Socrates in the Phaedo: Philosophy as Preparation for Death
Socrates, the father of modern Western philosophy, once said, shortly before his own death that “[Those] who happen to have gotten in touch with philosophy in the right way devote themselves to nothing else but dying and being dead” (Phaedo 64A). In other words, Socrates believed that the life of philosopher should be centered on the preparation for death. While this may seem like a morbid reason for existence, Socrates argues that the body is holding back the soul from finding what is true through sense experience, needs and emotions, and the only release from this “prison” of sorts is death. Socrates furthers this argument by making the case that throughout his life he has been preparing for death and not to worry when it comes since the soul is eternal. In the Phaedo by Plato, Socrates views the body as “… impediment [in] the very attainment of thoughtfulness.” (Phaedo 65B) and therefore, the true philosopher’s soul must be separated from it to obtain true enlightenment.
For example, Socrates claims that the body “… deprives us of leisure on thousands of occasions [and get in the way] of our hunt for what is.” (Phaedo 66C). Ultimately, the highest desire for a philosopher is the search and attainment of the truth yet the body impedes its’ search due to necessities, such as food, shelter and security, and through emotions such as love, desire and terror. Through desires, necessities, greed, and other impulses, the body perverts the soul’s desire for wisdom into the “desire for money and the desire for honor” as if the soul were enslaved to the wants of the body (Phaedo 67E). Socrates then goes onto argue that “…any man making a fuss at the prospect of dying was not a lover of wisdom but a lover of the body.” (Phaedo 68C). Philosophy itself comes from the Ancient Greek ‘philo-’, meaning love and ‘-sophia’, meaning wisdom (Mark). Together the two terms, mean “lover of wisdom” and is defined as “the study of the most basic and most profound matters of human existence.” (Mark). Socrates furthers this argument by stating that there exist simple, unchanging ideas in life that exist such as justice, beauty and good, that will never be understood through sense experience (Phaedo 65D).
Previously in the text, Socrates provides examples of how, throughout his life, he has distanced himself from the desires of the body in order to better prepare him for death such as the rejection of indulgences relating to food, drink, clothes, sex and honor (Phaedo 64C) in exchange for thoughtfulness, which was the only thing of true value and cleansed all impurities (Phaedo 69C). In conclusion, Socrates makes the claim that once the soul is freed from the body, it will finally be prepared to attain truth and enlightenment. Once Socrates establishes that the body and soul are separate entities and the desires of each vary, the two other philosophers in the dialogue question Socrates’ confidence in the eternal life of the soul and whether his time preparing for death was a waste. In response, Socrates gives two separate arguments for the everlasting nature of the soul continuing in life “among the Gods.” (Phaedo 69E). The first of these arguments is the “Argument for the Contraries” and Socrates states that opposites seem to seek out each-other such as the “contrary to being asleep is to being awake” (Phaedo 71C). Therefore, since opposites exist due to each-other, whether pain to pleasure or weak to strong, there exists an opposite state to life which is death. However, since people are in a state of living now, “living things come to be from the dead.” (Phaedo 71D) just as the strong come to be from the weak and pleasure comes to be from pain. Essentially, Socrates is stating that life is a circular process and the only thing that connects the two phases is the soul which much exist before life (Phaedo 72E).
The second of these arguments is the “Argument for Recollection” which begins with Socrates showing that recollection of information can be done with the association of similarities (Phaedo 73A-74A). Socrates then uses an example with similar sticks and stones that appear to be equal but are only associated with the true form of equal since no sticks and stones can be exactly equal (Phaedo 74B-74C). The conclusion being drawn upon, states that since there is no true example of equal here on Earth, yet people know the true notion of equal, it must’ve been obtained before the body came to being. In conclusion, Socrates makes convincing logical arguments for the eternalness of the soul during some of his last moments on Earth in order to show that his time preparing for death was not wasted. While it may be morbid thought to the rest of society, Socrates spent his life living close to death in order further his hunger for knowledge. The rest of his contemporaries may have wept for the fact that Socrates was wrongfully punished for his actions, Socrates was prepared to go if it meant that he stood by his teachings and actions.
While it may have been a therapeutic conversation for those in his chamber or if Socrates was convinced of his teachings, the world may never know. Socrates must have come to a celebratory acceptance of his own death, however as he did request that “his debt of a cock be paid to Asclepius”, (Phaedo 118) the God of healing, leading some to believe that Socrates felt as if his death was being healed from the real world. Socrates, finally, made the most of his life in the agora and made an even bigger impact in the world today, one that was probably beyond even his conception.
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