back to PHL200Y home page

back to course outline


Topic #D31

Plato, Phaedo 95e-118a


19 November 2001

Scribes: Diane Tang and Danny Kharazmi


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes




         In this lecture, Professor Hutchinson focused on Plato’s Phaedo, and claimed that it is truly a dialogue that grabs you by the throat because it is so enticing.  This work has it all; it is a complete synthesis of many important issues regarding Platonic and Socratic philosophy.  It is a lively dialogue, discussed at many different levels.  The content and how the characters discuss the content, are relevant to the situation (awaiting death of Socrates).  The grand finale of this piece is a work of art.  After having finished his discussions, Socrates lies down on the bed and lets death carry him away.  In brief, this dialogue unites Plato’s power as a literary artist and a renowned philosopher.  After this, Professor Hutchinson explained how he wanted to address three points regarding the Phaedo.  (1) The theme of pleasure, (2) knowledge and confidence, and (3) the links between this dialogue and pre-Socratic philosophy. 


         In the Phaedo, Socrates presents the notion of the myth of the judgement of the dead.  He outlines the geography of the world as well as the underworld, which is the land of souls and spirits.  This myth has a Pythagorean connotation; at that moment, the Professor claimed that there is a Pythagorean theme throughout most of this dialogue.  However, Plato takes the Pythagorean philosophy and develops it further by adding concepts of his own.  For example, he provides better theories for explanation and the soul.  Plato’s theory of explanation is that explanation does not rely on the number but rather, the qualities of the numbers, this is further elaborated in Plato’s theory of the Forms.  The Professor asked why Socrates would speak of such things on his last day, just prior to his death?  It does not seem plausible for Socrates to be discussing such issues in his final moments on earth.  Especially when Socrates never seemed to be interested in discussions of numbers, math, or astronomy, Socrates admits to this in Xenophon, Book four.  These topics, however, were interests of Plato; therefore, it is fair to assume that Plato is talking through Socrates in these sections of the dialogue.  Nevertheless, some scholars have claimed that Socrates was, in fact, a Pythagorean.  Professor Hutchinson said that this is an incorrect interpretation, for it was Plato who showed interest towards the Pythagorean philosophy and not Socrates.


         The next issue Socrates discusses is pleasure, and he begins on line 60a. 


‘After a short time he came and told us to go in.  We found Socrates recently released from his chains, and Xanthippe – you know her – sitting by him, holding their baby.  When she saw us, she cried out and said the sort of thing that women usually say: “Socrates, this is the last time your friends will talk to you and you to them.”  Socrates looked at Crito. “Crito”, he said, “let someone take her home.” And some of Crito’s people led her away lamenting and beating her breast. 

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 the 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 which 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 me pain in my leg, and now pleasure seems to be following.”’


Socrates seems to open up and begin his discussion after his wife leaves.  In this section he is describing the connection between pleasure and pain, almost as though they are the opposite side of the same coin; connected together like a two-headed monster.  When you feel the pain, the pleasure is to come, and vice-versa.  He is inspired to speak of this due to the sensation of blood rushing back to the veins in his legs, after the shackles were removed.


Next, the professor turned to line 63b, where Socrates begins a second apology, this time not to the jury members, but to his friends who are with him in the room. 


“Come then, he said, let me try to make my defense to you more convincing than it was to the jury.  For, Simmias and Cebes, I should be wrong not to resent dying if I did not believe that I should go first to other wise and good gods, and then to men who have died and are better than men are here.  Be assured that, as it is, I expect to join the company of good men.  This last I would not altogether insist on, but if I insist on anything at all in these matters, it is that I shall come to gods who are very good at all in these matters, it is that I shall come to gods who are very goods masters.  That is why I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked”


A real philosopher does not fear death, but instead, awaits death with confidence.  Socrates has to defend the view that a true philosopher will be ready to die. Because his friends are criticizing him for having lost the argument at his trial, and now, is paying the consequences of his failure.  Therefore, this second apology is a defense speech against the criticisms from his friends. 


         Socrates then gives a manifesto of the true philosophy, which Professor Hutchinson claims, is not his own but rather the philosophy of Plato.  The first part of the manifesto proposes that the true philosophy is not a Hedonist philosophy, which is based solely on seeking that, which pleases the will of the individual.  Being self-controlled is to master pleasures, however, it is not correct to measure pleasures with each other. 


         “What of the moderate among them? Is their experience not similar? Is it license of a kind that makes them moderate? We say this is impossible, yet their experience of this unsophisticated moderation turns out to be similar: they fear to be deprived of other pleasures which they desire, so they keep away from some pleasures because they are overcome by others.  Now to be mastered by pleasure is what I call license, but what happens to them is that they master certain pleasures because they are mastered by others.  This is like what we mentioned just now, that in some way it is a kind of license that has made them moderate” (68e – 69a).


According to Socrates, the best pleasures are those that do not come from below the eyes, this means that true pleasure is one that satisfies the mind.  This should be the only type of pleasure that the Socratic philosopher tries to achieve in his life. 


The terms “upper” and “lower” are important in the Platonic philosophy, because they represent the goals of the philosopher.  The “upper” is a reference to Heaven, while the “lower” is referring to the muck and dirt below Heaven.


         “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 to reach Hades in a pure state; it is always full of body when it departs, so that it soon falls back to 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)


Earthly pleasures and pains cause illusions in the individual and make his soul more corporeal.  They weld the soul to the flesh, thus, when the soul departs after death, it is more full of corporeal pollution.  If someone chooses this downward orientation of pleasure then his or her soul becomes earthly and dirty.  On the other hand, the upward effect (seeking pleasures that satisfy the soul) allows for the freedom of the soul from the body. 


         Someone then asked if the soul is in the body, and body only attracts pollution by seeking earthly pleasures, is it not inevitable for the soul to become corporeal and dirty?  Professor Hutchinson replied that although this does make the task of reaching the “upper” more difficult, it does not make it impossible.  Everyone is capable of improving his or her soul and reaching the Truth.  Professor Hutchinson also pointed out what he called a weird fact about Platonic philosophy, Plato thought that human tendency was towards the bad.  For example, the number of humans on the earth is not even comparable to the number of smaller organisms, such as insects and jungle animals.  These creatures contain the souls of ex-humans, who have fallen because they sought earthly pleasures.  However, since there are still humans roaming the earth, this means that some of us have been able to fight off earthly desires and seek pleasures that satisfy the soul. The animal relation here, is merely a reminder of the endless reincarnation can take a downward course.  The lowest body a soul can occupy is that of a shellfish, which cannot even move.  Plato borrows the concept of reincarnation from the Pythagorean philosophy, where the soul of a person is placed within the body of another person, after the first person has died. Professor Hutchinson pointed out however, that this is only a hypothesis or a mystical sketch, and thus, it is difficult to tell if such a theory is true. 


         Next comes the climax of Socrates’ speech, which in fact deals with the hypothesis of reincarnation.  He begins on line 114d:


“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 sake 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 a 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.”


Here Socrates shows the courage that a philosopher must have when seeking the truth, and in the face of death.  He says that it makes sense to hazard a belief even when you have enough evidence to prove it.  The hypothesis he proposes here, regarding the soul’s journey into the underworld, is what the philosopher must risk his life to prove.  In doing so, the philosopher is testing and affirming the hypothesis.  A hypothesis, by definition, is supposed to be a true statement that lacks evidence, and the Socratic philosopher should risk believing the hypothesis in order to provide the evidence. 


Professor Hutchinson then referred to line 116a, where Socrates says that the truth of his hypothesis lives through his students.  Then Socrates asks for the poison because he is ready to die, and Crito says:


“But Socrates, 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.”


Here, Socrates is once again showing that he does not fear death and that his last few moments will not be spent seeking earthly pleasures, for they are useless and damaging to the soul.  He calls those who do such things, prior to their death, foolish.  Therefore, the last words of Socrates emphasis the two major points he stresses throughout the dialogue.  (1) A true philosopher does not fear death and (2), that a philosopher does not seek pleasures that satisfy the body, only pleasures that satisfy the soul.


         To finish up the lecture, the famous Socratic flashback was explained.  This begins from line 95e, where Socrates takes a long pause and goes into a deep thought.


‘Socrates paused for a long time, deep in thought.  He then said: This is no unimportant problem that you raise, Cebes, for it requires a thorough investigation of the cause of generation and destruction.  I will, if you wish, give you an account of my experience in these matters.  Then if something I say seems useful to you, make sense of it to persuade us of your position.”’


In this section, Socrates goes on to tell a story explaining that the soul is indestructible, but in order to prove this, he first describes how things are destroyed.  Socrates makes mention of the theories of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaxagoras.  He then provides a rather safe theory for the causes of the characteristics of things.  He claims that a thing has the characteristic of beauty because this is caused by the Beautiful, the characteristic of big is caused by the Bigness, the characteristic of small is caused by smallness, etc.  Professor Hutchinson however, felt that this theory was very empty and provides no real explanation.


The professor then talked about the theory of the Forms, which is discussed mainly in Plato’s dialogue called Meno, a dialogue that also deals with the pre-existence of the soul and the recollection of knowledge.  The theory of the Forms functions as the most fundamental element in Socratic philosophy.  Theaetetus is also another dialogue of Plato’s that focuses heavily on the theory of the Forms. 


As a final note, Professor Hutchinson pointed out that that the Phaedo is a regular Socratic dialogue with a Pythagorean interest.  This work provides us with an idea of where human beings stand in the universe; we are in the hollows, amongst the muck, and the true surface of our world is much higher up.  We are in fact, much lower than we thought we might be, therefore, our familiar perspective of the world was wrong.  Our goal should be to aspire to something higher and better than our current state.