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      Lesson 14                          Plato's Phaedo








We come to the end of our brief tour of Hellenic literature.
What have we learned? 




Socrates returns to the clouds.

We read Plato's Phaedo.

(on this page):

Theseus = Minotaur
Deadly philosophy
Phaedo's comedy
Hellenic literature
Unit summary

Additional topics






Theseus and the Minotaur are One

Theseus slays the Minotaur, image based on a classical vase.The last three lessons have described Plato not at all as a philosopher, in the modern sense of the term, because his dialogues are based entirely on story-telling, drama, inner voices and dreams. He may not have cared for the stage tragedies of his day, and he may have challenged poets to become more socially responsible in their work, and because of these criticisms he may have been kicked out of most literature departments in the modern academy, but nevertheless Plato was a poet working imaginatively within long-established traditions of Hellenic art. 

The figure of the artist occupies center stage in the  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, 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 song. He believes that philosophy is song, 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 Apollo's swan, singing for joy that he is about to join the god in death.

Image modeled after Raphael's "The Graces" (1503) and a classical sculpture (cir. 100 AD) that was the basis for Raphael's painting.According to historical tradition, Socrates indeed was an artist. In his youth, 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 seems to have inherited this craft from his father, the stone sculptor Sophroniscus. In any event, the family traced its heroic ancestry back to Daedalus, the supposed inventor of sculpture and other arts. In many of Plato's dialogues, Socrates identifies himself by speaking of Daedalus, "my ancestor."

"Pygmalion and Galatea" by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890 AD. In the Phædo Socrates' interest in reincarnation and recollection of past lives reflects the mysticism of Phaedo, the Pythagorean story-teller, but these themes also call attention to the ancestral cult of Daedalus to which Socrates belongs. The hero Daedalus in Socrates' genes and imagination is the prototype of not only the artist but also the wise man. According to the old stories, as mentioned in the Euthyphro, Daedalus had been so wise that he could make his sculptures move. (Recall wise Hephaistos in the Iliad who makes the images move on the shield of Achilles.) In this figure of the wise man whose art brings images to life, Daedalus is a magician. 

In the Phædo Socrates and his friends joke about Socratic magic spells that drive away death the bogey-man, 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.

The figure of Daedalus, and the theme of overcoming fears about death, lead us to the most important story or myth that underlies the Crito, the Phædo and their companion dialogues about Socrates' "last days" ("last days" in the modern historical sense, the last days of Socrates' body, hardly Socrates' last days from view-point of his cult followers). That is the famous tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. This archaic story forms the background to events surrounding the death of Socrates, much as the Passover of Exodus provides the setting for the sacrifice of Jesus in the New Testament gospels.

Theseus and the Minotaur, Burne-Jones (1862)As Plato reminds us at the beginning of the Crito, and again at the start of the Phædo, Socrates gained a stay of execution after his trial because of a public festival commemorating Theseus' voyage to save the youths of Athens from the monster Minotaur. The Athenians ceremonially reenacted this story each year in honor of Apollo. During this holiday, a group of seven young Athenian couples sailed to the isle of Delos (Apollo's birthplace) and back again to Athens in an antique boat that supposedly had been preserved since Theseus' time. Until the day after the return of the festival ship, no one in Athens was to be put to death. As it happened, the boat had been commissioned on the day before Socrates' trial, and it was delayed in its return from Delos, so that Socrates spent a period of several weeks in prison awaiting his execution.

Image from a classical vase: Europa "elopes" with the Zeus-bull to Crete, where she will give birth to Minos. Minoan culture on Crete was based on the sacrifice of bulls.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 of Theseus, 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. 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 showing 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 land of Minos. 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.

The references to the Theseus story in the Crito and the Phædo have been read by scholars as suggesting a parallel between Socrates and either Theseus (the rescuer of the youth of Athens) or the Minotaur (the alleged destroyer of the youths of Athens), a reading that is reinforced by the word "taurèdon (bull-like)" used by Phaedo to characterize Socrates' final look at the executioner handing over to him the cup containing the hemlock poison.

Black bull, modeled after a cave painting from Lascaux (Dordogne), France, 15,000 - 10,000 BC?In the ancient paradox of animal sacrifice, however, Theseus and the Minotaur are one. As the spirit of the victim bull expresses itself after death in the art of the sacrificer, so the victim Socrates survives in the words of his cult. Socrates is the Minotaur who corrupted the young Athenians, and he's also the hero who returned to save them.

This paradox is made possible only through art. Dead Socrates is present in the voice of an enraptured medium, the disciple Phædo. This young Pythagorean is an inspired impersonator of Socrates who pretends to speak the slain master's words. Phædo's imitation compares with the cave artists' presentations of food animals in Neolithic hunting culture many thousands of years earlier, except that the victim Socrates is recollected in mind, not eaten, and Phædo uses speech impersonation instead of painting to evidence the victim's immortal spirit. The mystery of Socrates' sacrifice is that his thought lives in his students' minds, not that they are sustained in life by his body. 

Death-defying magic: Houdini among the followers of Socrates.Plato was not present in Socrates' cell on the day of execution because he was "sick," but Phædo attempts to repeat the dying master's every word. This task is impossible, of course. Phædo's recollection is only an act, a reenactment, an imitation of what actually had happened on the day when Socrates died. We can't really be there with Socrates in jail, any more than Plato was there, but Phaedo's artful story-telling in Plato's dialogue creates an inspired illusion of being there, of hearing Socrates' actual words. From Phaedo's spiritual perspective, this dramatization is the closest experience of Socrates that we can have, pending the release of our own souls into some higher world where perhaps we may come into the spiritual presence of Socrates among the blessed dead. (As always, Plato is noncommittal as to his own beliefs.)

The Socrates of the Phædo believes in the eternal existence of the soul and the life of the world 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 archaic poetry. Far from being a poet-hater, this Socrates in the end quotes Homer as an authority on the underworld, and indeed he models his description of earth as seen from outer space on Homer's remarkable description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. [Recall Homer as astronaut from Lesson 5, and compare his transcendent view of our planet with Phaedo 108(e) and following, Socrates wonderful account of "the form and regions of the earth."]

Tombstone of a young girl. The metaphor of the soul as a bird was common in classical Hellenism.Socrates' dealing in marvelous illusions of the afterlife 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 the Crito) but his philosophical predicament, his dwelling among shadows where he is unable to perceive true reality. To find the real world, he must ascend up into the heavens, far above our everyday world of illusion:

if any man could arrive at the exterior limit, or take the wings of a bird and fly upward, like a fish who puts his head out of the water and sees our world, he would see a world beyond; and, if the nature of man could sustain the sight, he would acknowledge that this was the place of the true heaven and the true light and the true stars. Phædo 110a.

So Socrates imagines flight from the lower realm of bodies and false appearances, which is the realm of art 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? The disciples of Socrates are figuratively his sons. (They saw him as their father, Phædo says.) In the old story, Icarus took wing with his father, but he did not follow his father's advice: 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 Ægean Sea, of course). Daedalus alone returned safely home beyond the water. The disciples 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 can't keep up with their father.

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1558 AD, Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels.

Deadly philosophy

Plato's art of characterization is based on the division of consciousness into two worlds that we have called "inner" and "outer." [Recall Lesson 11.] Where Euthyphro is inside-out, superficially appearing to know spiritual things but upon examination not knowing them at all, Phædo's inside world appears to be in order: he can speak not only in the likeness of Socrates but also in the likeness of skeptical Socratic examiners Simmias and Cebes. Phædo's mind is full of voices (as Plato's mind must have been full of them when composing the Socratic dialogues).

Phædo refers to the two worlds of consciousness as "the soul" and "the body," and his Socrates offers a general explanation of how they work. Life is the unhappy coincidence of the two worlds, when the soul is weighed down or shackled with the body as if it were a prisoner so that thought is contaminated or compromised. Death is the separation of the two worlds, as the spirit is freed from the corpse and its material concerns so that finally thought can apprehend the truth.

Thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her -- neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure, -- when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling... Phædo 65c

But what happens after death? Can we stay dead so that there is no more outer world or body to distract our attention away from our inner world or soul? Or are we forced to live in a body of some kind again and so lose once more our ability to contemplate pure ideas? 

Phædo's "Socrates" seems to have the answers to these mysteries. For this character (though not for Phædo's skeptical voices, "Simmias" and "Cebes"), philosophy is an art of dying that prepares the soul to free itself from the body forever

During life the philosopher protects the soul from the corruption of the body by practicing such virtues as courage (fearlessness for the body) and temperance (moderation of bodily appetites) and by thinking about incorporeal or ideal subjects. But the body's voice always interrupts these abstract or pure contemplations with its own animal concerns: "feed me," "time to buy a new pair of sandals," "get me a drink," "let's make love," "I'm tired," etc. 

The philosopher listens to the body's temptations as little as possible because the body's desires always lead nowhere. The body complains that it lacks pleasure, but the fulfillment of pleasure always leads to more suffering so that the body again complains. This is a thought-trap that leads around and around, like King Minos' labyrinth.

Phædo's Socrates proposes to escape from the body and from all of its potential reincarnations. (Phædo's Pythagoreanism apparently is related to very ancient practices of Eastern philosophy; compare traditional Hindu thought about reincarnation). The technique for this flight is "philosophy," not  as we conceive of philosophy today, but as art, acting the part of a philosopher who claims to understand death and how death is to be controlled. Phædo practices this art by impersonating Socrates as an extreme ascetic who renounces the body, its passions and its worldly desires. Indeed, he pretends to be not just any Puritanical Socrates but a dying Socrates, much as later generations of Christian artists imitated the deaths of Jesus and the saints and martyrs in painting, sculpture, song and drama.

Phædo's impersonation is the last Socrates in the narrative order of Plato's dialogue series, and so philosophers through the ages have taken it quite seriously, but it is no more the "real Socrates" than any of the other portraits of Socrates in Plato's dialogues. The situation in the jail cell calls for Socrates' ascetic detachment from the body, and the situation dictates the thought as in the rest of the dialogues. Moreover, Plato excuses himself from the Phædo. The Socrates of this dialogue is presented by Phædo, not Plato. Presumably, if Plato had shared Phædo's views of Socrates, he would not have needed Phædo to tell the story.

The god Hermes awaits Socrates' death (view from eternity).This Socrates finds the courage to die by imagining life after death. The hope that Socrates conjures up is partly a vision of the land of gods and heroes in glory, as described in old stories--somehow Socrates can see himself easily fitting in with this traditional group. It also comes from "philosophy," but not from reason or logic or any kind of argument that Socrates has discovered during his years of dialectic and debate. Socrates simply imagines that his thinking career has been his attempt to live the life of the mind to the fullest extent possible amid the distractions of bodily existence. Death should perfect this practice, he surmises, because the body and its attendant chain of unworthy thoughts finally will be discarded. 

Phædo's Divine Comedy

As this Socrates of Phædo's imagines the afterlife, 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

Phaedo's Socrates divides the dead 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 thoughts may be ineffective during life, but they become magical through the judgment of the dead.

Way back at the start of this course, we said that magic is limited by nature and culture. [Recall Lesson 1.] Phædo's three circles of the afterlife can be seen in these terms. There are: (1) the successful magicians who overcome the limits (as Phædo's Socrates intends to do), (2) the uncreative souls limited by culture because their thoughts are absorbed in social convention, like the conformist consciousness of bees or ants, and (3) the uncreative souls limited by nature because they are mindful only of their own physical appetites and bodily needs. 

But in this magic system, since all thought comes true, it's only the quality of thought that distinguishes the three groups. 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., inside-out man Euthyphro could fit here).

All of the interesting creative work 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, because it has perfected the desire to live without the body. This is the powerful magic that, like Daedalus' wings, takes us some place beyond the labyrinth and over the sea of reincarnation.

The Phædo is our bridge to the Middle Ages, to Dante's Divine Comedy and similar images of heavens and hells maintained in our inner worlds by personal belief. In fact, 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. We will travel to these kingdoms of thought in the Lessons 19-21, but we cannot leave the captivating Hellenes without a few concluding comments here.

"The Death of Socrates" (1787) by Jaques-Louis David (French, 1748-1825), Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Summing up Hellenic literature
Repairing the broken statues

Image based upon a classical bust of Dionysos.The Hellenes had great curiosity, including among other things unprecedented interest in self-observation. This fascination with the inward life of personal mental activity appears in the self-consciousness of their literature. From Telemakhos' juvenile fantasizing about revenge to old Socrates' idealized reflections on his manic pursuit of wisdom, Hellenic literature records in rich detail a wide variety of thought-experiences. 

Look at the art of these people. Whether it was Daedalus or Hephaistos who first made them move, the statues of the Hellenes lost the rigid stiffness of form that had characterized earlier Egyptian and Near Eastern art. When you compare classical Greek or Hellenistic sculptures to anything that was produced earlier, you will see the discovery of motion, even in stone!

Similarly in Hellenic literature, the portraits are dynamic so that they seem to come alive as "characters" who move, changing in their thoughts from situation to situation. The true Socrates isn't the one at the trial, nor is he (as in David's famous painting) the one who pontificates before drinking the hemlock. He's the total thought-experience of all of the Socratic dialogues. Many of these thoughts are embarrassments in philosophy class (e.g., Socrates' extensive discussions about his dreams, inner voices and hallucinations), but they come into Plato's dialogues because Socrates is a careful observer of everything that happens in his consciousness.

Similarly in Homer, the real Achilles isn't only the one who drags Hektor's body behind his chariot, nor is he only the one who has a good cry with Priam over the ephemeral gifts of the gods. You can't find two scenes in the Iliad where Achilles expresses himself in the same way, and yet, taken together, all of the distinct scenes make up a continuum of mental activity as the story unfolds, so that Achilles appears to be a single, complex, clearly recognizable human character in motion, a tangle of hurts received and delivered, more than a little irrational but irrational in a familiarly human way.

What we call "character development" in modern novels, films and other story-telling began here, in ancient Greece, when the artists learned to make the figures move. And, in my opinion, some of this energetic characterization remains unsurpassed in literature (for example, Homer's stunning portrait of paranoid Telemakhos.)

The Hellenes were keen to observe that thought is always a process. Odysseus tells us what he thought after the Cyclops devoured two of his crew members, washed them down with a big jug of goat's milk, and fell into a dark stupor of sleep:

I was at first inclined to seize my sword, draw it, and drive it into his vitals, but I reflected that if I did we should all certainly be lost, for we should never be able to shift the stone which the monster had put in front of the door. Odyssey ix, 287

The conclusion seems obvious, but as a story teller Odysseus takes us through the thought process that led him out of the danger of impulsive anger toward a more considered plan for survival. It's a brief but typically Homeric description of thinking. Remember, for example, in scroll 1 of the Iliad, how Achilles similarly was about to draw his sword and kill Agamemnon, but Athena grabbed him by the hair to prevent it. (Recall Lesson 3.)  This is one of Homer's favorite observations: the internal debate to kill or not to kill, the fight-or-flight decision. 

Before the Hellenes people certainly thought, but literary characters rarely thought at all, so we don't experience these pre-Hellenic characters intimately. In Genesis, for instance, neither Eve nor Adam debates the decision about eating the forbidden fruit, and neither does God wonder whether he should punish them or how to go about it. Contrast Homer's "deep-minded" Zeus, always pondering what action to take next and often changing his plans from one episode to the next. If Homer had written the Eden story, Zeus would have brooded (and Zeus and Hera would have squabbled) over Adam and Eve, the serpent, the forbidden fruit, the curses and whatever in the story could be thought-provoking to the characters. 

Literature was more to the Hellenes than mere thought recordings, however. Because literature could reveal mental processing, it could provide simulations, models or examples of mental activity to show receptive people how to think and what to believe. In other words, the Greeks saw that literature has powers, and they exploited them to modify Hellenic culture. Ptolemy recognized that nobody can sustain an empire without good propaganda; Plato understood that nobody can develop a world-class school without interesting promotions.

On the popular level in Hellenic society, the thought-experiences of literature controlled the mental processes of conventional, uncreative types like Euthyphro (who thought by the book, Hesiod's Theogony) or the members of Socrates' jury (who were prejudiced by The Clouds). At the most intellectual level, the thought-experiences of literature were in-formation even to an unconventional skeptic like Socrates, always mulling scraps of old poetry and trying to plug them into his own creative conversation, approvingly or disapprovingly.

The powers of literature were obvious to the Hellenes because they recognized that mental activity is infectious. It is copied or imitated from other people or imagined characters. The Hellenes expressed this idea in heroic or daemonic possession of the self (Patroklos in possession of Achilles, Odysseus in possession of Telemakhos, Daedalus in possession of Socrates) and also in educational relationships (the Muse in the bard, Athena in Odysseus, Socrates in Phædo), including literary influences (Meleager in Phoenix, Achilles in Socrates, Homer in Alexander). How thought is inspired, transmitted, and controlled was the major recurring theme of Greek literature from its Homeric beginnings through the Hellenistic Age.

The Hellenes were sensitive to thought transmission partly because they lived in relatively natural environments where they had relatively few thought-models to choose from. They could trace much of their personal thinking back to the small number of poets, dramatists, sophists, priests and politicians who had impressed the thoughts in them. Hellenic brains were no different than our own, but the elegant simplicity of their environments allowed Hellenes to recognize that their thoughts were not of their own making. 

Their realization may seem strange to us, but it almost certainly is right. The sourcing of our thoughts challenges us today, so that at any given time we often don't know precisely whose thoughts we are thinking. When a thought can't be identified as something that we heard from a friend, or read in a magazine, or saw on TV, and we simply can't recognize where it came from, we like to believe that it came from our own "self"--that we personally created it out of nothing. But it seems very doubtful that we have such a "self," independent of impressions we have gained from our experiences of the thoughts of others. No human being is a born thinker. The thoughts that we encounter in our individual experiences are almost certainly the thoughts that we will think.

If we are not original thinkers, how then does thought develop? 

Our brains may get written to like hard drives, but new data does not replace old data when the files are overwritten in our daily downloads from experience. New and old data sets accumulate in our inner worlds, producing an increasingly complex cluster of images, impressions, sentiments and ideas. For this reason, the "Socratics" were not clones of Socrates. Even though Socrates made a great impression on so many of them, the "philosophy" that each one taught was not quite the same as the "philosophy" of any of the others. In Plato's case, obviously he was impressed not only by Socrates but also by his travels where he encountered Pythagorean and Eastern thought that he had not known in Athens. The Pythagorean Phædo could not have been written by any of Plato's fellow students. 

The most important conclusion from all of this is: if we care about what we think, or how our consciousness performs for us, we should seek the best possible in-formation. The proper care and feeding of our thought is only partly a matter of finding some Socrates for a teacher, because learning happens to us both in and out of school. Our thoughts may be influenced whenever we are conscious, so we should carefully select which environments to enter. We make these important decisions every day: for example, when we choose a particular film to watch, or music to hear, or a friend with whom to talk. Live wisely, my friends!

Were the heroes ancient astronauts from far-off planets? Crass materialists wonder.

The Power of Teaching
unit summary

Let's briefly sum up Powers of Literature to this point.

Culture = specific behaviors and thoughts that have been transmitted to an individual or group (the "cult") solely through the process of copying or imitation ("magic"). 

Various examples of culture noted so far: 

  • Neolithic hunters in Europe imitate their animal victims, as presented in cave painting.

  • Pre-Homeric Hellenes meet their dead ancestors (the "heroes") in rituals where some of the participants imitate the heroes.

  • Homer imitates the heroes, no longer in the context of hero ritual but in bardic entertainment.

  • Achilles imitates the dead hero Patroklos in slaughtering Hektor and the Trojans.

  • Telemakhos imitates the dead hero Odysseus in a  massacre of his mother's suitors and chambermaids.

  • Oedipus imitates the tragic life experience foretold by the oracle of Apollo.

  • Socrates imitates the "wisest man" characterization made of him by the oracle of Apollo.

  • Socrates imitates Achilles in choosing an honorable death over life with dishonor.

  • Socrates imitates The Laws of Athens (personified) and follows their commands.

  • Socrates imitates his heroic ancestor, the artist Daedalus, by flying up to heaven.

  • Phaedo and other Socratic philosophers imitate Socrates and form their own schools.

  • Plato in his art imitates Socrates and some of Socrates' adversaries and students.

  • Professors of philosophy imitate Plato; professors of Homer imitate Homer; professors of Shakespeare imitate Shakespeare, etc., in classrooms wherever and whenever fine Western literature is taught.

Magic or art = the technique of copying or imitation that implants culture in individuals and groups.

Literature = the particular kind of magic or art that uses language as its medium (as opposed to music, dance, fine art, mime or other sounds without words or images without words).

Mind, soul or consciousness = the interaction within our personal awareness of the spirits, heroes, teachers and other models of our thoughts.

From this point, we are positioned to appreciate the importance of literature to social order and to self identity.

Additional related readings
and journal topics

1. Up here in heaven: On-line, we're all text, mere letters, strings of words. We have to get along somehow without our bodies, as if we were in heaven or some other spirit world or house of dreams. We are forced to express ourselves here without the pitch, pause, stresses, rhythms and volumes of our voices, not to mention other (eyeball-rolling) types of behavior. There may be other disadvantages.

Well, be brave. These difficulties are not only on-line. Even in so-called "real life" classes on campus, as well as here in cyberschool, you are text. To Academics in nearly all areas of study, you are little or nothing more than a series of "papers," written answers or other verbal responses to questions.

Please understand. It's not that Academics don't care about you. They care about your spirit, your soul, your Inner Reality by whatever name you please--the real you which is to be found only in your words, they think. For better or worse, this illusion has been around ever since Plato founded the Academy in about 387 BC, so it's likely to continue for the next few semesters.

"Plato"Let me illustrate my text. The "Plato" pictured at right perhaps caught your attention. Maybe you sensed that it's the most realistic or otherwise interesting item in this whole footnote. Academic opinion is, however, that Plato didn't look anything like this image, or if he did, the resemblances are accidental. Plato (reportedly) didn't like pictures. The several ancient images of "Plato" that still exist today are artists' conceptions, created years after Plato's death. Academics (outside of the art department) have very little or no interest in them. The rest of us may wonder what Plato's beard really looked like, but Academics have "deeper" more serious interests in the founder of western education. To see the real Plato, they say, you must read the book.

To see you, or your Inner Reality, they similarly read your book. In school they ask you to produce words. Then they examine what you say and how you say it. 

Of course, your writing and speech aren't merely "academic" in the popular sense (that is, useless once you have your degree). Obviously, the content and style of your language identifies you not only to professors but to society at large. It's possible to become "known" to other people without speech or verbiage of any kind, if they are willing to watch and consider your behavior carefully, as in charades, but most individuals don't have time or patience for that. They prefer to hear or read your words. They prefer words, even though you may be lying to them, or deceiving them, bluffing or joking--but that's an issue for some other time.

Look over a piece of writing that you produced in school some time ago. Who does it say you were at that time?

2. Power of teaching: describe one of your teachers in as much detail as you can.

Or describe the character of Socrates, as he appears in the dialogues that you have read. Use your own words.

3. Resources for the Phaedo: Among the books that have been written on the Phaedo

Ahrensdorf, Peter J. The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato's Phaedo. Albany: State University of New York, 1995.

Bostock, David. Plato's Phaedo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986

Burger, Ronna. The Phaedo: A Platonic Labyrinth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984

4. Aesop's fables:  Æsop's animal stories may be among the oldest literature in the west, relating back to the Neolithic when people pretended to be the talking spirits of animals. The history is just as obscure as Homer's history. Æsop probably lived in the seventh and/or sixth century BC, but our texts of the stories date from no earlier than the middle ages, when the manuscript writers seem to have felt quite free to add to the collection and change it. So our Æsop today is not the same Æsop that Socrates knew, and we can't say for certain how different it is.

The prominent feature in Æsop is of course the moral attached to each story, so that we are told explicitly what the story means. Often the story makes no sense at all until the moral is attached, but as we read we try to predict what the moral will be. We can see how this process might appeal to Socrates who spent so much of his life trying to read the moral or find the meaning of things that looked on the surface, to him, absurd.

Take the simple story of "The Fox and the Grapes," for example:

A FAMISHED FOX saw some clusters of dark ripe grapes hanging from a trellised vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying: "The Grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought." MORAL: Any fool can despise what he cannot get.

It doesn't matter that foxes don't eat grapes and can't speak. This unpresuming little story became famous solely because it illuminates one of our most cherished mind games, the "sour grapes" justification for our failures. For more, see

Aesop's Fables:

5. The Theseian festival ship mystery: Among philosophers in classical times the wooden boat used in the Theseian festival became a curious debating point about "things that grow": was the festival ship the same craft that Theseus had used long ago on his voyage when he sailed to rescue the seven young couples from the Minotaur or, because so many of its rotting old boards had been replaced with new wood, had it become a different vessel from the one that Theseus used? What do you think?

By taking either side of this argument you might miss the larger and more imaginative point. Somehow the ship was both old and new, above and beyond the limited temporal views of it either as a piece of antiquity or as a present-day pageant ship. 

Here's another advanced study: compare Plutarch's account of the Theseian festival (in his Life of Theseus) and its mysterious wooden boat with "the dark Athenian wood" described by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Look closely and you will find lots of borrowings (such as the figures of Theseus and Hippolyta) and parallels (such as the Minotaur and Bottom wearing the head of an ass).

6. Mind, soul, consciousness: For Socrates and the classical Greeks, the inner world was not called "mind" but "soul" (Greek = psyche). Credit or blame usually goes to the Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes (1566-1650 AD) for substituting "mind" in place of the older term "soul" as the usual name of the inner world. Following Descartes, it has been conventional to say that Socrates thought by using his mind. Before Descartes came along, however, Socrates thought using his "soul." In any case Socrates wanted immortality for his thinking process. 

It is hard to think correctly about the inner world. Our everyday language treats the words "mind" and "soul" and "consciousness" as nouns, as if they were things or physical objects, but science has never observed such objects or things, and science will not observe them when it obtains improved technology in the future. Mind and soul and consciousness are not body parts; they are not corporeal or material. They are not simply abstractions, either. They plainly exist in our ordinary experience, as well as in Plato's text.

Logically, our language should treat them as verbs, not nouns. Occasionally it does, as in "mind the step" or "mind your own business" or "never mind George." "Mind" in this proper sense is the act or process of paying attention, considering or thinking. Even some psychologists have come to this conclusion. See Thomas Szasz, The Meaning of Mind: Language, Morality and Neuroscience (Praeger: London, Conn. 1996).

Do you have a soul? How do you know? Do you have a mind? How do you know?

7. Greek contribution to mankind: There's been a marked decline in classical studies over the past fifty years or so, with many classics departments being dismantled or assimilated into other academic disciplines. You still can get a classics degree from a few schools, but it's not likely that you ever will use that degree to get a job teaching classics. With the demise of the classics, a great deal of bitterness and blaming has ensued. E.g.:

“The 1980's and 1990's have seen another curricular shift in the academy and a much different challenge to Homer in the form of 'multiculturalism.' Multiculturalists generally belong to one of two camps. Some believe that all cultures are equal–the West no better or worse than any other. But others more dour are convinced that all cultures are equal except the West, which is uniquely imperialistic, hegemonic, nationalistic, sexist, and patriarchal and therefore to be studied only as an exemplar of what is wrong with the present world. Either way, the Greeks lose: if they are the same as the Thracians or the Carthaginians, why study Greek instead of Phoenician or Hittite or Egyptian? If they are worse, why study them at all?” Victor Davis Hanson & John Heath, Who Killed Homer? (The Free Press, New York 1998), p.86.

Obviously, the Greeks left us considerably more literature to study than did the Phoenicians, Hittites and even the Egyptians, to say nothing of the Thracians or Cathaginians. That's an advantage.

Hanson and Heath point out a number of important concepts that originated with the Greeks: ownership of private property, political freedom, constitutional government, jury trial, democracy, history, philosophy, logic, physics, public gymnasia, the theater, the university.

They also claim that the Greeks were the first to make these points: learning comes through pain, reason is checked by fate, the truth emerges only through dissent and open criticism, human life is tragically short and therefore comes with obligations, character is a matter of matching words with deeds, the most dangerous animal is the natural beast within us, religion is separate from political authority, private property should be immune from government coercion, aristocratic leaders ignore the will of the assembly at their peril.

What do you think? Is it worthwhile studying Homer and Plato? Or should the little time that we have for the study of literature be spent on some other kinds of literature? (If so, what would you recommend and why?)

8. Whose thoughts are you thinking? The Hellenes could source their thoughts to poets, politicians or others who "corrupted" them. After all, they didn't have remote controlled channel changers, they never surfed the net, they didn't read the newspaper or listen to the radio, and they weren't exposed to dozens of teachers, hundreds of books or countless thousands of commercials and institutional messages. They weren't buried in art, and required for the sake of their sanity to deny its influence, as so many of us today so often are. 

In our literary abundance, we routinely shield ourselves against too much art, too many heroes and too many ideas. One of our common defenses is disillusion, as I mentioned back in Lesson 1; this is an anesthetized state of mind in which literature is seen only as entertainment that leaves no lasting impression. Two other common defenses today are withdrawal into cults and adoption of materialism.

In cult withdrawal, individuals shelter themselves from cultural confusion by living within the secluded confines of some fundamentalist community, monastery or other social enclave where most learning is forbidden or highly censored. In such a simplified environment, literature that is permitted to remain, such as the Bible or Koran, regains its ancient power as in-formation, and is seen as "true" when eventually one's thoughts come into alignment with it through the force of its repetition. People in any community with only one book believe it absolutely, and often don't see any need for a second book. Even Homer seemed true when other stories weren't readily available to the Hellenes.

Materialism has a similar use. The mental discipline here is more or less the opposite path from Phaedo's "philosophy": the materialist concentrates on things (externals to ourselves), rather than spirits (the residence of the externals inside us). Because the "inner world" doesn't exist in the objective world of physical bodies, or anywhere else that can be examined by scientific instruments, the materialist doesn't regard it as particularly important, relevant or worthy of serious attention. 

Cultists and materialists often oppose one another, but both of their coping strategies address the ever-increasing problem of too much art, too much magic, too many words, ideas and images. Both strategies rid the self of its overload by denying legitimacy to very broad categories of thought. The discarded mental materials are catalogued as "lies," "deceptions," or "falsehoods," and the overworked consciousness never tires of denouncing them. 

How do you think that your own mental processing works? Are you as suggestible as the Greeks seem to have been? Or do you use some means, such as disillusion, cult withdrawal or materialism, to block out literature or art so that it doesn't influence you? 

9. True or false: What is true and what is false in Homer or in Plato? Modern readers like to draw these distinctions. So, many people believe that the Iliad and even the Odyssey really happened in history, to some degree, and if we dig holes in the right places in the ground we will find the remains of their real parts--though we recognize that other parts can't be dug up, such as the fantasy worlds of Hades and Mount Olympus. So, similarly, the Socratic dialogues are thought to reflect partly the real Socrates but, then again, partly only Plato's ideas. And some of the Platonic ideas have been proved to be true but others have been proved to be false.

To me, what's striking in Homer and Plato is how they don't care about the true/false distinctions that we so often insist on drawing today: history versus myth, fact versus fiction, illusion versus reality, correct thought versus incorrect thought. Where our view of life is disenchanted, theirs simply isn't. What they imagine is what's true for them. If it's in mind it's not to be denied. It may be a delusion, as it is for Telemakhos, or a dream, as it is for Socrates, but the world as it is imagined to be has a priority over any stubborn facts that might not fit the vision. This is the power of magic or idealization that the founders of western civilization bequeathed to us, but that we generally have tried to deny.

10. The death of Plato (347 B.C.):  "Plato died at the age of eighty-one. On the evening of his death he had a Thracian girl play the flute to him. The girl could not find the beat of the nomos. With a movement of his finger, Plato indicated to her the Measure." Schall, James V. "The Death of Plato." The American Scholar 65.3 (1996): 401.

11. Summing up the classical period: One last victim statue below, the famous so-called "Dying Gaul" from the Hellenistic age. (OK, jazzed up a little.) Yes, Hellenistic Greeks fought with Gauls, well before the time of Julius Caesar, so the warrior indeed could be a Gaul. But is he dying?

The so-called "Dying Gaul,"  cir. 239 BC.

Here's the good stuff! Homer & Plato pages
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In the figure left, note that the victim is a man with a bull's head, a characteristic Hellenic image of the Minotaur, perhaps based on a festival enactment or  dramatization of the story of Theseus. A bird takes wing as the Minotaur perishes.













Image left: Socrates' Graces would have worn more clothes, but his grouping of the figures may have been similar.






Image left: Pygmalion and Galatea, more art that moves. Or has the artist simply gone nuts? This is the original study for Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, and the popular musical "My Fair Lady," in which the art of language turns a simple girl of the streets into a duchess.
















Image left: This amusing 19th century, Gothic Revival style  Theseus will solve the labyrinth problem by retracing his way backward, following his unspooled thread. The labyrinth has become a spatial puzzle, a game of "hide and seek" to be solved by clever technology.





The first Zeus-man on Crete, Minos was the son of Zeus (in the form of a bull) and Europa, a Phoenician princess. From Minos' name comes the "Minoan" civilization. The Theseus legend may commemorate the early Athenians' overthrow of Minoan rule.



























If the paragraph at left seems like Greek to you, please read or re-read about the Neolithic origin of art in Lesson 2.












Escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) explains how he does such impossible things: "My brain is the key that sets me free." For decades after the magician's death, fans believed that he would escape from the grave.










"Hephaistos  wrought the earth, the heavens, and the sea; the moon also at her full and the untiring sun, with all the signs that glorify the face of heaven - the Pleiads, the Hyads, huge Orion, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain and which turns round ever in one place, facing Orion, and alone never dips into the stream of Okeanos. . ." [Iliad xviii. 483]


























Figure left: Icarus makes a tiny spash, in the lower right corner of the painting. Daedalus has flown and is nowhere to be seen by ordinary folk.



















































Image left: 
Even Hermes was impressed
by Socrates' speech.



















































Figure left: David's Death of Socrates. That's Plato there at the foot of the bed. The painter did not believe Plato's excuse that he was sick. Either way, Plato can't face Socrates' death.







The bust or severed head is characteristic of Hellenic art, a form not often seen in earlier Egyptian or Near Eastern art.






























































































Image left: Heroes in the heavens, based on a classical sculpture of Theseus and Minos' daughter Ariadne.


























































































































Nouns and verbs form a duality like matter and energy in the cosmos. Energy isn't matter but it matters nonetheless. Verbs aren't nouns but they matter, too. Hellenic art is interested in the energy or verbal side of the dualism, e.g. making statues move.

















































































Image left: Attalus, king of the Greek city of Pergamum, defeated the Gauls in 239 B.C., and forced them into eastern Phrygia, later named Galatia. Attalus commissioned the famous statue now known as "The Dying Gaul" in commemoration of this war.