Phaedo, decoded

Plato: Phaedo, decoded

Echecrates and Phaedo are talking.

Phaedo, were you there when Socrates was executed?

Yes, Echecrates, I was.

Tell me about it. What did he say in his last hours?

I will begin at the beginning, and try to repeat the entire conversation. We had been coming to see him in the morning in the courthouse, not far from the prison. We used to wait, talking, until the doors were opened, and then we would go in and pass the day with Socrates. On the last morning, we arrived earlier than usual, as we had heard that the sacred ship had come from Delos. The jailer came out to ask us to stay until The Eleven had taken off Socrates’ chains and given the execution order. When we were allowed in, Xanthippe was there, crying. She said, “Oh Socrates, this is the last time either that you will converse with your friends or they with you.” Socrates asked Crito to have someone take her home, which they did. Socrates sat up on his bed, rubbing the mark on his leg where his chains had been and said, “Pleasure is very odd! It is so closely related to pain, which seems to be its opposite, for you can’t have both at the same time. But when you try to have pleasure, you often end up in pain, and the other way around. They are two sides of the same coin.”

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Cebes said, Evenus told me to ask you why you’ve started writing poetry in prison? We hear you’re turning Aesop’s fables into songs.

Tell him, Cebes, that I wasn’t trying to be his rival. I was trying to get rid of a nagging feeling that I’ve had. I’ve often been told in dreams that I should compose music. Tell Evenus to come see me on the other side. And tell him to hurry!

What? I don’t think he’ll take your advice.

Isn’t he a philosopher?

Yes, I think he is.

Then he should be eager to die—but not to kill himself.

Socrates shifted, put his feet on the ground, and stayed sat there for the rest of the conversation.

Why, asked Cebes, do you say that a philosopher should be ready to die, but that suicide is wrong?

I suppose, Socrates said, you’re really wondering why, when some evil things can be good at the right time and to the right person, suicide can never be good.

Yes, Socrates, said Cebes. But you also said that a philosopher should be willing to die. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Socrates smiled.

Yes, he said; I see what you’re saying. Let me answer you like I would if I were in court.

Please do, said Simmias.

I’ll have to do better than I did last month! I admit, I would be afraid of dying if I thought that the gods weren’t good, or if I worried that I would be going to a worse place than this. But I don’t.

But are you going to take away your ideas? Won’t you share them with us?

I will do my best, replied Socrates. But let me hear what Crito wants to say to me.

The attendant wants me to tell you not to talk too much. It will make the poison less effective. Sometimes excited people need to take the poison twice, or even three times.

Well, tell him to mind his own business and prepare extra poison.

I knew you would say that.

And now, my judges, I will prove to you that a philosopher should be happy about dying, and that the best parts of life happen after you die. The true philosopher will likely be misunderstood; people cannot explain why a philosopher is always practicing death.

Simmias laughed: I shouldn’t laugh, Socrates, but you’re right. That’s how they think of us.

And they’re right! But enough of them. Do you believe there is such a thing as death?

Of course, replied Simmias.

And it is the separation of the soul and the body? When you are dead, the body is free of the soul, and the soul is free of the body?

Just so, he replied.

Should philosophers care about bodily pleasures like eating and drinking?

Certainly not, answered Simmias.

And what about love—should they care for love?

By no means.

And will a philosopher think much of clothes or shoes or jewelry?

I should say that the true philosopher would despise them.

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The philosopher is concerned only with the soul, and not the body. She would like to get away from the body and turn only to the soul.

Quite true.

Most people think that a life without pleasure is not worth living. The philosopher lives with no pleasure—so most people would think that her life is not worth living, and that she is as good as dead.

That is also true.

What about learning? Does the body help or hinder knowledge? Are not the senses untrustworthy?

Certainly, they are. The body is of no help.

Then truth is revealed in thought, if at all?


And thought is best done when meditating, without sights or sounds or pain or pleasure. Thought is best when the mind has as little to do with the body as possible.


So the philosopher hates the body. She wishes to be away from it.

That is true.

Well, another thing, Simmias: Is there an absolute justice, absolute beauty and absolute good?

Of course.

But did you ever see them with your eyes?

Certainly not.

Have you ever perceived any of The Forms with one of your senses? Or is it better to find them with your mind’s eye, with your intellect, so that you will have the best idea of the essence of each thing? And you do the best job when you’re thinking, just thinking, not letting sight or any other sense intrude.

So true, Socrates, so true.

And when philosophers consider all these things, they say: our bodies get in the way of truth. Our souls are infected with the desires of the body. Our bodies are endless trouble. They bother us with appetites and turmoil, spinning our minds around. To be wise, we must quit the body, and the soul must fly alone. To be wise, we must die.


But then, I’m going to finally get what I want. At last, I will reach the end of this quest. I go on my way rejoicing. I would be ridiculous if I lived as nearly as I could to a state of death, and yet worried about it when it came for me.True philosophers, Simmias, are always practice dying, so death, to them, is not terrible. Many men have wanted to die so that they could be reunited with their wives or children. A true lover of wisdom will likewise depart with joy.

He would, indeed, replied Simmias.

When you see someone trembling in the face of death, you will know that she is not a philosopher. She is a lover of the body, or money, or power. You know that death is regarded as evil by most people, right?

Of course.

And most courageous men face death because they are afraid of yet greater evils?

Quite true.

Then most men are courageous only because they are afraid! It’s very odd that a person would be courageous from fear.

Very true.

The temperate are the same. They exercise and eat well so that they can enjoy pleasures for longer. They avoid pleasure because they love pleasure.

Very true.

But this is not excellence at all, is it? These people are trading one pleasure for another, or one fear for another. Wisdom is the only way to become just, temperate and courageous. When one knows what is really important, one behaves excellently.

Cebes answered: I agree, Socrates, with most of what you say. But most people won’t believe you. They worry that the soul will be dispersed like smoke when the body containing it has died. Can you prove that the soul is immortal?

I reckon my old critics wouldn’t say I have my head in the clouds now; I’m clearly minding my own business! Let’s start with the question of whether souls go to to another world. Some believe in reincarnation. If it is true that the living come from the dead, then our souls must exist in another world. If we can prove reincarnation, then we can prove the soul’s persistence.

Very true, replied Cebes.

Then let us consider the whole question, not only for humans, but also for animals and plants. All things that have opposites come from their opposites. Good comes from the less-good, and the just comes from the unjust. Anything big must come from something smaller.


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What is the opposite of life?


Death, he answered.

Then the living comes from the dead?

That is clear, he replied.

Then our souls exist in the world below.

That is true.

I think this is verified by some other thoughts I have had. If everything went in a straight line, all dead things would become living, or all living things would become dead. There must be a cycle of life.

You’re absolutely right, Cebes said. He added, Now that I think of it, your idea that all knowledge is recollection, if true, also implies that the soul is immortal. It implies that we were alive at some previous time.

Simmias interjected: Wait, what? All knowledge is recollection?

It is, Cebes said. If you ask someone questions in the right way, then she will answer you, even about things she does not know. You can draw answers out of her, like a teacher does from a student, just by asking questions, never giving answers. Socrates is really good at it.

If you have doubts, Socrates said, think of it this way. A person recalling a fact once knew it but forgot.

Very true.

Can I get you to agree to one more thing? There is such a thing as absolute equality, not just of these pieces of wood or those stones.

I swear it, yes.

Do we know this absolute equality, this essence of equality?

To be sure, he said.

Where did we learn it? Did we learn about it from looking at different things, like pieces of wood? Don’t the same pieces of wood sometimes look equal and sometimes unequal? If I hold them up beside each other, they look equal, but when I move one away, it seems smaller.

True enough.

So equal sticks are not perfectly equal. They fall short of perfect equality.

They do.

But when I look at two things, and I can tell that they are almost equal, I must have already known what equality is—because, obviously, I cannot see equality here.


Then we must have known absolute equality before we saw any material things that are equal-ish, because physical things are only ever almost equal. They are never perfectly equal.


Then we must have known absolute equality before we began to perceive or see in any way. How else would we have known the standard that we use in all our senses? So, either we had this knowledge at birth and continued knowing it; or, sometime after birth, we remember it—in other words, we recall it. Which do you think it is?

I cannot decide.

Can people who know things explain how they know things?

Sure they can.

Can every person explain what I just explained?

Socrates, tomorrow, I fear, nobody will be able to explain it.

Then how do people know these things? When did we learn them? We were not born fully formed. We must have had this knowledge in our souls, before they were joined with our bodies.

Unless this knowledge was given to us at birth.

But that’s when we forget this knowledge!

I was crazy. How could I not have known?

So, we can say, if there is an absolute beauty and an absolute goodness, and all The Forms, then if we use these Forms for knowledge and find that we were born with them, then our souls must have existed before. The same proof shows The Forms, the essences, existed before our births. If they did not, then we did not.

I totally believe you. I am convinced.

Is Cebes?

I think he is, although he is the most incredulous person to have ever lived. But I think that you have shown that the soul exists before birth; I don’t think you have shown that it will exist after death. It may have existed before, but perhaps our deaths are the end of them, and each disappears.

Exactly right, Cebes said.

I’ve proven it if you put the two arguments together. Like children, though, you and Simmias are haunted by the fear that the wind will blow your souls away, so let us explore the theory further. Let me sing your worries away.

Where will we find another like you to sing us lullabies when you are gone, Socrates?

Greece is large, Cebes, and there are many good people here. There are many barbarian tribes, too. Find another babysitter, and spare neither time nor money. And look amongst yourselves—nobody is your equal.

We shall. But let us continue.

Are The Forms (or essences or Ideas) things that change? Or are they incapable of change in any way?

They must be always the same, Socrates, replied Cebes.

And what would you say of the many beautiful things in the world—whether men or horses or garments—are they all unchanging and the same always, or quite the reverse? And didn’t we say that the soul, when it uses the body to perceive, is dragged around in the world of the changeable? It gets confused and drunk on change. But when returning into itself, it reflects, and passes into the other world, the world of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness. It is at home there. When communing with the unchanging, it becomes unchanging. And this is wisdom?

That is well and truly said, Socrates, he replied.

And what is the soul more like, then? The world of change and compound substances? Or the world of the permanent and unchanging?

I think, Socrates, that the soul is much more like the unchangeable—even the most stupid person would agree.

Then, Cebes, the soul is just like the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble. The body is human, and mortal, and unintellectual, and changeable. Am I right?

You are.

Thus the body can be broken up, but the soul cannot?


And haven’t you seen that some corpses may remain for some time, and, if the weather is cool and the body is sound, may not decompose?


Does it seem likely that the soul will be blown away and destroyed? It cannot be, my friends. The truth is this: A pure soul, the soul of a philosopher, departs to the perfect world, to the divine world, and finds bliss and wisdom there. Am I right, Cebes?

Yes, said Cebes, beyond a doubt.

But the soul that has been polluted by the body and by the desires and pleasures of the body—do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure?

Impossible, he replied.

It is held fast by the body.

Very true.

Drunks and gluttons and the promiscuous will become donkeys and that sort of animal, I think.

I think that sounds right.

And the unjust, and tyrants, and thugs—they will become hawks and wolves and vultures?

Yes, said Cebes.

The impure and the unwise are not allowed to enter into the company of the gods. Only philosophers are. And that, friends, is why philosophers abstain from lusts—because they dread the dishonour and disgrace of evil.

No philosopher would be evil, said Cebes.

After Socrates stopped speaking, there was silence; he appeared to be meditating, as most of us were, on what had been said. Only only Cebes and Simmias spoke to one another. Socrates asked what they thought of the argument, and whether there was anything missing.

Simmias said: I must confess, Socrates, we still have doubts. We each want the other person to ask you.

Simmias, what are you saying? If I can’t persuade you, I’ll never persuade anyone that I am not afraid to die. Let me be like a swan! When swans know their time has come, they sing more than ever, rejoicing that they will go back to their god.

I have doubts, but I must ask you now, so that I am not ashamed of myself later, once you are gone. I just don’t think the argument is sufficient.

Socrates answered: You may be right, but I would like to know in what way it isn’t.

In this respect: Suppose a person used the same argument about harmony and guitars. He would say that harmony is perfect, divine, and exists in the well-tuned guitar. But when the guitar gets broken or the strings are cut, then what happens? If he argues like you, he would say that the songs survive. The songs must still be somewhere. That is your conception of the soul; when the body is held together and in good condition, then the soul is the harmony of the strings. But that doesn’t make sense. Whenever the strings (or the body) are damaged or strained or old, the harmony disappears—or the soul perishes. What would you say to someone who said that?

Not bad, Simmias! Cebes, what were you going to say?

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I think your argument is open to the same objections which I had before; I agree that the soul exists before the body, but what about after the body’s death? Let me use an example. An old coat-maker dies, and after he is gone, someone says, “He’s not dead! What lasts longer, a coat, or the person wearing the coat? Here is the coat he wore, and it’s not gone. Since people last longer than coats, he cannot be gone either!” But that’s nonsense. The tailor made many coats and outlasted them. He was outlasted by the last coat he made. Perhaps the soul is the same: it lasts through many bodies, but is, in the end, worn out by the last body it is in. If that could be, I am afraid this is my last coat.

Phaedo: We felt awful. These were excellent objections, and our faith was shaken.

Echecrates: I feel you—I really do, Phaedo. Now I too worry; what argument can I ever trust? Tell me, I beg you, how did Socrates proceed?

Socrates has often amazed me, but never more than that day. He was so gentle and pleasant and approving.

What happened?

I was sitting close to him on a stool. He stroked my head and played with the curls of hair on my neck. Tomorrow, Phaedo, he said, I suppose you will shear your hair in misery.

Yes, Socrates, I suppose that I will, I replied.

Not if you will take my advice.

What shall I do? I said.

Today we will both shave our hair if we cannot resurrect this argument. We cannot become misologists—haters of logic. Misanthropy arises out of inexperience. A person has bad experiences with a few people, and he turns away, into himself, and becomes a misanthrope. There are also misologists, haters of ideas. People become skeptical if they see a few arguments fail. They think that argumentation never proves anything. How sad.

Yes, indeed, I said; that is very melancholy.

He proceeded: Do you disagree with my whole argument, or only a part?

Only a part, they replied.

But, he said, you are wrong, my friends, if think that harmony is a compound, and that the soul is a harmony which is made out of strings of the body; you would never say that a harmony is prior to the guitar that makes it.

Never, Socrates.

But don’t you see that you have said just this? In a discourse on harmony, you ought to harmonize! There is no harmony, he said, in the two propositions you agree to: that knowledge is recollection, and that the soul is a harmony. You can’t have both. Which do you want to keep?

I think, he replied, that I have more faith in the first than in the latter, which has not been demonstrated at all.

Doesn’t harmony admit of degrees? Some things are more harmonious than others.


But does the soul admit of degrees? Or is one soul exactly as complete as the other.

One soul is exactly as complete as another.

But what about this? But if wisdom is harmony, as you said, and the soul is harmony, as you said, then is the wise soul harmonized-squared? Is there a harmony of harmonies in the soul? The soul is the harmony of the body, according to them. Is a good soul a harmonized harmonized body?

I don’t know, replied Simmias. I guess that’s what I’d say.

But you said that one soul is exactly as complete as another. That is equivalent to saying that there is no more harmony in one than in another. So one soul has no more vice or virtue than another, if vice is discord and virtue is harmony? So all souls of all living creatures will be equally good?

I think so.

Really? Can all this be true? These are the consequences that follow from your assertion that souls are harmonies of the body.

It cannot be true. I admit it.

The wise soul rules human nature. It is not ruled by human nature.


And does the soul agree with the loves of the body? Or does the soul disagree? When the body wants to eat or drink, doesn’t the soul push back and sometimes refuse?

Very true.

But you said that the soul, as a harmony, cannot play the strings—it is created by the strings. It is the song they make. But don’t we now see that the soul pushes the body around, forcing it to diet and exercise, for instance, even when it rebels? And finally, didn’t Odysseus say,

‘He beat his breast, and thus reproached his heart: Endure, my heart; far worse hast thou endured!’

Don’t you think that Odysseus was commanding his soul to lead and master his heart? If so, we should never say that the soul is a harmony of the body, for we would contradict the divine Homer.

True, he said. I entirely agree. It’s settled.

Cebes, you want me to prove to you that the soul is immortal, but you think that I am foolish for not fearing death. You worry that I might be wearing my soul out. That’s an excellent objection, Cebes.

I should very much like, said Cebes, to hear what you have to say.

First, assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness. The rest will follow. Do you agree that something can be beautiful only if it partakes of absolute beauty? And isn’t everything else just the same? Great things partake of greatness? And so on?

Yes, he said, I agree.

And if Phaedo is bigger than Simmias, this is not because Phaedo is Phaedo, but because Phaedo has greatness relatively to Simmias?

That is true.

Let me ask you to consider another point of view, and see whether you agree with me: There is heat and there is cold. But are they the same as fire and snow?

Clearly not.

And in some cases the name of the idea is the same as the idea. I will try to make this clearer by an example: The odd number is always called ‘odd’?

Very true.

But there are also many other things called odd. The number three is in the class of odd things, and five is too, but they are not oddness. Oddness is something else. Three is odd, but three is also three. Oddness is just oddness.

Of course.

Then think about this: classes exclude their opposites, but the members of the classes also exclude their opposites. Oddness will always exclude evenness. Oddness just cannot be evenness. But three will also never be even. It will be destroyed before it becomes even.

Very true, said Cebes.

Therefore, opposite ideas repel each other, and opposite natures do too. So nothing which brings an opposite will admit the opposite of that which it brings.

Yes, he said, I entirely agree.

Tell me, then, what makes the body alive

The soul, he replied.

And the opposite to life?


Then the soul will never receive the opposite of what she brings.

Impossible, replied Cebes.

If the immortal is also imperishable, then the soul, when attacked by death, cannot perish. When death attacks a man, the mortal portion of him will die, but the immortal retreats at the approach of death and is preserved safe and sound?


Then, Cebes, beyond question, the soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will exist in another world!

I am convinced, Socrates, said Cebes, and have nothing more to object.

My friends, he said, if the soul is really immortal, we should take better care of it in life and in eternity. If death were really the end, then it would pay to be evil. The wicked would be free from their sins. But, since the soul is immortal, there is no release or salvation—except wisdom. The wicked will carry their sins with them forever. The wise will be free and in their rightful place after death.

Let me tell you one more thing before I go. The earth is wide and wonderful. It is bigger than the imagination of any geographers. I heard this from a friend, who must remain nameless.

What do you mean, Socrates? said Simmias.

Well, I think that the earth is a sphere floating the heavens. It floats in space, balanced. I also think that the earth is vast and that we only inhabit a small part of it. There are other people scattered all around the world, and we have not yet met these tribes. When the earth is looked down on from space, it is streaked like a leather ball covered in colourful patches. It is purple and gold and white, and all the loveliest colours of the rainbow. There are mountains and valleys and hills with jewels more beautiful than any you’ve seen. There are four rivers, too, flowing in different directions. The fourth is the darkest blue, like lapis lazuli, and it is the river Styx. It becomes magical as it passes under the earth. It carries the dead, and on the other side of the world, the good are praised and the evil are punished. What care we must take! For the prize is good and the hope is great!

I admit, I might not be exactly right. But it’s more or less like this, and therefore I say, friends, be of good cheer. You will all die sooner or later—but I will die soonest. The voice of fate calls me now. I should go to have my bath now, so that my wife will not have to clean my body after I am dead.

Crito said, Socrates, what would you like us to tell your children, or do when you are gone?

Nothing in particular, Crito, he replied. Just do like I have always told you: take care of yourselves.

We will do our best, said Crito. How would you like to be buried?

Any way that you like. Then he turned to us, and added with a smile: Crito thinks I am dead already. He wants to know how he shall bury me. I simply cannot persuade him that he will be burying only my body, and not me! Take care of him, won’t you, as he always took care of me? Crito, my dear, be of good cheer, and know that I will be gone when you will be burying my body.

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After he spoke these words, he went into the bedroom to bathe; Crito followed him and told us to wait. So we remained behind, talking and thinking of death, and also of the greatness of our sorrow; we were losing a father, and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans. When he had taken the bath, his children were brought to him (he had two young sons and an elder one); and the women of his family also came, and he talked to them and gave them instructions; then he dismissed them and returned to us.

It was sunset, as he had stayed within for quite a long time. When he came out, he sat down with us again, but not much was said. Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him. He said, Socrates, I know you are the noblest and gentlest and best of all the men who have had to come here, so I know you will not rage and swear at me, as the others have done. I am a servant of the authorities, and you know that they are to blame, not me. Fare well, Socrates. May your load be light, and forgive me. With that, he burst into tears and ran out.

As he left, Socrates said, I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid. Then turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he weeps for me. We must do as he says, Crito. Bring the cup.

The sun is still upon the hill-tops, Crito said. I know that many have taken the cup late and even after the announcements have been made to them, many have eaten and drunk and enjoyed the company of their friends; do not hurry—there is still time.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and those others were clever. They thought that they would come out ahead by delaying. I know that that I will not. I would only be ridiculous. My life is over, so please, do as I say.

Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; he went out and returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: You have done this before, my good friend; tell me what to do. The man answered: Walk about until your legs are heavy, and then lie down, and the poison will act. He handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looked straight at the man, took the cup, and said: Can I honour the gods by pouring some out to them? The man answered: We prepare only enough for one. I understand, he said, and I ask the gods to help me with my journey from this to the other world even without their share. Then, raising the cup to his lips, drank off the poison, just like that. Until then, we had been able to control ourselves; but when we saw him drinking, and saw him finish, we could no longer hold back. My own tears were flowing fast; I covered my face and wept—not for him, for me, and for my despair at leaving such a friend. Crito was unable to restrain his tears, and he got up and I followed. At that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out wailing. Socrates alone remained calm: What is this crying all about? he said. I sent the women away so that they wouldn’t act like this. A man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and be patient. When we heard his words, we were ashamed, and we tried to hold back our tears. He walked about until his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison looked at his feet and legs. After a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; he said he could not. The coldness and stiffness spread upwards and upwards. And the jailer said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. Socrates was beginning to grow cold about the groin. When he uncovered his face (he had covered himself up), he said—they were his last words—Crito, I owe a rooster to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him. His eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

That was the end, Echecrates, of our friend. I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.