Bruce's Reviews > Phaedo

Phaedo by Plato
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Dec 06, 10

Read in December, 2010

Actually, I read the Grube translation and found it excellent.

This is the dialogue containing the description of Socrates’ last discussion with his disciples and of his death. It is related by Phaedo, who was with Socrates during these events, to Echecrates, who was not. The discussion begins with Socrates’ reflections on opposites, such as pleasure and pain, that define each other. This reflection is used to initiate a discussion on the nature of the soul and the nature of death, it being Socrates’ conviction that the soul, or mind, is immortal and survives the death of the body. He makes the famous assertion that the practice of philosophy is to practice for death and dying. In claiming that the soul and body are separate, he asserts that true knowledge does not come via the senses, thus leading to his assertion of the existence of the Forms, those immutable and eternal Ideas that exist independently of material reality. (He does not assert that it is via the body that we gain our first intuitions of what the Ideal must be, feeling that this knowledge is innate – as later he reviews his understanding that knowledge is recollection of what is already known but not at first available to our understanding). As I was reading this I was reminded of the work of the 20th century psychologist Jean Piaget and his work on the learning and understanding of basic concepts by young children. I am also reminded of the current controversy about whether mind (or what Socrates would call soul) is an epiphenomenon of the brain (ie, the body), or whether it does or can exist independently, in which case it must have pre-existed or have occurred de novo, which seems somehow illogical.

Socrates argues that the soul cannot be scattered or dispersed at the time of the body’s death because it is not composite, and he argues why it cannot be composite. He further argues that the invisible always remains the same, and since the soul is invisible it must remain unchanged. At one point he says that “philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment [in the body] is that it is due to desires,” and in this sense his understanding is not all that different from the teachings of the Buddha.

His extended discussion of opposites such as tallness and shortness shows that he is not talking about terms that come into being by mere contrast or comparison, but rather the concepts of these that are eternal and innate. Using this discussion, he asserts that the soul is deathless and indestructible.

Rounding out this whole discussion, Socrates describes a temporary existence after the death of the body that bears some likeness to the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory, although he admits that this is not to be taken literally and is simply a metaphor for something that we cannot really know before death.

The dialogue ends with Socrates drinking the hemlock and dying.

This is truly a marvelous work. Whether or not the reader finds it convincing in all its details, read carefully and thoughtfully it cannot but precipitate deep thought and fruitful reflection, enlarging and deepening the reader’s own understanding.
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