Philosophers “preparing themselves for dying.” Plato’s Phaedo

Statue of Socrates in front of the Academy of Athens.

I spent part of the weekend rereading Plato’s Phaedo ahead of the next Interintellect salon and an upcoming conversation I’m having with Agnes Callard on the book.

It was both my first time rereading a Classic, and it’s also an excellent book in its own right. Wikipedia says it’s up there with Republic as the most famous Platonic dialogue, a claim I’m wholly unqualified to test. Mortimer Adler’s right, though — these are indeed the books that benefit from close rereading. I found myself following Socrates’ arguments more easily, and enjoying the ups and downs of the dialogue much more than the first time I read it (which wasn’t even that long ago — December 2020).

Briefly: Phaedo is a dialogue between Socrates and his friends. The setting is Socrates’ jail cell: he’s been found guilty of corrupting the youth and not following the correct gods, and has been sentenced to death. The last section of Phaedo details Socrates’ death and is surprisingly moving. (It also contains the single best set of last words I’ve come across, which have launched literal centuries of academic analysis, because of course it has.)

Phaedo is also known as On the Soul, since the book deals with a series of arguments as to why the soul is immortal. I’ll list them out for my own memory and edification, but please leave a comment below if you think I get something wrong: I make no contention that I have the correct opinions here, and nothing would make me happier than being corrected:

  1. The Cyclical Argument, essentially saying that the soul is immortal because death and life are opposites. Something that’s now bigger must’ve been smaller before, and gone through a process of “getting bigger.” Since living and being dead are opposites, and everything that dies was alive, everything that dies must come back to life. The problem here, reminding me of the Fawlty Towers joke about the door being “slightly locked,” is that something can be bigger or smaller, but not more or less dead. (I also don’t follow why it’s necessarily true, and Socrates’ later arguments that the soul must go somewhere left me uncertain. I might come back and edit this!)
  2. The Recollection Argument, which says that since you can prompt people, or lead them (in what we now call Socratic-style discussion) to insights, then we must have had some subconscious knowledge of those things beforehand. Since they didn’t come through our senses, they must come via our souls, which must have come pre-birth. Ergo, the soul existed before we were born.
  3. The Two-World Argument, where Socrates posits that there are two worlds: the carnal, material world, and the true world of Forms. The soul, separate to the body as it is, is really of that second world, and so must be immortal.
  4. The fourth “bonus” argument of immortality: the soul is definitionally alive, and (like the number three can never be even) so can never be dead. Things that can’t die are immortal.

There are two more things jumped out at me.

First: in the current milieu, where the likes of Jordan Peterson and Naval Ravikant are popular, I was taken by Socrates’ contention that attaining happiness and reducing anxiety are two of the highest-leverage things people can do. With apologies for the awkward paraphrase, he says:

What you should do is pronounce an enchantment over him every day until you have charmed his fears [of dying] away. […] You must ransack [the entire world] in your search for this enchanter, without sparing money or trouble; because you could not spend your money more opportunely on any other object.

The Last Days of Socrates, Penguin Classics ed. (p. 145)

(Am I extending too much here? Let me know in a comment, but I got strong Naval vibes here, specifically around “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?“)

The second part that was striking is Socrates’ style, which is that he seems to only become certain in the context of the discussion. He invites his interlocutors several times to interrupt and challenge him (and they do) and stresses the importance of this sort of debate. “No greater misfortune could happen to anyone,” he says on page 161, “than that of developing a dislike for argument.” There’s an intellectual humility here that I hadn’t previously associated with Socrates.

I’ll likely have more intelligent thoughts after hosting two salons on The Last Days of Socrates, which includes Phaedo and three other dialogues that deal with the accusations against Socrates and his (unsuccessful) defense. In the meantime, comments are open below, so jump in!

Ed. note — I found out that the registration system for the forum doesn’t actually allow you to register. Sorry about that. A fix is in the works!

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