Monday, January 4, 2016

Phaedo - Plato

Socrates was sentenced to death by his fellow Athenians, for various reasons.  On the last day, before his death by poison, Socrates gathered together with friends and talked.  Some of this is covered in 'Crito', which I wrote about here.  I didn't realize that a different part of the discussion was wrote about in 'Phaedo'.  (As always with the works of Plato, we only have Socrates to go on here.  For all I know, there are twenty of these 'last day' dialogues, comprising weeks worth of actual discussion.)

Crito dealt with Socrates feelings toward the law that condemned him.  Phaedo deals with Socrates feelings about his upcoming death.  He isn't wracked with fear like many men would be.  Instead, he welcomes his upcoming death.  His friends don't understand so he tries to explain to them that his soul will finally be freed from his body.  Socrates' belief is that the soul is pure and the body is naturally corrupt.  Death moves the pure soul out of the mortal life that threatens to sully it.
He also believes in reincarnation.  He talks about evil men becoming wolves and lazy men becoming donkeys.  Some human souls will go back into other souls.  In fact, he is very clear that a soul is imprinted with knowledge from the start.  His theory of education is one of 'reawakening' that knowledge.  That knowledge must come from somewhere so therefore the soul must have some prior existence before going into a current body.
Socrates is challenged on this and he gives, to my mind, some very unsatisfactory answers.  He says that everything has a cycle and compares life and death to being awake and being asleep.  There are certainly superficial similarities but the idea that they are exactly comparable is wildly unproven.  I remain unconvinced.
Near the end, Socrates speaks of his understanding of the world, in terms of geography.  It is a ball in space, kept in place by the air around it.  Humans live in the depressions of the earth.  He compares the air around us to the ocean and the ground to the bottom of the sea.  He says that if we could reach up to the top, we could see above the 'surface' and into heaven.
He also speaks of Tartarus, the afterworld and what happens to the souls that are there.  They spend time in a vast sea of mud.  They can't come out until they are forgiven by the souls of those they wronged.  This is an interesting twist on the idea of Hell and eternal punishment.  It gives you incentive not to wrong people in life.  You also have a bias towards forgiveness, as you would want others to forgive you.
'Phaedo' closes with the Socrates drinking the poison.  He walks around until his limbs grow cold and then lays down and dies.  His friends will miss him dearly.  The world will read about him forever.

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