Platonic Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul
When asked what the main objective of Plato’s Phaedo is, one would likely, confidently, claim that it is to prove the immortality of the soul. When asked if Plato is successful in doing so, one might not be so confident with their response. However, I am. In the Phaedo, several arguments are formulated to solidify the claim that the soul is immortal, six to be exact. Philosophy is the practice for death, everything comes to be from its’ opposite, the proof of recollection, the soul is not likely to be scattered, the soul is not like a harmony and that though opposites come to be from opposites, an opposite could never become an opposite to itself. Through these arguments made in Plato’s Phaedo, the immortality of the soul is certainly proved.
The first argument that Socrates uses as a defense is the concept that the aim of philosophy is “to practice for dying and death”(64a).
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He begins this argument by clarifying the definition of death, which can simply be interpreted as nothing more than the separation of the soul from the body. Once that conclusion is reached, he establishes that true philosophers do not involve themselves in bodily pleasures, which leads to the next conclusion that, compared to men, philosophers try harder to dissociate their souls from their bodies. The desires of the body, whether they be pleasure from sex, food, or wealth, serve as a distraction and make it impossible for the soul to acquire truth and wisdom.
The soul and body must be separate in order to receive truth and practice real philosophy. Getting wrapped up in worldly things is what impairs one from practicing true philosophy. One of the counter-arguments used is that it would be ridiculous for philosophers to live as close to death as possible because they will resent it when it comes, however, Socrates responds saying, “..those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying and they fear death least of all men”(67e). The aim of philosophers is to separate the soul from the body so they can acquire truth and wisdom. Since death is defined as the separation of the soul from the body, it can be established that the aim of philosophy is in fact to practice for dying and death.
The next argument used is that everything comes to be from its’ opposite(70e). Some simple examples Socrates uses to support his argument are that if something comes to be smaller, it must be from something larger and if something comes to be weaker, it must be from something stronger. From these examples, it can be concluded that all things come to be from their opposites. What is established next is that there must be two processes in between the opposites. One process for each direction.
For example, if something small becomes something big, one might define that process as ‘increasing’ and if something big becomes small, one might define that process as decreasing. Since the conclusion has previously been made that opposites come to be from each other, it can be said that life and death come to be from each other and that there are also two processes in between them. This means that being alive comes from being dead, so there has to be death before life. Socrates solidifies this argument when he says, “Coming to life again in truth exists, the living come to be from the dead, and the souls of the dead exist”(72e). It is from the previous statement that the immortality of the soul is proved because it states that they existed prior to birth and that we come to life again.
The combination of the previous argument and the proof of recollection work as a cohesive unit to prove that souls do exist before death. Socrates begins this defense when he says, “.. 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”(72e/73a). Knowledge through recollection means that one must have previously learned something and simply recalls information as soon as it comes to mind.
This concept states that one does not truly have knowledge and does not learn things, but remembers things from before birth as they are exposed to them. Simmias tries to argue that we acquire knowledge at birth, but is quickly proved wrong and agrees with Socrates’ argument that the soul must exist before it comes into the body and that it must also have intelligence. If the only way we know things is because we immediately recognize them, then our souls must have acquired truth and knowledge prior to being born into our bodies. The conclusion of this argument is: it has been proved that the soul exists before birth, but this specific argument cannot be used to prove that the soul also exists after death.
Simmias and Cebes both argue with Socrates and even encourage him to try to change their minds about the existence of the soul after death. In fact, Cebes almost taunts him when he laughs and says, “Assuming that we are afraid, Socrates, try to change our minds, or rather do not assume that we are afraid, but perhaps there is a child in us who has these fears; try to persuade him not to fear death like a bogey”(77e). Socrates begins his argument with stating that in order for something to be born again, it must have been dead.
Simmias and Cebes had both previously agreed that death comes from life and life comes from death. However, this is not good enough to convince them. He assumes that since Simmias and Cebes do not believe the soul exists after death, they must think is simply scattered from the body. To counter that thought, he asks which types of things are likely to be scattered. He compares invisible things and visible things and decides whether or not they remain the same. Together, the three of them conclude that visible things change and invisible things remain the same. It is established that, to the human eye, the body is visible and the soul is invisible. Since the soul is invisible, it is not likely to be scattered and it remains the same.
When death occurs, the body is what decomposes and is scattered, but the invisible soul experiences something much different. The soul is judged and if it is pure and dissociated itself from the body while it was alive, it may join the gods and will go somewhere pleasant before it is born again. If the soul was the opposite, it may be dragged down to Hades. Because death and life come to be from each other and the soul is not scattered as a result of death, the soul must be immortal and there must be life before and after death.
Even after this explanation, Simmias and Cebes are not convinced that the soul is immortal. Simmias argues that the soul is like a harmony with the body and that it must be the first thing to perish when death occurs. Cebes argues that the relationship between the soul and body is like that of a weaver and a cloak. After Socrates shares his insights, they both eventually agree that the soul does exist after death and is born again, but eventually wears out and dies.
To be more specific, they claim, “to prove that the soul is strong, that it is divine, that it existed before we were born as men, all this, you say, does not show the soul to be immortal but only long-lasting”(95c). Cebes and Simmias both argue that in order for a philosopher to not be considered foolish for not fearing death, they must prove the immortality of the soul. This argument is what leads Socrates into his final claim that opposites come from opposites, but can never become an opposite to itself.
Socrates’ last argument about “opposites themselves” proves the soul to be indestructible. He makes this proof by beginning with simple examples such as, how odd and even are opposites, so the number four could never be odd. This is then compared to life and death being the opposites. Since the soul is what makes a body living, the soul would never admit to death. Therefore, the soul is deathless and lasts forever. So, when someone dies, their body may be destroyed, but their soul can never be destroyed. I think this final argument is the most effective in proving the immortality of the soul because it is very straightforward and there is no counter-argument that can be made to disprove it.
Through six distinct arguments, Socrates proves that the soul is immortal. Philosophy is the practice for death, everything comes to be from its’ opposite, we come to know things through recollection, the soul is not likely to be scattered, the soul is not like a harmony, and opposites come from opposites, but can never become an opposite to itself. Each claim surpasses the previous in proving the immortality of the soul. All of the arguments intertwine to form this proof, but I think the final argument is what truly ties them all together. The last argument states that the soul would never admit to death, therefore making it indestructible. It is without a doubt that one can declare that Plato’s Phaedo does indeed prove the immortality of the soul.