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Topic #D31

Plato, Phaedo 95e-118a


19 November 2001
Scribes: Andrew Chiang and Rana Lee


These minutes were spoken on 21 November;

for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



              Professor Hutchinson began the lecture by telling the class about his own experience reading Plato’s dialogue, Phaedo, for the first time.  He said that it was the first of Plato’s dialogues that really grabbed him.  The professor said that the Phaedo told a story on a number of levels and that it was a synthesis of many different things.  First, it was the story of the last day of an important person’s life, second, it was a truly powerful work of art, and third, it was Plato’s loving portrait of Socrates.


              Professor Hutchinson then outlined the major themes he was going to address in the Phaedo.  The first theme was pleasure and why the shameless pursuit of it was bad and Plato’s idea of what a better attitude toward it would be.  The second theme was knowledge, skepticism, and confidence.  The professor also said that he wanted to relate the Phaedo to elements of pre-Socratic philosophy.  For example, Socrates’ myth about the judgment of the dead and the Pythagorean themes, which are rich throughout the dialogue.  Professor Hutchinson expanded on the Pythagorean themes by saying that Plato tried to create a better theory of the soul, one that relied on the Forms as opposed to the Pythagoreans who that relied on the concept of number.  Plato was like an arch-Pythagorean in that he took a great deal from the Pythagorean philosophy and attempted to refine it.  Professor Hutchinson mentioned that the Pythagorean material in Phaedo was a reflection of Plato’s own commitments and not Socrates’ personal beliefs.  In Book Four of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates expressed his disinterest in mathematics, which was a focal point for the Pythagoreans.  Despite such evidence, there were some scholars who felt that the Phaedo was proof that Socrates was a Pythagorean.  The professor said that these people were similar to those who were so taken by Plato’s Apology that they believed it was an actual account of Socrates’ trial.


              In the dialogue Phaedo, Phaedo recounted the events of Socrates’ last day to his friend Echecrates.  Professor Hutchinson mentioned how Socrates’ wife, Xanthippe, was quickly taken home after she began to cry about her husband’s impending death.  Plato treated her lack of self-control with contempt.  The professor then read the passage at 60b.


Socrates sat up on the bed, bent his leg and rubbed it with his hand, and as he rubbed he said: “What a strange thing that which men call pleasure seems to be, and how astonishing the relation it has with what is thought to be its opposite, namely pain!  A man cannot have both at the same time.  Yet if he pursues and catches the one, he is almost always bound to catch the other also, like two creatures with one head.  I think that if Aesop had noted this he would have composed a fable that a god wished to reconcile their opposition but could not do so, so he joined their two heads together, and therefore when a man has the one, the other follows later.  This seems to be happening to me.  My bonds caused pain in my leg, and now pleasure seems to be following. (60b-c)[1]


This passage talked about how pain and pleasure were like two sides of the same coin and that a person could not experience one without experiencing the other as well.  This should remind the class, Professor Hutchinson noted, of pleasure as it was discussed by Protagoras.


              The theme of confidence was first brought up at 63e at the beginning of a passage called the Second Apology.  In this passage, Socrates defended himself against his friends who had criticized him for losing his argument in court.  Socrates also tried to explain his seeming confidence in the face of death.  He said that a “man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder.” (63e)


              The theme of pleasure was reintroduced at 64c.  Here Socrates approached the subject of what true pleasure should be.


Is it anything else than the separation of the soul from the body?  Do we believe that death is this, namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself from the soul, and the soul comes to be separated by itself apart from the body?  Is death anything else than that?

No, that is what it is, he said.

Consider then, my good sir, whether you share my opinion, for this will lead us to a better knowledge of what we are investigating.  Do you think it is the part of a philosopher to be concerned with such so-called pleasures as those of food and drink?

By no means.

What about the pleasures of sex?

Not at all.

What of the other pleasures concerned with the service of the body?  Do you think such a man prizes them greatly, the acquisition of distinguished clothes and shoes and the other bodily ornaments?  Do you think he values these or despises them, except in so far as one cannot do without them?

I think the true philosopher despises them.

Do you not think, he said, that in general such a man’s concern is not with the body but that, as far as he can, he turns away from the body towards the soul?

I do. (64c-e)


It was clear that Plato felt that pleasure should not be hedonistic; rather it should concentrate on pleasing the mind.  Plato believed that looking for pleasure below the eyes was a mistake and that one should seek to pleasure what was above the eyes, namely the mind.  The distinction of upper and lower pleasures could be related back to the Pythagorean philosophy.  Again Socrates expressed his confidence in the face of death at 68b by saying that a true lover of wisdom should not fear death knowing that he would only be able to find wisdom in Hades.


              Professor Hutchinson then read a passage from 83d.  This quote discussed Plato’s belief that the exercise of pain and pleasure welded the soul more solidly with the flesh.


Because every pleasure and every pain provides, as it were, another nail to rivet the soul to the body and to weld them together.  It makes the soul corporeal, so that it believes that truth is what the body says it is.  As it shares the beliefs and delights of the body, I think it inevitably comes to share its ways and manner of life and is unable ever to reach Hades in a pure state; it is always full of body when it departs, so that it soon falls back into another body and grows with it as if it had been sewn into it.  Because of this, it can have no part in the company of the divine, the pure and uniform. (83d-e)


Therefore, as the soul shared in the beliefs and experiences of the body, it could not hope to reach Hades in a pure state.  This belief was shared by the Pythagoreans and is why they stressed self-control.  A student in the class then posed the question that, if a soul was in a polluted body, then how could there ever be a sense of change or improvement?  Professor Hutchinson did not think that was necessarily true.  He said Plato believed that everyone was capable of self-improvement and that people tried to improve so they could earn a reward in heaven.  The professor then mentioned that Plato felt people had a tendency toward the bad.  This was evidenced by Plato’s belief that failed humans would be reincarnated in the bodies of lesser creatures.  And since lesser creatures outnumbered humans, that meant that throughout history, there had been a lot of bad people.  Plato’s thoughts on the subject were rooted in the Pythagorean tenet of perpetual reincarnation.  Plato also had a definite hierarchy of living things, with shellfish at the bottom of the list.  Later, Aristotle injected more science and less fantasy into this theory.


              The climax of Socrates’ myth comes at 114d.  In this passage, Socrates said that his story was nothing you could insist on, but that sometimes it was noble to risk believing in something you did not have actual evidence for.


No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief – for the risk is a noble one – that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation, which is why I have been prolonging my tale.  That is the reason why a man should be of good cheer about his own soul, if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body and its ornamentation as of no concern to him and doing him more harm than good, but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning, and adorned his soul not with alien but with its own ornaments, namely, moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom and truth, and in that state awaits his journey to the underworld. (114d-115a)


Such a risk could also help one prove a hypothesis.  By testing a certain situation, one could, in the course of the experiment, prove the hypothesis.  Socrates told those around him that he did not want them to become mythologues.  Professor Hutchinson mentioned that mythologue was not a real word and that Socrates was trying to tell his followers not to mistrust an argument even if it had let them down on several occasions.  Socrates said that a man should feel good about his soul if he had adorned it with moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom and truth throughout his life.


Professor Hutchinson noted that Socrates felt his real children were the Socratics and not necessarily those who he biologically fathered.


The professor then read from 116e where Crito tried to persuade Socrates to prolong his life for at least a few more moments.


But Socrates, said Crito, I think the sun still shines upon the hills and has not yet set.  I know that others drink the poison quite a long time after they have received the order, eating and drinking quite a bit, and some of them enjoy intimacy with their loved ones.  Do not hurry; there is still some time.

It is natural, Crito, for them to do so, said Socrates, for they think they derive some benefit from doing this, but it is not fitting for me.  I do not expect any benefit from drinking the poison a little later, except to become ridiculous in my own eyes for clinging to life, and be sparing of it when there is none left.  So do as I ask and do not refuse me. (116e-117a)


Crito mentioned that men previously in Socrates’ position would wait some time before drinking the poison, taking time to enjoy a few last drinks and some intimacy with those close to them.  Socrates, however, had no desire to prolong his life any longer and said that if he partook in the activities of his predecessors, he would end up feeling ridiculous in his own eyes.  Here, Socrates was again demonstrating his self-control by ignoring his bodily desire to live and instead choosing to please his mind by dying with dignity.


              At 95e, there was a famous Socratic flashback.  There was a discussion of theories on generation and destruction.  Socrates mentioned that when he was younger he was interested in natural science and looked to Anaxagoras for an explanation.  He was excited to read that Anaxagoras believe that Mind controlled the universe, but was then disappointed to discover how mechanistic the theory really was.  Professor Hutchinson told the class that the theory of the Forms was first introduced in Plato’s dialogue, Meno, and that the Phaedo was a reference back to it.  The main concept of the theory of Forms was that things on earth acquire their characteristics from higher forms.  For example, things that are beautiful are beautiful because they share certain qualities with what Socrates called ‘the Beautiful’.  Plato felt that his theory of the Forms would function as the fundamental explanation of post-Socratic philosophy.


              The professor then mentioned how Plato signed on with the philosophies of Parmenides, the Pythagoreans and that he made reference to all the important pre-Socratic philosophers except Democritus.  Plato’s image of where humans resided in the world was that humans lived in the hollows, buried in the muck, and in a deeper and more watery place than most would like to think.  According to Plato, humans were not as high up on the evolutionary chain as they thought they were.  Finally, the professor noted that Plato most likely looked at humans in this lower state, so that there was still some room left to reach for something higher and brighter.


[1]Plato, Phaedo, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997).  Subsequent parenthetical references will refer to this edition.