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Remember to pay the debt

August 11, 2014

[For context, read this post.]

Don’t ask me why one should read Plato. That would be to say why one should study philosophy, and Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates’ trial, did that already. Read that instead.

I will say a few things, however, about why one should read Plato’s Phaedo, which is, as it were, the sequel to the Apology, giving an account of Socrates’ conversation with his friends before his execution concerning why his execution will not bother him. For the Phaedo is–as one of my professors pointed out–a somewhat strange choice of Platonic dialogue, if you’re only going to read one. She meant strange for me in particular, but it’s also, I think, strange in general. Strange for me, because, if I’m interested in beauty and eternity, why not read one of the dialogues that actually brings those two concepts together–say, the Symposium, or the Phaedrus? Strange in general, because, well, it makes so much less sense than Platonic dialogues usually do. Socrates, usually a fount of reasonableness, instead spends the dialogue spouting forth cryptic statements and arguments that do not prove what they claim to prove. What’s going on here?

My choice of the Phaedo was, to be sure, determined in large part by happenstance–for example, I’d read neither the Symposium nor the Phaedrus before putting my preliminary list together, and so never even considered selecting them. But I also think that, in an important sense, the Phaedo fits for me just because it is so very strange. Because I am not, in fact, all that interested in beauty. It’s rather the connection between art and truth that I think significant (a connection to which beauty is, of course, relevant). Plato normally says very little about art, but his dialogues are marvelous instances of it, and perhaps no dialogue more so than the Phaedo. Its suggestive strangenesses are a part of its artistry, as is its self-consciousness about the connection between suggestive strangeness and artistry. That is: the strangest parts of the dialogue seem to be somehow about art, and I do not think this is a coincidence.


Without developing a full reading of the dialogue, then, I’ll list here what strike me as some of its strangest aspects. This will also serve as a summary of the dialogue’s content, though, as you’ll see, it barely mentions what most think the dialogue’s most important part.


(1) Near the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates, who in other dialogues almost always speaks disparagingly of poets and poetry, reveals that, in the time since his trial, he has been composing hymns to Apollo and putting Aesop’s fables in verse. Why? Because, Socrates says,

The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: ‘Cultivate and make music,’ said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, for the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer for me to satisfy the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, to compose a few verses before I departed.

Huh? This kind of bet-hedging argument might appeal to someone more practically-minded, but Socrates is decidedly not that; he often argues that you should do what is right, and do nothing until you know what is right–no guessing allowed. Has he really had a change of heart? Is this “Socratic irony”? Or….?

(2) The majority of the dialogue Socrates spends attempting to prove the immortality of the soul. But his arguments are quite poor; indeed, they seem to have less to do with immortality, and more with eternity:

(i) From cycles: “the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living.” But that the living come from the dead, does not mean that the now-living are the same as the previously-living that have died! That life goes on does not mean that my life goes on.

(ii) From recollecting: We have a concept of “the equal” that is not reducible to individual equal things, so we must have had it before we began to see things as equal, i.e., before birth; and now, when we think we come up with the concept, we are in fact remembering it. But to have a priori knowledge is not the same as to have always been alive! Being alive before one’s birth would not even help: we would still require an explanation for how the immortal soul came to learn the eternal truth of the Equal in the first place.

(iii) From affinity: the body decays, and the soul does not, because “the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.” But this is just begging the question! Why think that, because the objects of knowledge are eternal, therefore the individual knower is eternal also?

One might almost think that Socrates has been proving, not that individual souls, our souls, are immortal, but that something like an eternal Soul-principle, an eternal divine Knower, exists; and that our knowledge “imitates” his, imperfectly–meaning that, however eternal the divine Knower is–perhaps as eternal as the form of Table–my soul is just as immortal as this table….

(3) Socrates seems to be aware that his arguments are not entirely convincing; or, at the least, that they cannot sustain conviction on their own; they will require repetition:

[Socrates: …] Like children, you are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her; especially if a man should happen to die in a great storm and not when the sky is calm.

Cebes answered with a smile: Then, Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears—and yet, strictly speaking, they are not our fears, but there is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin; him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark.

Socrates said: Let the voice of the charmer be applied daily until you have charmed away the fear.

Why would it require repetition? It sounds almost like a noble lie; but not quite, for it’s not false that the Soul exists–it’s just that the child will fail to understand what this means, and perhaps cannot fully understand it; the child will insist on it being about me, and my soul, not Soul proper. I do not think it a coincidence that the child of selfishness is spoken of in terms of hobgoblins and charms; for art and magic, too, have something to do with the self, with the individual will.

(4) After the initial arguments, Simmias and Cebes raise a number of further objections, and Socrates says, in response, that the worst thing to be is a misologist:

When a simple man who has no skill in dialectics believes an argument to be true which he afterwards imagines to be false, whether really false or not, and then another and another, he has no longer any faith left, and great disputers, as you know, come to think at last that they have grown to be the wisest of mankind; for they alone perceive the utter unsoundness and instability of all arguments.

Is this an admission that his previous arguments were false? Or at least imperfect? Certainly Simmias and Cebes’ objections–that the soul might be just a harmony, and that the soul might last for a long time, but still finally cease to exist–reveal a more sophisticated understanding of the problem than his initial arguments allow for. His responses are philosophically complex; indeed the philosophical heart of the dialogue, including Socrates’ philosophical autobiography. But I will not summarize them here. For the purposes of this post, I would say, they have little relevance: they only reinforce the sense that when Socrates says “soul,” he does not mean my soul.

(5) Like several Platonic dialogues, this one ends with a mythological account of the afterlife; this time, however, the myth is not quite the last thing we hear, and Socrates afterwards explains the purpose of the myth; and the talk of a “venture” recalls the issues with bet-hedging I discussed earlier:

Wherefore, Simmias, seeing all these things, what ought not we to do that we may obtain virtue and wisdom in this life? Fair is the prize, and the hope great!

A man of sense ought not to say, nor will I be very confident, that the description which I have given of the soul and her mansions is exactly true. But I do say that, inasmuch as the soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthily, that something of the kind is true. The venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why I lengthen out the tale.

(6) Socrates’ last words appear, on their surface, to concern something utterly trivial, and in this very triviality seem to insist on an allegorical over-reading:

Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?

Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine. Socrates owes him a debt: why? Because he has been healed of the sickness of physical life, which for the philosopher is a kind of death? Or might there be some other reading? The language of “debt” reminds me, again, of the language of “safety” and “venturing.” I wonder if there is not some sense here of the importance of paying debts within this life and this world, despite all Socrates has to say about its irrelevance compared to the eternal world of Forms.

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