Phaedo is a platonic dialogue of the so-called middle period. In antiquity it was also known by the title On Soul. The dialogue takes up the subjects of the nature of the soul, immortality and the theory of forms.

Dramatic setting

We wouldn’t be much in error to claim that Phaedo is the most renowned of Plato’s dialogues; and that on account of its philosophical importance, its dramatic plot and its literary merits. The dramatic date is set on the year of Socrates’ death, 399 B.C. The work consists in a story that Phaedo, a disciple of Socrates, narrates to the Pythagorean Echecrates. The story recounts Socrates’ last day in prison until the moment he drinks the hemlock. The plot develops as two members of the company (looking after the death-sentenced Socrates), the Pythagoreans Simmias and Ceves, pray for their teacher’s consolation, which consists in proving that the death of the body does not entail the perishment of the soul. The recount of this discussion takes up the main part of the dialogue (59c-116a), and it is complemented by the introductory exchange between Phaedo and Echecrates (57a-59c), and Phaedo’s concluding description of Socrates’ moments before death (116a-118a).

Without doubt, the dramatic context builds up a tension that permeates the central part of the dialogue. Simmias’ and Ceves’ affection has been seized by the fact of the imminent death of Socrates, and calls for their teacher’s consolatory proof of the immortality of (his) soul. Socrates, in turn, appears much more attracted by philosophy’s qualification as the preeminent activity in life. On another note, the dialogue informs us of Plato’s absence from the scene, thus emphasizing the fact that the content of Phaedo is ascribed on his author’s ingenuity and not on a recorded event. On such a conception, the death of Socrates contextualizes Plato’s philosophical elaboration, which culminates into the theory (more accurately: the hypothesis) of forms.

Consider then, he said, whether you share my opinion as to what follows, for I think that, if there is anything beautiful besides the Beautiful itself, it is beautiful for no other reason than that it shares in that Beautiful […] I no longer understand or recognize those other sophisticated causes, and if someone tells me that a thing is beautiful because it has a bright color or shape or any such thing, I ignore these other reasons—for all these confuse me—but I simply, naively and perhaps foolishly cling to this, that nothing else makes it beautiful other than the presence of, or the sharing in, or however you may describe its relationship to that Beautiful we mentioned (Phaedo, 100c-d).
Prefatory discussion

In the beginning of the main part, Socrates sets out with two brief remarks on the relation between pleasure and pain (60b-c), and his own disposition towards poetry (60c-61c); and follows up with a crucial point: that philosophers ought not to commit suicide, but should instead entrust their death to the will of the gods (61c-62c). And thereupon the question arises: given that during our lifetime we go by under the custody of gods, shouldn’t we pursue with any means available the prolongation of our life? Socrates is presented here with the subject of death, and takes on the challenge to discuss it by appealing not to strict philosophical argumentation, but to a discourse articulated with claims and hopes. What he aims at is to open up the discussion by postulating philosophy and death as quasi identical notions: what they both effectuate is the separation of the soul from the body. By establishing this identification, Socrates meets a double end: at one and the same time, the dramatis persona engages in his final discussion with his company, and the platonic figure with any potential reader of the philosophical dialogue.

Socrates is out to show that the disentanglement of the soul from the body occurs in two ways: through death (66b-67b), and through conduct of a virtuous life (67b-69e). He then recognizes the first as the way of the true philosophers. Their categorical denial of the possibility of any knowledge during lifetime along with their decrier against the pursuance of truth implies an ironic overtone by which Socrates is probably chastising a certain mode of philosophizing. The second way, on the other hand, illustrates more compellingly Socrates’ practical orientation of philosophy.

Three arguments for immortality

In response to his partners’ anxiety for the posthumous fate of the soul, Socrates adduces three arguments, which are put forward by way of “telling stories” (70b). First comes the “argument of the opposites” (70c-72e): Everything comes to being from its opposite, and by implication life is induced by death, which in turn is derived from life in a perpetual circle of successions. If becoming was only directed from life to death, then nature would be one-sided (71e).

The second argument invokes the myth of recollection (72e-77a), which already appeared in the Meno: True knowledge, i.e. the knowledge of forms, precedes sensory perception; therefore, our souls acquired the knowledge of forms before our birth, and, by implication, they preexisted our body and our birth. This position is readily contested by Simmias and Ceves (77b-78b): the fact that the soul preexists birth does not entail that it can also survive it.

Third comes the "similarity" or "affinity" argument (78b-80e): If we stipulate a distinction between (a) the world of appearances, and (b) the invisible domain of forms, we can reasonably assume that the soul is akin to (b) and "more similar" to it than to (a). Consequently, it is plausible that, after death, the soul departs into the realm of the divine, the intelligible, the changeless and the everlasting, whereas the body into mortality and mutation. The plausibility of the third argument rests on analogies; but its importance is grounded on its effects, which are exhibited by three different modi vivendi: the life of the philosopher anticipates a better fate after death than the one awaiting those who submit to their bodies, or those who conduct their lives according to the popular virtues by dint of custom and lack of philosophy.

Objections and digression: a philosophical autobiography

Against the models and analogies designed by Socrates, Simmias and Ceves are drafting their own figures: could the soul be something like the harmony of a lyre, and therefore perish along with the death of the body, as it is the case with the harmony of a musical instrument when the latter is destroyed? (Simmias, 85e-86d) Or does it resemble more a weaver, who, though not immortal, outlives the clothes he weaves? Can we assume, in the same vein, that the soul may survive a number of body destructions, but will eventually suffer her own death? (Ceves, 86e-88b)

The two objections exerted great influence among the attendants and prompted an appeal by Socrates: a possible lack of certitude over the validity of an argument should not extend to a broader misology (89c-91c). Thereupon, Socrates attempts a refutation of Simmias’ argument: firstly, construing the soul as harmony is inconsistent with the theory of recollection; secondly, it doesn’t allow for the existence of wicked souls; lastly, the soul rules over the body, and does not depend upon it as harmony does upon the lyre.

Ceves’ challenge will drive Socrates in a fathomable investigation into the “cause of generation and decay” (95a-96a), which will be carried out as an autobiographical narrative of his own philosophical development. Plato seizes the opportunity to make this narrative into a historical account of the philosophical theories formulated up to his age. Socrates goes on to express how disappointed he became with his inquiry into the Presocratic natural philosophers (96a-97b), and the Anaxagorean mind (97b-99c); and he says that in a bid to explain why he embarked upon his own “second journey” (99c-102a). The fundamental hypothesis of this method is that the cause of every thing, and every property is the participation in their appropriate Form: a beautiful thing is beautiful only by virtue of its participation in the Form of beauty; similarly, the chair is a chair insofar as it partakes of the Form of chair. Evidently, Phaedo contains the most fundamental version of the platonic theory of forms. It is presented as an essential hypothesis that conditions the validity of every discourse or argument, and the possibility for every dialogue. Socrates’ autobiographical sketch in 95a-102a has, not without good reason, been designated the “Magna Carta of western metaphysics”.

[…] do you wish me to give you an explanation of how, as a second best, I busied myself with the search for the cause, Cebes? I would wish it above all else, he said. After this, he said, when I had wearied of investigating things, I thought that I must be careful to avoid the experience of those who watch an eclipse of the sun, for some of them ruin their eyes unless they watch its e reflection in water or some such material. A similar thought crossed my mind, and I feared that my soul would be altogether blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with each of my senses. So I thought I must take refuge in discussions and investigate the truth of things by means of words. (Phaedo, 99d-e)
The fourth argument, the myth and the death

Now, Socrates resumes his attempt to prove the immortality of the soul by integrating the “forms hypothesis” into a final argument (102a-107a). Contradictory ideas are mutually exclusive; therefore, the soul, which partakes constantly of life, is incompatible with death. Hence, it does not die, but stands immortal and indestructible. Not unlike the other arguments, this one too is not a sound proof of the immortality of the soul. Socrates gives out his awareness of that when he invites further examination of his claims (107b-d), but most significantly when he attempts to complement his final argument by adducing a myth about the post-mortem fate of the soul (107d-114c). The myth insists on how important it is to look after our soul while we are alive. The poignant description of Socrates’ last moments (116a-118a) brings the dialogue to a closure. The philosopher receives the hemlock, and in a state of calmness and tranquility bids his friends farewell.

He walked around, and when he said his legs were heavy he lay on his back as he had been told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body, and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressed hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said no. Then he pressed his calves, and made his way up his body and showed us that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself and said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone” (Phaedo, 117e-118a).
Author: Panagiotis Thanassas
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Bostock, D. Plato's Phaedo. Oxford, 1986.
  • Rowe, C. Plato: Phaedo. Cambridge, 1993.
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