The Phaedo is the first dialogue so far that I am coming to for the first time. It is the one in which Socrates dies, and I have in fact read the very famous and moving section at the end which narrates his death. (It was the sight passage on the final exam I took at the end of my second semester of Greek, as it happens, and even at that point it brought tears to my eyes, back before I used to cry as easily as I do and when I could only decode the language with some difficulty!)
The rest of the dialogue leading up to the death scene is Socrates’ final discussion with his friends. The great bulk of this is devoted to attempting to prove the immortality of the soul. I have to say to begin with that I don’t find it a very convincing proof, but there seems to be some indication that Socrates, also, does not think this is the sort of area where there can be certain knowledge (61d-e). In characteristic Platonic manner, the frame of the discussion does something to undermine our confidence in the matter of it. Socrates begins by saying that he has used Aesop’s fables for the poems he has been composing because he cannot invent myths himself (he is not mythologikos, 61b), but then almost immediately suggests that they spend some time telling each other myths about existence after death (mythologein 61e). I assume this sequence functions as a qualifier for the long discussion about the soul that follows. But since he has to begin with denied that he knows how to invent myths, are we to understand that what he says about the soul doesn’t qualify as mythos at all, but something more certain? Or are we rather to understand that he has not invented what follows, but is only reporting what he has heard from others?
First Socrates explains why the true philosopher will be eager to die: because the body is an impediment to true knowledge and wisdom, which can be attained only by the soul apart from and purified of the body. (I won’t even start on this, but I feel like it’s an idea that is responsible for a lot of pathology, even if it has also provided inspiration toward the good…) Simmias and Cebes, the two principle interlocutors, object that Socrates is only right about this on condition that the soul continues to exist after the body dies, and thus the long discussion of the immortality of the soul follows. The first proof offered is the argument from opposites, which maintains that everything is generated from its opposite (a man who becomes taller used to be shorter, a stronger one used to be weaker, a faster one used to be slower, etc. 71a). The dead come from the living; therefore the living must come from the dead.
All of the examples discussed are of opposing states rather than substances. The argument doesn’t seem to me to work any more if you try to apply it to matter: I can make no sense of the notion that my coffee-cup has come about from whatever the opposite of a coffee-cup is. It has come about from the component parts of a coffee-cup (clay; glaze). If we talk about its condition, then yes, it is clean from being dirty, cold from being hot, etc. But what this means is that when Socrates says “the living are generated from the dead, just as much as the dead from the living, and since this is the case, it seems to me to be a sufficient proof that the souls of the dead exist somewhere, whence they come back to life” (72a) he is talking about not the substance of a dead or living body, but the state of the soul – thus the fact of the soul’s continued existence already seems to me assumed, rather than being proved by this. But the whole thing sort of makes my head hurt.
This is already getting long so I won’t go through the other proofs, the most interesting to me of which is the notion of learning as recollection of the forms. But I’m sure I’ll be seeing plenty of the forms as I go on, so I’ll leave those aside for now. I just want to make the final observation that, even if I can’t follow the logic of the long proof, what is really lovely to me about this dialogue is the kindness and affection Socrates shows toward his friends. In some ways this is just the opposite of (part of) what made me uncomfortable about the Crito, where Socrates seemed almost brutal in his refusal to acknowledge the pain he was inflicting on his friend by insisting on staying in prison to face death. Here practically every word his says seems calculated to make his friends feel better about watching him drink the poison and die. And although the whole thrust of the dialogue is that the true philosopher will be eager to leave his body behind (his final words, about owing a cock to Asclepius, imply a recovery from the “illness” that was his bodily existence), his eagerness here never comes at the cost of insensitivity to those friends he leaves behind.