The Phaedo: The Art of Dying

I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.

Plato, Phaedo

In my pursuit of tracing down the battles of philosophy between the Parmedian (Idealist) and Democretian (Materialist) traditions there is probably no better place to start than with Plato’s great manifesto on the Art of Dying: the Phaedo.

Plato found the body disgusting and a detriment to the pursuit of reality and truth. His hatred of the senses and the physical realm of bodily pleasure is well known. It is this long shadow of Plato’s conceptions of reality and truth that still haunt philosophy like an insidious worm that gnaws at its entrails. His belief in an immortal soul that could be slowly purified of the senses and raised to know the truth is at the heart of this so called Art of Dying:

“There is likely to be something such as a path to guide us out of our confusion, because as long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be the truth.”1

This notion that the truth will never be attained through the senses is at the core of Plato’s dialogue in the Phaedo, along with the ensuing notion that there is a true art of philosophy and that Plato himself can teach it through the imaginative figure of his fictional Socrates. He will place a high price on this acetic practice of attaining truth through purity and against the body and all its desires: “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, [e] we must escape from the body and observe things-in-themselves with the soul by itself.”2 (One wonders if the old Kant was looking at this passage when he forever closed the door on things-in-themselves”; the noumenal realm? Closing us off in finitude, limited to intuition and the curse of the body, etc.)

Plato through the mouth of his figural Socrates on his deathbed will promote this practice of purification as the only possible way to truth: “[a]nd does purification not turn out to be what we mentioned in our argument some time ago, namely, to separate the soul as far as possible from the body and accustom it to gather itself and collect itself out of [d] every part of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body?” This art of dying well is actually an apology for suicide, which is the point Socrates makes with his friends. The idea that it “is only those who practice philosophy in the right way, we say, who always most want to free the soul; and this release and separation of the soul from the body is the preoccupation of the philosophers?”4

The whole opening of the Phaedo is Socrates’s apology against resentment, against resenting dying and death; instead, for Socrates we should affirm death and dying as the ultimate goal of philosophy and wisdom: the purification of the mind in truth. Reading the Phaedo one gets the feeling that Plato is more of an Orphic Priest than a philosopher, and that his philosophy is not truly about understanding truth as it is a spiritual practice and path to purification and transcendence rather than philosophy as we’ve come to know it. Of course one can point to such books as Algis Uzdavinys’s Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism that affirm that as the central tenet of Plato’s program, etc., and that the Phaedo is the first manifesto of this new praxis: the Orphico-Pythagorean soteriological manifesto.5 As Uzdavinys reminds us, for Plato “the souls of pious philosophers (the knowers of Ideas, or Forms) are purified of the mortal body and thereby join the immortal gods” (76-77).

Plato’s Socrates will admit: “

Will then a true lover of wisdom, who has a similar hope and knows that he will never find it to any extent except in Hades, be resentful of dying and not gladly undertake the journey thither?6

At every point Plato will pit the “lover of wisdom” against the  “lover of the body” as if to have been born were itself the most heinous of crimes against the gods. Yet, this would also be false, because for Plato humans are and will remain slaves of the gods, subordinated to their hierarchical dictates.7 Against the lovers of body these lovers of wisdom will enact moderation, courage, and justice; and, most of all they will enact wisdom, which “itself is a kind of cleansing or purification”.8 Plato will even buy into the Orphic mythologies and their mystics, saying: “

It is likely that those who established the mystic rites for us were not inferior persons but were speaking in riddles long ago when they said that whoever arrives in the underworld uninitiated and unsanctified will wallow in the mire, whereas he who arrives there purified and initiated will dwell with the gods.9

 This opposition of the uninitiated and unsanctified “lovers of the body”, against the purified and initiated “lovers of wisdom” is central to his program attack on the Athenians of his day who killed or murdered Socrates. For the Phaedo above all things is a final tribute to his master, Socrates. A promissory note marking both goodbye and Plato’s own manifesto and stretching of his young wings toward his own projects.  

After the long defense and preamble of Socrates defending dying and death, initiation and the purification of the soul of the body his friend Cebes will tell him that it is all good and well but that most people will not get it, that most people will plainly disagree with Socrates and argue for the mortality of the soul along with the body rather than the immortal transcension of the soul into a realm of wisdom, saying, of the soul that

…after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone and is no longer anything anywhere.10

Socrates for his part will begin a discussion on causality (i.e., whence the emergence of humans, animals, plants, etc. in the world?) Everything that is or comes to be must come out of it’s opposite will be his starting point in the discussion. Old Socrates once again is shown to be a master of rhetoric and dialectic in these passages, as if he’d finally succumbed to the art of the Sophist and Dialectician, leading poor Cebes through a gallery of objects that arise out of their opposite, and coming to a final resolution of life arising out of death and vice versa:

What comes to be from being alive? Being dead.
And what comes to be from being dead?
One must agree that it is being alive.
Then, Cebes, living creatures and things come to be from the dead?11

Poor Cebes seems so befuddled at this point that his question seems more tentative as if he were in a state of utter confusion and was unsure if he had just been tricked by Socrates or not. Socrates, ever the rhetorician, outdoes all Sophists everywhere with his dialectical tricks. Yet, one wonders why he did not win his freedom from the Athenian judges? Or did he? Maybe the truth is that Plato’s Socrates always did want to be free in the Plato’s philosophical sense: of his own purification of the body and mind by way of death, etc. At least this is what Plato imagines for us. The actual Socrates of the body is gone beyond that strange shadow world forever. What remains is the fictions of Plato and others figural plays of rhetoric, pages filled with this mind that floats through time on the mind’s of those who have battled with such things: the philosophers.

In my next post I’ll take up the Phaedo again demarcating Plato’s emerging Theory of substantial forms or Ideas, etc.

1. Plato; Cooper, John M.; Hutchinson, D. S. (2011-08-25). Complete Works (Kindle Locations 2096-2098). Hackett Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2104-2105).
3. ibid. (KL 2118-2120).
4. ibid. (KL 2123-2124).
5. Algis Uzdavinys. Orpheus and the Roots of Platonism. (Matheson Trust, 2011)
6. ibid. (KL 2134-2135).
7. ibid. (KL 2139)
8. ibid. (KL 2163-2164)
9. ibid. (KL 2164-2166).
10. ibid. (KL 2174-2176).
11. ibid. (KL 2219-2222).