ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Instructions for Lesson 8:
The heart of "Phædo" is the end, from section number 107a through the close, where Socrates describes the underworld and the judgment of souls, then drinks the hemlock. Students who honestly can't make heads or tails of this dialogue should read, at a minimum, this famous ending part.
We skip Plato's dialogue "Meno," which our editors have screwed up by inserting between "Crito" and "Phaedo." In the story sequence, "Meno" obviously belongs prior to "Euthyphro," since it depicts a time in Socrates' life shortly before he is accused of impiety. The students of Socrates are not always very bright!
"Phædo" is the most challenging of our readings from Plato. It is full of curious ancient doctrines and myths about the human soul and the afterlife. Moreover, the style of the dialogue is difficult because a story-teller (Phædo) narrates everything that was said by those who were present with Socrates on the day of his final conversation. It's not hard for readers to get lost and forget which character is speaking. Some points are lost in translation, such as the local Greek dialects that Plato assigned to these speakers.
My advice is simple: don't make the reading harder than it needs to be. It is not essential to grasp all of the particular arguments about the soul's destructibility or immortality. On your first reading, it's enough to view the dialogue simply as Plato's depiction of the ideal Academy, with the ideal teacher and ideal students engaged in an ideal discussion. Think of this dialogue as the first portrait ever painted of higher education. Think of how Plato's basic model compares with our academic classrooms today.
There's another aspect of education here that's important for us, too. Because of its difficulty, "Phædo" can help to teach us how to study. If we find a study method that works on this dialogue, we have discovered a powerful learning technique indeed! On the other hand, if at the end of all of our work we haven't grasped much of anything about this dialogue, it means that our study methods need improvement--that we must look further to find the learning techniques that will work for us when we are confronted with serious academic reading.
On my last reading of "Phædo" I had to teach a class about it. What would I say? How would I handle student questions, comments and complaints? If my preparation for class failed to give me complete confidence, the class might be a disaster. I read slowly and carefully, with pencil in hand, underlining the passages that I found important or interesting, and I also made lots of notes in the margins of the book. Yet, after I finished this active reading process, I still felt a bit lost, not yet in firm command of the dialogue.
Finally I hit on a solution. I wrote a brief one-page outline of the highlights of the reading, to sum up with one more repetition in order to drive the key issues of the reading into my memory. That is, I went back again through my margin notes, and I made a simple list of the comments that seemed most important or most interesting. Writing that simple one-page list gave me a sense of control or perspective that I had been missing before. It made some order out of the details. When my list was complete, I had new confidence. I was prepared for class.
My list will not be too meaningful to you; it had to fit on one blank page in the paperback, so it uses very short abbreviations. (For a more organized outline of "Phædo," see Dr. G's study notes.) Nevertheless, I'm reproducing my list below, word for word, simply to show the kind of exercise that I went through as a final step to get a sense of control over the dialogue.
I marked all of the passage numbers because "Phædo" is so long and complicated that it's easy to get lost in it. Finding the way back to any specific speech in this dialogue is almost impossible unless you know its number.
While reading, use markers or underlining to highlight passages that seem important, and take notes. This active reading will help you to decide what's important and what isn't. When finished with reading and note-taking, look back over the notes that you've written and then boil them down into a very short outline or list. I believe that this method can help you gain confidence in your reading skills. If you can handle Plato's "Phædo," you know how to read!
If you take a college course in the history of philosophy, or a course in ancient Greece, you'll learn what Plato thought. You'll fake your learning, however, because there's no proof of what Plato thought. There may be evidence, but there is no proof. In the dialogues, Plato never speaks in his own person, and none of the other characters ever mention Plato's thinking. Plato left no introductions or footnotes to the dialogues. We know that he lectured at the Academy, but there are no reliable or detailed records of what he said. (Today we do have texts of several ancient letters that claim to be written by Plato, but they're generally believed to be forgeries that were written many years after Plato's death.) So, if you're ever required to say what Plato thought, like generations of students before you, you'll have to pretend that you know. And of course the pretending must be convincing enough so that it more or less passes for real knowledge!
We similarly have to pretend about Socrates since we do not have any of his own writings. When we say what Socrates said or thought, we are playing an academic role in a tradition of role-playing that dates back to Plato, Phædo, Crito and the other original students of Socrates who pretended to be Socratic or to know Socrates' ideas. Plato and his fellow students turned impersonation of Socrates into a profession. They founded their own schools, and soon there were "Skeptics," "Cynics," "Platonists" and other brands of "Socratics" competing with each other to attract a growing number of young people who wanted to find wisdom. "Socrates sold here" became a great advertisement for a wide variety of educational products, as the scholars all tried to act the part of Socrates.
It's exactly in this sense that the ancient stories of Socrates are the foundation of academic life. Students who haven't read Plato still can get the story of the academy indirectly, from academics today who are copies of copies of copies of copies. . . to the 100th generation from Socrates. But of course, this indirect method is like getting Christianity indirectly through a priest or minister who claims to know all about Jesus but has never read the New Testament.
Cults are refreshed when they return to a source story that has weakened by lack of reading or accurate retelling. When Gutenberg's printing press (cir. 1454 AD) made it possible for most Christians in Europe to own Bibles, people began to read the Christian foundation story for themselves, and their readings eventually reformed the churches so that they (both Catholic and Protestant) seemed to be more authentic simulations of the earliest Christian churches in New Testament times.
The reading of Plato has renewed academic life from time to time in much the same way. The rediscovery of Plato's dialogues in western Europe during the Renaissance led directly to the creation of important new "Academies" for the advancement of learning. Raphael's famous painting of The School of Athens (1509) may look a little silly to us these days, but it captures the genuine excitement of Raphael's day, when lost knowledge was being reclaimed from the distant past, from Plato and other sources of "the wisdom of the ancients."
All of us individually discover Socrates when we read the dialogues, and we rediscover him each time that we reread. Greater depth of understanding comes with each rereading. But even the first reading can teach us seven basics that we should know about academic life:
We absorb stories almost as easily as we absorb the "reality" of our personal experiences. Stories give us the benefit of experiences that we have not had in our own personal lives. From this variety of experience--some personal and some learned from others--our mental networks are equipped more fully to grapple with future challenges. If you have read Socrates, he is now available to you as a source of strength in your college career and beyond. If you welcome him as your ally, his wisdom is in you. It may seem awkward and downright pretentious at first to think of yourself as part-Socrates, but if you have followed the instructions in this course, if you have read his words and remember a few of them, he's in there now with you!
Plato was an artist interested in story-telling, myth, drama, inner voices and dreams. He ran a museum and collected songs. He was a poet who worked creatively within long-established traditions of Greek art. He could not resist drawing comparisons between Socrates and other literary heroes: Achilles, Herakles, Theseus and the rest.
The figure of the artist takes center stage in "Phædo." The Socrates of this dialogue passes his last hours in jail by composing a hymn to his god Apollo (god of poetry, god of death, and god of the oracle of Socrates' wisdom) and also by reworking into verse some of Aesop's fables (moral stories about talking animals, stories already ancient in Socrates' day). He writes this traditional sort of poetry, he says, because his dreams have told him so often to devote his life to the arts ("Phædo" 61a). He believes that philosophy is the best of the arts, so it seems to him that he has met the command of his dreams by philosophizing for so many years, but to be completely certain that the dream is fulfilled he writes conventional poetry. He playfully imagines himself as one of Apollo's swans that sang for joy when they were about to join the god in death. Obviously, this image is artificial, and less than serious, but Socrates uses it nonetheless to inspire courage.
to ancient legend, Socrates indeed was an artist. In his prime, during
the golden age of Athens, he is supposed to have worked on the Parthenon
sculptures, where he carved the figures of the Graces
(goddesses personifying charm, grace and beauty). He apparently
inherited this craft from his father, a stone cutter named Sophroniscus.
In any event, the family traced its heroic ancestry back to Daedalus,
the supposed inventor of sculpture and other arts who lived in the very
ancient days of Athens' super-hero Theseus. In many of Plato's
dialogues, Socrates identifies himself by speaking of Daedalus, "my
Magic is in Socrates' blood. In "Phædo" Socrates and his friends joke about Socratic magic spells that drive away death the bogey-man ("Phædo" 77e), but essentially the dialogue presents Socrates performing just such death-defying magic. The master shows his disciples hopeful illusions of life after death, and he offers a final dramatic "proof" of them by dying fearlessly. In the end the awed witnesses have the impression that Socrates' death was divinely appointed and that his soul was taken into the company of the immortal gods and heroes, as Socrates predicted.
figure of Daedalus, and the theme of overcoming fears about death, lead
us to the most important story that underlies Plato's "Crito,"
"Phædo" and their companion dialogues about Socrates'
"last days." That is the famous myth of Theseus and the
Minotaur. This very ancient tale forms the background to events
surrounding the death of Socrates, much as the Passover story of Exodus
provides the setting for the death of Jesus in the New Testament
The young couples on board the festival ship played the parts of their ancestors, Athenian youths of Theseus' time who had been offered as tribute to King Minos, the judge of the dead. The King was supposed to have shut these prisoners within a dark and seemingly inescapable labyrinth haunted by a terrifying bull-man named Taurus, or the Minotaur, from whose encounter nobody ever had returned. Young Theseus was supposed to have taken up the challenge of the labyrinth, slain the monster, saved the captives from King Minos, and brought them safely home to Athens.
In the festival ceremonies, the young couples celebrated first at Apollo's temple on Delos with a labyrinthine nighttime dance (known as "the Crane"), full of twists and turns, imitating the fearful passage of the dead through the dark intestines of the earth, and then back at Athens with a joyful procession carrying fruits and grains through the city to the temple where Theseus' bones were enshrined. These festivities coincided with the harvest season--so that the whole pageant provided a civic awakening to the natural mystery of life's renewal or rebirth from death. It was a big party. We might think of it as the Athenian all-in-one Thanksgiving, New Year's and Easter or Passover celebration.
Public executions were prohibited during this holiday period because they would have been inconsistent with the festival's theme and ceremonial demonstration that fears about death are groundless. In "The Apology," "Crito," and "Phædo," when Socrates warns against making assumptions that death is evil, he is keeping the spirit of the holiday.
The festive moral was: never give up and never be fooled by the appearances of things. Miracles happen. In the festival story, Theseus' father, old king Ægeus, had ended his life in despair over his son's return from the labyrinth. Looking into the horizon, when he saw the returning ship fitted out with black sails, the sign that Theseus had died, Ægeus in despair had thrown himself headlong into the sea (now known as the Ægean Sea, of course). But he had jumped to conclusions. The ship's captain simply had forgotten to hoist the white sails, signaling that Theseus in fact was alive.
Paradoxically, life springs from death. Socrates is both the slain Minotaur who corrupted the young Athenians, and whose animal mask is now removed, and he is also Daedalus who can save his children by flying them out of the labyrinth.
is confident in the immortality of his soul, but "Phædo"
shows us that he is deathless in another way that is critical to the
academy. His thought--his soul--is saved in the living voice of his
student Phædo, a voice that is preserved for us in turn by Plato's
dialogue. When this young Pythagorean philosopher impersonates Socrates,
Socrates is present in Phædo's speech. When Plato records this
impersonation in writing, Socrates is present in this same spiritual way
to all readers forever.
This "Socrates" of Phædo's believes in the eternal existence of the soul and the life to come after death. He characterizes these thoughts as his personal opinions, supported by reasoned argument, but in fact they are based largely on the revelations of old Greek poetry. He quotes the poet Homer as an authority on the underworld. His description of earth as seen from outer space ("Phædo" 108e, Socrates' wonderful account of "the form and regions of the earth") is based on the most famous passage in all of Greek poetry, Homer's astonishing description of the planet on the magical shield of Achilles (Iliad 18.483). The final teaching of Socrates is his story of how the departed soul is taken to judgment in the underworld, to be condemned to further misery or to be rewarded with release into higher planes of reality.
Socrates' dealing in marvelous illusions of the worlds above and below the earth, brings us to the main point of Plato's references to the Theseus' legend. When Theseus rescued the young Athenians from the Minotaur, King Minos was so angry that he imprisoned Socrates' heroic ancestor Daedalus, together with Daedalus' son Icarus, in the labyrinth, and he cruelly left them there to die. It was in this seemingly inescapable, deadly predicament that Daedalus famously invented wings of wax, and he and his son flew up out of the labyrinth and away from Minos' reach. They were the first humans to fly.
The final analogy with the Theseian festival story is that Socrates is in the labyrinth, imprisoned and seemingly doomed to oblivion by cruel judges, and he must invent wings so that he can fly away. His labyrinth is not simply his jail cell (he could have escaped easily from prison, if he had wished to flee into exile, as we see in "Crito") but his philosophical predicament, his dwelling among shadows where he is unable to perceive true reality. To find the real or perfect world, he must ascend up into the heavens, far above our everyday world of illusion:
So Socrates imagines flight from the lower realm of art, bodies, false appearances, and false thinking, the shadowy place where we always have encountered him in the Socratic dialogues. He will travel to the place where thoughts are true, where neither Phædo nor Plato nor any poet or artist living can see.
And Icarus? Socrates' students are figuratively his children. (They saw him as their father, Phædo says [116b].) In the old story, Icarus took wing with his father, but he did not heed his father's warning. He grew so proud of his high-flying that he flew too near to the sun; his wax wings were melted by Apollo, and he plummeted to his death in the sea (the Icarian Sea, of course). Daedalus alone returned safely home beyond the water. The students admire Socrates' opinions about life after death, but they have a hard time believing as he does. Simmias and Cebes ask good questions, and Socrates encourages their questioning, but they seem to fall short of their father.
Left: Raphael's Graces (1503 CE) is based on a fragmentary statue grouping from late Hellenistic times (cir. 180 BCE) that, in turn, may have been copied from the Parthenon's figures ascribed to Socrates. The Parthenon originals vanished long ago, perhaps when the building was converted for use as a Christian church. (His statues moved after all?) Socrates' figures, however, probably were clothed respectably. Female nudes were unknown in the statuary of his day.
Left: a humorous view of Theseus and the Minotaur (1862 AD) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones .
Left: the Thesean festival in classical Athens included reenactment of the story of Theseus slaying the Minotaur. Classical Greek images of the scene actually show the festival pageants. The "Minotaur" is a guy wearing a bull's mask. The beast is slain when the mask is removed.
Left: from The School of Athens, Raphaels' image of pre-Socratic sage Pythagoras. Scholars believe that, after Socrates' death, Plato traveled to Italy, where he visited a school of Pythagoreans, a school that he later used as one of the models for the Academy. Pythagoras taught a Hindu-like doctrine that souls are reincarnated in a cycle of deaths and rebirths. If this belief is true, then the dead are present spiritually in the living. We can know them by knowing our souls; likewise, we can know our souls by knowing them.
Left:: even Hermes was impressed with Socrates' speech.