“Phaedo” is one of the dialogues that take place in Plato’s great work Five Dialogues (first four being Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Meno). Phaedo is the last dialogue in the book and it contains the last speeches between Socrates and his friends. The dialogue was written from the eyes of Phaedo, a friend of Socrates who was with him in his last hours before the execution. Phaedo told the dialogue to his fellow philosopher Echecrates and later Plato, Socrates’ famous disciple who was not there that day because of his illness, wrote this important event in order to describe the last moments of Socrates for next generations. In the dialogue; Socrates discusses the nature of the “after life” with his friends Cebes and Simmias. In order to show that there is an after life; Socrates comes up with convincing arguments about the immortality of the soul and the existence of after life. Socrates claims that the death is nothing more than the separation of the soul from the body and although some group of people denies it, the soul is immortal considering the cycle of life and death, the theory of recollection and the affinity argument. Although Socrates’ arguments are controversial, they seem very plausible and consistent and the idea of immortality of the soul seems rational to me.
Socrates’ first argument is based on the idea of dialectics and the cycle of life and death. According to Socrates, all the things come to exist from their opposites. “…for all things which come to be, 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” (70e). For an object to become tall, it must previously be shorter. Likewise, people who are awake are just people who were previously asleep but then woke up. Similarly, in Socrates’ view, the life comes from the death as the death comes from the life. Of course, this requires “a process of becoming” (71b). Becoming thinner requires a process of slimming likewise, becoming alive requires a process of “coming to life again” (71e). And this situation in fact shows that the souls are not dying, but rather they “must be somewhere whence they come back again” (72a). One objection could be made on the basis of difference between processes exemplified by Socrates. Although becoming thinner or taller requires a process of long period, to born or coming to life again happens once in a time. Socrates here uses the basic logic of dialectics and shows that nothing could exist in the world without its opposition. Without its opposition, a thing cannot be measured and identified as something because for instance in order to identify a person as taller, there should be shorter people. Using this logic, we might argue that life and death exist together because without death we could not perceive life.
This first theory of the cycle between the life and the death related us to the second theory which is called as “recollection” which is based on the idea that people born with the knowledge of their previous lives. According to Socrates, “learning is no other than recollection” of what people have already known (73a). All people have knowledge before birth but lose it at birth, by using their senses they can reacquire their own knowledge about objects, so they recollect. For example, when a person smells the perfume of his girlfriend, he can remember his girlfriend. This does not require any knowledge; he just remembers the smell of his girlfriend’ perfume. Thus, “we should agree that if anyone recollects anything, he must have known it before” (73c) and this would be another proof of the immortality of the soul in Socrates’ opinion. One objection could be made towards this theory from this point of view. Although Socrates from his own perspective explains recollection plausibly, this still does not mean that the soul is immortal. The soul can have lots of lives or bodies but surely this does not mean that the soul is immortal and it can never be faded. Immortality is not equal to numerous lives because it does not end and reaches infinity.
Socrates’ third important argument is called as the “affinity argument” and by this argument Socrates shows that “the soul is more like the invisible than the body, and the body more like the visible” (79c). In other words, the existence of a body is visible, whereas the existence of a soul is invisible. We may see and even touch a dead body (corpse) and certainly feel the death of it but we cannot do the same for a soul (80c). In addition, when body and soul come together, “nature orders the one to be subject and to be ruled, and the other to rule and to be master” (80a). This shows that the soul -being invisible and superior- is divine whereas the body is not divine. So, the soul as a divine being is immortal but the body is mortal. Socrates later resembles the soul to a harmony of a lyre because once the lyre has been destroyed, the harmony too vanishes, that once the body dies, the soul too vanishes (86a). In his last hours, Cebes and Simmias do not want to question this argument and disturb Socrates and the story ends up with the suicide of Socrates. Here Socrates equates being divine with immortality and reaches this conclusion easily.
When we make a general evaluation of Socrates’ arguments, we see that they are consistent in themselves and it is very difficult to refute them. But I still sense that the discussion could be much more productive and the arguments could be much stronger if Socrates was not in the cold face of death and his friends could have interrogated him more in detail. Still, Socrates’ arguments are philosophically valid and plausible. The soul can be considered as immortal since according to the rules of dialectics life and death exist together, people have inexplicable “deja vu” memories and knowledge and the soul is invisible and divine.
- Plato, “Phaedo” in Five Dialogues, (2002), Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company