© 1997 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated May 16, 2004
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(4th tetralogy : The Soul - 3rd dialogue of trilogy)

The Phædo closes the cycle on the soul that makes up the 4th and central tetralogy. It leads us toward the "physical" center of the dialogues (1), the death of Socrates at the end of it, that was "on hold" since the end of the Crito. It concludes the investigations about the soul by looking into its destiny, its telos, the fullness of its "being", and its place in the kosmos, through the words of one who is about to experience what he is talking about, as Socrates himself points out at 70b-c with a barb against Aristophanes (2) whose Clouds were partly responsible for his condemnation by the Athenians ("For sure, no one listening to us now, even if he were a maker of comedies, could say that I am talking idly and making speeches about things that don't concern me"). By showing us how Socrates was faithful down to his last breath to his logos, to his words and principles, Phædo, an eyewitness to the fact, as we are told in the very first words of the dialogue (57a), can claim, as soon as he is finished telling us how Socrates has "eternized" himself and reached his teleutè (118a15), that he indeed was "the best, in other words, the most sensible (3) and most just (4) of men (aristou kai allôs (5) phronimôtatou kai dikaiotatou)" (118a, the last words of the dialogue). With this in mind, we should read the whole dialogue as one last attempt to show us, by depicting Socrates in the face of the ultimate "trial", the ultimate krisis, of any man, death, in what sense he indeed was the best example of what it means to be, not a sophos, but a philosophos.

But if we want to understand in what respect Socrates was a true philosophos, we should not read the dialogue as a more or less (and rather less than more) successful attempt by Socrates to demonstrate the soul's immortality, because, as I will try to show in the following pages, it is precisely in acknowledging that we will never get such a binding demonstration here on earth (a demonstration which would indeed make us a true sophos), that we become a philosophos worthy of that name ! The fact is, were Socrates able to provide a demonstration of the soul's immortality of the kind he provides to Meno's slave of the doubling of the square, he couldn't keep saying that he knows nothing as he did all his life, because he would then know the only thing that is really worth somehing for a man, the knowledge he precisely keeps saying he doesn't have ! We only have to listen to him no later than at his trial : "But let me tell you that to fear death, O men, is nothing other than to pretend being wise (sophon) while not being ; it is indeed to pretend knowing things we don't know. Nobody indeed knows death [...] And isn't that quite shameful an ignorance, to suppose one knows things one doesn't know ? But as far as I am concerned, O men, it is probably in this that I differ from most human beings, and if I were to say that I am wiser (sophôteros) than anybody, it is in that, not having an appropriate knowledge of the things that take place in Hades, I don't suppose I know it." (Apology, 29a-b) Socrates didn't change his mind in about the one month interval between his trial (the Apolgy) and his last day (the Phædo) (6), and when he says, at the start of the long discussion with Simmias and Cebes, that he will try "to offer [them] more convincing an apology (apologèsasthai) than the one before the judges" (Phædo, 63b), there is no a priori reason for us to think that he will say things different, only that he will say the same things differently. Indeed, what he immediately refers to in the subsequent lines is no knowledge of his, only belief ("ei men mè ômèn... if I didn't believe...", 63b6) and hope ("elpizo... I hope.."., 63c1, and again "euelpis eimi... I am hopefull, I have good hope... 63c5). And nothing has changed after the wealth of arguments that Socrates piles on top of one another, as if to better show that none is fully conclusive --and indeed, why, if he knew he had a truly binding demonstration, would he offer so many different "proofs" one after the other ?!... After all, with Meno's slave boy, one demonstration was enough !... Yet here, on a topic that is incommensurably more important to man's life than doubling a square, after Socrates has shot his silver bullet, commenting on this last, and supposedly strongest argument, the one based on the "forms" and using all the resources of Socratic dialectic, all Simmias can say is that "owing to the greatness of what the logoi are about and because [he] hold[s] in no esteem human weakness (astheneian), [he is] forced of necessity still to keep disbelief (apistian) within [him]self regarding what has been said" (107a-b), to which Socrates, far from challenging him on that, not only wholeheartedly concurs, but even adds that doubts should extend all the way to the hypotheses themselves, which, credible (pistai, 107b6) as they may be to them, require further scrutiny, though such scrutiny is bound to stop somewhere before complete certainty is reached. And after answering Simmias with the only thing left when all the resources of dialectic have failed to bring certainty, namely... a myth, Socrates sums it up with a statement that may well give the key of the whole dialogue and, behind it, of the whole of Socrates' life : "As a matter of fact, to forcefully affirm that these things are exactly as I recounted, this doesn't befit a man in his right mind ; yet, that things are this way or something approaching as regards souls and their dwellings, since indeed it appears that the soul is immortal, in my opinion, this is befitting and a worthy venture to make (axion kinduneusai) for one who thinks that's the case. Beautiful indeed the venture (kindunos) ! " (114c-d)

But then, what is Socrates after, if he cannot prove the soul's immortality ? Here again, we only have to read his words at the end of the long dialectical exercise : "but to that at least, O men, it is just (dikaion) to give thorough thinking, namely that, if indeed the soul is immortal, then it requires attention (epimeleias), not only over that span of time we call life, but over the whole of it ; and now the venture (kindunos) would indeed seem to be terrible (deinos) if it were left deprived of attention (amelesei) (7)." (107b-c) What Socrates is telling, and showing, us all through the last day of his life, as he did in all previous days, is that, though we will never know for sure here on earth whether or not our soul is immortal, this is the question that should be at the center of our whole life, and that we should strive to make it consistent with the "guess" we have to make about the answer to it, because there is no escape making a "venture" : either we make the "terrible venture (deinos kindunos)" of not properly caring for our soul when our logos, if only we care to listen to him, tells us there is a good chance that it be immortal, by limiting our prospect to this life and its material wealth only, or we make the "beautiful venture (kalos kindunos)" of living our life as if the soul indeed were immortal, making sure that its "education and rearing (paideias te kai trophès)" (107d), the only things it keeps with it at death, are what they should be to safely enter the "afterlife". To make the later choice, and to live by it all through death, is to be a "philosophos", and that is the choice Socrates has made. And he is the one most fit to talk about it by virtue of the fact that he is about to show the world that he lived indeed by it all through his death. So, if we don't want to miss the point, it is of the utmost importance that we realize that none of Socrates supposed "proofs" are really conclusive, and that Socrates is fully aware of that !...

Yet, we should not fall in the opposite trap and assume that, because Socrates "proofs" are not unquestionable, they are worthless ! This would be to succumb to mysology, contempt of reason, precisely that evil that is worse than misanthropy because it despises what makes man what he is (that is, it despises Man with a capital M, not individual men), as Socrates himself tells Phædo at the center of the dialogue (89a-91c), even before starting his dialectical exercise. In fact what Socrates offers here might well be the best effort a human mind may produce on such matters to induce confidence, faith, belief, hope, call it as you like except "knowledge", at all levels of man's soul, granted that's what we have to settle with. Indeed, again at the center of the dialogue, Socrates compares his unfolding speech to a swan's song (84e-85b) (8). And that's what it is to whom can hear him...

Here again, we should listen to what Simmias has to say immediately after Socrates' mention of the swan's song : "It is indeed my opinion, O Socrates, about theses matters, and it is probably yours, that to form a clear knowledge of them in the present life is something that is either impossible or most difficult, but that on the other hand, not to submit to a thorough examination in all possible manners what is being said about them, not leaving before getting exhausted at examining them in every possible way, this is of a totally faint-hearted man. What is indeed needed is to accomplish one of the following : learn whenever possible, or find out by oneself, or, if these are impossible, at least take the best and hardest to refute from men's sayings and let oneself be carried on these, venturing to sail through life as if on a raft, for want of being able to do it more safely and with less risk by being carried over on a steadier means of transportation, I mean a divine word (logou theiou)." (85c-d) This statement is not contradicted by Socrates, and he will even take up the image of the sail through life at the turning point of his "intellectual autobiography", describing the "second sailing  (deuteron ploun)" (99d) that led him to the "forms", possibily hinting to those who can read between the lines that this second course might be a sort of divine gift, the gift of logos. And this program of Simmias, stated close to the center of the dialogue, might well be a description of what is taking place throughout the whole dialogue, enlarged to the whole of Socrates' "intellectual" life by the summary he gives of it soon after Simmias' quoted statement. Though we won't get the last word on what awaits us at death, it would be of a faint-hearted to refuse altogether to investigate the issue as thoroughly as we are able to, and to build our lives on the most probable answers. This is what Socrates guides us through on his last day on earth !...

And this also is part, maybe the most important part, of understanding what it means to be a true philosopher : to know, and accept, that we will never know the last word on the most important issue in our life, in other words, that we will live and die knowing nothing, nothing that really matters, that is, and yet living as if we were sure of the answer because this is the most beautiful venture that befits a man, the best use he can make of the noblest part of his self. But even this, Plato will not tell us for sure ! He shows us and we have to find out by ourselves (9)... And most of us would love to be convinced by Socrates' arguments, and so end up disappointed that they are so "weak" !... Like Cebes, we all have "within ourselves a child afraid by these sorts of things" who would love to be rid of his fear of the wolflike death (77e)... Yet, we have to understand that the purpose of philosophy is not to give us knowledge, but only hope and the strength to live by it...

No ! Socrates was no naive, but he didn't have some "magic wand" either ! All he had was the same god-given logos we all have to a greater or lesser degree, even if Socrates would at times refer to "something demonic (daimonion ti)" sending him signs (which led to the expression "Socrates' daemon (daimôn)", a daimôn being something halfway between man and god, as is Eros according to Diotima in the Symposium). And so, yes ! we can do as he did, live as he lived, that is like a man who doesn't pretend to be more than a man, to have a knowledge, a "sophia", that is beyond human reach here on earth... So, at the very same time Socrates shows us in the Phædo the power of man's reason, the capabilities of dialectic as regards the most important issues in man's personnal life, he shows us their limits and how we should behave about them.

And this is not the only point on which the dialogue, which unfolds at the border between life and eternity, offers an extraordinary blend of opposite trends leading eventually to a perfect equilibrium. While, at first reading, it seems, in its words at least, to widen the gap between body and soul more than any other dialogues (which would not be surprising for a dialogue taking place when Socrates' soul is about to part from his body), it is very careful, in its structure and setting, to soften the harshness of the words and to hold together what they seem to set apart. It tells of a separation--of Socrates' body and soul--, but does it on the background of a reunion--of the disciples across time and space, first at the prison (in the inner story), then in Phlious (in the outer story). It shows Socrates preaching for the withdrawal from this material world, yet calling upon the disciples to take care of themselves and, to make clear in acts that what he means by this is not limited to the soul, at the very time he is telling Crito not to care for his dead body, he takes the very unusual step for him to bathe his still alive body to spare that burden to women, showing not only care for his soon to be abandonned body, but also concern for his relatives and their social duties. It starts with Socrates praising the god that raises the souls, Apollo, the god of music, and ends with a reminder to offer a sacrifice to his son, Asclepius, the god of medicine who cares for the bodies (10). Indeed, the whole inner dialogue takes place in a sort of "suspended" time between the condemnation and death of Socrates, a reprieve granted him by Apollo himself (11), a sacred span of time as a faint image of the eternity to come while he is already hardly able to move his body in the confined space where he is detained by the will of men.

From a structural standpoint, the dialogue features breaks that turn out to be stitches and reveals a perfectly balanced structure behind the appearence of a freely moving conversation, as we will see by looking at the

commented plan of the dialogue

If we now try to put this understanding of the dialogue in perspective with the trilogy it is a part of, we may say that :

Thus, once again, we can only wonder at Plato, who is never one-sided, and finds ways to keep all things together at the very same time he is putting the stress on one or another side of our many-sided being. By developing the principles of logos in the middle of nature in the first dialogue of the trilogy, Plato tells us that it is indeed the very nature of man to be a "logical" animal. And so, gone is the opposition, dear to some of the Sophists, between nature (phusis) and "law (nomos)", once we realize that the laws are the best product of our reason (logos), that is, of our very nature as human beings. By giving us the meaning of the word philosophos in the very city, Phlius, a place within time and space, where the word, the logos, immaterial image of the "real thing", is supposed to have been coined by Pythagoras (12), in a discussion with listeners, if not upright disciples, of Pythagoras' followers (13), Plato warns us not to fall into the trap of thinking that to know the word is to know what it stands for, yet another of the sophists' favorite tricks that may have started with Parmenides identification of being and thought (14). There are indeed different "levels" of logos, as we will learn in the ensuing tetralogies, and the ultimate meaning is beyond the mere words, which themselves are born (in Phlius or elsewhere), grow, evolve in meaning and die...

And by giving us a recipe for life in the world of becoming (and a warning against suicide) at the time of death and at the level of the higher part of the soul in the structure of the trilogies, Plato is showing us, talking to our logos, that, if there is a sense in which we should "despise" this earthly life, it is not to the extent that we should flee away from it, withdraw in our ivory tower and live as if we were pure logos (15). Yet, that, he doesn't say through the mere words Socrates utters, which seem quite biased toward the withdrawal from everything that has to do with the body and matter (except for a reminder at the very beginning that suicide is not allowed), but through his very deeds read in counterpoint of his words : why the hell would Socrates spend his last moments on earth caring for foreigners (Cebes and Simmias are not even fellow-Athenians) and trying his best to convince them to live the life of a philosopher if he were convinced that life is worthless, and when he had a good opportunity to make his jail an ivory tower of sorts by asking the jailer to keep visitors away so as to better concentrate on his own upcoming death ?... And why in the first place would he spend his whole life roaming the agora to call on whomever he chance met to care for his soul and live a better life ? Why bother ?... And so is it that, once again, it is those who care only for the words, for the logos flowing from Socrates' mouth through Plato's pen, who will miss the most important message that they are delivering in the dialogue...


(1) The death of Socrates falls at the almost exact middle, in number of pages, of the dialogues arranged in tetralogies as I suggest. An exact count of a dialogue's size is difficult to do and, to be accurate, should take into account the fact that, in the time of Plato, writing techniques were not what they are today, or even what they were with the Renaissance editions that serve as a reference. Among other things, Greeks of Plato's time didn't know upper and lower case, had no punctuation signs and didn't leave blanks between words. In direct dialogues, they wouldn't skip line when changing interlocutor and wouldn't even put the name of the interlocutor ahead of what he says. Yet, using the rounded number of Stephanus pages for each dialogue, and keeping in mind that all pages are not of the exact same size, one comes up with the following count :

32 / 32
53 / 151
30 / 298
51 / 402
58 / 845
40 / 949
56 / 1179
20 / 52
Hippias Major 
24 / 175
16 / 314
52 / 454
12 / 857
68 / 1017
75 / 1254
22 / 74
80 / 255
25 / 339
272 / 726
36 / 893
52 / 1069
15 / 1269
24 / 98
Hippias Minor 
13 / 268
12 / 351
61 / 787
16 / 909
54 / 1123
317 / 1586

Note : the first figure is the number of pages of the dialogue rounded to the closest integer ; the second figure, in italics, is the total number of pages from the start of the cycle. The tetralogies are displayed in columns from left to right. The size of the Republic and Laws is not the result of the substraction between end and start page due to discontinuities between books (there are usually two to three blank pages between books).

Based on this count, the exact middle would be at 1586 / 2 = 793, to be compared with 787, that is, a difference of 6, which is less than 1%. (back)

(2) The allusions to Aristophanes in the Phædo are not limited to this obvious one. One can see the whole "spiritual autobiography" of Socrates at 96a-102a as an answer to the Clouds, an answer in which Socrates sets the record straight about his supposed involvement with physical sciences. But it is also possible to see an allusion to another of Aristophanes' comedies, the Wasps, at 82b-c, when Socrates suggests that the souls of those men who "make their business of that sort of popular and civic (politikèn) virtue that of all they call moderation and justice, resulting from custom and exercise deprived of philosophy and thought" might after their death migrate toward "some civic (politikon) and tame species, such as bees or wasps (sphèkôn) or ants". This is the only occurrence of the word "wasp (sphèx)" in the whole corpus of the dialogues and the play of Aristophanes by that name (Sphèkes) is a pamphlet against those who make a living as paid judges in popular tribunals, rendering a parody of justice of the kind that led to Socrates' condemnation, under the influence of those leaders who pay them. Calling to mind Aristophanes' play at that point may be a means of suggesting that the judges who condemned Socrates were no better than those who, rigged out with a sting, make up the choir in the Wasps.
   But while Aristophanes' "wasps" are using their stings indiscriminately to earn a living in courts (Wasps, 1102-1121) and defend their interest out of court against those who wouldn't let them have their judicial way, as does Bdelycleon by "jailing" his father Philocleon at home (Wasps, 403-414), Socrates, from the jail where Aristophanes contributed to put him, at the heart of the Phædo, at the end of the warning against mysology, is willing to compare himself, not to a wasp, nor to a gadfly stinging the horses of the soul, as in the Apology (30e), but to a bee whose sting should compel his disciples to care only for the truth even after he is gone (Phædo, 91c).
   One more feature common to both the Wasps and the Phædo is the reference to Æsop, the man whose fables most often stage animals as substitutes for men. He is mentioned four times in the Wasps (566, 1259, 1401, 1446) and the last mention is an allusion to the unjust accusation the people of Delphi brought against him that lead to his death. Aristophanes' judges look for some fun in the litigants' speeches through quotations of Æsop's fables (Wasps, 566) while Socrates enhances those stories once in jail to increase their moral and educational value (Phædo, 60b-61c).
   One last word on this : if Plato may have been for once in tune with Aristophanes about the paid judges of Athens, he may still have found in the Wasps matter to his dislike in one more indirect allusion to Socrates : the silent witness brought forth by the baker's wife against Philocleon at the end of the Wasps (Wasps, 1408) is none other than Chærephon, Socrates' friend he cites as a witness of the Delphic say about him in the Apology ! (back)

(3) Socrates is not said to be "the wisest", sophôtatou, because, as a man, he was not sophos, only philosophos. No man in this life can truly be sophos, that is, know for sure what it means to be a man, the only knowledge that is worth our care. Socrates was only phronimos, that is, sensible, using to the best of his ability his god-given logos to live according to what he thought it means to be a rational animal. Phronesis, not sophia, is the quality that befits a human being here on earth ; it is a quality that merges understanding and practical wisdom, thought and action, soul and body. Sophia may only come when the soul has left the body, along with the true knowledge, the epistèmès, of man. Indeed, phronesis might well be the specific quality of man, his aretè, as Socrates tries unsuccessfully to hint at Meno at Meno, 87c-89a : Meno, who only wants to know if virtue can be taught, is looking for an aretèn which would be a sort of "scientific" knowledge, an epistèmèn ; but when Socrates, at 88b, quietly shifts from epistèmès to phronesin to eventually conclude at 89a that "virtue is phronesin, in whole or in part", Meno is unable to see the difference (and that he may have at hand the definition of virtue he has been all along reluctant to look for) and switches back to epistèmèn a few lines later (89c), as if the demonstration that virtue is an epistèmèn had been secured by showing it is a phronesin ; and by doing so, he forces Socrates to "experimentally" prove him, based on the lack of teachers of virtue, that virtue is not an epistèmèn (because what a "good" man is cannot be "scientifically demonstrated" as can be the doubling of a square, though it is a phronesin because it requires all the "brains" we may use, plus the will to act according to reason). (back)

(4) The way the phrase is construed, dikaiotatou is the last word of it, and thus of the dialogue and of the whole trilogy on the soul. This is one more indication that justice, which is at the core of the trilogy and thus of the whole set of the dialogues, as the topic of the Republic, is the last word on man, the ultimate idea, "form", of man, the form he must most fully partake of to be called a man. It is this justice that is called to mind by the reminder of what is the topic, yet not the temporal instance, of the Republic at the start of the Timæus, before the myth starts, and before we are introduced, within the "myth", to other candidates to the role of "form" of man : matter, his biological structure and his soul. (back)

(5) Socrates is "the best (aristou)", not aside from being the most sensible and most just, but precisely because of that. Allôs must not be understood as adding "other" qualities to Socrates, but "other words" to say the same thing, because the good, of which Socrates has the greatest possible share for a human being, is by nature all encompassing, all including. Socrates is not good and sensible and just ; he is good because he used the specific aretè of man, phronesis, that measured blend of thought and action, of logos leading the will to act within the bounds of human nature, to reach the specific telos, the specific idea of man, justice, and to find rest and unity in it. (back)

(6) Some might say that it is Plato who changed his mind between the time he wrote the Apology and the time he wrote the Phædo. But this is begging the question ! The change of mind must be proven first from the dialogues' written words and then only, the "theory" of Plato's evolution might be proposed as a possible explanation of such a change, if it indeed turns out there is one. And in so doing, in trying to prove a change, we must be careful not to take an easy way out or be overwhelmed by earlier commentators, not to put in Plato's words what we think he ought to say, or we'd like him to say, in such a situation, but to take the time to search for what the words actually say, whether we like it or not. From a methodological standpoint, I would suggest that we always give the hypothesis of Socrates' (and Plato's) consistency across the dialogues a fair chance before resorting to the (easier) assumption of inconsistency (possibly due to a supposed evolution in Plato's thought).The fact that Socrates doesn't say in the Apology things he says in the Phædo (which is altogether different from saying different, or contradictory, things in different dialogues) doesn't prove that Plato changed his mind in between. In the approach I'm taking, it may as well be explained by the difference in purpose between the dialogues and the fact that they come at different stages in the unfolding of Plato's deliberate program. Socrates doesn't mention the immortality of the soul in the Apology, and only says that he doesn't know what happens after death. Even if, in the Phædo, with a different audience, more receptive to his words, he spends most of the time talking about the immortality of the soul, it doesn't mean he knows what happens after death. And all I am trying to prove here is that he precisely tells the opposite ! In the proposed scheme, the Apology comes in a tetralogy that deals with facts, while the Phædo comes in one that deals with the soul, and at a place where we must discuss of its telos. The Apology, and the Crito that follows in our sequence, present us with the hard facts for us to meditate on our own before Socrates gives us a deeper "key" to his own behavior at the end of the ensuing tetralogy, an explanation that requires all the developments about the soul whose immortality is eventually discussed, and not necessarily proven, as we'll see, in the Phædo. This seems to me as good an explanation for the change of focus as the theory of Plato's evolution...  (back)

(7) The verb used here to talk of the soul deprived of proper care is the same that constitutes, in a negative form ("mè amelèsète"), the very last word of Socrates on this earth. For more on the loaded meaning of his seemingly trivial last will, see note 9 below. (back)

(8) In fact, the central section (84b-92a), which splits the dialogue in two almost equal parts, but turns out to be also a bridge between the past of the story and the present of its narration through Echecrates' intervention and Phædo's implication in the inner dialogue, almost completely unfolds between the comparison with the swann's song and the warning against mysology. At the heart of the dialogue, we find the "pharmakon" that should allow us to find life in Socrates' words, unlike the pharmakon Socrates will have to drink at the end, that will bring death on him (but maybe life eternal to his soul !...)
   Taking a broader view, we may also notice that the whole trilogy on the soul unfolds between a pseudo-love "song" inspired to Socrates by the divinities of nature (Phædrus, 238c-d), the Nymphs of the Ilissus, one of whom, named Pharmakeia, was unable to prevent her playmate Oreithya from being "blown away" by the wind of Boreas (Phædrus, 229b-d), and the true "love" song Socrates offers Apollo in his jail as a "pharmakon" that he hopes will help "save" his companions' souls from being "blown away" (and indeed, we know that this song was not lost, at least for Phædo, whom we see spreading the words of Socrates months after his death, in the "outer" story of the Phædo, while we have no word anywhere in the dialogues of Phædrus doing anything with what he learned from Socrates in the dialogue that bears his name). The trilogy can thus be read as a summary of the road that leads from the natural "religion" of a Phædrus under Lysias' and Eryximachus' influence to a more divine one, that raises the soul from the domination of the epithumiai, the pulsions of its bodily nature all the way to the leadership of a logos that knows its limits but is able to live, and lead, with them, in order to bring within and without the harmony that is the condition for justice as depicted in the central dialogue of the Republic, harmony with the self, with the city and with the whole of the kosmos (the later being the subject of the concluding myth of the Phædo). (back)

(9) It may be that the mention, at the beginning of the Phædo (59b), of his being sick and absent that most dreadful day, is one more hint in that direction : due to the weakness of his body, Plato didn't hear in person Socrates say all he reports in the Phædo. What he reports is what, based on years of following him and listening to him, he most deeply believes Socrates could have said in that situation, had he been asked to justify his good spirit at such a time, whether he was asked or not,  whether he said it or not, and whether Plato was actually there but things didn't happen this way, or he was indeed sick. We hear Plato's beliefs about Socrates' beliefs in order to help us form our own beliefs about the question that alone can give meaning to our life... (back)

(10) The very last words of Socrates, where he asks Crito to offer a cock to Asclepius (118a), are indeed quite ambiguous. When Socrates asks Crito to offer the god the cock that will no longer be needed to awaken him in the morning (see by contrast the cock crowing the morning after the symposium at Agathon's place, Symposium, 223c, unable to awaken this bunch of drunk bodies), is he giving praise for being "cured" of his body, or for having made a "healthy" use of it while on earth ?... Besides, he is not talking for himself alone, as he doesn't say "I owe a cock...", but "We owe a cock (opheilomen)...", which may apply restrictively to both him and Crito he is talking to, or, more extensively to all the disciples and readers. Then, there is the second part of the sentence : "apodote kai mè amelèsète." In the immediate context, it may well mean, as usually translated, "pay the debt and don't be negligent" (again a plural), though the "alla (but)" that links it to the first part of the sentence may then seem a little strange : we would rather expect "so", "hence", or something to that effect (yet the phrase thus understood at face value may read something like this : "we owe a cock to Asclepios [and because I'm about to die, I, for what concerns me, will not be able to pay my debt to the god], BUT you will do it for me and be careful not to forget [lest I might be in trouble in the afterlife].")
   But if we compare the very last word, "mè amelèsète" with what Socrates said moments earlier in answer to Crito (yet again as a plural) : "take care of yourselves (humôn autôn epimeloumenoi humeis)... if you are negligent of yourselves (ean de humôn men autôn amelète--same verb)... you will do nothing worth it (ouden pleon poièsete)" (115b), we may think that Socrates' ultimate recommendation doesn't apply only to the sacrifice to Asclepius. Indeed, Socrates' last word on this earth brings us back to where we started, to Alcibiades, the bright young lad who wouldn't care to learn (Alc., 113c : "amelèsas manthanein" ; see also Alc., 120b), and to Socrates' efforts to show him how to care for himself ("to heautou epimeleisthai", Alc., 127e, leading to the Delphic "know thyself", "to gnônai heauton", Alc., 129a ; the verbs epimeleisthai, to take good care of oneself, and ameleisthai, to be careless about oneself, are the positive and negative sides of the same concern) ; and it reminds us of the heart of Socrates' defense in the Apology, his god inspired mission to make sure his fellow citizens take appropriate care of themselves (Apology, 29d-30b). There, the stress is on the care for the soul, because Socrates can see that his fellow citizens take ample care of their bodies. In the Phædo, where Socrates is with disciples and has been all along talking about the soul, he hasn't changed his mind about the relative importance of body and soul, but, to avoid an overreaction on the part of his listeners, he associates his last recommendation with a call for a sacrifice to Asclepius to serve as a reminder that, while on earth, we must also take care of our body in a measured way.
   Besides, the overall apparent concern of Socrates in his statement, and the very vocabulary he uses, should remind us as well of the intitial definition of justice in the Republic, the one given by Cephalus at the end of his conversation with Socrates and taken over by Polemarchus, who attributes it to Simonides : "to ta opheilomena hekastô apodidonai, the fact of rendering each one his due" (331e). In the Republic, Socrates doesn't say that this definition is wrong, only that he is not sure what it means and how it must be understood. In the Phædo, he doesn't talk about justice, he simply does what looks like taking one last time Simonides/Cephalus' definition at face value, only to be, a few lines later, praised by Phaedo as "the most just of men". But if we compare Cephalus' attitude to Socrates', to try and figure out how they understand in acts what they say in words, there are startling differences : Cephalus gives a definition of justice at the start of a promising discussion but immediately flees away to pay his debt to his "private" god in the midst of a public festival, refusing to answer the challenge to his definition (which, by the avowal of his son is not even his) and leaving it up to his "heir" to answer questions, while Socrates, at the end of a long discussion taking up the last hours of his life, when about to die an unjust death, doesn't say what justice is, but acts it and leaves it to his "heirs" to pay tribute in his name to the "public" god of good health for the good health he enjoyed down to his last hour...
   So, by Socrates' last words, we are thrown back to his question about Cephalus/Simonides/Polemarchus' definition of justice : "What he [Simonides] means by that, you indeed, Polemarchus, doubtless know, but I don't" (331e). Indeed, as shown by the whole discussion in the Republic, the question is : what do we owe whom, what should we "return" to whom and what sort of "carelessness" should we avoid ? We indeed "owe" a body to the gods and should praise them for that, especially the god who is in charge of keeping it in good shape so that we can live the "good" life, but (alla) we also owe them a logos, and we should give them praise for that too, for that more than for anything else, and not be careless to the point of not using that god given reason for the best of lives. And we don't praise the gods for the logos they gave us by fleeing away from discussion to recite prayers in private shrines, but by making use, and especially "public" use, of our reason, in helping convince others to use it as well to lead their lives toward the true good for man. One may praise Asclepius for giving us bodily life by taking away the bodily life of a cock, but one praises the demiourgos for giving us logos by, among other things, keeping Socrates' logoi "alive", by spreading them around, especially those most precious words he uttered on his last day to tell us what it means to be a philosophos, as does Phaedo in Phlius. This may be viewed as "giving back (to apodidonai)" what has been received : not only giving back the logos received from god under the form of enlightening logoi adresses to fellow men, but, for Simmias, Cebes, Crito and friends, giving back those specific logoi they received from Socrates as part of his god given mission to his fellow-citizens : not only, not primarily, the ultimate logos to pay tribute to Asclepius, but all that preceeded, this day as well as all the previous ones.
   And indeed, the verb apodidonai, whose primary meaning is "to give back" in all kinds of circumstances, commercial (pay a debt) as well as judicial (pay a penalty), political (pay tribute) or religious (make atonement), came to mean, around Plato's time or a little later, "give an account, explain, interpret", in contexts that have to do in particlular with logos, and assumed a rather "technical" meaning along these lines in Aristotle's works. It is possible that the reinterpretation of justice by Socrates/Plato in the Republic with its stress on the leading role of the logos, the scholarly debates in the Academy around these concepts, in which Aristotle was a participant for the last twenty years of Plato's life, were instrumental in this shift of meaning. If that were the case, it would be one more illustration of the difference between Plato's subtle interplay of words and enlightening (for those who make the effort to dig beneath the surface) use of analogy and allusion and Aristotle's fondness for clear cut well defined technical vocabulary at the risk of bending reality to his will and shortcomings.
   To come back to the Phædo and Socrates' last words, we can only marvel at the way in which, in a phrase that is no longer than a dozen words, he holds together one last time body and soul, public (the sacrifice to the god) and private (the carelessness we should avoid) "justice", and builds on the social ties that are established between men to transmit his private (the sacrifice to be done in his name) and public (the retelling of his logoi) legacy to the world. (back)

(11) In fact, it is the whole dialogue which is placed under the sign of Apollo and Socrates, toward the center of the Phædo, presents himself as consecrated to this god (85b). Apollo is a multi-sided god : in the Cratylus (Cratylus, 404e-406a), he is presented as the god of music (in the broad sense this term has in the educational program of the Republic, which explains why, in the city of the Magnetes, the minister of education is elected in his temple, Laws, VI, 766b), prophecy (see also Phædrus, 265b), medicine and archery, as the purifier ("katharon parechein") of bodies and souls, simple, never missing his target, builder of harmony among both gods and men. And Socrates is seen in the Phædo honoring him on all these counts : he writes music in his cell, including an hymn to the god, and the whole dialogue is presented by him as his "swan song" (swans are Apollo's birds) ; he foretells his companions what will most likely happen to his soul after his death ; he preaches philosophy as a way of purifying the soul (the language of katharsis holds an important place in the dialogue, see eg. 67c, 80e, 82d, 109b, 114c) ; and he is about to reach his target of having lived a whole life of justice. Apollo is also the god linked to the sun, that visible image of the good (Glaucon invoques him when Socrates presents this image, at Republic, VI, 509c), and as such is a bridge between the divine sphere of the invisible and the visible world. (back)

(12) There is indeed a tradition, reported by Diogenes Lærtius (Lives, Prooemium, 12 and VII, 8) that Phlius is the city where the word philosophos was first coined by Pythagoras in answer to Leo, tyrant of that city, asking him who he was. (back)

(13) Simmias and Cebes are said to "have associated with (or hold converse with, suggegonotes) Philolaus" (61d), a renowned Pythagorean of the time, who had moved from Italy to Thebes. And this mention comes in effect in the introductory dialogue, when Socrates is surprized that Simmias and Cebes didn't learn from this frequentation the attitude they should have toward death and suicide, and the reason why the phlosopher doesn't fear death. And many features of the dialogue, such as the theory of the soul-harmony upheld by Simmias, are reminiscet, if not of Pythagoras himself, at least of Pythagoreanism. (back)

(14) This should make us wonder how much Pythagoreanism Plato is indeed adopting in his own understanding of the issues, and how much he is in fact criticizing. It might well be that Plato, far from becoming Pythagorean in the Phædo, as has often been said, far from moving away from more Socratic positions held at the supposed earlier time of his writing the Apology (see note 6 above), is here indeed criticizing Pytharoreanism more than adopting it, knowing full well that too many people, starting with Aristotle (see for instance, on a different aspect of the "doctrine", Metaphysics,  A, 987b11-15), had a hard time differenciating his stand from the Pythagoreans'. Which is not to say that Plato owes nothing to the Pythagoreans, as he owes to Heraclitus, Parmenides, and many others, only that the Pythagorean influence should not be overestimated, and that it should not detract us from searching the real meaning of Plato's words, which are so many more than the meagre remnants of the Pythagoreans that are supposed to help us understand Plato !... His ultimate model of the philosophos is, and stays to the end, Socrates, not Pythagoras, maybe among other things, because Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans thought they knew the answers about the afterlife, and couldn't see their answers were nothing more than myths, staying within the bounds of time and space. And this is precisely what he is telling us in the Phædo. (back)

(15) In fact, many scholars believe that, in the Phædo, Plato holds a "dualistic" approach in which man is seen as a monistic soul reduced to pure logos fighting a material body that holds it prisonner till death.
   The fact is, in our view, the Phædo deals with the telos of the soul, its ultimate goal, and that goal is to find internal unity and harmony with the whole. It is thus only normal that the dialogue stress the unity of the soul when it is about to leave the body.  Stressing its composite nature was left to the Phædo and Republic, the former analyzing man's true nature, the later setting him in motion to understand what should be his behavior in the city.  Besides, if the tripartite structure of the soul stems, as we are told in the Timæus, from its being linked to a body, if the epithumiai, the desires and passions, are the expression of the body within the soul, and the thumos, the will, is the consequence of the soul being within time when embodied and having to choose between the logos and the passions, once the soul has left the body and has "completed" its "becoming", there is no room left, indeed no reason for, epithumiai and thumos. If the soul has reached the "island of the blessed", the pure earth above the final myth is talking about, where it will live forever bodyless, that is, if it has made the final choice for the eternal logos against the mortal body, the thumos has become one with the logos, and the passions are gone with the material body. And indeed, the Timæus talks of the logos only as being immortal, and of the two other parts of the soul as being the "mortal" parts (see Timæus, 69c, ssq)
   Now, is that to say that the lower parts of the soul actually "die", if they indeed are parts of the soul, that is, immaterial as is the logos ? But then, does the logos stay within time and space after death, and how serious are Socrates/Plato when talking of transmigration of the souls ? These are topics on which the philosopher knows that he doesn't know. We are in the realm of "myth".So, let it suffice to say that we shouldn't be looking for "anatomical" precision in these discussions. The soul (at least the philosopher's soul) finds in death the unity it has built for itself all through life, and this unity is a "logical" unity. The "components" that where part of it while in a body, which may have had more to do with "relations" than with separate "entities", no longer have any "logical" purpose, and so, they "disappear". Is that to "die" ? Probably, in a sense, but not in the same sense as the body, though the death of the body is the reason why these parts of the soul "vanish". The soul is at the border between visible and intelligible, between time and eternity, with a "foot" in each realm so long as it is within a body. Once freed from that body, it "gathers" in the intelligible realm for eternity. Does it then "lose" parts ? It certainly loses "functions", "relations". Does that mean parts ? But what are "parts" in the eternity of the intelligible for a single "being" ?...
   Anyway, all we have seen so far in our analysis of the Phædo shows that, to the extent that the dialogue is as much, if not more, concerned with life (which should be our main concern so long as we are alive) as it is with death and the "afterlife", whatever that is (and we won't know beforehand), the tripartite structure of the soul is still very much in its background, if not in its language (though we saw it show through in the discussion about the soul-harmony). Or at least, there is a way to interpret it which is consistent with that tripartite structure...  (back)

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First published September 7, 1997 - Last updated May 16, 2004
© 1997 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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