Immortality of the Soul in the Phaedo Term Paper

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Immortality of the Soul in the Phaedo

Such dialogues as the Republic, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium make clear that Socrates has certainly reflected on the demonstrability of the immortality of the soul prior to his death day. And it is entirely possible that Socrates believes that one last attempt at a proof of immortality may yet result in an ironclad demonstration of this doctrine. But it is at least equally possible that Socrates suspects, if he does not know, that the search for such a proof will yield, as it does in the Phaedo, a less-than-certain foundation for this doctrine. Given the link between this doctrine and the availability of pure wisdom, such an outcome cannot help but cast doubt on the attainment of that wisdom . Why then does Socrates deliberately risk this outcome?

The rationale behind Socrates' guidance of the argument lies in the possibility that an examination of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul may be the necessary precursor for one who would live the philosophic life understood as an ongoing search (Bluck, 1982). Specifically, such an examination is necessary in order to overcome the psychic obstacles to this alternative view. The one who would live the philosophic life, understood as an ongoing search, would have to question both the precise character of human beings and the precise character of our relationship to the transcendent order, if any such order does in fact exist. To do so requires that one overcome the nearly irresistible desire for certainty regarding these questions. The risk that Socrates is willing to take in this argument is an indication of the hold that this desire has on us. Whether that desire is born of a yearning for absolute wisdom or the longing to get what we think we deserve, we cannot help but want to be assured that we will possess what is truly good. Given the evidence that such satisfaction does not always occur in this world, we look to a realm beyond this world, a realm in which the defects of this world are rectified. Crucial to the desire for our own good, then, is the belief that we will exist somehow in this other realm; herein lies the importance of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. On the basis of this doctrine, it becomes possible to maintain -our terrestrial experience to the contrary notwithstanding, that there is a harmonious relationship between humanity and the trans-human such that the cosmos participates in bringing about, indeed, is oriented on, human good. But if one is going to examine this relationship seriously one would have to question whether there is such a harmony. Or, to state the foregoing more concretely, one would have to question precisely what the young men want Socrates to prove in his defense: that it is reasonable to hope that the good will be theirs, if not in this world then in the next.

The most conspicuous aspect of the Phaedo would seem to substantiate Nietzsche's judgment of Socrates. Pervading the dialogue are those two doctrines, the doctrine of the Ideas and the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul which, taken together, seem to confirm that Socrates does indeed prefer the "true world" of the eternal intelligibles to the transient "apparent world." The Ideas are those intelligibles which must be unchanging in order to fulfill the requirements of perfect wisdom. If these objects of knowledge were themselves subject to change, they would stand in need of further explanation with reference to whatever was responsible for their alteration. In order that they be regarded as unchanging, the Ideas must also be thought to be incorporeal, because all that is corporeal is subject to change. Given this unchanging, incorporeal character, the question arises as to how we who are (at least in part) corporeal can communicate with such intelligibles. All that is corporeal impedes the establishment of any such connection so that our apprehension of these eternals must occur independent of sense-perception, of desire, of pleasure, of all that is inseparable from our existence as embodied living beings. Accordingly, it is maintained that we can only hope to attain this perfect or (to use the oft-repeated word of the Pbaedo) "pure" wisdom when we are free of the body, that is, when we are no longer alive. Here lies the link between the doctrine of the Ideas and the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul. The immortal, and thus unchanging and eternal, soul is the vehicle by which otherwise transient humans may commune with the unchanging intelligibles.

It is, indeed, difficult to see in these doctrines, doctrines as familiar to us as Socratic, anything other than a preference for wisdom even at the cost of abandoning this world. Yet, as I will argue, this portrayal of Socrates as an otherworldly, life-denying philosopher conflicts with another famous characterization of Socratic thought, a characterization that is also present in the Phaedo. I refer to the traditional view that Socrates was the first of the humanizing philosophers. While the Pbaedo is famous as a locus classicus of Socrates' otherworldliness, it is also in this dialogue that we find Socrates' equally famous recommendation that philosophic inquiry begin with speeches, with what people say about themselves and their world. This recommendation occurs in the intellectual autobiography that Socrates recounts in the waning moments of his life. In this autobiography, Socrates articulates the inadequacies of his predecessors which led him to adopt a new approach to the study of nature, an approach which, again, far from being otherworldly, begins with what humans say about the world. It is this approach that Socrates terms his "second sailing," a designation indicating that his method is a next-best alternative to his original mode of investigation (Brentlinger, 1972).

The true character of Socratic rationalism is to be found in his "second sailing" rather than in the doctrines of the Ideas and the Immortality of the Soul. In fact, Socrates' alteration of philosophy follows from his recognition of the insuperable difficulties of the view that promises perfect or pure wisdom. More specifically, I will show that Socrates himself realizes the inadequacy of the proofs of immortality, that indeed the several proofs, precisely in their defectiveness, constitute a meditation on those limits that our being embodied, living beings impose on our understanding. Socrates knows full well the obstacles that life poses for the possession of perfect wisdom. Thus, as far as he knows, there exists only an imperfect harmony between the human mind and perfect intelligibility as represented by the Ideas (Archer-Hind, 1894). Nor does he think that we can know that these obstacles are overcome in another existence. Whatever might be said concerning other forms of rationalism, Socratic rationalism does not rest on the dogmatically asserted foundations attributed to it by its critics. To the extent that this is the case, the characterization of Socratic thought by Nietzsche and other antifoundationalist thinkers is more aptly described as a caricature.

In the face of what are widely agreed to be the Phaedo's defective arguments for immortality, an attempt must be made to explain the positive teaching that Plato means to convey through these particular defects. Moreover, any plausible interpretation must also explain why Plato chooses to convey his understanding through such roundabout means. I adopt this principle as the safest, that is, the least distorting, of interpretive principles. Other principles of interpretation, such as those that refer to Plato's intellectual development or to his historical context, preclude from the start the most serious consideration of Plato's thought. In order to judge Plato's development, we would have to know better than does Plato the issues with which his work is concerned. But if we already possess such knowledge, then we need hardly turn to Plato for guidance concerning these issues. Moreover, even if our goal is simply to understand what Plato thought about these issues, we cannot rely on an interpretive principle, the developmental principle, that assumes that we already have grasped the ultimate character of Platonic thought. Finally, interpreting Plato as a product of his historical context is to adopt in advance Nietzsche's view of one of the most important issues in his quarrel with Plato. The principle I have adopted is itself open to dangers, principally the danger of idiosyncratic and implausible interpretations. But these can be corrected through the marshalling of evidence either to support or to contravene such interpretations. This potential damage is far less costly than an interpretive principle that would deny the ultimate significance of the work from the start.

I want to say one more thing about interpretation that bears specifically on the Phaedo. As is clear from what I have said, my interpretation of this dialogue depends on a distinction between two incompatible teachings in the dialogue. I would not characterize this distinction as one between the surface and the depths because the expressions of both teachings are often both on the surface, as exemplified above all in…

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