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Adam Brewer

PHIL 391
28 April 2005

The Harmony of Plato’s Phaedo

That Plato’s Phaedo employs extensive myths is odd because Plato seemingly contends that

philosophical investigation should reign, as much as possible, for every individual.1 But we must

also remember that he believes opposites are necessary for one another to exist;2 hence we must

also have a need for the opposite of philosophy, namely mythology. Poetic things such as myths3

are an expression of our irrationality as they are often in disagreement with what we can

rationally deduce.4 Because myths, as expressions of the irrational, are important to us, but

rationality is more so due to its ability to bring us closer to the truth, we should reinvent the myth

such that it is consistent with rationality.5 This will serve to make the myth itself more truthful as

well as support the rational. I argue that Plato uses that Phaedo as the archetypal illustration of

the notion that harmony and mutual benefit between the philosophical and the mythological is

necessary.

This notion is partially presented by Ludwig Edelstein and can be further developed as it

applies to the Phaedo. In his paper “The Function of the Myth in Plato’s Philosophy,” Edelstein

claims that Plato believes that myths need to serve a new purpose rather than the one for which

they were previously used. Edelstein offers that Plato concluded myths were obviously full of

error when subjected to philosophical investigation. Such false myths ought not to be taken as

allegorical because they would be harmful insofar as they would cause one to hold false beliefs.

The problem was that only the wise and learned individual is able to distinguish when a myth

1
Phaedo 85.c-d; 114.d; Republic II 382.b
2
Phaedo 70.c-72.c; see the argument for the Generation from Opposites, below.
3
For the purposes of this paper a myth will be considered any λόγοι (i.e. words or statements) which posit claims
that do not derive from philosophical inquiry (i.e. a rational endeavor to argue for or arrive at a logical truth).
4
Republic II 376.e; 380.c
5
Republic II 382.d

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was presenting falsehoods or being consistent with the truth. The primary audience of the myth

was the young, who, due to their inexperience in life and philosophy, could not make the

distinction between true and erroneous myths (Republic II, 378.d). Thus he concludes that if a

myth is still to be valued it must not remain as it was – often inconsistent with truth; a possible

allegory, which Plato considered “a rustic kind of wisdom” leading nowhere (Phaedrus 228.b-

230.a) and left to the proper interpretation of its varied audiences – but must instead be changed

so that it can be compatible with rational truth and therefore more useful. Because the main

problem with mythology is that it can often be proven to be in error, through philosophy we must

find a way which the myth can be made consistent with philosophical theses, thus having it lead

somewhere (i.e. to rational truths), and still retain some of its other inherent values.

The values of the myth are that it has appeal and ability to sway οἱ πολλόι as well as the

individual.6 In humans, beliefs will sometimes override what rationality dictates. This fact is

made evident in the Phaedo on a number of occasions: (1) In comparing his Theory of the Forms

to other explanations of the nature of things Socrates states that “I ignore these other reasons –

for all these confuse me – but I simply, naively, and perhaps foolishly cling to [my beliefs].” 7 (2)

Simmias proclaims that he is having trouble believing in the immortality of the soul even though

he does not doubt any of the arguments given, and Socrates agrees.8 (3) At the conclusion of his

final myth of the afterlife and the soul Socrates says, “No sensible man would insist that these

things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for man to risk the belief – for the risk

is a noble one – that this, or something like this, is true about our souls,”9 underscoring the idea

that a belief is a good and noble thing because it can be made in agreement with the truth.

6
Republic II 364.e-365.a; 397.d
7
Phaedo 100.d
8
ibid. 107.a-b; discussed further below.
9
ibid. 114.d

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Certainly we are not all rational philosophers at all times, but have a large faith-based system

of understanding which we rely upon in everyday life to act and make decisions. It seems here,

according to Edelstein’s scenario, that we must find a way to make the two parts – the rational

and irrational; the philosopher and the mythologist – in agreement with one another and

harmonious because, “without the addition of a myth, some of the philosophical investigations

would certainly not reach their goal (Republic X, 614.a),”10 – the goal of coming closer to, and

fully believing in, the truth. It is precisely this harmony, between philosophy and mythology,

which the Phaedo aims to illustrate in order to come nearer to truth.

If we apply Edelstein’s theory of myth in Plato to the Phaedo we can see how Plato melds

philosophy and myth. This is particularly apparent if we examine the changing roles of Socrates

through the dialogue, from mythologist to philosopher and back again to mythologist. Socrates’

identification as a philosopher11 can hardly be argued against and I will treat it as a given during

the present paper. He is presented in the Phaedo as being a mythologist through his own

admission as well as his subsequent actions.

Socrates’ opening remarks in the Phaedo illustrate immediately his concern with mythology.

He first gives an etiological myth about the conjoined nature of pleasure and pain. This is used in

conjunction with the thesis that pain and pleasure almost always follow one another. He does not

launch into a philosophical inquiry about the nature of the relationship between the two, but

instead uses a myth as an illustration of what appears to him an odd coincidence of opposites. He

describes two main ideas in the myth: (1) that pleasure and pain are inextricably linked to one

10
Edelstein, p. 466
11
For those who may find this contentious as they feel Socrates is more a Sophist than a philosopher I will say that it
is immaterial which of the two is actually true. The important point is that he is a learned individual who thoroughly
inquires into that which he does not know and defends himself with logical argumentation; for the purposes of my
argument, this is what I consider a philosopher to be.

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another (because the God connects the two) and (2) that they will never reconcile their

difference, but will always be in opposition (as evidenced by the Gods inability to make them

one). These theses are upheld and argued for later on rational grounds when they appear as the

argument for the Generation from Opposites12 and argument for the Mutual Exclusion of

Opposites13. Here we see the harmony created between the original power of the myth – to

reinforce a faith-based or logically unjustified belief – and a philosophical argument with which

it is made consistent. Thus myth-telling has been recast, shedding its original problems of proper

interpretation and inconsistency with philosophically based truth while retaining its appeal to the

irrational side of man.

The myth of pleasure and pain is immediately followed by Socrates’ defense of his acting as

a mythologist.14 Here he states the importance of the myth in one’s life. He spent his life

practicing philosophy (i.e. rational inquiry), but nearing the end he realized that perhaps that was

not enough, perhaps he needed to balance the rational pursuit with an irrational one (i.e.

mythology). Even the way Socrates describes this new desire is indicative of the fact that

irrationality must be used, for he says that it is worry about a particular possible interpretation of

a dream that has made him versify myths; he wants to “satisfy his conscience.” So his irrational

problems of dream interpretation and the pleasing of Gods have an equally irrational solution of

becoming a mythologist. This supports my earlier contention of the myth’s value as appealing to

and satisfying one’s irrational side. This concern of Socrates’, coupled with that fact that he is

undoubtedly a man engaged in rational thought quite often, shows that an individual can be

12
Phaedo. 70.c-72.c as consistent with part (1) of the myth. This argument is further discussed in (α) below.
13
ibid. 102.a-107.a as consistent with part (2) of the myth. This argument is further discussed in (ε) below.
14
ibid. 60d-61b

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neither completely rational nor completely faith-based, but must have a balance of the two, hence

the importance of, and implied advocating for, the myth.

Socrates now moves from his opening myth into a more dialectical investigation about the

nature of whether or not wise men should want to die.15 When compelled to give reasons for his

claims,16 it is interesting to note that before any formal logical arguments are given Socrates

begins with another myth17 to illustrate his beliefs. He claims the existence of an afterlife which

will be much better for the good than for the wicked. This brief myth lays the groundwork for the

ensuing philosophical dialectic as well as a sketch of an expanded myth yet to come. 18 This myth

presupposes the existence of a soul which can exist outside of the body, and long after the body

is gone, thus introducing the Immortality of the Soul (which indirectly leads to the Theory of

Forms). Also, by juxtaposing the good and the wicked Socrates has again brought in the notion

of Opposites which will he will go on to provide rational arguments for.

After the brief introductory myth to the afterlife, the dialogue turns to the type of

philosophical inquiry we are used to seeing in Plato’s earlier dialogues. Following are brief

outlines, lettered α – ε, of the major philosophical arguments given by Socrates. They will be

used for reference to illustrate how each argument is later reinforced by myth.

(α) The Generation from Opposites,19 which states that things which have opposites come

into being from their opposite (e.g. one becomes awake from having been asleep, and one

becomes asleep from having been awake).

15
ibid. 61.c-63.a
16
ibid. 63.b
17
ibid. 63.b-c
18
The direct connections between elements introduced by the myth and the respective accompanying philosophical
arguments will follow when the expanded version of the myth is discussed later in this paper.
19
Phaedo. 70.c-72.d

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(β) The Argument from Recollection,20 states that all learning is actually recollection of prior

knowledge. Socrates introduces the Forms as existent outside of the sensible world because of

this they are not knowable to humans, who exist within the sensible world. However, we have

some knowledge of the Forms (e.g. we have a conception of Beauty) therefore we must have

gained this knowledge outside the sensible world (i.e. in the realm of the Forms). Our bodies do

not exist outside the sensible world, but our souls do when they are not attached to our bodies.

Therefore, our souls must have existed prior to our bodies to gain knowledge. Because the

attainment of such knowledge pre-dated our body’s ability to “learn” it, we do not really “learn”

such things, but instead, we recollect them from our previous knowledge.

(γ) The Affinity Argument21 begins distinguishing between things that are composite, which

can be broken apart and changed, and things that are incomposite, which can be neither broken

apart nor changed. Socrates associates the Forms with the incomposite as they are constant and

invariable; also pointing out that they are invisible. He redefines his two categories of things as

either (1) invisible, invariable, and incomposite, or (2) visible, variable, and composite. Socrates

then goes on to associate the body with (2) and the soul with (1). He has Cebes liken the soul to

the divine governing heavens, which also belong to (1) and are eternal. Since the soul is like the

divine, Socrates concludes that the soul would continue on after death because it also would be

eternal. He concludes the argument with the notion that the body encumbers the soul (i.e. (1) and

(2) are in opposition). The soul should be as unencumbered as possible in its journey after the

death of the body because the soul can end up in a variety of places dependant upon its

encumbered state after death. The more the soul is encumbered by the body, the worse off it will

be, to the point that a soul badly encumbered by the body would remain on earth as a ghost
20
ibid. 72.e-77.a
21
ibid. 78.b-84.b

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unable to make its journey to the underworld. Because the soul encumbered by (2) can not take

the path of the pure (1) soul that is unencumbered, and vice versa, we see that (1) and (2) exhibit

the Mutual Exclusion of Opposites.

Next the dialogue comes to an interlude in the strictly philosophical arguments, where

Socrates gives a short Autobiography22 as a setup for the Theory of Forms. Socrates is looking

for a theory which can explain causation in nature. He first explores the theories of natural

science, particularly the material explanations of the ancient Atomists, which he rejects because

they do not offer reasons for causation, but only describe how things interact and not why they

interact, which is what Socrates is interested in learning. He then goes on to describe how he

searched for the explanation in the works of Anaxagoras. This attempt was disappointing to

Socrates as well because the apparent teleological explanations of Anaxagoras turned out to be

the same material explanations as the atomists but with an added notion that things were directed

by a kind of “intelligence.” This theory, like the previous, only describes how things interact (i.e.

that an “intelligence” directs them) and not why they interact (i.e. why their “intelligence” directs

them as it does) thus Socrates also finds Anaxagoras’ theory unacceptable.

Socrates has rejected both theories thus creating sufficient need for the positing of a

better one – an accurate teleological theory of causation. Where Anaxagoras’ theory failed, the

Theory of Forms will succeed to describe why causation exists. If things strive toward the best

natural order they can attain, as suggested by Anaxagoras, we need a reason why they strive

toward this because Anaxagoras’ “intelligence” only describes the that the order is attained, not

the reasons for its attainment. However, if the Forms exist as a perfect way which things could

exist, then the things have an aim, something to strive for, and they strive for it because it is the

22
ibid. 96.a-100.e

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best way to be. If there is a best way for things to be and they strive for it, then the Forms are the

logical pre-requisite of teleology; the Forms are the goals toward which things strive.

This autobiographical digression is not, strictly speaking, a form of philosophical dialect, but

more of a narrative, which should be treated as a myth for the purposes of this paper. It is the

myth which has been made consistent with the Argument from Forms in order to help support it.

Through rejecting the theories of the Atomists and Anaxagoras in his partial Autobiography

Socrates has created a necessity to posit the Forms, thus setting the stage for the ensuing

philosophical argument.

(δ) The Argument from Forms,23 posits the existence of eternal, perfect, immutable Forms

which dwell in a transcendent realm beyond the sensible world and that all perceptible things

participate to a greater or lesser extent in particular Forms which they resemble (e.g. a person

who is taller than another is so because he/she participates more in the Form of Tallness than the

person that he/she is taller than). The Forms can be seen in different ways:24 (1) As a Paradigm a

Form is the perfect instance of whatever it represents (e.g. the Form of Justice is the most perfect

instance of justice present in the universe) or (2) As a Universal a Form is that which all

exhibitions of the Form have in common (e.g. the Form of Justice is the quality which all just

things share in common). In either case it is important to note that a thing has the ability to

participate less or more in a particular Form than other things which also participate, hence

making it a more perfect exhibit of/participator in the Form.

23
ibid. 100.b-107.a
24
This has been adapted from Egan, David <http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/ phaedo/section10.rhtml>
accessed on 17 April 2005.

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(ε) The Mutual Exclusion of Opposites25 appears within the Argument from Forms and states

that opposites are never present at the same time because they necessarily exclude the

simultaneous presence of one another (e.g. that Hot and Cold are never present at the same time,

but one will prevail over the other if brought to confrontation). Because opposite Forms will not

coexist and each is immutable and permanent one must retreat in the face of its opposite.

Socrates considers that the soul is connected inextricably with the Form of Life as it is what

brings Life into the body. So when the body dies, the soul, which because of its participation in

the Form of Life cannot permit the simultaneous presence of the Form of Death, must leave the

body and go elsewhere to exist.

Once the above arguments are given, Simmias comments that he still does not fully

believe in the existence and immortality of the soul, even though he admits to having no doubts

about the validity of the arguments; there is still a lack of faith in him which needs to be

overcome before he will fully accept the proposed notions of the soul. 26 Socrates agrees with

Simmias that the arguments need more support in spite of the fact that they were found to be

quite convincing.27 Plato has here provided us with another clear example of the fact that one

often requires persuasion greater than reason alone can supply. In response to this demonstrated

need, Socrates offers a lengthy myth28 which will serve to agree with and support all of the

previous arguments made about the nature of the soul and nature of the Forms.

Socrates posits that the soul does not vanish with the death of the body but goes on, after

death, to the underworld.29 This contention expands on his earlier myth30 about the afterlife.
25
Phaedo. 102.a-107.a; previously mentioned in the text on p. 1 to n. 3 as well as (γ) The Affinity Argument above,
this argument is subsumed within (δ) The Argument from Forms.
26
Phaedo. 107.a-b
27
ibid. 107.b
28
ibid. 107.c-115.a
29
ibid. 107.c-d
30
See text on p. 2 to n. 8 above

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Moreover, this myth is consistent with, and supportive of, the aforementioned arguments for the

immortality of the soul given at 71.d-72.a of (α) The Generation from Opposites; (β) The

Argument from Recollection; (γ) The Affinity Argument; and 105.d-106.e of (δ/ε) The

Argument from Forms.

Socrates next speaks of how there are different paths with different guides leading to

different places that our souls can take after death.31 Our souls can be led to fine places by great

Gods or to terrible places by Demons and the like. Where we will go is dependant upon whether

our souls have been made good and pure or become wicked and encumbered during their life

within the body. These ideas are, again, an expansion on the earlier myth of the afterlife32 but

they also mirror what was argued for in (γ) The Affinity Argument that one ought to care more

for the soul than the body. It is also suggestive of (ε) The Mutual Exclusion of Opposites because

the good and pure soul will always be led on a fine path and never the opposite; the same goes

for the wicked and encumbered soul, that it will always be led down the worse path, never the

opposite.

Socrates proceeds to give an account of the construction of the Earth explaining how

there exist different regions that are hierarchical in nature to one another. In each of these regions

whatever beings exist there think that the region is quite good and fine because they are not able

to clearly see the region above them, much like how from underwater one is not able to see the

beauty of the land or sky. Every higher region, according to Socrates’ account, is better than the

regions below, but no beings in the lower regions are aware of this due to their inability to see

beyond. The highest region is pure and perfect and is the ultimately true region, but because of

our inferior position we are not able to attain such perfection or truth; however, it is important to
31
Phaedo. 107.d-108.c
32
See text on p. 2 to n. 8 above

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note that the higher the region one is in, the closer they are to attaining the truth. 33 This

geographic myth clearly mirrors (δ) The Argument from Forms. One can participate more or less

in the Forms and therefore be closer to or further from the true perfect Form which exists in a

transcendent realm.

Throughout this myth of the afterlife Socrates is again reinforcing that the soul exists

beyond the body and he is using the traditional Greek conception of the Underworld and

Afterlife to bolster his theory, thus making the credibility of his philosophy stronger by taking a

general previously accepted myth and making it consistent with his theories.

It is of particular interest to my interpretation that the lengthy myth on the afterlife

concludes the investigatory portion of the dialogue; it is interesting because it is a myth and not a

strictly philosophical inquiry. This only further stresses the importance of the balance between

the rational and irrational methods of arriving at a conclusion. The myth’s length and inclusion

near the end suggest that it was necessary to drive home the points made in the previous

arguments. The whole of the philosophical inquiry contained in the Phaedo is neatly framed

between myths suggesting that the inquiry requires a context other than the strictly rational,

analytic one that would be present if it were omitted.

The structure of the story of Socrates’ death being framed by its narrator’s retelling also

suggests that philosophy can find a home side-by-side with drama: That the two are not opposite

Forms and mutually exclusive, but can, and perhaps should, yield to one another and act in

harmony. This structural choice by Plato in the Phaedo is a good illustration of the notion that

philosophy and mythology can work in tandem to be mutually supportive.

33
Phaedo 108.d-110.a

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The necessity of the harmony of the rational and irrational is cemented by the final words

of Socrates, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius;” A poetic note from a man who spent his life

pursuing philosophical investigation because, in the end, his last words were not philosophical,

but instead they indulged in the myth that one ought to sacrifice to the Gods to show praise.

Socrates offered his last breath to thank the God of healing for his death, supporting his original

claim that the philosopher ought to be glad to die, thus harmonizing the myth with his

philosophy.

Selected Bibliography

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Ahrensdorf, Peter J. 1995. The Death of Socrates and The Life of Philosophy: An Interpretation
of Plato’s Phaedo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Burger, Ronna. 1984. The Phaedo: A Platonic Labyrinth. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press.

Edelstein, Ludwig. 1949. “The Function of the Myth in Plato’s Philosophy,” Journal of the
History of Ideas 10:4 463-481.

Egan, David. 2005. SparkNote on Phaedo. <http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/phaedo>


Accessed on 17 April 2005.

Evans, Dale Wilt. 2001. Truth and Mockery in Platon and in Modernity: A New Perception of
Platon’s Euthyphron, Apology, Criton and Phaidon. Lincoln, NE: Writer’s Club Press.

Campbell, Joseph. [1949] 1973. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.

Gotshalk, Richard. 2001. Loving and Dying: A Reading of Plato’s Phaedo, Symposium, and
Phaedrus. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Grube, G. M. A. 2002. Five Dialogues. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Lateiner, Donald. [1995] 2001. Sardonic Smile: Nonverbal Behavior in Homeric Epic. Ann
Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Raphael, D. D. 1983. “Can Literature Be Moral Philosophy?” New Literary History 15:1 1-12.

Wagner, Wilhelm. 1889. Plato’s Phaedo: With notes critical and exegetical, and an analysis.
Boston, MA: John Allyn, Publisher.

White, David A. 1989. Myth and Metaphysics in Plato’s Phaedo. Cranbury, NJ: Associated
University Presses.

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