The Phaedo: (Part Two) The Art of Recollection

…such is also the case if that theory is true that you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other than recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape. So according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal.

– Plato, The Pheado

Cebes friend, Simmias, will ask him to recount this strange truth so that he might remember the details more clearly. Cebes will continue telling Simmias that there is an old argument that if a person is interrogated correctly they will always give the right answer of their own accord. Why? Because as he states it “they could not do this if they did not possess the knowledge and the right explanation inside them”.1 This notion that we are born with all the knowledge we need, that knowledge is immanent to the mind continues from Socrates previous apology that everything comes out of its opposite: life out of death, and death out of life, etc. (as we saw in the previous post). As Iain Hamilton Grant (Idealist) will affirm in the excellent Idealism: A History of a Philosophy: this is a Platonism of “immanent law” or causal efficacy:

The world of change, birth and decay is not a world causally isolated from that of Ideas since, as the Phaedo, for instance, makes clear, the Idea has as its nature to be causal in respect to becoming.2

The main point of Grant and his cohorts is that against the two-worlds theory of Platonism espoused by most detractors of Idealism, based on a notion of the abstract universal, they will affirm instead a one-world Idealism based on Hegel’s notion of the “concrete universal”:

…or the whole determined by the particulars it generates and the differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization (ibid. p. 8).

As Socrates, Cebes, and Simmias discuss this strange anomaly of recollection of knowledge from previous lives one wonders why none of them asks the simple question: Why should knowledge come by way of recollection? Why not that the senses and our struggle with things around us provide this ability to gain knowledge not as recollection but as invention. But they never discuss this because for Plato the senses and the body are anathema to any form of acquiring knowledge, instead as Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) will say: “our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence” (KL 2350).

It is at this point that Plato’s Socrates will make his bid against Grant and company for a two-world Platonism:

If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. If these realities do not exist, then this argument is altogether futile. Is this the position, that there is an equal necessity for those realities to exist, and for our souls to exist before we were born? If the former do not exist, neither do the latter? (KL 2356-2360)

The point here is that these other realities exist independent of our physical world, and that everything we see in this physical realm is referred to that other reality as something that comes before and after our sojourn here in this realm. What’s interesting is that just at this point Plato realizes he’s just worked himself into a corner with no way out, and instead of resolving this dilemma he closes it off:

I do not think, Socrates, said Simmias, that there is any possible doubt that it is equally necessary for both to exist, and it is opportune that our argument comes to the conclusion that our soul exists before we are born, and equally so that reality of which you are now speaking. (KL 2360-2362)

So without proof other than the rhetoric of recollection he leaves it at that, as if no one will “doubt” his wonderful argument. As Plato’s Socrates will so eloquently put it in such dogmatic terms: “Nothing is so evident to me personally as that all such things must certainly exist, the Beautiful, the Good, and all those you mentioned just now. I also think that sufficient proof of this has been given.” (KL 2362-2364)

It’s at this juncture that things get tricky for Old Plato, for he will have Socrates juxtapose things of the senses against things of the mind comparing the former as things that always change, and the latter as things that never change but always stay in the same state:

These latter you could touch and see and perceive with the other senses, but those that always remain the same can be grasped only by the reasoning power of the mind? They are not seen but are invisible? (KL 2405-2406)

Then will come the question from Cebes: “Do you then want us to assume two kinds of existences, the visible and the invisible?” And, Socrates: “Let us assume this.” If this isn’t a two-world thesis, then what is? This division of visible/invisible or in Kantian terms phenomenal/noumenal cannot be more clear. But let’s listen further. At this point Socrates will initiate his famous body/soul dualism arguing that that the body is of the visible, while the soul of the invisible, etc., and that the body always changes, while the soul stays the same through all the bodily changes, etc.  Then the litany of tropes opposing the soul as master over the body: “the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble and never consistently the same.” (KL 2440-2441)

And again Socrates will tie this all back to his original theme of the undying immortal soul that leaves mortal death behind, and that philosophy is nothing if it is not a “training for death”:

if it is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself together by itself and always practiced this, which is no other than practising philosophy in the right way, in fact,  training to die easily. Or is this not training for death? (KL 2453-2455) A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires and the other human ills and, as is said of the initiates, truly spend the rest of time with the gods.(KL 2456-2458)

Plato must have been happy with himself coming to this conclusion so succinctly. Finally the release from the disgusting bodily life he’d so hated for so long. Having his mentor spout a new credo of release: the purification of the mind from its entrapment in the illusory world, etc. I could imagine a self-satisfying smug smile on his face when he first read this work at the Academy, his students mesmerized by this wonderful news. And, yet, it wouldn’t have been so bad if Plato would’ve stopped there, but no he wants to get even with all those fierce sensualists and politicians, war-mongers, and physicalists and lovers of the body, placing them in the unenviable situation of becoming incarcerated ghosts wandering the graveyard of time forever:

We must believe, my friend, that this bodily element is heavy, ponderous, earthy and visible. Through it, such a soul has become heavy and is dragged back to the visible region in fear of the unseen and of Hades. It wanders, as we are told, around graves and monuments, where shadowy phantoms, images that such souls produce, have been seen, souls that have not been freed and purified but share in the visible, and are therefore seen. (KL 2467-2470)

This notion of the impure dead ones, the ones not worthy of life with the gods in some divine realm of purity, but caught in the impure stasis of their impure acts, caged in the interminable realms between Hades and Life, only able to project images on the screen of reality seen by the living, etc. Plato was a sadist at heart. One can see why the early Church Fathers loved this sort of thing. And, again, he will make even a further distinction, that it is only the philosophers who have practiced Plato’s divine art that will enter into the glorious realms:

No one may join the company of the gods who has not practiced philosophy and is not completely pure when he departs from life, no one but the lover of learning. It is for this reason, my friends Simmias and Cebes, that those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions, master them and do not surrender themselves to them… (KL 2487)

One can see why the Stoics and the Medieval Church so loved this philosopher of the divine against the sensual, etc. This hatred of the flesh and mortality would define philosophy of two-millennia, with those on one side or the other of the debate. No wonder Plato denied even mentioning Democritus, who was called the “happy philosopher” and diametrically opposed such notions of the immortal soul with his own belief in the mortal soul, which even Aristotle, Plato’s antagonistic pupil, would take up and champion.  

This is where we come upon Plato’s Socrates statement at its most Buddhistic, and I quote at length:

The lovers of learning know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned in and clinging to the body, and that it is forced to examine other things through it as through a cage and not by itself, and that it wallows in every kind of ignorance. Philosophy sees that the worst feature of this imprisonment is that it is due to desires, so that the prisoner himself is contributing to his own incarceration most  of all. As I say, the lovers of learning know that philosophy gets hold of their soul when it is in that state, then gently encourages it and tries to free it by showing them that investigation through the eyes is full of deceit, as is that through the ears and the other senses. Philosophy then persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses in so far as it is not compelled to use them and bids the soul to gather itself together by itself, to trust only itself and whatever reality, existing by itself, the soul by itself understands, and not to consider as true whatever it examines by other means, for this is different in different circumstances and is sensible and visible, whereas what the soul itself sees is intelligible and invisible. The soul of the true philosopher thinks that this deliverance must not be opposed and so keeps away from pleasures and desires and pains as far as he can; he reflects that violent pleasure or pain or passion does not cause merely such evils as one might expect, such as one suffers when one has been sick or extravagant  through desire, but the greatest and most extreme evil, though one does not reflect on this. (KL 2496-2507)

Again philosophy for Plato became this path of teaching the slow withdrawal from the world of the body and senses into the soul’s realm of pure truth, mind, reality, etc., along with his instigation of a normative vision of purification by way of denying bodily pleasures, desires, and pain, etc. The Philosopher as an ascetic creature of moderation and passionless existence based on the purity of contemplation. One wonders where Plato learned such dark dualisms and moralism’s, such hatred of the flesh and of life? Was he after all a student of Orpheus and the Orphics? A mystagogue in the guise of a philosopher: a teacher of death rather than life? Yes, for in this mid part of the dialogue we come to another closure in which Socrates will reiterate that the path of the lover of learning or philosopher as envisioned by Plato “achieves a calm from such emotions; it follows reason and ever stays with it contemplating the true, the divine, which is not the object of opinion. Nurtured by this, it believes that one should live in this manner as long [b] as one is alive and, after death, arrive at what is akin and of the same kind, and escape from human evils” (KL 2522-2524).

This is part two of three on the Phaedo…. (post one)

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2254-2256). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. Dunham, Grant, Watson editors. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011)

10 thoughts on “The Phaedo: (Part Two) The Art of Recollection

  1. I don’t think its fair to say the Stoics hated the body, given how they were in favour of moderation (even in relation to the ascetic life) and given that much of the origin of their school came from Zeno’s initial climb down from the excesses of Cynicism (notwithstanding Epictetus’s admiration for Diogenes as a Sage). Epictetus counsels moderation in the sense that we should deny ourselves pleasures if those pleasures take on the complexion of harmfulness to our reason. Working in addictions, I can’t help but think that is sensible. At the same time he is quite clear that we should indulge as long as ‘the pleasure, and the attraction of it shall not conquer you’.

    How should we talk about the pleasure of the flesh and what does or does not overcome us? The idea of pleasure that doesn’t overcome us is commonly referred to as “joy” in many of the Stoics, especially in Seneca even if he says it is ‘not a cheerful joy’.

    They certainly didn’t think the body was under their control, and ultimately, as the body begins its existence without our so choosing, and being that it is destined for death, they are kinda right. Still, they do at the very least materialise the subject of the soul so that it exists corporeally. The Stoics were already weird materialists.

    There is a passage in the Discourses where Epictetus more or less directly imports the “prison-house” language of the Phaedo to talk about the relationship of the body to reason. There he speaks of the body as a “fetter”, as “wretched”, as “chains” while reason is “divine”, “blessed”, the “god inside”. But as the Stoic concept of God is corporeal, as rationality is not an incorporeal, whatever it is it belongs to the same ontological realm as the body.

    Maybe that is even worse than Plato? The body and the mind exist in the same “place” but the body is still denigrated. Yet it is only because the body is a suffering body that this is the case.

    Epictetus also talks about preconceptions developed through sensory “impressions” rather than recollections. We don’t remember knowledge but are ready equipped with some general principles that we apply to particular instances. To some degree then Epictetus pulls Plato’s soul out of the heavens and into a blank-slate theory of mind onto which certain general maxims get inscribed and then combined in the case of particulars.

    I wonder whether I’m not gesturing to the way that Epictetus stands as a sort of bridge between the two-worlds, a step towards trying to reconcile idealism and materialism via corporealism. As such, if there is some cyclical battle of philosophy like you’re exploring, the Stoa might seem like a possible (incomplete) reconciliation.

    Or whether, as a foreshadowing of pessimism, the Stoics aren’t a kind of reply to Plato: yes, this wicked flesh, but we must make accommodations with the only existence we’ve got, the Forms and the Immortality of the Soul being but pleasant mythologies, the gods haven’t been that kind to us. So we learn how to die so we can live undisturbed by the image of death.


    • Yes, the Stoics and Plato both shared this ascetic take on normativity of moderation, which was in the Phaedo part of that whole initiative against the flesh one sees in as many passages. The Stoics did not harbor the love of pleasure or the body as well. I may overstate the case in a brash fashion, but the Stoics are not lovers of the body, either. The Stoics were a swerve from Plato, but still within his tainted tradition…

      My study on this is in relation to Democritus as the exemplar of the opposite of Plato/Stoics… he was called the “happy philosopher” – and, had a non-ascetic appreciation of existence. One can see in his followers Epicurus and Lucretius the love of pleasure taken to the opposite extreme of Plato and the Stoics. Being on that side of the fence I do not relish either Plato or the Stoics.


      • Well, it’s not so simple as that is it? I’m interested in what I can take from the Stoics, not in being a Stoic. And what you see with the Stoics, especially of the Roman period, is a movement towards Epicurus (I’d be more interested in placing Epictetus and Epicurus into dialogue). Hardly a page goes by in Seneca’s Letters where he isn’t recommending “wisdom of the rival school” or directly stating that Epicurus ain’t all that bad; or the same again in Montaigne where we see Stoicism and Epicureanism collide even more.

        There is also the route taken by Deleuze who argued that “the Stoics are the first to reverse Platonism and to bring about a radical inversion” of the priority of bodies and incorporeals, and that this is in fact the common ground between the two schools.

        The denigration of the body is at its peak in Epictetus. But I would rather think that it was a reminder- like the practice of the memento morti- that the body isn’t one’s own. It is given back to god/nature. I don’t think even Epictetus truly hates it (although you might understand why a man crippled in one leg would do so) but that there must always be this reminder to detach from the body. Whether its hate or

        Christopher Gill’s The Structured Thought Self in Hellentistic and Roman Thought argues that the Stoic and Epicureans share a great deal in terms of non-reductive physicalism, a materialist ontology and psychology. In practical terms, there is much in the way of agreement on how to live.

        Ultimately, I share what I know of Epicurus’s vision of life on a kind of visceral or dispositional level, and would be inclined to re-read his hedonism as the first philosophical mode of harm-reduction….(the ethics of which really culminate in Schopenhauer). And I certainly don’t think that Stoic cognitivist rationalism can be maintained once we enter a world of embodied minds.

        At the moment I am reading and experimenting more with the Stoics than Epicurus. At some point the balance will shift again. As I have said before, my starting question is always, has always been “why do we stay alive?”…essentially I begin from the position of pessimistic existentialism….I am for whatever philosophy is equipped to answer this question. Happy philosophies, at least philosophies that *begin* in happiness, I don’t know that they can.

        Ultimately, I simply haven’t got to reading Epicurus yet. When I studied philosophy there was an emphasis on contemporary goings on. I’m yet to really get to Epicurus. What the Stoics have that I can’t pull away from is an appreciation of emotions, of the sheer brutal force of the emotions.

        That’s why they have such an austere ascetic philosophy, and maybe why some of them are down on the body: it is the trauma of emotion as a bodily potency over which one has no control. And yet they attempt to engineer techniques to wrest such control. And yet the way they do it seems very similar to contemporary approaches from things like acceptance and commitment therapy with the judgement of impressions an example of a practice of cognitive defusion.

        I was actually having a similar conversation with Donald Robertson on Facebook where I’ve been giving him a hard time for not updating his appropriation of Stoicism in light of philosophical and scientific knowledge. In that conversation it really came home to me that the problem I have with Stoics is really their cognitivism as much as their diregard of the body (which as I say could just be seen as a recognition of the body as a suffering body…the Stoics certainly aren’t against corporeal pleasure as such). I’ve also been arguing that ultimately both schools aim at ataraxia- the Stoics just want to call it virtue and pretend they aim at it for its own sake. Maybe I’m wrong on that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I simplify… I could spend a lot of posts on the history of philosophy and the Stoic tradition in particular, since it was a major aspect of Roman life, etc. I just feel at the moment, personally, a need to work through Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Bacon, etc. down the pipe of materialism vs. the Heraclitean, Parmedian, Plato, Platonistic traditions etc.

        It works with my battle between Parmenides and Democritus as two opposing traditions, etc.

        All the rest are worthy of time, but its time I choose or have decided not to work with at the moment. 🙂

        That is your path, not mine… you may be in the right for all I know. I just don’t at the moment have time to pursue this line of argumentation. 🙂


  2. To be a lot more concise, and to use Epicurus’s own words

    “Vain is the word of a philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man. For just as there is no profit in medicine if it does not expel the diseases of the body, so there is no profit in philosophy either, if it does not expel the suffering of the mind”.

    Ray Brassier just died a little inside 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • I realise that, but to have the requirement of a therapeutics, of any therapeutics whatsoever. Buddha was also a laughing figure, but it begins in the awareness of suffering.


      • Yea, I guess we could always dwell with pain, suffering, unhappiness, wounds, etc. They are there, but why dwell on the obvious. One sees very well the genocide, murder, mayhem in the world almost verbatim. Whole populations of psychiatric inmates suffering through the wounds of life, etc.

        Yet, it could be that one could also dwell on other things? Yes!


      • Yes, of course, but the point for me is to ask how this other dwelling is even possible. Perhaps this is the kind of question that emerges from a depressive/anxious body that has been witness to and attendant on the other side of things.


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