26 February 2005

Give Me Immortality, or Give Me Death!

Apart from purely 'definitional' dialogues, it is often difficult to say precisely what a Platonic dialogue is about. The ideal constitution or justice? Rhetoric or goodness? Sophistry or ultimate forms? The Forms or.....?

In contrast, hardly anyone would hesitate to say that the Phaedo is about "the immortality of the soul". And yet, is it about immortality?

But what else could it be about?

Well, about death, of course. As Socrates announces: "..it is perhaps most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder (apodhmein) to tell and examine tales about what we believe that journey to be like (peri ths apodhmias ths ekei, poian tina authn oiometha einai)" (61 d-e, Grube)

This is Socrates' description of what the day will be spent talking about. The topic of discussion, he says, is most suitably death or dying--not 'immortality'.

Christopher Rowe in the notes to his edition says that apodhmia can just as well mean one's sojourn at the place to which one is traveling, as the journey itself, and that that is how the term should be taken here. Yet the context I think rules that out. Socrates has just told Simmias to tell Evenus that, if he is wise, he ought "to pursue me as soon as possible" (eme diwkein hws tachista). "I'm leaving today (apeimi) ", Socrates remarks (61c), and, "A philosopher should want to follow (hepesthai) a dying man" (61d). These terms--pursue, leave, follow--denote movement, not rest. They are metaphors for dying, not for where one might end up after death.

Well, what difference would that make? Perhaps none. But perhaps regarding the dialogue as about death has interesting consequences:

1. Immediately, it seems, the dialogue becomes more coherent: the discussion of suicide is not out of place; 'philosophy as the practice of death' makes perfect sense; and the whole thing has a unity through to Socrates' actual departure at the end.

2. Again, particular arguments within the dialogue seem to take on a new significance. The Final Argument, for instance, should perhaps not be approached as a proof of the everlastingness of soul substance, but rather simply as making the point that what happens at death does not happen to the soul. Nothing happens to the soul at death. (Thus the argument becomes very similar to the argument in Republic X.)

3. And then the Phaedo's position as completing the sequence, Euthyphro-Apology-Crito, would become even more intelligible, since the theme that perhaps most binds together those dialogues is that Socrates' virtue is a consequence of his attitude toward death. And the Phaedo then would aim to give an account of this.

Is it death, then?

I'm not afraid of that.


Sam Rickless said...

It seems to me that the dialogue is plausibly read as being about both immortality and death, in the following sense. The arguments, culminating in the Final Argument, are clearly meant to establish the soul's immortality. The dialogue is about death, not in the sense that one or more of the arguments is about death per se, but because the fact that the soul is immortal has consequences about how death should be viewed. In particular, if the soul is immortal, then there is no reason to fear death, since death does not represent the extinction of the soul.

The dialogue could also be read as being about death in the following sense. One of the refrains of the Phaedo is that the body serves as an obstacle to the use of reason to gain knowledge (of the Forms). If this is so, then death, which is defined as the separation of the soul from the body, represents a kind of liberation, a freeing of the soul from its corporeal chains. Again, the lesson is that death should not be viewed with apprehension, but should be welcomed. For if the soul continues to exist after death (as the proof of immortality establishes), then its having been released from the body will make it much easier for it to obtain the knowledge that its attachment to the body made it so difficult to obtain.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Sam Rickless says, in effect, that the Phaedo is about immortality as providing the grounds not to fear death. So the dialogue is about both.

I suppose that's the usual view. But I was wondering whether any purchase can be gotten from stressing that it's a discussion of immortality for the sake of an understanding of death. Perhaps then we can take some of the weight off the arguments that it often seems they cannot bear?

randall rose said...

Actually, the day before reading this post I'd assigned Phaedo to my Plato class. I asked them to look for as many ways as possible that Plato argues from the possibility of knowledge and truth to the conclusion that it's not valuable for the soul to be connected to the body. What I was thinking was that the subject of the dialogue was the soul's separation from the body, and especially Plato's conclusion that this was a good thing (just as a dialogue can be about justice and especially about the point that justice is a good thing).

It strikes me now that Plato is presenting this conclusion (as usual) not as a doctrine to be memorized, but as one of the principles governing people's decisions, which should be adopted through genuine engagement between it and the other candidate principles that one might seriously (perhaps tacitly) consider for this role. The discussion of the characters' emotions about Socrates's death would fit well into the strategy of an author who is seriously attempting to convince us that we, like Socrates, should not fear death, and should not, like Socrates's companions, feel deep regret at the bodily absence of a discussion partner as good as Socrates (instead, we should put our energy into serious discussion, particularly among ourselves, 78a). Though I'm not sure if Plato actually was serious at this strategy, since he didn't fully succeed--Socrates comes off as so attractive that we readers do feel that it would be much better to concentrate on his conversation than to talk seriously among ourselves. So in the end Plato ends up, unworthily I think, settling for merely diverting his readers' loyalties towards Socratic written discourses like his own, 58d.

I realize Michael has already suggested that the subject of the dialogue is death, and someone might say that this comes to the same thing as what I suggested: the separation of the soul from the body. After all, death is agreed here to be the separation of the soul from the body (64c), as Sam Rickless mentions. But it seems to me that if you have two expressions A and B and the answer to "What is A?" turns out to be B--in fact, even if A and B are synonymous--it is still a different thing for a discussion to be "about A" than "about B". The participants and audience in the discussion might not be fully, consciously aware beforehand that A is B. When question-and-answer pairs like "Is A the same as B?"--"Yes" are worth including in a Platonic dialogue, we must assume that Plato thinks it's a nontrivial cognitive step to go from A to B, unless the interlocutor's answer explicitly marks the step as trivial. So I think that separation of the soul from the body counts as a different subject from death, and the value of the separation of the soul from the body and disvalue of their connection counts as a different subject from the value of death and disvalue of bodily life. It seems to me that the subject of the connection between the soul and the body, and whether it's good for them to be so connected, is a more central concern of Plato's works (and even this dialogue) than death itself, despite the central role that death plays in the dialogue's more dramatic elements. Plato, in the end, is more interested in the point that readers should not value the connection of the soul to the body than in the point that readers should welcome death and spend their lives preparing for it--even if these two come to the same thing.

Lucas Rotondo said...

I think that Michael is right to suggest the understanding of death takes precedence in the Phaedo over the proof of immortality as that aim is commonly understood. The Phaedo, as I see it, is about death and dying as a metaphor for the philosophical life. The dialogue then is not about death exactly, but about philosophy as a special kind of dying. Death, much as eros in the Symposium, turns out to have a special meaning that is identical with the practice of philosophy. When Socrates says the true philosopher devotes himself to dying and being dead (64a), he doesn't mean the philosopher yearns for death in the ordinary sense:

"For they [the hoi polloi] are unaware of this: what way those who truly are philosophers are ripe for death and in what way they are worthy of death and of what sort of death." (64b, my emphasis).

Death, in the ordinary sense, is something that happens to you. Death, in Socrates' sense, is something you work at. Socrates defines death as the separation of body and soul. What the philosopher works at, then, is the separation of body and soul. The Phaedo seems to me to be an illustration of what it means to separate body and soul, which is said to be a kind of catharsis or purification.

There are different ways we could understand this act of purification. It seems at first to mean that the philosopher strives for death in the ordinary sense, the kind of death that happens to everyone. I think it's clear that this is not what Socrates means by the separation of body and soul (even if his interlocutors think it is). First, the warning against suicide (61c) seems to rule out this possibility. Second, the line quoted above indicates that only the philosopher dies in Socrates’ peculiar sense. Third, Socrates later suggests that we must work to maintain the separation of body and soul (to practice philosophy) even after the two are apart:

"A philosophic man's soul wouldn't reason it out that way: She wouldn't think that philosophy should release her and that, once released she should of herself give herself over to pleasures and pains and tie herself down again to the body and engage in the unfinishable task of a Penelope unweaving the web she's woven." (84a)

In other words, we need to work persistently to fully separate body and soul. If we stop practicing philosophy, or die not having done any philosophy, the soul will of its own accord reunite with the body. Philosophy is a continual process and not a singular event as is death in the ordinary sense. Hence, death in the ordinary sense in not sufficient to bring about the desired separation. (The other important point here is that the body is not responsible for the soul’s entrapment. Our confusion of the things that cause pain or pleasure with what really exists – ignorance in a sense - resides in the soul. Otherwise, why would we still be tempted once the soul is released from the body?)

If not death in the ordinary sense, what could Socrates mean by separating body and soul?

The usual take is that Socrates in the Phaedo counsels an ascetic hatred of the body. As Sam Rickless puts it, the body is an obstacle that stands in the way of the use of reason to gain knowledge. The separation of soul from body liberates us from the bodily desires that enslave us and make it impossible to know the truth. The best we can do in this life is to struggle our appetites until we are finally released from the body in death.

One problem here is that we can’t explain why soul needed a body in the first place. If we can’t imagine a reason why the two should be together, then life as the union of body and soul becomes unintelligible. This is especially puzzling because Socrates says that his favored way to explain why things in nature are arranged as there are is that it is best for them to be that way (98a).

I suggest an alternate reading. In the right kind of separation of body and soul, reason does not overthrow bodily desires; it guides them into order. Plato on this reading does not oppose the body and the material world; he opposes ignorance. Reason takes our unreflective grasping at satisfaction and gradually converts into a reflective quest for that which is truly satisfying - the good. As with the erotic ascent of the Symposium, it is not the object of desire that changes, but the principle by which we regulate desire. On this journey, the philosopher traverses the distance from a life of habit to a life of active reflection on the good. To become reflective is to become soundminded (phronimos), and to become soundminded is to become akin to the divine. This, I would argue, is the kind of immortality for which Socrates truly hopes.