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Essay on Plato's Phaedo: The Immortality of The Soul

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In Plato's dialogue Phaedo, the title character recounts the events of the day Socrates drank the hemlock ending his life. The dialogue is mainly about the immortality of the soul. In this essay, we will explore the three arguments for the immortality of the soul, Simmias' and Cebes' objections, and their respective responses from Socrates.

Phaedo himself states that Plato was not in the prison cell during the events described, so this might be a hint to us that Plato did not want Phaedo to be viewed as nonfiction, but instead as a representation of his views expressed through Socrates' mouth.

Phaedo describes the scene in the jail of Socrates with two outsiders, Simmias, and Cebes, who converse with Socrates about death and immortality, how a philosopher is supposed to relate to death, and what happens to our souls after death, and later on, the duo challenge Socrates' arguments for the immortality of the soul.

After Socrates orders the guards to take his wife away, so that her weeping would not disturb their discussion, he states that a philosopher looks forward to his death, although he frowns upon suicide. In response to Cebes, who asks why Socrates does not commit suicide, he explains that men are God's property and that similarly, if a landlord’s slaves kill themselves, they will surely be angry and wish to punish those who killed themselves. Your master cannot punish his slave, but the gods, of course, can punish what's left of you by making your afterlife difficult.

Socrates’ argument has a flaw, however, which Cebes and Simmias point out immediately: wouldn’t dying, the very thing that Socrates embraces, mean leaving the service of the gods, the most excellent masters? Socrates then offers to defend his opinion that philosophers have no reason to fear death, but instead look forward to it. Three arguments are laid out: Death is the separation of the soul from the body, philosophers are prepared for such a separation given that the philosopher does not like bodily pleasures, such as drinking, food, etc., so he more than anyone wants to get rid of his physical body. Additionally, because the bodily senses are not accurate and instead might lead one to superficiality, the philosopher's search for true wisdom is more likely to be accomplished in death, when the soul is by itself.

The last point references the Platonic Forms, which will play a crucial role in later arguments.

Overall, in this argument, Socrates claims that the body impedes men who seek the truth. Then he proves that to obtain true knowledge, one must undergo the aforementioned separation, and philosophy is a sort of training for death, the separation from the soul to the body.

Socrates concludes that it would be unreasonable for the philosopher to fear death since he will most likely obtain what he has been seeking his whole life – a true understanding of knowledge. Thus ends his defense.

Cebes, however, objects. He points out that some people believe that the soul and the body will be destroyed together. The soul would, of course, have to both survive the death of the body and still retain consciousness for it to do anything in death.

In response to Cebes' objection, Socrates first lays out a few general observations.

First, he notices how all things come from their opposite states. For example, for something to be hot, it must have been colder before, and something big must have been smaller before it turned big.

Between these two polar extremes, there was a process of change – increase, and decrease, and if these increases and decreases are not in balance, then everything will keep going in one direction.

Socrates then applies this to the topic of death. He argues that because the states of death versus life are opposites, something that was dead was once alive, and crucially vice versa. If every other pair of opposites is transmutable both ways, then existence – life or death – must be the same.

Therefore, everything that goes reaches the state of death must reach the state of life again, just like the incessant oscillations of everything else.

This argument, however, has a flaw that nobody seems to have noticed. When saying that life and death have to be balanced, Socrates did not prove that life and death are balanced yet. The fact is, that today, more babies were born than humans died. In China, on average, one baby is born every 1.9 seconds, but one death occurs every 3.2 seconds. Where do the new souls come from? Source:

Anyways, Cebes mentions that the soul's immortality is supported by one of Socrates' other theories, the theory of recollection. When asked by Simmias to elaborate, Socrates explains that recollection occurs when one sees and reminds him of something completely different.

For example, when I see a picture of a cat, it reminds me of a real cat, even though the physical picture and the animal are entirely different things. Socrates generalizes this to all objects – he states that in the real world, objects that appear to be equal are in fact not equal. Any object is unique and peerless. Therefore, the so-called equality (fake equality) that humans perceive is not true Equality itself (the Form of Equality). But when we, as mortals, see things that appear to be equal, we think of the Equal itself. But to be reminded of something, in this case, the Form of Equality, we must have had some prior acquaintance with it, or else there wouldn't be anything in our minds to recall. Since this kind of knowledge cannot be obtained from the bodily senses, we must have earlier knowledge of Equality, before we were born, and to obtain knowledge before we were born, our souls must have existed before we were born. Thus, Socrates proves that our souls existed before our birth.

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However, there is an overlooked flaw. Socrates neglected to prove that we are not able to have the senses of the soul.

Simmias agrees with the current argument but says that this argument only proves the soul's existence before birth, not after death. Socrates, however, explains that if the soul comes to life before the physical body does, then when death happens, the physical body leaves the human but the soul remains. After all, it was separate, to begin with.

Then, Socrates moves on to his next argument, which claims that after death, the people who have not purified themselves in life will be stuck to the physical world, while the men who practice philosophy will escape from the physical world to the world of the Forms and the gods.

It is claimed that there are two kinds of existence: one in the physical world, the one we perceive via our body, and another in the invisible world of the Forms, which we only can access via our minds. The body is mortal but might exist after death in the form of a corpse, but the soul is immortal and outlasts the body.

Socrates concludes that the soul of a philosopher is immortal, and his way into the underworld will be determined by the way he lived his life. The philosopher who has not feared death will be eternally peaceful after the death of his body, and the afterlife will be full of happiness. The other men, who enjoyed the bodily pleasures, will either wander around as ghosts or enter the bodies of animals.

Simmias confesses that he does not want to disturb Socrates during his final hours by unsettling his belief in the immortality of the soul, and those present are reluctant to express their skepticism. Socrates assures his disciples that he does believe in the soul's immortality, whether or not he has succeeded in proving it yet, and is not worried about facing death and assures them that they should state their objections regarding the arguments.

Socrates' arguments for the soul's immortality end here.

Simmias and Cebes, of course, both have their objections, and Socrates answers them. Simmias challenges Socrates' third argument, claiming that the body is like a lyre, while the soul is like music. But when the lyre is destroyed, the music gets destroyed with it. If the soul is indeed similar to harmony, then the soul should perish with the body.

Socrates responds by first asking if they agree with the recollection theory. They both agree. He then points out that if the soul is dependent on the body, as Simmias suggests, then the assumption that the soul exists before birth and the body is not correct since the soul is dependent on the body.

Cebes also holds an objection. He admits that he is convinced that the soul existed before birth, but doubts the existence of the soul after death.

Cebes gives the analogy of a man wearing out many coats in his lifetime, and that if the coat is still there, the man must also be there, surely, that is not true. He points out that just as a man might wear out many coats before dying, a soul might wear out many bodies before the soul dies. Cebes says that even if the soul goes through many bodies, one should still approach death with the fear of uncertainty, for this death might be the last death your soul will experience.

Socrates responds to this objection by finally proving the immortality of the soul once and for all. His argument is as follows. Nothing can become its opposite quality and still retain its original quality at the same time: for example, something cannot be 'big' when it is 'small', and something cannot be 'hot' when it is 'cold'. This also applies to objects that contain such qualities: for example, fire contains heat, and ice contains cold, and if fire loses the attribute of being hot, then it ceases to be fire, if ice loses the attribute of cold, it no longer is ice. It is important to note that Socrates was not measuring raw temperature; instead, he was discussing the very attribute of heat. Using this analogy, he concludes that the soul brings life, and the soul will not accept the opposite of life, which is death. Socrates ties it all up by claiming what does not accept death is indestructible.

Thus ends the argument for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo.

The Phaedo is one of the most important works of ancient philosophy. Although I find the arguments a little absurd, Socrates Plato employs arguments with logic that many people would never have thought of. Usually, nobody looks forward to dying. That is an instinct.

But then Socrates Plato comes along, and suddenly makes you think dying isn't that bad. All the other arguments in the Phaedo are actually all supporting the first argument. Without the first argument, everything else would not have made any sense.

Logic, however, cannot be employed when thinking of certain matters. For example, ???, a Chinese logician, once argued that a white horse is not a horse.

Surely, a white horse is a horse.

His argument, employing perfect logic, is as follows. He explains that since the horse is white, it is a special kind of horse whose “form” is white; it is not the universal concept horse and therefore is not a horse. Therefore, he concludes, a white horse is not a horse. This logic is perfect and does not have any visible flaws, but surely, a white horse is a horse. This proves that logic cannot be trusted to make sense of the real world. Overall, the Phaedo is an excellent book of logic, but cannot be seen as a book of truth.

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