Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here)
Plato’s Phaedo depicts the final conversations and death of Socrates. The Phaedo takes place the day after the Crito. While Crito was trying to convince Socrates to escape, other friends of Socrates were waiting outside the prison to spirit him away. Among them were two Pythagoreans from Thebes, Simmias and Cebes, who had brought the money to bribe the guards. When Socrates refused to escape, Simmias, Cebes, and the rest joined Socrates in his cell and spent the day talking about philosophy. The Athenians were quite generous and humane in allowing condemned citizens visits from their families and friends. When Socrates’ friends left the prison at sundown, they were informed that the sacred ship had returned from Delos, and thus on the next day, Socrates would die.
The next morning, more than 15 of Socrates’ friends gathered before dawn to talk about philosophy and to say goodbye. The Phaedo is a long, densely argued, and densely narrated discussion of topics that were naturally foremost in the minds of a condemned man and his friends: the nature of the soul, whether it can survive the death of the body, and its post-mortem prospects. These topics deserve a whole book of their own. I will look at selections from the Phaedo that relate back to the Clouds, Apology, and Crito. Then we will read the final pages where Socrates dies.
The Phaedo takes its name from its narrator, Phaedo of Elis, a student of Socrates who was present at his death. Phaedo told the story to Echecrates and other Pythagoreans who had settled in Phlius, in the Peloponnese, after having been expelled from Southern Italy. Socrates’ primary partners in the dialogue are two other Pythagoreans, Simmias and Cebes, who studied with the great Pythagorean Philolaus of Croton (although they don’t seem to have learned that much). There is also a strong Pythagorean cast to Socrates’ arguments about the nature and immortality of the soul.
The conversation began in the morning and ended at sunset, when Socrates was executed by drinking hemlock (Conium maculatum), which causes paralysis starting in the feet. Eventually, one falls asleep and then stops breathing due to paralysis of the respiratory muscles. It is not a bad way to die.
Philosophy as Preparation for Death
Death is a frightening thing. It is frightening if you believe it is simply annihilation. It is frightening if you believe it is the passage to another world, especially for the Greeks, who had a grim and amoral vision of the afterlife. It is even frightening if you simply don’t know what it will bring. Thus, most people try to stave off death as long as possible. But Socrates not only chose to stay and be executed, he was astonishingly cheerful the whole time he was in prison. Naturally, his friends wanted to know why. What was his secret?
The topic of death arises when Socrates tells Cebes to convey his farewell to Evenus, a sophist mentioned in the Apology. He also asks Cebes to tell Evenus, “if he is wise, to follow me [into death] as soon as possible” (61b). Simmias interjects that, based on his knowledge of Evenus, “he is not at all likely to follow [Socrates’ advice] willingly” (61c). Evenus, it seems, puts a premium on self-preservation, as did the Socrates of the Clouds, who — after a long train of provocations — only expelled Strepsiades when he suggested suicide as an escape from his debts. What is the connection between sophists and self-preservation? And why does Socrates maintain that “every man who partakes worthily of philosophy” will be willing to die (61c)?
Socrates hastens to add, though, “Yet perhaps he will not take his own life, for that, they say, is not right” (61c).
Then Plato adds a significant detail: “As he said this, Socrates put his feet on the ground and remained in his position for the rest of the conversation” (61d). For us and the ancient Greeks, having one’s feet on the ground connotes contact with concrete reality. As opposed to what? Floating in a basket, like the Socrates of the Clouds, for one. This is important, because the Phaedo is one of Plato’s most metaphysical and otherworldly dialogues. Yet no matter how far out Socrates’ arguments take him, he takes pains to remain anchored to concrete reality. Thus Socrates is very precise in distinguishing myth, hope, hearsay, likely stories, and hypothetical reasoning from firmly established truths.
When Cebes asks, “How do you mean, Socrates, that it is not right to do oneself violence, and yet that the philosopher will be willing to follow one who is dying?” (61d), Socrates replies that he will speak about this from “hearsay,” but he is happy to share what he has heard, “for it is perhaps most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder to tell and examine tales about what we believe the journey to be like” (61d–e). Here the word “tales” translates a form of the Greek “mythoi,” from which we get the word myths.
Socrates offers an explanation “in the language of the mysteries,” namely that “we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away,” although Socrates cautions that this “impressive doctrine” is “not easy to understand fully” (62b). This, of course, alludes quite directly to Socrates’ situation. He is in prison, and when offered the chance to escape, he refused to, for reasons we explored in the Crito.
Socrates is, however, more willing to stand by the statement that “the gods are our guardians and that men are one of their possessions” (62b). Killing oneself, on this account, is analogous to breaking out of jail or being a runaway slave. In both cases, we are asserting our own will in defiance of the will of the gods. Therefore, suicide is a bad thing.
Simmias and Cebes, however, turn this argument against Socrates. After all, by choosing to stay to be executed, isn’t Socrates in effect committing suicide? If human beings are the property of the gods and are better off under their care, then shouldn’t Socrates do anything he can to delay his death, including break out of jail? Although Simmias and Cebes do not point this out, Socrates’ refusal to break out of jail could be considered impiety, which is what landed him in jail to begin with.
Socrates sees the force of this objection: “You are both justified in what you say, and I think you mean that I must make a defense against this, as if I were in court” (63b). In short, Socrates is back on trial again and must offer another defense speech. “Come then . . . let me try to make my defense to you more convincing than it was to the jury” (63b).
Cebes argues that if “a god is our protector and we are his possessions,” then “it is not logical that the wisest of men should not resent leaving [by being executed] this service in which they are governed by the best of masters, the gods, for a wise man cannot believe that he will look after himself better when he is free” (62d). Based on our reading of the Euthyphro, Socrates would reject this claim, because he believes that it is possible for the wise to go over the heads of the gods themselves and learn what is right by nature. Therefore, we don’t have to worry about what the gods think.
Cebes is assuming the standard polytheist idea that there are many gods, each of which has a finite jurisdiction. Socrates replies that
I should be wrong not to resent dying if I did not believe that I should go first to other wise and good gods. . . . if I insist on anything at all in these matters, it is that I shall come to gods who are very good masters. That is why I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked. (63b–c)
Note that Socrates describes this belief as “good hope” based on what we have been “told.” This is far short of claiming to know.
Socrates seems to be assuming that Cebes objects to Socrates leaving the care of this world’s good gods for the afterlife, which presumably is under the rule of bad gods, indifferent gods, or no gods at all. Thus Socrates emphasizes that he believes that the afterlife is ruled by good gods as well. This is completely consistent with the Socratic view that any and all genuine gods are necessarily good. But Cebes is not objecting to Socrates leaving our good gods for different kinds of gods. He is simply objecting to Socrates leaving this world’s gods at all. If we are the property of the gods, it is not really our choice.
Socrates then states the thesis that he will defend in his new Apology:
I want to make my argument before you, my judges, as to why I think that a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder. . . . the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is the practice for dying and death. (63e–64a)
Again, note the language of probability, cheer, and hope, all of which fall short of strong knowledge claims.
Even though he is in a somber mood, Simmias laughs at this description of philosophy because he says that in Thebes, people think that philosophers are nearly dead and the majority think they should be (64b). This brings to mind the Thinkery in the Clouds, whose students look sickly, starved, and at death’s door.
At this point Socrates offers a series of arguments on the nature of death, the nature of philosophy, and the nature and immortality of the soul. These arguments are the core of the Phaedo, but we will not discuss them here. I note, however, that at one point Socrates inserts a reference to the Clouds: “I do not think, said Socrates, that anyone who heard me now, not even a comic poet, could say that I am babbling and discussing things that do not concern me . . .” (71b–c). Indeed, for a dying man, the nature of the soul and the possibility of survival after death are of vital importance. They are not topics for idle speculation.
Socrates & Natural Philosophy
The Phaedo’s most sustained allusion to the Clouds is Socrates’ intellectual autobiography, in which he admits that he was indeed a natural philosopher for a time:
When I was a young man I was wonderfully keen on that wisdom which they call natural science [peri physeos historian, more literally “investigation of nature”], for I thought it splendid to know the causes of everything, why it comes to be, why it perishes, and why it exists. I was often changing my mind in the investigation, in the first instance, of questions such as these: Are living creatures nurtured when heat and cold produce a kind of putrefaction, as some say? Do we think with our blood, or air, or fire, or none of these, and does the brain provide our senses of hearing and sight and smell, from which come memory and opinion, and from memory and opinion which has become stable, comes knowledge?
This is a fairly recognizable depiction of pre-Socratic natural philosophy. One can imagine Socrates speaking this way in the Clouds.
So was Socrates guilty as charged by Aristophanes, the “first accuser”? Yes, at least for a time he was. But then he had a change of heart:
Then as I investigated how these things perish and what happens to things in the sky and on the earth, finally I became convinced that I have no natural aptitude at all for that kind of investigation, and of this I will give you sufficient proof. This investigation made me quite blind even to those things which I and others thought that I clearly knew before, so that I unlearned what I thought I knew before, about many other things and specifically about how men grew.
Not only did Socrates not learn the causes of all things from natural philosophy, he actually unlearned things that he knew before, specifically about “how men grew.”
What do men “know” before the emergence of science? It is a mixture of myth, custom, shared and individual opinions, and practical experience. Let’s call it common sense. This too fits with the Clouds, where Socrates is shown to lack common sense.
What is common sense about? It is about everything, but first and foremost it is about us, for even our view of the universe is very much marked by human nature and human conventions. Since it embraces both nature and convention, let’s call the object of common sense the human condition.
In terms of the Clouds and the Apology, the human condition is the middle-sized realm, in contrast to the non-human realms of the great and the small. It is the realm of “human wisdom” that Socrates admits to in the Apology, as opposed to “divine wisdom.”
What common sense did Socrates lose about “how men grew”? The only example he gives is a very common-sensical but also materialistic understanding of physical growth, namely that we grow by eating. This is true, but Socrates later makes clear that it is not the whole story.
I believe that human growth also refers to child-rearing and education. Recall in the Theages and the Euthyphro how the topic of education is broached in terms of metaphors from agriculture: planting, tending, weeding, and growth. What is the common-sense understanding of the purpose of child-rearing and education? Obviously, to make the young live well. What happens when we forget common sense about these topics? We end up corrupting the youth. Read this way, Socrates is admitting to another of the accusations in the Clouds, namely that the study of natural philosophy turned him into a corrupter of the youth.
Socrates then summarizes some accounts of causation — drawn both from common sense and natural philosophy — that he came to reject. We’ll skip over this. Parts of this discussion are quite obscure, but later on it becomes clear that he rejected these accounts of causality because they do not make use of what Aristotle later called “final causation,” also known as teleology, meaning the idea that changes happen to bring about future states: aims or goals which are understood as goods. Things become the way they are because it is good.
. . . I do not any longer persuade myself that I know why a unit or anything else comes to be, or perishes or exists by the old method of investigation [namely, natural philosophy], and I do not accept it, but I have a confused method of my own. (97b)
Socrates’ own “confused method” of investigation will be made clear later.
Socrates & Anaxagoras
Before clarifying his own method, Socrates talks about his encounter with Anaxagoras, who claimed that Mind (nous) is the cause of everything. Socrates was excited, because he thought this would introduce the idea of final causes. In the passage that follows I will emphasize the language of final causality, which explains things in terms of pursuing the good and avoiding the bad:
One day I heard someone reading, as he said, from a book of Anaxagoras, and saying that it is Mind that directs and is the cause of everything. I was delighted with this cause, and it seemed to me good, in a way, that Mind should be the cause of all. I thought that if this were so, the directing Mind would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best. If then one wished to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act. On these premises then it befitted a man to investigate only, about this and other things, what is best. The same man must inevitably also know what is worse, for that is part of the same knowledge. As I reflected on this subject, I was glad to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher about the cause of things after my own heart, and that he would tell me, first, whether the earth is flat or round, and then would explain why it is so of necessity, saying which is better, and that it was better to be so. If he said it was in the middle of the universe, he would go on to show that it was better for it to be in the middle, and if he showed me those things, I should be prepared never to desire any other kind of cause. I was ready to find out in the same way about the sun and the moon and the other heavenly bodies, about their relative speed, their turnings, and whatever else happened to them, how it is best that each should act or be acted upon. I never thought that Anaxagoras, who said that those things were directed by Mind, would bring in any other cause for them than that it was best for them to be as they are. Once he had given the best for each as the cause for each and the general cause of all, I thought he would go on to explain the common good for all, and I would not have exchanged my hopes for a fortune. I eagerly acquired his books and read them as quickly as I could in order to know the best and the worst as soon as possible. (97b–98b)
Unfortunately, Anaxagoras’ concept of Mind had nothing to do with teleology. Instead, it seems to have been merely another kind of matter:
This wonderful hope was dashed as I went on reading and saw that the man made no use of Mind, nor gave it any responsibility for the management of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether and water and many other strange things. (98b–c)
Socrates then offers a vivid example that makes quite clear why he rejected purely material and mechanical causes in favor of final causes. Again, I will emphasize the language of final causation.
That seemed to me much like saying that Socrates’ actions are all due to his Mind, and then in trying to tell the causes of everything I do, to say that the reason that I am sitting here is because my body consists of bones and sinews, because the bones are hard and are separated by joints, that the sinews are such as to contract and relax, that they surround the bones along with flesh and skin which hold them together, then as the bones are hanging in their sockets, the relaxation and contraction of the sinews enable me to bend my limbs, and that is the cause of my sitting here with my limbs bent. Again, he would mention other such causes for my talking to you: sounds and air and hearing, and a thousand other such things, but he would neglect to mention the true causes, that, after the Athenians decided it was better to condemn me, for this reason it seemed best to me to sit here, and more right to remain and to endure whatever penalty they ordered. For, by the dog [an oath to a foreign god, the Egyptian god Anubis], I think these sinews and bones could long ago have been in Megara or among the Boeotians, taken there by my belief as to the best course, if I had not thought it more right and honorable to endure whatever penalty the city ordered rather than escape and run away. (98c–99a)
If Socrates is not sitting in jail merely because the hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone is connected to the knee bone, etc., what is the status of material things connected together mechanically? Socrates explains that these are mere means, subordinated to final causes, which are ends:
To call those things [bones, sinews, etc.] causes is too absurd. If someone said that without bones and sinews and all such things, I should not be able to do what I decided, he would be right, but surely to say that they are the cause of what I do, and not that I have chosen the best course, even though I act with my Mind, is to speak very lazily and carelessly. Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause from that without which the cause would not be able to act as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it. (99a–b)
How comprehensive does Socrates wish to make teleological explanation? Does he think that everything can be explained by teleology? Or does he think that teleology is confined to one area of nature, such as human beings or living things, whereas other areas of nature are ruled by purposeless mechanical necessity? Socrates makes it quite clear that he envisions a comprehensive teleology that governs the whole universe, including the Earth itself and the heavens:
That is why one man surrounds the earth with a vortex to make the heavens keep it in place, another makes the air support it like a wide lid. As for their capacity of being in the best place they could possibly be put, this they do not look for, nor do they believe it to have any divine force, but they believe that they will some time discover a stronger and more immortal Atlas to hold everything together more, and they do not believe that the truly good and “binding” binds and holds them together. (99b–c)
Socrates likens universal teleology to a “divine force” disposing all things toward the best. He contrasts this with the natural philosophers’ quest to explain everything in terms of material and mechanical necessity, likening this to “a stronger and more immortal Atlas” holding the universe together by force. Atlas, of course, was one of the titans, who were the chthonic adversaries of the Olympian gods.
This brings us to another question. Does Socrates think that all teleology involves Mind, namely conscious intention and design? Or does he think that there can be mindless teleology? For instance, plants don’t have minds, but they still have goals.
There is no evidence that Socrates believed in any sort of mindless teleology. Recall that the whole discussion of teleology was occasioned by Socrates hearing that Anaxagoras made Mind the cause of all things. Socrates was serious about that. He was attracted to the idea that the whole universe was ordered toward the good by conscious intention, and such a universal and benevolent Mind could only be described as a god. Indeed, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Book 4, Chapter 3, Socrates defends the idea of a cosmos ordered by the divine for the good, which influenced the Stoic doctrine of divine Providence. This is a full-blown form of theistic metaphysical “optimism,” the claim that the world is ruled by a benevolent deity for the maximum possible good of all. This is the best of all possible worlds.
But remember: as he is saying this, Socrates has both feet firmly on the ground. Thus, as attractive as this image of the cosmos was to Socrates, he was not willing to affirm that it is true, because he found no proof for it, neither from other thinkers or from his own investigations:
I would gladly become the disciple of any man who taught the workings of that kind of cause. However, since I was deprived and could neither discover it myself nor learn it from another, do you wish me to give you an explanation of how, as a second best, I busied myself with the search for the cause, Cebes? (99c–d)
Why can’t he know that universal teleology under the direction of benevolent gods is true? He certainly knows that the pursuit of the good makes sense of human action. Why can’t he go further? The reason becomes clear when we look at Socrates’ “second best” method of investigation. This is the “confused method” that he mentioned earlier.
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 Plato, Phaedo, trans. G. M. A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997). Grube’s translation is generally quite good, but I will make small amendments from time to time.
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