The dialogue called after Phaedo is interesting in several respects. It purports to describe the last moments in the life of Socrates: his conversation immediately before drinking the hemlock, and after, until he loses consciousness. This presents Plato's ideal of a man who is both wise and good in the highest degree, and who is totally without fear of death. Socrates in face of death, as represented by Plato, was important ethically, both in ancient and in modern times. What the gospel account of the Passion and the Crucifixion was for Christians, the Phaedo was for pagan or free-thinking philosophers.1 But the imperturbability of Socrates in his last hour is bound up with his belief in immortality, and the Phaedo is important as setting forth, not only the death of a martyr, but also many doctrines which were afterwards Christian. The theology of St Paul and of the Fathers was largely derived from it, directly or indirectly, and can hardly be understood if Plato is ignored.
An earlier dialogue, the Crito, tells how certain friends and disciples of Socrates arranged a plan by which he could escape to Thessaly. Probably the Athenian authorities would have been quite glad if he had escaped, and the scheme suggested may be assumed to have been very likely to succeed. Socrates, however, would have none of it. He contended that he had been condemned by due process of law, and that it would be wrong to do anything illegal to avoid punishment. He first proclaimed the principle which we
associate with the Sermon on the Mount, that 'we ought not to retaliate evil for evil to any one, whatever evil we may have suffered from him'. He then imagines himself engaged in a dialogue with the laws of Athens, in which they point out that he owes them the kind of respect that a son owes to a father or a slave to his master, but in an even higher degree; and that, moreover, every Athenian citizen is free to emigrate if he dislikes the Athenian state. The laws end a long speech with the words:
Listen, then, Socrates, to us who have brought you up. Think not of life and children first, and of justice afterwards, but of justice first, that you may be justified before the princes of the world below. For neither will you nor any that belong to you be happier or holier or juster in this life, or happier in another, if you do as Crito bids. Now you depart in innocence, a sufferer and not a doer of evil; a victim, not of the laws, but of men. But if you go forth, returning evil for evil, and injury for injury, breaking the covenants and agreements which you have made with us, and wronging those whom you ought least of all to wrong, that is to say, yourself, your friends, your country, and us, we shall be angry with you while you live, and our brethren, the laws in the world below, will receive you as an enemy; for they will know that you have done your best to destroy us.
This voice, Socrates says, 'I seem to hear humming in my ears like the sound of the flute in the ears of the mystic.' He decides accordingly, that it is his duty to stay and abide the death sentence.
In the Phaedo, the last hour has come; his chains are taken off, and he is allowed to converse freely with his friends. He sends away his weeping wife, in order that her grief may not interfere with the discussion.
Socrates begins by maintaining that, though any one who has the spirit of philosophy will not fear death, but, on the contrary, will welcome it, yet he will not take his own life, for that is held to be unlawful. His friends inquire why suicide is held to be unlawful, and his answer, which is in accordance with Orphic doctrine, is almost exactly what a Christian might say. 'There is a doctrine whispered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away; this is a great mystery which I do not quite understand.' He compares the relation of man to God with that of cattle to their owner; you would be angry, he says, if your ox took the liberty of putting himself out of the way, and so 'there may be reason in saying that a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as He is now summoning me'. He is not grieved at death, because he is convinced 'in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good (of which I am as certain as I can be of any such matters) and secondly (though I am not so sure of this last) to men departed, better than those whom I leave behind. I have good hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead, some far better thing for the good than for the evil'.
Death, says Socrates, is the separation of soul and body. Here we come under Plato's dualism: between reality and appearance, ideas and sensible objects, reason and sense-perception, soul and body. These pairs are connected: the first in each pair is superior to the second both in reality and in goodness. An ascetic morality was the natural consequence of this dualism. Christianity adopted this doctrine in part, but never wholly. There were two obstacles. The first was that the creation of the visible world, if Plato was right, might seem to have been an evil deed, and therefore the Creator could not be good. The second was that orthodox Christianity could never bring itself to condemn marriage, though it held celibacy to be nobler. The Manichaeans were more consistent in both respects.
The distinction between mind and matter, which has become a commonplace in philosophy and science and popular thought, has a religious origin, and began as the distinction of soul and body. The Orphic, as we saw, proclaims himself the child of earth and of the starry heaven; from earth comes the body, from heaven the soul. It is this theory that Plato seeks to express in the language of philosophy.
Socrates, in the Phaedo, proceeds at once to develop the ascetic implications of his doctrine, but his asceticism is of a moderate and gentlemanly sort. He does not say that the philosopher should wholly abstain from ordinary pleasures, but only that he should not be a slave to them. The philosopher should not care about eating and drinking, but of course he should eat as much as is necessary; there is no suggestion of fasting. And we are told that Socrates, though indifferent to wine, could, on occasion, drink more than anybody else, without ever becoming intoxicated. It was not drinking that he condemned, but pleasure in drinking. In like manner, the philosopher must not care for the pleasures of love, or for costly raiment, or sandals, or other adornments of the person. He must be entirely concerned with the soul, and not with the body. 'He would like, as far as he can, to get away from the body and to turn to the soul.'
It is obvious that this doctrine, popularized, would become ascetic, but in intention it is not, properly speaking, ascetic. The philosopher will not abstain with an effort from the pleasures of sense, but will be thinking of other things. I have known many philosophers who forgot their meals, and read a book when at last they did eat. These men were acting as Plato says they should: they were not abstaining from gluttony by means of a moral effort, but were more interested in other matters. Apparently the philosopher should marry, and beget and rear children, in the same absent-minded way, but since the emancipation of women this has become more difficult. No wonder Xanthippe was a shrew.
Philosophers, Socrates continues, try to dissever the soul from communion with the body, whereas other people think that life is not worth living for a man who has 'no sense of pleasure and no part in bodily pleasure'. In this phrase, Plato seems—perhaps inadvertently—to countenance the view of a certain class of moralists, that bodily pleasures are the only ones that count. These moralists hold that the man who does not seek the pleasures of sense must be eschewing pleasure altogether, and living virtuously. This is an error which has done untold harm. In so far as the division of mind and body can be accepted, the worst pleasures, as well as the best, are mental—for example, envy, and many forms of cruelty and love of power. Milton's Satan rises superior to physical torment, and devotes himself to a work of destruction from which he derives a pleasure that is wholly of the mind. Many eminent ecclesiastics, having renounced the pleasures of sense, and not being on their guard against others, became dominated by love of power, which led them to appalling cruelties and persecutions, nominally for the sake of religion. In our own day, Hitler belonged to this type; by all accounts, the pleasures of sense were of very little importance to him. Liberation from the tyranny of the body contributes to greatness, but just as much to greatness in sin as to greatness in virtue.
This, however, is a digression, from which we must return to Socrates.
We come now to the intellectual aspect of the religion which Plato (rightly or wrongly) attributes to Socrates. We are told that the body is a hindrance in the acquisition of knowledge, and that sight and hearing are inaccurate witnesses: true existence, if revealed to the soul at all, is revealed in thought, not in sense. Let us consider, for a moment, the implications of this doctrine. It involves a complete rejection of empirical knowledge, including all history and geography. We cannot know that there was such a place as Athens, or such a man as Socrates; his death, and his courage in dying, belong to the world of appearance. It is only through sight and hearing that we know anything about all this, and the true philosopher ignores sight and hearing. What, then, is left to him? First, logic and mathematics; but these are hypothetical and do not justify any categorical assertion about the real world. The next step—and this is the crucial one—depends upon the idea of the good. Having arrived at this idea, the philosopher is supposed to know that the good is the real, and thus to be able to infer that the world of ideas is the real world. Later philosophers had arguments to prove the identity of the real and the good, but Plato seems to have assumed it as self-evident. If we wish to understand him, we must, hypothetically, suppose this assumption justified.
Thought is best, Socrates says, when the mind is gathered into itself, and is not troubled by sounds or sights or pain or pleasure but takes leave of the body and aspires after true being; 'and in this the philosopher dishonours the body'. From this point, Socrates goes on to the ideas or forms or essences. There is absolute justice, absolute beauty, and absolute good, but they are not visible to the eye. 'And I speak not of these alone, but of absolute greatness, and health, and strength, and of the essence or true nature of everything.' All these are only to be seen by intellectual vision. Therefore while we are in the body, and while the soul is infected with the evils of the body, our desire for truth will not be satisfied.
This point of view excludes scientific observation and experiment as methods for the attainment of knowledge. The experimenter's mind is not 'gathered into itself', and does not aim at avoiding sounds or sights. The two kinds of mental activity that can be pursued by the method that Plato recommends are mathematics and mystic insight. This explains how these two come to be so intimately combined in Plato and the Pythagoreans.
To the empiricist, the body is what brings us into touch with the world of external reality, but to Plato it is doubly evil, as a distorting medium, causing us to see as through a glass darkly, and as a source of lusts which distract us from the pursuit of knowledge and the vision of truth. Some quotations will make this clear.
The body is the source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food; and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us all power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure to betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our inquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth. It has been proved to us by experience that if we would have true knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body—the soul in herself must behold things in themselves: and then we shall attain the wisdom which we desire, and of which we say we are lovers; not while we live, but after death; for if while in company with the body the soul cannot have pure knowledge, knowledge must be attained after death, if at all.
And thus having got rid of the foolishness of the body we shall be pure and have converse with the pure, and know of ourselves the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth. For the impure are not permitted to approach the pure…. And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body?… And this separation and release of the soul from the body is termed death…. And the true philosophers, and they only, are ever seeking to release the soul.
There is one true coin for which all things ought to be exchanged, and that is wisdom.
The founders of the mysteries would appear to have had a real meaning, and were not talking nonsense when they intimated in a figure long ago that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will lie on a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For many, as they say in the mysteries, are the thyrsusbearers, but few are the mystics, meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.
All this language is mystical, and is derived from the mysteries. 'Purity' is an Orphic conception, having primarily a ritual meaning, but for Plato it means freedom from slavery to the body and its needs. It is interesting to find him saying that wars are caused by love of money, and that money is only needed for the service of the body. The first half of this opinion is the same as that held by Marx, but the second belongs to a very different outlook. Plato thinks that a man could live on very little money if his wants were reduced to a minimum, and this no doubt is true. But he also thinks that a philosopher should be exempt from manual labour; he must therefore live on wealth created by others. In a very poor State there are likely to be no philosophers. It was the imperialism of Athens in the age of Pericles that made it possible for Athenians to study philosophy. Speaking broadly, intellectual goods are just as expensive as more material commodities, and just as little independent of economic conditions. Science requires libraries, laboratories, telescopes, microscopes, and so on, and men of science have to be supported by the labour of others. But to the mystic all this is foolishness. A holy man in India or Tibet needs no apparatus, wears only a loin cloth, eats only rice, and is supported by very meagre charity because he is thought wise. This is the logical development of Plato's point of view.
To return to the Phaedo: Cebes expresses doubt as to the survival of the soul after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments. This he proceeds to do, but it must be said that the arguments are very poor.
The first argument is that all things which have opposites are generated from their opposites—a statement which reminds us of Anaximander's views on cosmic justice. Now life and death are opposites, and therefore each must generate the other. It follows that the souls of the dead exist somewhere, and come back to earth in due course. St Paul's statement, 'the seed is not quickened except it die,' seems to belong to some such theory as this.
The second argument is that knowledge is recollection, and therefore the soul must have existed before birth. The theory that knowledge is recollection is supported chiefly by the fact that we have ideas, such as exact equality, which cannot be derived from experience. We have experience of approximate equality, but absolute equality is never found among sensible objects, and yet we know what we mean by 'absolute equality'. Since we have not learnt this from experience, we must have brought the knowledge with us from a previous existence. A similar argument, he says, applies to all other ideas. Thus the existence of essences, and our capacity to apprehend them, proves the pre-existence of the soul with knowledge.
The contention that all knowledge is reminiscence is developed at greater length in the Meno (82 ff.). Here Socrates says, 'there is no teaching, but only recollection.' He professes to prove his point by having Meno call in a slaveboy whom Socrates proceeds to question on geometrical problems. The boy's answers are supposed to show that he really knows geometry, although he has hitherto been unaware of possessing this knowledge. The same conclusion is drawn in the Meno as in the Phaedo, that knowledge is brought by the soul from a previous existence.
As to this, one may observe, in the first place, that the argument is wholly inapplicable to empirical knowledge. The slave-boy could not have been led to 'remember' when the Pyramids were built, or whether the siege of Troy really occurred, unless he had happened to be present at these events. Only the sort of knowledge that is called a priori—especially logic and mathematics—can be possibly supposed to exist in every one independently of experience. In fact, this is the only sort of knowledge (apart from mystic insight) that Plato admits to be really knowledge. Let us see how the argument can be met in regard to mathematics.
Take the concept of equality. We must admit that we have no experience, among sensible objects, of exact equality; we see only approximate equality. How, then, do we arrive at the idea of absolute equality? Or do we, perhaps, have no such idea?
Let us take a concrete case. The metre is defined as the length of a certain rod in Paris at a certain temperature. What should we mean if we said, of some other rod, that its length was exactly one metre? I don't think we should mean anything. We could say: That most accurate processes of measurement known to science at the present day fail to show that our rod is either longer or shorter than the standard metre in Paris. We might, if we were sufficiently rash, add a prophecy that no subsequent refinements in the technique of measurement will alter this result. But this is still an empirical statement, in the sense that empirical evidence may at any moment disprove it. I do not think we really possess the idea of absolute equality that Plato supposes us to possess.
But even if we do, it is clear that no child possesses it until it reaches a certain age, and that the idea is elicited by experience, although not directly derived from experience. Moreover, unless our existence before birth was not one of sense-perception, it would have been as incapable of generating the idea as this life is; and if our previous existence is supposed to have been partly super-sensible, why not make the same supposition concerning our present existence? On all these grounds, the argument fails.
The doctrine of reminiscence being considered established, Cebes says: 'About half of what was required has been proven; to wit, that our souls existed before we were born:—that the soul will exist after death as well as before birth is the other half of which the proof is still wanting.' Socrates accordingly applies himself to this. He says that it follows from what was said about everything being generated from its opposite, according to which death must generate life just as much as life generates death. But he adds another argument, which had a longer history in philosophy: that only what is complex can be dissolved, and that the soul, like the ideas, is simple and not compounded of parts. What is simple, it is thought, cannot begin or end or change. Now essences are unchanging: absolute beauty, for example, is always the same, whereas beautiful things continually change. Thus things seen are temporal, but things unseen are eternal. The body is seen, but the soul is unseen; therefore the soul is to be classified in the group of things that are eternal.
The soul, being eternal, is at home in the contemplation of eternal things, that is, essences, but is lost and confused when, as in sense-perception, it contemplates the world of changing things.
The soul, when using the body as an instrument of perception, that is to say, when using the sense of sight or hearing or some other sense (for the meaning of perceiving through the body is perceiving through the senses) … is then dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is like a drunkard, when she touches change…. But when returning into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself, and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging. And this state of the soul is called wisdom.
The soul of the true philosopher, which has, in life, been liberated from thraldom to the flesh, will, after death, depart to the invisible world, to live in bliss in the company of the gods. But the impure soul, which has loved the body, will become a ghost haunting the sepulchre, or will enter into the body of an animal, such as an ass or wolf or hawk, according to its character. A man who has been virtuous without being a philosopher will become a bee or wasp or ant, or some other animal of a gregarious and social sort.
Only the true philosopher goes to heaven when he dies. 'No one who has not studied philosophy and who is not entirely pure at the time of his departure is allowed to enter the company of the Gods, but the lover of knowledge only.' That is why the true votaries of philosophy abstain from fleshly lusts: not that they fear poverty or disgrace, but because they 'are conscious that the soul was simply fastened or glued to the body—until philosophy received her, she could only view real existence through the bars of a prison, not in and through herself, … and by reason of lust had become the principal accomplice in her own captivity'. The philosopher will be temperate because 'each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body, until she becomes like the body, and believes that to be true which the body affirms to be true'.
At this point, Simmias brings up the Pythagorean opinion that the soul is a harmony, and urges: if the lyre is broken, can the harmony survive? Socrates replies that the soul is not a harmony, for a harmony is complex, but the soul is simple. Moreover, he says, the view that the soul is a harmony is incompatible with its pre-existence, which was proved by the doctrine of reminiscence; for the harmony does not exist before the lyre.
Socrates proceeds to give an account of his own philosophical development, which is very interesting, but not germane to the main argument. He goes on to expound the doctrine of ideas, leading to the conclusion 'that ideas exist, and that other things participate in them and derive their names from them'. At last he describes the fate of souls after death: the good go to heaven, the bad to hell, the intermediate to purgatory.
His end, and his farewells, are described. His last words are: 'Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?' Men paid a cock to Asclepius when they recovered from an illness, and Socrates has recovered from life's fitful fever.
'Of all the men of his time,' Phaedo concludes, 'he was the wisest and justest and best.'
The Platonic Socrates was a pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages. What are we to think of him ethically? (I am concerned only with the man as Plato portrays him.) His merits are obvious. He is indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be truth than for anything else whatever. He has, however, some very grave defects. He is dishonest and sophistical in argument, and in his private thinking he uses intellect to prove conclusions that are to him agreeable, rather than in a disinterested search for knowledge. There is something smug and unctuous about him, which reminds one of a bad type of cleric. His courage in the face of death would have been more remarkable if he had not believed that he was going to enjoy eternal bliss in the company of the gods. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was not scientific in his thinking, but was determined to prove the universe agreeable to his ethical standards. This is treachery to truth, and the worst of philosophic sins. As a man, we may believe him admitted to the communion of saints; but as a philosopher he needs a long residence in a scientific purgatory.