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How Plato Portrays the Immortality of the Soul in "Phaedo"

 Dive into the world of philosophy and discover how Plato presents his theories on the immortality of the soul in "Phaedo". The dialogues of Socrates.

How Plato Portrays the Immortality of the Soul in "Phaedo"

Plato's "Phaedo" is a classic text that delves into the topic of the immortality of the soul. This dialogue between Socrates and his followers addresses the questions of what happens to the soul after death, whether it persists or not, and how we should prepare for what follows our mortal life. For students of philosophy or anyone who is interested in exploring deep questions related to human existence, "Phaedo" is a must-read.

Plato's "Phaedo" is a dialogue that explores the nature of the soul and its relationship to the body. In this text, Plato argues that the soul is immortal and separate from the physical body, and that it continues to exist even after death. The dialogue takes place on Socrates' last day before his execution, as he discusses these ideas with his friends. Through their discussions, Plato presents his theories on the immortality of the soul and provides readers with insight into one of the most complex questions in all of philosophy: what happens to us after we die? Whether you're a student of philosophy or just interested in exploring new ideas, "Phaedo" offers a thought-provoking glimpse into some of history's most enduring debates.

phaedo of plato
Plato and Socrates gif

The dialogues of Socrates

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. The Phaedo was for pagan or freethinking philosophers.

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.

In the Phaedo, the last hour has come; his chains are taken off, and he is allowed to converse freely with his friends.

Socrates philosophy of death 

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 upon 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.

Ascetic way of life meaning

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 and there is no suggestion of fasting. 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.

Pleasure as a Conditional Good

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 being not 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.

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.

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 fighting 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.

Socrates immortality of the soul

What are the 4 arguments of Phaedo?

Phaedo gives us four different arguments for the immortality of the soul: The Argument from Opposites, the Theory of Recollection, the Argument from Affinity, and the final argument, given as a response to Cebes' objection. Plato does not seem to place equal weight on all four of these arguments.

The Phaedo: Cebes expresses doubt as to the survival of the soul after death, and urges Socrates to offer arguments.

argument from opposites

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. Saint Paul's statement, "the seed is not quickened except it die," seems to belong to some such theory as this.


Socrates offers an argument for the soul’s immortality, dubbed the ‘Affinity Argument’ . Socrates argues that since the soul shares its essential properties with the invisible and the divine, it necessarily shares the further property of immortality. This argument takes the formal features of Forms (those properties a Form has by virtue of being a Form), as opposed to the proper features of Forms (those properties a particular Form has by virtue of being that particular Form). All Forms are of a certain type, and the soul is far more similar to this type than the body is.

Theory of Recollection

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 (87 ff.). Here Socrates says "there is no teaching, but only recollection." He professes to prove his point by having Meno call in a slave-boy 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.


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 is the prison of the body

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.

philosopher death

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."

Harmony between body and soul

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 to heaven, the bad to hell, the intermediate to purgatory.

Socrates last words meaning

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."


Plato's beliefs on the immortality of the soul in "Phaedo".
Overall, Plato's "Phaedo" presents the belief that the soul is immortal and will continue to exist even after the body has died. He argues that the physical body only acts as a hindrance to true knowledge and wisdom, and that in order to achieve these higher aspirations we must strive for a balance between our bodily needs and our spiritual desires. Through this pursuit of harmony between body and soul, we can attain a virtuous life in which we use our knowledge for the greater good. Plato's theories on the immortality of the soul continue to be studied and debated in philosophy circles today.

A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Jowett, B. (trans.), The Dialogues of Plato (428/27–348/47 BCE). Available online:
v0.1.pdf Annas, J., Plato: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
Annas, J., Virtue and Law in Plato and Beyond, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017
Dancy, R. M., Plato’s Introduction of Forms, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 Fine, G. (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
Irwin, T., Plato’s Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 Kraut, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992
Ryle, G., Plato’s Progress, new edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 
Vlastos, G., Studies in Greek Philosophy, vol. II: Socrates, Plato, and their Tradition, ed. D. W. Graham, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995


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