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Plato's Phaedo: Arguments For and Against the Immortality of the Soul

Plato's Phaedo attempts to come to some conclusions surrounding the question of the immortality of the soul, and the possibility of life after death. In the document, Socrates, presumably representing Plato's position on the matter, outlines his belief in the soul's eternal life. The text is purportedly an account of a final discussion between Socrates, and his friends and disciples; this includes Cebes and Simmias, who serve as the primary antagonists that set the piece's use of the Socratic Method into motion. Socrates leads the dialogue skilfully, directing the observer to accept this idea, while offering several proofs, or arguments, for the immortality of the soul. Of course, the latter is of immediate interest to Socrates; Phaedo takes place on the day before Socrates is to be executed. In the dialogue, Socrates lays out his proofs of the soul's immortality, and Cebes and Simmias argue and debate with him about the validity of his arguments.

Socrates puts forth one argument in favour of the soul's immortality that is referred to as the Argument from Opposites. He claims that everything, each idea and person, came to be from its own opposite; so, if a man becomes strong, he must first have been weak. Out of the man's weakness comes his newfound strength. More specifically, Socrates argues to Simmias and Cebes that there are two forms of transformation between two given opposites - the process of increase and the process of decrease (Cahn, p. 56).

From this argument we can infer, then, that the weak become strong through the process of gaining strength. Similarly, Socrates argues - with Cebes, at this point, in agreement - that death is the opposite of life, and therefore death comes from life through the process of dying. By extension of that same argument, then, life comes from death through the process of coming to life. So, death comes from life and life comes from death.

Seeing a connection to one of Socrates' previous inferences, Cebes recalls the Theory of Recollection (Cahn, p. 57). Socrates elaborates on this theory, pointing out that by experiencing one event, seeing one object, we can be lead to recall another event, or to connect to another object. This leads Socrates to restate and explain the Theory of Forms. He argues - with Simmias in agreement - that there exists such a thing as Equality that is independent from all specific instances where the idea of Equality is applied (Cahn, p. 58). This is the "Form of Equality", the overriding idea that all interpretations of Equality come from.

Socrates then argues that since things can appear equal to some and unequal to others, and since Equality itself cannot be, by definition, unequal, those "things" are not the same as Equality (Cahn, p. 58). Such things, though, bring the idea of Equality into the minds of those who consider them. As Socrates puts it, in Phaedo, "Do we not believe in the existence of equality"”not the equality of pieces of wood or of stones, but something beyond that"”equality in the abstract?" (Cahn, p. 58) We can be aware of objects or ideas being equal or unequal, and to recognize that equality or lack thereof requires a previous understanding of what it means to be perfectly equal; in other words, we must already know the Form of Equality.

Socrates follows this by inferring that we cannot have come to this understanding of Equality through our own senses; because, as Socrates argues, there exists no perfect equality in the rational world, and because humans understand a notion of Equality for as long as they have been alive, that notion of Equality must have existed before each person's birth (Cahn, p. 59). Human knowledge of Equality has been effectively recollected from somewhere before birth.

Cebes and Simmias agree with Socrates, that he has proved that the soul existed before birth; they are not so sure, however, that the soul continues to exist after death. They do not feel that the Theory of Recollection fully proves the immortality of the soul. They hold that while the theory makes it a possibility for the soul to be immortal, that there are other possibilities that stem from the same theory. For example, the soul might reincarnate only so many times, until a time when it is annihilated. Socrates counters this rationale by re-introducing the Argument from Opposites - that "every living thing must come from the dead" (Cahn, p. 60). These two theories, the Argument from Opposites in combination with the Theory of Recollection, effectively force Cebes and Simmias to accept that the soul must continue to exist after the body ceases to be.

Socrates then outlines his third argument for the immortality of the soul; the Affinity Argument. He questions Cebes about what things in the world are scattered - composite things, "compound[s] by nature liable to be split up into [their] component parts" (Cahn, p. 61) - and what is not scattered. For the latter, Socrates concludes, with Cebes in agreement, that "only that which is noncomposite, if anything, is not likely to be split up" (Cahn, p. 61). Socrates follows this conclusion by inferring that that which is not scattered is constant, and thus, that which is constant is incomposite, never to be broken up, dissipated, or changed.

This argument illustrates that the Forms, which are constant, unchanging ideas, are incomposite. As well, objects, such as the body, are composite; they are in a constant state of flux. The Forms, then, are essential, unchanging entities; they cannot be dissipated. Further than that, Socrates argues that the Forms are, as he terms it, "invisible" (Cahn, p. 61). They can only be understood and experienced by the mind. Physical, composite things, however, can only be comprehended by the body. Tying in this argument with the soul's immortality, Socrates points out that the soul, like the Forms, is an invisible, incomposite thing that does not undergo change or dissolution. The body, on the other hand, is a composite entity that does indeed dissolve after death (Cahn, p. 62).

At this point, Socrates is quiet, prompting Cebes and Simmias to introduce their counter-arguments against the immortality of the soul. Simmias starts, drawing a parallel between the body and the soul, and a lyre and the harmony it creates when played correctly (Cahn, p. 65). Like the soul to the body, Simmias argues, the harmony the lyre creates when tuned and played properly is invisible, indestructible and noncomposite. As well, the lyre itself is akin to the body, being worldly, nonconstant, and able to be deconstructed into many pieces.

Simmias follows this conclusion by linking the analogy even further; like the soul, he suggests, the lyre only creates a proper harmony when it is assembled and played correctly. Destroy the lyre, he argues, and you destroy the harmony. "If then the soul is a kind of harmony or attunement, clearly, when our body is relaxed or stretched"¦ the soul must immediately be destroyed [at death], as are the other harmonies found in music and all the works of artists" (Cahn, p. 65). Like the lyre, when the body is destroyed, the soul - the proper attunement of the body - must undoubtedly be annihilated along with it, just as the harmony from a lyre must dissipate when the lyre itself is destroyed. Once the lyre is gone, the harmony that it created can no longer exist; Simmias argues that the same can be said about the soul, in relation to the body.

Cebes puts forward a different argument altogether. He agrees that Socrates has made a convincing argument that the soul existed before birth. However, he sees, and points out, some flaws in the argument that the soul continues to exist after death (Cahn, p. 65). Simmias"˜ argument, that the soul dissipates after death, differs from Cebes' at this point. The former states that even if the soul does continue after the body dies, the eternal existence of the soul is not proven through the arguments that Socrates has made.

To illustrate his point, Cebes spins an image of an old weaver who makes cloaks. Obviously, he points out, a cloak is made of weaker, less enduring material than that of the weaver"˜s body. The weaver who wears her own cloaks will no doubt make and clothe herself in many such cloaks; as one piece of clothing becomes old and tattered, she will create a new one (Cahn, p. 65). The old cloak will be replaced, and discarded, eventually to dissipate and return to the raw materials from which it came.

Cebes then connects the example of the weaver and her cloaks to that of the soul and the body. Like a cloak, the body is good only for a set period of time; after it has outlived its usefulness, it will be discarded and will eventually decompose back into the earth. The soul, on the other hand, is like the weaver; moving from cloak to cloak throughout her life, until she finally passes away, and has no use for cloaks anymore. This argument is used to illustrate a flaw in Socrates' argument. Simply because the soul survives after death for a time (as the weaver will survive the various cloaks she makes and wears), it does not necessarily follow that the process will continue forever.

"I think, the relationship of the soul to the body, and anyone who says the same thing about them would appear to me to be talking sense, that the soul lasts a long time while the body is weaker and more short-lived" (Cahn, p. 65-66). Simmias argues that although the soul may outlive the body by several lifetimes, it may eventually dissipate and return to the place from which it came, much like the body of the weaver. Although the soul may continue for a period of time longer then the body, the immortal essence of the soul has not been proven.

This important part of Phaedo outlines Socrates' first three arguments for the immortality of the soul; the Argument from Opposites, the Theory of Recollection, and the Argument from Affinity. Each adds to and works the others to strengthen Socrates' argument. The soul continues to exist after death, the soul existed before birth, and, finally, the soul is an incomposite entity that cannot be destroyed by the death of the body. Cebes and Simmias, on the other hand, argue that those three arguments alone do not prove the soul's immortality. Simmias argues that the soul could merely be a specific and proper attunement of the body, to be dissolved at the body"˜s death. Cebes points out that while the soul may continue to exist after death, it may not do so indefinitely.

Which argument contains more merit is beside the point; Phaedo remains one of Plato's most fascinating and relevant texts. The author's use of the Socratic Method to illustrate various arguments surrounding the topic is skilfully executed. Indeed, the Phaedo itself continues to be regarded as one of Western philosophy's masterworks of metaphysics.

SOURCE: Plato. "Phaedo" in Classics of Western Philosophy, 6th ed., edited by Steven M. Cahn, pp. 56-66. © 2002 Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis.

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Thank you so much for this post. I will have a great time thinking it through on my errands today. Your work here is appreciated and if I think anything worth sharing I will post it later today.