In the dialogue set forth in the Phaedo, Socrates discusses the nature of the afterlife. This dialogue is narrated to us, as well as to Echecrates, by Plato, through Phaedo. By engaging in dialectic with two of his friends, the Thebans Cebes and Simmias, Socrates explores various arguments for the soul's immortality in order to show that there is an afterlife in which the soul will dwell following death.
In total, Socrates presents four arguments for the immortality of the soul. The first three, though convincing, are insubstantial. These may be referred to as the cyclical, recollective, and affinity arguments. While valuable to the reader as examples of both invalid arguments and the difficulty of proving such a claim as the soul's immortality, none of the first three are sufficient either on their own or combined to satisfy either the two Thebans or the reader. The fourth argument, however, is accepted by Socrates' interlocutors as being logically sound. Socrates seems to have proven the immortality of the soul for the reason that the cause of life can never be dead. There is no possibility for a dead soul, and hence the soul is immortal. None of his interlocutors can find any reason to object. However, while the argument is in fact valid, it may still be criticized as unsound, for it is based upon a premise that has yet to be conclusively shown to be true, but Socrates and those present during the final hours of his life accept the argument.
Following introductory remarks and the removal of Socrates' wife Xanthippe, the Phaedo begins with Cebes questioning Socrates about various issues. The first question is raised on behalf of Evenus of Paros, a Sophist. Cebes asks on his behalf why Socrates, "who never before wrote a line of poetry", is now in prison "turning Aesop's fables into verse" and also composing a hymn in honor of Apollo (Phaedo, 60d). Socrates answers that he is doing so in order to satisfy intimations received during his dreams that he should make music (60d-e). Attributing this sudden desire to part from the world having obeyed the divination that he often received while dreaming, that he should make music, Socrates justifies himself.
Socrates follows this explanation telling Phaedo to "bid him farewell from me; say that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man" (Phaedo, 61b). Simmias expresses confusion as to why Evenus ought hasten to follow Socrates to death. Socrates then states "...he, who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die; but he will not take his own life." (Phaedo, 61c). To this statement, Cebes then raises his doubts as to why suicide is prohibited. Cebes first asks why the philosopher should not kill himself. Socrates replies that while death is the ideal home of the soul, man, specifically the philosopher, should not commit suicide except when it becomes necessary. He asks, "Why do you say…that a man ought not to take his own life, but that the philosopher will be ready to follow one who is dying?" (Phaedo, 61d).
Following this, a discussion about suicide occurs between Cebes and Socrates, in which the latter succeeds in showing the former that one ought not to hasten towards death through suicide. While the philosopher seeks always to rid himself of the body, and to focus solely on things concerning the soul, to commit suicide is prohibited as man is not sole possessor of his body. For, as stated in the Phaedo: "the philosopher more than other men frees the soul from association with the body as much as possible" (64e-65a). Body and soul are separate, then. The philosopher frees himself from the body because the body is an impediment to the attainment of truth. The philosopher acts as such in order that the body will not distract the soul from attaining virtue and knowledge. For, while the body is incapable of distinctly perceiving truth about anything, the pursuit of truth is the philosopher's task. During the Apology, Socrates says of this task, "God orders me to fulfill the philosopher's mission of searching into myself and other men." (Apology, 28e-29a) Of the senses' failings, Socrates says to Simmias in the Phaedo:
"Did you ever reach them with any bodily sense? -- and I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and, in short, of the reality or true nature of everything. Is the truth of them ever perceived through the bodily organs? Or rather, is not the nearest approach to the knowledge of their several natures made by him who so orders his intellectual vision as to have the most exact conception of the essence of each thing he considers?" (Phaedo, 65d-e)
The philosopher, then, will accept that he can come closest to true knowledge in death for he will no longer be distracted by the body. As the philosopher seeks death his entire life, he should greet it amicably and not be discouraged upon its arrival. However, it is impossible to be alive without the existence of the body. Death, then, the separation of body and soul, is the philosopher's ideal. He will have lived his entire life preparing for and hoping for death. And, so, while, as Socrates best discusses in the Apology, no living man, be he a poet, sophist, or even Socrates himself, is capable of really knowing anything, the philosopher will see death as a haven for the soul. In death only, the soul may possibly come to actually gain true knowledge. For:
"He who has got rid, as far as he can, of eyes and ears and, so to speak, of the whole body, these being in his opinion distracting elements when they associate with the soul hinder her from acquiring truth and knowledge--who, if not he, is likely to attain to the knowledge of true being?" (Phaedo, 65e-66a)
However, man should not kill himself. Socrates cites the traditional argument that man ought not to kill himself because he possesses no actual ownership of himself, as he is actually the property of the gods. He says, "I too believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we men are a chattel of theirs" (Phaedo, 62b). To this, Cebes assents. For, the body is the property of the gods, and man would be punished were he to destroy something that he does not truly own. Then, it may be concluded that man should not kill himself because he will be punished by the gods. The philosopher, then, will greet death, but not hasten to its arrival. For, while he has spent his life preparing for and awaiting its arrival, it is not virtuous to bring about its occurrence.
Two points are evident from this discussion. First, that the body and soul are held to be separate entities, and that they may be separated, most thoroughly through death. Secondly, in arguing that one ought not to do harm to the possession of the gods, it may be inferred that Socrates believes in an afterlife. For, where else would the gods seek retribution and inflict punishment on the person who acts immorally by committing suicide than in some afterlife? Indeed the only thing worrying Socrates in the moments before his death is his duty to the gods. He is concerned that certain things be taken care of in order to provide for a swift and blessed journey to the underworld. And so, he has taken to composing music and will later remind Crito to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, god of medicine and healing (Phaedo, 118a). Socrates then believes that though the soul is immortal, man must perform certain actions and live in a certain manner in order to ensure that the gods treat its immortality favorably once he has died.
The argument continues that man's soul is immortal, and thus may be punished in some way by the gods even after the separation of soul and body. In the course of this argument, the notion of the afterlife arises, and Socrates treats it in multiple ways, always seeking to show that the soul is immortal. He does so by first formulating cyclical, recollective, and affinity arguments. However, we must first see what death is. Indeed, the first concept needing elucidation in order to speak of an afterlife is the nature of death. It must first be shown that Socrates believes death to be one of two things. The first he discusses in both the Apology and the Phaedo. The second is mentioned only in the Apology. Either, "that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul, and the soul comes to be separated by itself apart from the body" (Phaedo, 64c), or it is the complete dissolution of the soul. Cebes is troubled by the latter. He worries that death might signify the complete annihilation of the soul. Cebes speaks of such a view and the men who hold it:
"...they fear that when she [the soul] has left the body her place may be nowhere, and that on the very day of death she may perish and come to an end immediately on her release from the body...dispersing and vanishing away into nothingness in her flight." (Phaedo, 70a)
We have two Socratic critiques of this idea. In the Apology, Socrates shows that were the soul to dissipate into nothingness upon death, this would be a great blessing to man. He says that, if, "...death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness," then it is "an unspeakable gain." (Apology, 40c) Socrates goes on to illustrate this claim by saying that if death is of such a nature, then it resembles and even exceeds the most peaceful, dreamless night of sleep ever passed by man during his life. As most men would be hard pressed to come up with a more serene time in their lives, either awake or asleep, than those nights unperturbed by even dreams, then to be so for eternity would be a true blessing (Apology, 40c-d). However, in the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea altogether. He does so by showing that the soul continues to exist after death and is immortal. Socrates also refers to such worries about the dispersion of the soul as being childish (Phaedo, 77d).
In order to alleviate Cebes' worry that the soul might perish at death, Socrates introduces his first argument for the immortality of the soul. This argument is called the cyclical argument. It supposes that the soul must be immortal since the living come from the dead. Socrates first lays out the argument. He says: "Now if it be true that the living come from the dead, then our souls must exist in the other world, for if not, how could they have been born again?" (Phaedo, 70c-d). He goes on to show, using examples of relationships, such as asleep-awake and hot-cold, that things that have opposites come to be from their opposite. One falls asleep after having been awake. And after being asleep, he awakens. Things that are hot can become cold and vice versa. Socrates then gets Cebes to conclude that the dead are generated from the living, through death, and that the living are generated from the dead, through birth. The souls of the dead must exist in some place, then, for them to be able to return into life. This argument does not necessarily hold, however. It does not show that the soul continues to exist once a man has died.
However, neither Cebes nor Simmias object to the argument. Rather, Cebes realizes the relationship between the cyclical existence argument and Socrates' theory of recollection. He interrupts Socrates to point this out, saying:
"...your favorite doctrine, Socrates, that our learning is simply recollection, if true, also necessarily implies a previous time in which we have learned that which we now recollect. But this would be impossible unless our soul had been somewhere before existing in this form of man; here then is another proof of the soul's immortality." (Phaedo, 72e-73a)
The theory of recollection runs basically that as it has been shown that it is possible to draw a true answer out of a person who seems to not have any knowledge of the subject prior to his questioning, this person must have gained this knowledge in a prior life, and now merely recalls it. Indeed, as he has now been able to answer correctly, it must be the case that his answer arose from recollection of knowledge gained during a previous life. Socrates presents this argument to Meno in the Platonic dialogue of the same name. In it, he concludes, "The soul, then, as being immortal and having been born again many times and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all." He continues to state emphatically that "all inquiry and all learning is but recollection" (Meno, 81d).
The argument is then illustrated by Socrates' implementation of the elenchus to draw out geometric truths from one of Meno's slave boys. While this argument is sufficient to show that the soul has existed before, and so acquired what is now a priori knowledge, it does not necessarily prove that the soul will exist forever. For, while the soul may have lived any number of lives prior to the one in question that does not necessarily mean that it will continue to exist following its subsequent death(s). Knowledge then must have been attained sometime prior to birth. To infer as much through induction is invalid. Socrates has not shown that the soul is immortal by means of a recollection argument. The soul, though having existed prior to birth, may still dissolve at death. Cebes doubts that Socrates has shown the soul to be immortal.
And so, Socrates presents his third argument for the immortality of the soul. In this, the so-called affinity argument, Socrates shows that the soul most resembles that which is invisible and divine, and the body that which is visible and mortal. From this, it is concluded that while the body may be seen to exist after death in the form of a corpse, as the body is the mortal of the two and the soul is the more divine, the soul must outlast the body.
There is reason to be skeptical about this argument. But, as Simmias admits, not wishing to disturb Socrates during his final hours by unsettling his belief in the immortality of the soul, those present are reluctant to voice their skepticism. Socrates grows aware of their doubt and assures his interlocutors that he does indeed believe in the soul's immortality, regardless of whether or not he has succeeded in showing it as yet (Phaedo, 84d). For this reason, he is not upset facing death and assures them that they ought to express their concerns regarding the arguments.
Following Socrates' assurance that he will not be caused any pain as a result of any objections, Simmias presents his case that it may be such that the soul resembles the harmony of the lyre. It may be, then, that as the soul resembles the harmony in its being invisible and divine, and once the lyre has been destroyed, the harmony too vanishes, that once the body dies, the soul too vanishes. And, while the pieces of the broken lyre may be seen to continue to exist as one's mortal remains, as the harmony will have dissipated, we may infer that so too will the soul dissipate once the body has been broken, through death (Phaedo, 85e-86d). Socrates pauses, and asks Cebes to voice his objection as well (Phaedo, 86d-e). Cebes then points the aforementioned contradiction out. He says, "I am ready to admit that the existence of the soul before entering into the bodily form has been…proven; but the existence of the soul after death is in my judgment unproven." (Phaedo, 87a) While admitting that the soul is the better part of a man, and the body the weaker, Cebes is not ready to infer then that since the body may be perceived as existing after death, that the soul must therefore continue to exist as well. Cebes appeals to the example of the weaver (Phaedo, 86e-88b). For, while the weaver's cloaks may be seen as either existing following his death or perishing prior to it, for he has made many, it does not necessarily follow that the greater (the weaver/soul) will necessarily outlast the weaker (the cloak/body). Cebes would then, "...rather not rely on the argument from superior strength to prove the continued existence of the soul after death." (Phaedo, 87e-88a) Cebes continues that though the soul may outlast certain bodies, and so continue to exist after certain deaths, it may eventually grow so weak as to dissolve entirely at some point. He then concludes that the soul's immortality has yet to be shown and that we may still doubt the soul's existence after death. For, it may be that the next death is the one under which the soul ultimately collapses and exists no more (Phaedo, 88b).
Insofar as both Phaedo and Socrates pause in the course of their discussions at this point, we may see that the recollection argument has failed to show the immortality of the soul. Phaedo then remarks to Echecrates, pausing in the course of his hitherto uninterrupted account of Socrates' final hours and his arguments for the immortality of the soul, saying that, because of this objection, those present had their "faith shaken," and that there was introduced "a confusion and uncertainty" (Phaedo, 88c). Socrates too pauses following this objection and then warns against misology, the hatred of argument (Phaedo, 89d). From here, Socrates continues to give his final proof of the immortality of the soul.
This last one is accepted by those present as irrefutable and is indeed logically valid. The only objection one may raise is that it is based upon a premise that is not necessarily true, and so is not a sound argument. By appealing to the idea of Forms, Socrates shows that the soul is immortal as it is the cause of life. He begins by showing that "if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty it is beautiful only insofar as it partakes of absolute beauty" (Phaedo, 100c). Consequently, as absolute beauty is a Form, and so is the soul, then anything which has the property of being infused with a soul is so infused with the Form of soul. "Will not the number three endure annihilation or anything sooner than be converted into an even number, while remaining three?" (Phaedo, 104c). Forms, then, will never become their opposite. As the soul is that which renders the body living, and that the opposite of life is death, it so follows that, "...the soul will never admit the opposite of what she always brings." (Phaedo, 105d) That which does not admit death is said to be immortal. The soul does not become dead as the even does not become odd. Therefore, the soul is immortal. For, it is exactly that which does not die. Socrates thus concludes, "Then, Cebes, beyond question, the soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will truly exist in another world." (Phaedo, 106d-107a)
Now, as this final argument rests on the assumption that the soul is that which causes life, there are certain objections that may yet be made. To this, we may give one caveat before progressing to see what exactly the afterlife may be. However, insofar as it is the aim of this investigation to see how Socrates conceives of the afterlife, it is not necessary to attempt a refutation of this final argument. For, it has been shown through the course of successive arguments, objections, and clarifications in the forms of subsequent arguments that Socrates conceives of the afterlife in such and such a way. To see how Socrates so conceives of the afterlife is the goal of this investigation, and so we may now go on to see just what the nature of the afterlife is. Following the apparent proof that the soul is immortal, it yet remains to see how exactly the soul will exist following death. We have seen that Socrates has no doubt that the soul is immortal. He also holds that the philosopher is most likely to obtain truth in the underworld, during the afterlife. True knowledge is only capable of being attained there because death will release the soul from the body's influence and remove all corporeal distractions. Once dead, man's soul will go to Hades and be in the company of, as Socrates says, "...men departed, better than those whom I leave behind." (Phaedo, 63c) For he will dwell amongst those who were true philosophers, like himself.
In the Apology, Socrates says: "But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below." What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? "For besides being happier than we are, they will be immortal, if what is said is true." (Apology, 40c-41c)
While Socrates hopes to converse with these great men of history, the possibility that these men will not be in the underworld, as their souls may already have transmigrated back to the world of the living never seems to arise. If we assume Socrates' belief in the theory of recollection, then these men who have already died within recorded history may also have already returned to the world of the living. For, while not necessarily contradictory with the above quote, as indeed all the dead will necessarily abide in the underworld, it has not been shown that those who have already died will yet remain in Hades. However, Socrates' idea that those who are truly virtuous during life will be eternally free from the body once dead allows us to dogmatically assert that the philosopher, once dead, will be forever immortal. As to be truly virtuous during life is the quality of a great man, then each of the men mentioned above, insofar as they are great, will perpetually dwell as souls in the underworld. However, regarding those who were not virtuous during life, and so favored the body and pleasures pertaining exclusively to it, Socrates also speaks. For those that were not great during life, however, once dead, the swift return to the world of the living is assured. For, these people will not have succeeded in freeing their soul from their body while alive. Of those souls that are not free, Socrates speaks. He says that such a one as this is:
"...polluted, is impure at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant of the body always and is in love with and bewitched by the body and by the desires and pleasures of the body, until she is led to believe that the truth only exists in a bodily form, which a man may touch and see, and drink and eat, and use for the purposes of his lusts, the soul, I mean, accustomed to hate and fear and avoid that which to the bodily eye is dark and invisible, but is the object of mind and can be attained by philosophy; do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and unalloyed?" (Phaedo, 81b)
Persons of such a constitution will be dragged back into corporeal life, according to Socrates. These persons will even be punished while in Hades. Their punishment will be their own doing, as they will be unable to enjoy the singular existence of the soul in death because of their constant craving for life. For, these are the souls "...of the evil, which are compelled to -- in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life...until...they are imprisoned finally in another body" (Phaedo, 81d-e). The soul is immortal and the course of its passing into the underworld is determined by the way in which it last behaved while alive. The philosopher then, and indeed any man similarly virtuous, in neither fearing death, nor cherishing corporeal life as something idyllic, will be eternally unperturbed in death, and his afterlife will be perfect. For this reason, the philosopher practices the disengagement from the soul during life, in order to attain the virtue that will provide him with eternal reward, while not committing suicide, as argued above. Such is the nature of the afterlife as espoused by Socrates in Plato's Phaedo.