In this essay, I would critique Plato’s Phaedo (360 BC). First, a critical summary of the great dialogue will be presented. Later, a critique of the dialogue would be provided. In the critique, I will specifically focus on one reason that Socrates claims is plausible enough for us not to fear death. Here I will also explain this reason through my personal perspective and relate it to life in general. The last section of the essay, Conclusion, would sum up the entire essay and would share with the reader my personal viewpoint on Socrates’ views about death as I see it.
In this essay, the reason that I would like to identify is this: After death, the soul “passes into the realm of purity, and eternity, and immortality, unchangeableness”; and this “state of the soul is called wisdom” (p. 44). I will explain this reason critically and argue that this reason is strong enough for us to believe in what Socrates says: That we should not fear death. Thus, I will argue in favor of his view.
Phaedo: A Critical Summary
Phaedo (Plato, 360 BC) is considered to be one of the great dialogues written by Plato in his middle period. This dialogue is regarded as one of Plato’s five major works including the Republic and the Symposium. Phaedo is Plato’s last dialogue (Bluck, 2014).
The dialogue, Phaedo, takes place between Socrates and his friends. It is a discussion that revolves around the major premise, the desirability of death, and is led mainly by Socrates. Phaedo, one of Socrates friends, was one of the people present in the prison where Socrates was locked down to meet his death the very day. Phaedo is a narration of this dialogue by Phaedo to his friend Echerates.
In the dialogue, besides the casual conversation, the major point Socrates makes is that death is actually a release for us from the many distractions that our body imposes upon our soul. In addition, Socrates argues that death gives an opportunity to a person to attain wisdom in its perfection because by leaving the body at death, the soul “passes into the realm of purity, and eternity, and immortality, unchangeableness”; and this “state of the soul is called wisdom” (p. 44). This premise by Socrates can be explained in simple words. He sees death as an opportunity for the soul to free itself from the changing, dissoluble, and mortal human body. Once free, the soul actually moves to a state which, unlike when in the human body, never alters, changes, and is pure, immortal, and it is this states of immortality of ‘the soul’ that Socrates regards as wisdom.
Socrates centers his argument mainly on the premise mentioned in the foregoing paragraph. He also maintains that though a true philosopher desires death to reach to the state of perfect wisdom, he does not desire suicide because it is a wicked act, because we belong to the gods, and we do not have a right to finish our lives at our own will. Besides that, death is a blessing and should not be feared. He presents quite a few examples to substantiate this premise throughout the dialogue, and his friends take part as active interlocutors. At the end of the dialogue, Socrates drinks the poison and meets his death.
A critical analysis of the dialogue, Phaedo, offers quite a lot of points to discuss in this essay, e.g. the difference between the death of a philosopher and the death of a wicked person; whether it is only the philosopher that should be happy at their death or any other person (good or bad) can have the same joy. Because of limited space, however, I will focus on one reason by Socrates that death should not be feared since at death, the human soul, “passes into the realm of purity, and eternity, and immortality, unchangeableness”; and this “state of the soul is called wisdom” (p. 44).
After thinking for a very long time and doing some research, I can substantiate that Socrates is right in this claim. He also substantiates this premise when he states that because the human body decomposes after death, the soul moves to a state which is eternal and pure. Following Socrates’ argument, I can explain this premise.
It can be a clear observation that the body is mortal and decomposes after death. If we accept the religious beliefs of Christianity, and other religions such as Judaism and Islam, then we must admit that there is the soul that leaves the body after a person dies. Okay. So, the body decomposes, but the soul does not; rather it travels to another place. This is manifestly given in religious texts such as the Bible. However, I can explain this traveling of the soul on scientific bases. My research led me to an article which recollects the after-death-accounts by people who died for some time but came to life afterward. These people when surveyed about their experiences after death told the interviewer that they felt as if they were travelling to a distant place (Knapton, 2014).
Leaving all the religious and scientific evidence apart, I can also prove that the soul, in view of Socrates, not only remains alive but also moves to an eternal (and most probably a pure or constant) state. I claim this point by my observation of the world. I can see that the entire world is in two parts, the day and the night, life and death, etc. The tree is a good example here. The trunk and the leaves need the sunshine and the air to stay alive. Whereas, its roots can remain alive in the opposite form and condition: The roots cannot survive in the sunlight and air. The green tree can also not survive when buried. So, my point is that the every object or state of the world is divided into two parts. These two parts of one object, though hand-in-hand with each other, are quite the opposite of each other. This condition remains constant, as far as my observation can relate, with every object of the world.
This observation also convinces me that life is part of two halves: The body and the soul. Moreover, whereas the body decomposes, the soul must remain alive. The body, after death, continues to decompose (in natural conditions); this also convinces me that the soul would do the opposite of this process: It should continue to travel on. As the end result of the decomposition of the body is eternal expiration, the end result of the soul must be an eternal state of purity in a very similar way in which the day and the night function. The break of dawn creates the first gash in the heart of darkness, and the bright day is the opposite of the darkness of the night. The same, my observation convinces me, is true of the body versus the soul. One is to eternally decay and disappear, the other is to move toward a state or eternal purity (wisdom in Socrates’ words).
After reading Phaedo and reflecting on life in general, I am very much convinced that death is not be feared because what happens to the human body is quite opposite of what happens to the human soul. Whereas the body decays into the labyrinth of morality, the soul travels to the purest state of immortality. The fear that an average human feels of dying is not because of their fear of death, it is because of the natural system in the human brain that has to put effort to save human life from any harm. We should not confuse the instinct of survival with the post-death condition.
Thus, I can claim, in view of Socrates, that life is not to be feared but welcomed by us. However, it is well beyond the purview of this essay to argue whether, as Socrates states, it is only the philosopher who should not fear death or this kind of attitude is to be assumed by anyone dying. I would just make an observation that anyone dying should be happy of their death due to the fact that their body and their soul would go in two opposite directions. Whereas the former is to wither away, the latter must move to a state of eternity.
Bluck, R. S. (2014). Plato's Phaedo: A translation of Plato's Phaedo. New York: Routledge.
Knapton, S. (2014). First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study. The Telegraph. Retrieved http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/11144442/First-hint-of-life-after-death-in-biggest-ever-scientific-study.html
Plato (360 BC). Phaedo. Abr. Ed. [Trans. Benjamin Jowett]. Public domain translation. [Classroom readings].