Dr. G's Study Notes for "Phaedo"
A world of ideas
Socrates observes that there are a wide variety of objects that we call "sticks" and a wide variety of other things that we call "stones." He wonders how it is that we call all of them by these general names. How can we recognize a stick or stone when we see one? This question is especially puzzling because we see on earth no such thing as a perfect stick or an ideal stone by which all things can be seen as similar (hence a stick-like or a stone-like) or dissimilar (hence not-stick or not-stone).
From this observation, Socrates deduces that we must know abstract things by recollecting them from our prior experience of them in another world that is perfect, unlike earth. Abstract things don't exist here on earth, so we must know of them from somewhere else, where they actually do exist. There has to be a place where there are perfect sticks and perfect stones.
Where? For better or worse Socrates promotes dualism, the notion that there is an ideal world, separate and apart from the imperfect world that we know through our senses. This dualism is a solution not only to the problem of knowledge (how do we know a stick when we see one?) but also to the predicament of dying. If the dead are in the ideal world, and the living are in the world of imperfection, then dying Socrates is about to go to the superior world where ideas actually exist. This is a world where true philosophers belong.
For Phaedo's Socrates, the role of philosophy is to help us "remember" the ideal world that we have forgotten at our birth. When we learn ideas, we learn something about where we are going in death, when we return to the place from which we were born. Socrates' philosophy is an intellectualized ancient mystery religion.
The mysteries were an outgrowth of Hellenic hero religion. An initiate into the mysteries was taken into a simulated underworld to see what death would bring. Caves were used for this purpose all over the Greek world. Down inside the earth, in these supposed realms of the dead, priests played the roles of underworld deities and spirits of the departed in order to persuade believers that death should not be feared. But in Socrates' time, the these mysteries were under attack from intellectuals. Skeptics criticized the idea that anybody could "know" or become "wise" by visiting a cave and watching actors perform presumptuous plays.
As he is portrayed in "Meno" (where the doctrine of recollection id developed at length) and "Phaedo," Socrates seems to have been in the forefront of the search for alternatives to the traditional religious practices. This "impiety" may have been the basis for charges that he invented new gods and corrupted young people. He may have been winning converts to his new concept of the afterlife as a place of ideas. "Philosophy" could have been a threat to the religious establishment in this very practical sense that it was stealing some of religion's customers by providing a more reasonable account of human life and death.
Brief outline of Phaedo
Although this dialogue is long and complex, it can be outlined fairly simply in terms of its arguments.
III. Objections to Socrates'
For more information on this dialogue, see Benjamin Jowett's Introduction to the Phaedo.
Dr G's Speculation
The idea of the transcendent is as old as the idea of gods, and as old as human explanations of death. I think I can see it in European cave paintings cir. 30,000 BCE. I think also the idea is very much alive today in many modes of thought, even astro-physics (where, for example, string theory posits a second universe of "dark matter" and "dark energy" that surrounds and profoundly influences our known Big Bang universe). Human beings seem to crave the "other world" that is necessary to understanding the meaning of our world.
We die, so we must go somewhere; we are born, so we must come from somewhere. We just can't accept non-being. Before Socrates, the Pythagoreans were very busy developing this notion of cycles of death-and-rebirth of an immortal spirit dwelling within us. What seems to me original in Socrates is that, in his conception of it, the place of the dead is a realm of ideas in which souls are infused with the truth. He seems to have advised the practice of philosophy as the best way that the living can participate in this realm of ideas. This concept of heaven and advice about realizing it were at odds with traditional Greek mystery religions and Homeric mythology, and I think Socrates was put to death by the religious authorities for this reason.
This is all speculation. We can't be very sure about the historical Socrates because all of the evidence that we have about him comes from self-interested writers who were retelling the story years after Socrates' death. Probably Plato told the story somewhat truthfully, because some people still would have remembered the real Socrates, and Plato would not have wished to be detected and exposed as a liar. However, he had his own purposes in writing the Socratic dialogues, and he would not have wanted to celebrate Socrates as a religious heretic. Therefore, I think, he emphasized the pieces of Socrates' teaching that were less radical, and when he came to discussing Socrates' religious convictions in "Phaedo," he wrote the story from the point of view of the foreign Pythagorean philosopher Phaedo. This allowed Plato to tell what Socrates' believed, and yet it also allowed him to deny that he had personal knowledge of these beliefs.
Image left: an ancient bowl depicts a Greek mystery, with actors taking the parts of gods and goddesses for the initiate to meet in "the afterlife."
Image left: the famous cave of Eleusis, a few miles from Athens, scene of the most popular of the Greek mystery rites. Photo by Janice Siegel.