Phaedo Summary In the remote Peloponnesian township of Phlius, Echecrates encounters Phaedo of Elis, one of the men present during Socrates' final hours. Eager to hear the story from a first-hand source, Echecrates presses Phaedo to tell what happened. A number of Socrates' friends were gathered in his cell, including his old friend Crito and two Pythagorean philosophers, Simmias and Cebes. The account begins with Socrates proposing that though suicide is wrong, a true philosopher should look forward to death. The soul, Socrates asserts, is immortal, and the philosopher spends his life training it to detach itself from the needs of the body. He provides four arguments for this claim. The first is the Argument from Opposites. Everything, he says, comes to be from out of its opposite, so that for instance a tall man becomes tall only because he was short before. Similarly, death is the opposite of life, and so living things come to be out of dead things and vice versa. This implies that there is a perpetual cycle of life and death, so that when we die we do not stay dead, but come back to life after a period of time. The second is the Theory of Recollection. This theory suggests that all learning is a matter of recollecting what we already know. We forget much of our knowledge at birth, and can be made to recollect this knowledge through proper questioning. That we had such knowledge at birth, and could forget it, suggests that our soul existed before we were born. The third is the Argument from Affinity. Socrates draws a distinction between those things that are immaterial, invisible, and immortal, and those things which are material, visible, and perishable. The body is of the second kind, whereas the soul is of the first kind. This would suggest that the soul ought to be immortal and survive death. At this point, both Simmias and Cebes raise objections. Simmias suggests that perhaps the soul is like the attunement of a musical instrument. The attunement can only exist so long as the instrument exists, and no longer. Cebes admits that perhaps the soul is long-lived, and can outlive many bodies, but argues that this does not show that the soul is immortal. Socrates replies to Simmias by pointing out that his theory of attunement is in conflict with the Theory of Recollection, which proposes that the soul existed before the body. As for Cebes, Socrates embarks on a complex discussion of causation that ultimately leads him to lay out his fourth argument, positing the unchanging and invisible Forms as the causes of all things in this world. All things possess what qualities they have only through participation in these Forms. The Form of Life is an essential property of the soul, Socrates suggests, and so it is inconceivable to think of the soul as ever being anything but alive. Socrates concludes with a myth of what happens to souls after death. Then he has a bath, says some last goodbyes, drinks the poisonous hemlock, and drifts imperceptibly from this world to the next. Analysis and Themes The Phaedo stands alongside the Republic as the most philosophically dense dialogue of Plato's middle period. It contains the first extended discussion of the Theory of Forms, four arguments for the immortality of the soul, and strong arguments in favor of the philosophical life. It also contains Plato's moving account of Socrates' final hours and his compelling myth about the fate of the soul after death. More than most of Plato's other writings, the Phaedo is in constant dialogue with the Pre-Socratic theories of the world and the soul, in particular those of Pythagorus, Anaxagoras, and Heraclitus. Philosophically, the Theory of Forms is the most important aspect of the dialogue. Though we find hints toward such a theory in dialogues like the Meno, the Phaedo is the first dialogue where Forms are mentioned explicitly and play a fundamental role in advancing Plato's arguments. Yet Plato does not seem at all compelled to argue for the theory itself. The Forms are introduced without any fanfare by Socrates, and immediately agreed upon by all his interlocutors. Later, in discussing his method of hypothesis, Socrates asserts that he can think of nothing more certain than the existence of Forms, and all his interlocutors agree. Due to the haste and ease with which the theory is introduced and put to work, a number of clarifying questions are left unanswered. For instance, what is the scope of Forms? Socrates normally alludes to non-material ideas, such as the Form of Beauty, or the Form of Justice, though he also appeals to numbers--such as the Form of Threeness and the Form of Oddness--to relative terms--such as the Form of Tallness and the Form of Equality--and to the Forms of Life and Death. An argument can be made that he also alludes to the Form of Fire and the Form of Snow, which would open the field even wider. We might ask what sort of things Forms are that they can encompass such a wide range. There are also questions as to what Plato means in saying that the Form of Equality is equal, or in saying that material objects participate in different Forms. More detailed treatments of these questions are given in the Commentary to sections 72e-78b and 100b-102d, respectively. The Phaedo gives us four different arguments for the immortality of the soul: The Argument from Opposites, the Theory of Recollection, the Argument from Affinity, and the final argument, given as a response to Cebes' objection. Plato does not seem to place equal weight on all four of these arguments. For instance, it is suggested that the Argument from Affinity by no means proves the immortality of the soul, but only shows that it is quite likely. The Theory of Recollection and the final argument seem to be given the greatest import, as both of them follow directly from the Theory of Forms. But while the Theory of Recollection can only show that the soul existed before birth, and not that it will also exist after death, the final argument purports to fully establish the immortality of the soul, and is considered by Plato to be unobjectionable and certain. The account of Socrates' death gives us a portrait of a man so detached from the needs and cares of his body that his soul can slip away without any fuss at all. Plato does not present this as strict asceticism, though, but rather a lack of excessive concern for earthly things. (In this sense, one could argue Plato's ideal is somewhat similar to the Buddhist "middle way.") The Phaedo is one of Plato's great masterpieces, combining difficult and profound philosophy with a lively and engaging narrative. As a result, it is one of the rare philosophical classics that is easily readable and rewarding of rewarding careful study.
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