questions. Obviously, the slave has possessed this knowledge all the time but has been unable to recall it until appropriate questions had been put to him.

The strongest evidence in support of the reminiscence theory, or doctrine of recollection, comes from an examination of the way in which knowledge of universals is obtained. Ideas such as justice, beauty, truth, goodness, equality, and others are acknowledged to be real, and it is possible for individuals to know what they mean. At the same time, it must be admitted that none of these ideas have ever been perceived by the senses, nor have they been experienced in their pure form. Objects may appear to be equal and actions may approximate the ideal of justice, but no two objects can ever be said to be exactly equal, nor is perfect justice ever achieved in human experience. How then is it possible for anyone to know what justice is or what equality really means? The answer, according to this theory, is that the ideas are remembered from a former existence. Sense experiences serve as a stimulus to the mind, causing it to remember or recollect that which is already present within it. Without this awareness of the meaning of universals, the whole process of knowing would be impossible. For instance, when anyone is asked what a particular object is, the answer, if one is to be given at all, will consist of saying that it belongs to a certain class of objects and these class names are necessarily examples of universals, or ideas, in their pure form. From this analysis of the knowing process, it follows that souls must have existed prior to one's birth, for otherwise the ideas could not have been carried from one existence to another. The souls in which these ideas were present were not only in existence, they were actively intelligent.

Cebes and Simmias both express their satisfaction with the proof offered in support of the belief that souls exist prior to the birth of human beings, but neither of them is fully convinced that souls will continue their existence after death. Simmias suggests the possibility that souls are like the smoke that comes out of a chimney and then disintegrates into thin air and vanishes away. Socrates then reminds him that it is only composite things that are capable of disintegration. Objects of this nature can be perceived by the senses and are always subject to change. Objects that are not compounded but are simple in their nature always remain what they are. They are not subject to change, and neither can they be perceived by the senses. This is what has been admitted concerning universals, or the abstract ideas that are present in souls. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that souls, like the ideas that are present in them, are not subject to change. They are simple rather than compound in nature, and for this reason they cannot disintegrate or cease to exist.

Two of the chief arguments against belief in the immortality of the soul are brought into the discussion, and Socrates has a reply to each of them. The one that is often referred to as epiphenomenalism is introduced by Simmias, and the other one, which involves a mechanistic conception of life and the world, is presented by Cebes. Epiphenomenalism is the doctrine that souls or spiritual substances are the product of matter; with the destruction of the matter that produced them, they will cease to exist. Simmias compares the soul to the harmony that is produced by a lyre in the hands of a musician. The harmony has many of the same characteristics that have been ascribed to the soul. It is immaterial and partakes of a divine quality. What happens to the harmony when the lyre is broken or its strings are cut? Obviously, the harmony will cease to exist. It is dependent on the material instrument from which it is produced and will perish with the destruction of that instrument. May not the same thing be true of the soul? So long as the soul is united with the body, it is dependent upon it. The body, being composed of material substances, will in time disintegrate and cease to exist, which might very well mean that the soul, like the harmony of the lyre, will perish along with it.

Socrates' reply to Simmias takes into account some of the more important differences between the soul and the harmony produced by a musical instrument. The relationship of the soul to the body is in one respect quite different from that of harmony to the material instrument on which it is dependent. It is the function of the soul to rule or govern the body rather than to be served by it. Therefore, the soul is not dependent on the body in the same way that harmony is dependent on the lyre. The soul is in one sense the permanent and divine element in a human being, while the body is a mortal and changing element. Hence, we should expect the body to be perishable and the soul to be imperishable. Particular emphasis is given to the deification, or divine character, of the soul in contrast to the human and mortal nature of the body. While it is true that the soul, when united with the body, may be influenced by the passions and desires of the body and in this respect we may speak of the souls that are evil, it is also true that in its real nature the soul is constantly trying to be free of the demands of the body. This process of becoming free of the body is the means by which it achieves deification, and that which is divine can never perish.

A mechanistic conception of life and the world apparently forms the basis for Cebes' final objection to belief in the immortality of the soul. Using the figure of a weaver who wears out a number of coats, he asks if it may not be true that the soul, having gone through a number of rebirths, will at last succumb in one of its deaths and utterly perish? In a rather lengthy reply to Cebes, Socrates reviews some of his own experiences in trying to find the meaning of life through a study of the physical sciences. As a result of his many investigations, he had become convinced that it is impossible to learn anything about the spiritual life of man from a study of the material aspects of his nature. The physical sciences are useful as a means of recording the order in which movements observed by the senses take place, but they tell us nothing about the purpose or meaning of life, nor do they reveal what is right or wrong in the moral sense in which those terms are used. He concludes his remarks on this subject by referring again to the so-called doctrine of opposites and pointing out that pairs of opposites such as "hot and cold," "day and night," "life and death," and similar ones are not changed one into the other. While it is true that one of the opposites in each pair is followed by the other, this does not mean that one of them is the cause of the other or that the nature of any one of the opposites has been changed in the least. To imagine that one of them has been changed into the other is the result of a failure to distinguish between condition and cause. The nature of being hot is never changed into the nature of being cold, day is never changed into night, and the nature of life is never changed into the nature of death. Each of these opposites always remains exactly what it is, and from this we can infer that the soul that is present in the human body will not change its nature by passing from a state of existence into one of nonexistence.

With regard to the distinction between good souls and evil ones, Socrates recognizes that freedom of choice is given to each individual. The soul that yields to the appetites and desires of the body by placing a higher value on sensual pleasures and material possessions than it does on wisdom and righteous conduct is an evil one, while souls that resist temptations of this kind and strive toward perfection of both mind and conduct are designated as good ones. Because he believes in the justice of God, he is confident that a different fate is in store for good and evil souls. Just how this will be accomplished he is not certain, but the doctrine of reincarnation as set forth in the teachings of the mystery religions offers a solution that he believes is at least something like what will take place. Evil souls will be reincarnated in the bodies of different kinds of animals and insects and always with the possibility of entering into higher forms of life. The good souls will be treated in a manner that is proportionate to their degrees of goodness, with the final goal of dwelling eternally with the gods.

The events that are related toward the end of the dialog are of particular significance in revealing somewhat further the true character of Socrates. His concern for the welfare of his wife and children, his request that a small debt that he owed be paid, his kindly attitude toward the attendant who administers the poison, his faith in what lies beyond death, and above all the courage and nobility with which he accepts his fate, are all indications of his goodness. Of him it has well been said that he acquired the art of dying beautifully. Phaedo's final tribute to him is apparently well deserved.

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