23 March 2005

Phaedo 66e-67a

Please be patient with me on this for just a little longer. What is at issue is whether talk in the Phaedo of 'true philosophers' and non-philosophers is consistent, nonetheless, with non-philosophers' having virtue but to a lesser degree. If it is, then it's not clear that the Phaedo and Laws are incompatible, as Bobonich claims.

Since virtue depends upon knowledge, according to the Phaedo, then, as an anonymous commentator has already pointed out, what is at issue is whether knowledge can differ in degree.

Yet Plato clearly allows that it can. Phaedo 66e-67a is perhaps the most important passage where he does so, but there are others besides:

It really has been shown to us that, if we are ever to have pure knowledge (kaqarw=j ti ei)/sesqai), we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which our argument shows, not while we live; for if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge (kaqarw=j gnw=nai) with the body, then one of two things is true: either we can never attain knowledge or we can do so after death. Then and not before the soul, is by itself apart from the body. While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge (e)gguta/tw e)so/meqa tou= ei)de/nai) if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us (Grube, 66e-67a).

a)lla\ tw=| o)/nti h(mi=n de/deiktai o(/ti, ei) me/llome/n pote kaqarw=j ti ei)/sesqai, a)lla\ tw=| o)/nti h(mi=n de/deiktai o(/ti, ei) me/llome/n pote kaqarw=j ti ei)/sesqai, a)pallakte/on au)tou=+ kai\ au)th=|+ th=| yuxh=|+ qeate/on+ au)ta\+ ta\ pra/gmata+: kai\ to/te, w(j e)/oiken, h(mi=n e)/stai+ ou(= e)piqumou=me/n te kai/ famen e)rastai\ ei)=nai, fronh/sewj, e)peida\n teleuth/swmen, w(j o( lo/goj shmai/nei, zw=sin de\ ou)/. ei) ga\r mh\ oi(=o/n te meta\ tou= sw/matoj+ mhde\n kaqarw=j gnw=nai, duoi=n qa/teron, h)\ ou)damou= e)/stin kth/sasqai to\ ei)de/nai h)\ teleuth/sasin: to/te ga\r au)th\ kaq' au(th\n h( yuxh\ e)/stai xwri\j tou= sw/matoj, pro/teron d' ou)/. kai\ e)n w(=| a)\n zw=men, ou(/twj, w(j e)/oiken, e)gguta/tw e)so/meqa tou= ei)de/nai, e)a\n o(/ti ma/lista mhde\n o(milw=men tw=| sw/mati mhde\ koinwnw=men, o(/ti mh\ pa=sa a)na/gkh, mhde\ a)napimplw/meqa th=j tou/tou fu/sewj, a)lla\ kaqareu/wmen a)p' au)tou=, e(/wj a)\n o( qeo\j au)to\j a)polu/sh| h(ma=j:

From this passage one might argue: If knowledge is by degree and approximation, and virtue is coincident with knowledge, then virtue apparently would vary in degree as well. Similarly, if it followed that someone had virtue in no degree, if he lacked a full grasp of the Forms, then everyone would lack virtue, even ostensible philosophers such as Socrates and his friends, since no one while living in the body has that sort of full grasp.

Seems like a closed case, doesn't it?

But these implications are perhaps avoidable. It may just be possible to allow degrees of knowledge but draw a sharp distinction between philosophers and others nonetheless, as I'll explain in a subsequent post.


Anonymous said...

This is truly a remarkable passage. No wonder Platonism drifted toward skepticism!
I worry that we have here a straightforward denial that embodied souls can know anything, and if virtue is knowledge,...
The best we can have, Socrates goes on to say, is something very near to knowledge. But something close to or near to knowing isn't knowing, is it?
What about "pure knowledge" here? Well, perhaps we should prefer to avoid a translation that hints at a substantive, and read instead " knowing in an unalloyed, or unmixed, or undisturbed fashion". Katharos has all these possible meaning and more. So I read the sentence at 66e, "since the soul cannot know [anything]in an undisturbed fashion, one of two things follow..."
My point in avoiding "pure knowledge" is to short circuit the suggestion that there can be anything like "impure knowledge ", or afortiori "impure virtue".
If we are going to try to go there, I need someone to flesh out for me a Platonic account of "impure knowing" or "near knowing" as a state that still counts as knowledge.

Lucas Rotondo said...


I'm eager to see you follow up your suggestion that it may be possible to allow degrees of knowledge and still to distinguish between philosophers and non-philosophers.

This was the precisely question I had. Could the idea of a graduated scale of knowledge or purification (which I agree clearly suffuses the Phaedo) be compatible with the idea that only philsophers have genuine knowledge or virue?

I would suggest the following. What if we take the view that the philosopher is one who is on the way to knowledge, while the non-philosopher is one who has not yet started on the way to knowledge (i.e., is comfortable in ignorance)? I think it's plausible that, for Plato, the philosopher is not the perfectly virtuous and wise person, but the person who is in between ignorance and wisdom - a lover of wisdom. The practice of philosophy leads in steps to a divine wisdom, which may or may not be fully attainable.

If this is right, then nothing prevents us from drawing a dramatic distinction between the philsopher and non-philosopher. Consider the passage in which Socrates describes his "second sailing". Socrates says he underwent a profound re-orientation from one way of proceding to another. This does not mean that Socrates suddenly became perfectly wise or virtuous, but that he began to philosophize. The philosopher has begun to know, while the non-philosopher remains complacent in ignorance. One is ascending to wisdom in degrees, while the other stays put.

I'm curious to see if you have a similar or very different view in mind with your suggestion.

P.S. to Anonymous -

This passage seems indeed to deny that embodied souls can know anything. Only in death, freed of desires and deceptive sense impressions, can we acheive "pure knowledge" (whatever that is). But notice what happens when the recollection thesis gets introduced. Sense perception comes to play an essential role in knowledge. For it is sensible objects that enable us to recollect knowledge by serving as reminders of what is not present to the senses. So, maybe knowledge and having a body are not so opposed after all. At the very least, this passage may not mean what we intitially think it means. As with much of what Socrates says in the beginning of the dialogue, it is meant in part to provoke Cebes and Simmias and is not free of irony.

Anonymous said...

When I first read the Phaedo and came to this passage, I thought I knew how Plato intended to end the dialogue: Socrates is going to tell us we must grieve over his dying, because at last his soul was going to attain to real knowledge & virtue. All his life, all the discussions & arguments, were to prepare his soul to leave his body and finally come to know the things he had been struggling toward. Plato doesn't write this ending, but I wonder why he holds back. The position of the Phaedo on knowledge & virtue is clearly extremely, and this is where it leads. Socrates,dying, finaly becomes wise and virtuous.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous the Second: I'm not sure I understand why you say, 'Plato doesn't write this ending'. Doesn't he? (I must not be understanding something.) Stephen White has an interesting paper on the 'owe a cock to Asclepius' line which, if I understand it correctly, is suggesting that Socrates is encouraging his friends to start offering up sacrifices in his commemoration, as if he were divinized upon death. 

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