Dr. G's Introduction to Plato's "Phaedo" 

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"Phaedo" is one of the best known of Plato's dialogues, as it presents Socrates' final conversation, discussing the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. It is also a depiction of an ideal academy, with an ideal teacher, ideal students, and a great lesson.

The conversation is reported by a young philosopher who claims to have been present with Socrates on the day of his death. (Apparently Plato was sick and could not be there.) This skillful presenter is a Pythagorean named Phaedo. Pythagoreans followed the mystical, Hindu-like teachings of Pythagoras (cir 530 BC) that the human soul is immortal, and that it undergoes unhappy earthly reincarnations, cycles of death and rebirth, until at last it wins freedom from all earthly suffering and release into a blissful state of perfect consciousness. The meditations of Pythagorean "philosophy" are the way to enter this eternal heaven. 

Pythagorean philosophy was intended to prepare the soul for liberation from the body. The soul was to be protected from the corruption of the body by practicing such virtues as courage (fearlessness for the body) and temperance (moderation of bodily appetites) and by contemplating ideal or non-physical subjects. Distractions of the body with its insatiable animal concerns were to be avoided: "feed me," "time to buy a new pair of sandals," "get me a drink," "let's make love," "I'm tired," etc. The philosopher was to listen to these bodily temptations as little as possible because the body's desires always lead nowhere, back to reincarnation and more of the same. The body complains that it lacks pleasure, but the fulfillment of pleasure always leads to further desire so that the body again complains. This is a mind-trap that leads around and around, like the labyrinth of the Minotaur.

Phædo's Socrates is Pythagorean. Pretending or imagining what happens in death, he gains at least an illusion of control over it, so that he can find comfort and even joy at the prospect of dying. Telling this story, Phædo gains the same sense of release by impersonating this Socrates, this ascetic who renounces the body, its passions and its worldly desires. The dialogue anticipates later Christian art, including painting, sculpture, song and drama, that reconciles the spirit to death by imitating the deaths of the saints and martyrs.

Phædo's Socrates finds the courage to die by imagining that his soul may join the gods and heroes in glory, as described in old stories, and this image of heaven helps him to die heroically. His positive thinking about death, however, comes from lifelong discipline.  Socrates looks back on his career as a thinker and sees it as an attempt to live the life of the soul to the fullest extent possible, amid the distractions of bodily existence. Death should perfect this practice, he surmises, because the body and its chains of unworthy desires finally will be discarded. At last the soul will be free of distractions to practice philosophy under perfect conditions. 

In the afterlife that Socrates envisons, what happens to the dead is magic. Thoughts come true. In death Socrates will get what he wants, which is conversation with the greatest souls whose bodies ever died. All other people in death will get what they want, too. When the souls of the dead come to judgment, they will receive poetic justice.  They will be divided into three groups, based on the content of their thoughts during life:

  • The souls of true philosophers pursue their abstract thoughts after death, and these thoughts are purified in a way that is not possible on earth so that finally the philosophers can think the truth. 

  • Souls of the better sort of non-philosophical people, who are moderate in their appetites and just in their social dealings with others, can't join the contemplative circle of philosophers in eternal bliss, because they haven't desired to do so. They are reborn as social, disciplined creatures once again, such as bees, ants, or perhaps decent, respectable citizens in human communities, because this is what they have envisioned for themselves.

  • But other people--the unwise souls--are reincarnated as foolish or vicious animals because they simply can't imagine life without the body. Their preoccupations with food and drink, sex, money, fashion, power, enemies and other such external matters lead them back into lives as wolves, donkeys, hawks, kites, and other animals whose consciousness is fully absorbed in material concerns. 

By this account, our thinking may be ineffective during life, but it becomes magical at the judgment of the dead when souls are divided into three groups, based upon differences in thought content. Group one tries to think the truth (e.g., as Socrates and Phædo do), while people in group two base all of their thoughts on what other people think (e.g., Crito belongs here, a seemingly nice man but one one who lives for the respect of other people), and those in group three let their bodies do the thinking for them (e.g., the weeping disciple Apollodorus who can't see that Socrates' death is a liberation from sorrow).

All of the interesting creative work, in the Pythagorean vew, is performed in group one. Only philosophy holds out the possibility of an escape from the cycles of death and rebirth into an eternal life, when the pure soul will remain forever free of time and confusion, because it has perfected the desire to live without the body. This is the powerful magic that, like Daedalus' wings, takes the true philosopher to safety, out of the labyrinth and beyond the sea of reincarnation.

Plato's "Phædo" is an ancient version of Dante's Divine Comedy and similar images of heavens and hells maintained in our inner worlds by personal belief. We can see in Phædo's three mentalities (philosophers, bees, wolves) the rough outline for Dante's three-part plan for the afterlife: Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell.
























































Lamentation over the Corpse of Socrates
(early 19th century, attributed to V. Camuccini).


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