A dialogue written by Plato that centers around the idea of the immortality of the soul and an examination of Socrates' commitment to the life of philosophical investigation on the brink of his death.

The dialogue focuses on Socrates' philosophical pursuits during his life that stemmed from a dream he had telling him to pursue the arts. Using the situation of Socrates' death as a context in which to understand the dream, a discussion on the nature of the soul is initiated. Socrates attempts to discover the nature of his dream. Its implications are hazy, and Socrates' attempts to recollect, understand, and apply the meaning of the dream to his life are central to understanding the dialogue in terms of its narrative structure and its overall content. It is also important in understanding Socrates' very stoic attitude towards his ineluctable death.

Participants in the dialogue:

The dialogue makes several arguments concerning the immortality of the soul.

  • Argument from Opposites :
    • Socrates first intoduces the hypothesis that if the souls of all men come from those who have died, then those souls must exist in the underworld after death. From the Phaedo:
      • "If that is true, that the living come back from the dead, then surely our souls must exist [in the underworld], for they could not come back if they did not exist, and this is a sufficient proof that these things are so if it truly appears that the living never come from any other source than from the dead. If this is not the case we should need another argument." 1
    • Next, Socrates offers the example that anything which comes to be and has an opposite must come from that opposite:
      • " ... let us see whether they come to be in this way, that is, from their opposites if they have such, as the beautiful is the opposite of the ugly and the just of the unjust, and a thousand other things of the kind. Let us examine whether those that have an opposite must necessarily come to be from their opposite and from nowhere else ..." 2
      Socrates then proceeds to say that anything that comes to be weak must have come from something stronger, or that anything that comes to be better must have come from something worse.
    • Socrates goes on to point out that if opposites come to be through their opposites, than their must be two processes of coming to be:
      • "There is a further point ... between each of those pairs of opposites there are two processes: from the one to the other and then again from the other to the first; between the larger and the smaller there is increase and decrease, and we call the one increasing and the other decreasing ..." 3
    • The next point that Socrates makes summarizes his earlier points. He states that if there are two processes of coming to be through opposite pairs, and life is the opposite of death, then the process from life to death is called dying, while the process from death to life is coming to life again.
  • Argument from Recollection :
    • At this point in the dialogue, Cebes repeats the argument put forth in the Meno: 4
      • "Furthermore, Socrates ... such is also the case if that theory is true that you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other than recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape. So, according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal." 5
    • Socrates goes on to say that there exists something he calls "the Equal itself"; this is Plato's realm of forms. He also states that we know the Equal.
    • By seeing equal things, Socrates says we are reminded of the Equal itself, and can grasp understanding of the concept behind it:
      • "... it is definitely from the equal things ... that you have derived and grasped the knowledge of equality ..." 6
    • However, Socrates makes the distinction that the Equal and equal things are not the same.
    • Socrates goes on to attempt to determine the origin of our knowledge of the Equal, and he eliminates sensory perception as being the origin of such knowledge:
    • Socrates states that we have had sensory perceptions since birth.
    • Therefore, according to Socrates, our knowledge of the Equal must have been acquired before birth:
      • "Therefore, if we had this knowledge, we knew before birth and immediately after not only the Equal, but the Greater and the Smaller and all such things, for our present argument is no more about the Equal than about the Beautiful itself, the Good itself, the Just, the Pious and, as I say, about all those things to which we can attach the word 'itself,' both when we are putting questions and answering them. So we must have acquired knowledge of them all before we were born." 8
  • Argument from Scattering :
    • Socrates argues that if the soul is a type of thing which can't be scattered, then it is likely to survive death.
    • Socrates goes on to compare the soul with the divine, and since it is a member of the class of divine things, it is then indissoluable.
    • The body, which is not divine, manages to survive death, so the soul, having a divine nature, must survive death:
      • " ... and even if the body decays, some parts of it, namely bones and sinews and the like, are nevertheless, one might say, deathless. ... Will the soul, the invisible part ... being of this kind and nature be scattered and destroyed on leaving the body, as the majority of men say? Far from it ..." 9

Notes:

1 Plato. Phaedo. tr. G. M. A. Grube. Stephanus pp. 70 c-d.
2 Stephanus p. 70 e.
3 Stephanus pp. 71 a-b.
4 The Theory of Recollection. From the Meno: "As the soul is immortal, has been born often and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things." Plato. Meno. tr. G. M. A. Grube. Stephanus pp. 81 c-d.
5 Stephanus pp. 72 e - 73 a.
6 Stephanus p. 74 c.
7 Stephanus p. 75 b.
8 Stephanus p. 75 c - d.
9 Stephanus p. 80 d.

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