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Plato’s Understanding of the Human Body in Phaedo: Critical Analysis

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Throughout history, we have endlessly questioned the nature of our reality- whether or not we feel comfortable in our own skin so to speak. Prior to being awakened at birth to our version of reality, we enjoyed an existence of intelligent design- pureness created to allow for a limitless existence. It is, therefore, by that same design that the body as Deutsch puts it, is seen as a prison holding the soul hostage, driving us to evil ends and maleficent pleasures. But it was not only Deutsch that understood the existence of the human soul as a prisoner- Plato too, in his dialogue, Phaedo, saw the body as a sort of prison. Not only shackling our souls to an existence riddled with distractions and temptations, he understood it as getting in the way of a rational clarity that was desired by so many yet achieved by so few. Why then, if the body had achieved holiness and pureness once before, could it not return to a world of perfection? While we drive on with an existence riddled with disease, temptation, and sin- these characteristics of our everyday lives were not the intention of what the human experience was meant to be. They are seen as distractions- and hence the body too is merely a distraction that pulls our soul further and further from achieving pure existence. This then is the purpose of our time in prison- to get back on the path, to return our souls to a reality of holiness and righteous humanity. Plato understood this and witnessed that humans on a whole while resenting being pulled into the body’s appetites, saw it too as a hindrance to what could be and have given up on the fight to resist the temptations of this imperfect world; hence verifying Plato’s understanding of the human body as a prison for the soul.

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Plato came to this understanding from his interactions with one of his students, Socrates. He asked- Can our bodies finally be appropriated? While Socrates saw his body as being resilient against the sensory world, he witnessed that we spend our lives constantly struggling to appropriate our existence- cultivating ourselves over time. And although there is no end to this process, death was seen as the one thing that could heal the soul. One might ask then how is the end of life as we know it the key to healing? Death is a way of detaching the body- the source of all life’s sin, temptation, illness, and disease from the purity and divine design of the soul. Then, in truth, death is not the end of life as we know it- it is actually the beginning of an existence that was meant for us from the start. As Socrates puts it “the body hinders humanity from fully reaching its potential… [the body] fills us with loves and desires and fears and all sorts of fancies and a great deal of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get an opportunity to think at all about anything” (Phaedo, 64c-66d). By picking apart what Socrates says above, we can see that the “desires, fears, fancies, and nonsense” he points out are exactly what Deutsch says are “incessant demands, driving us toward evil pleasures and desires, causing ‘war and faction and fighting’” (Deutsch 6). Socrates envisions the body as somehow holding onto the soul in chained existence, with every maleficent experience contributing to the degradation of the human experience once destined for us- “Every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which It fastens the soul to the body and pins it down and makes it corporeal, accepting as true whatever the body certifies” (Phaedo 66d-66e). In other words, the body is in complete control of the soul and whether the decisions it makes are beneficial or demoralizing in the end those decisions attribute to the corruption of the soul as a whole. But the way Socrates qualifies this in the above quote is quite vivid. He directly draws a connection between the imprisonment of the soul to the physical actions of pinning and riveting. This connection is not a pleasant one, quite the contrary, it defines a harsh entanglement between body and soul. Thus, similar to how a prisoner in what today we see as a prison requires constant supervision, attention, and correction, so too does the body. The body when consumed with illness, lust, desire, or any other corporal sensation requires attention and care. Who then is to administer this care? Unfortunately, it falls on the soul to rid the body of these temporary inconveniences and thus defers importance away from the soul’s divine mission. This then can be seen as a full circle experience from what I described above as the meaning of death- death is a way of unshackling the soul from the inconveniences the body supplies- or in Socrates' words “from confinement in these regions of the earth” (Phaedo, 114c).

What is most striking is the fact that the prison house and in turn the opposite- the temple- are both institutional buildings and both involve a relationship between the master or leader of the institution, and the subject or person. Although one is attributed to suffering, and the other to divinity and pureness, Plato himself in Phaedo uses this as a recurring theme- using words like slaves, infected, and prison to hark back the theme of a relationship between the instructor and the instructed- actually insinuating that the body has somehow “trapped” the soul inside of it. Socrates theorizes based on this fact that “Is it [death] simply the release of the soul from the body? Is death nothing more or less than this, the separate condition of the body by itself when it is released from the soul, and the separate condition by itself of the soul when released from the body” (Phaedo 64c-64d). We see, therefore, that death is really the release of the soul from its “prison-house”. If the soul were to not engage with the body’s (prison’s) temptations and sensations, it could attain a level of divinity that was initially intended for it. If the soul didn’t need to constantly take care of the body’s physical issues, needs, and desires, humans could properly return to the “divine reality” (Phaedo, 65-66) Socrates says is the source of human intelligence. This is similar to what Deutsch sees as the source of human intelligence - the body is a way for the soul to communicate with the world and acts as a medium for the acquisition of human knowledge (Deutsch 7). Why then, if the soul is sourced from divine reality, do we truly need the body at all? In short, we don’t. The body destroys the soul with pleasures and temptations and for the soul to follow the tenants of Christian teachings and doctrine, it shouldn’t interact willingly with the sensations the body imposes upon it.

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Plato’s Understanding of the Human Body in Phaedo: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 3, 2023, from
“Plato’s Understanding of the Human Body in Phaedo: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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