Mythological Philosophy in the Phaedo

Mythological Philosophy in the Phaedo

In my previous essay, I examined Plato’s four arguments for the immortality of the soul set forth in The Phaedo. Through these arguments, Plato sought to justify a rational faith in the soul’s immortality. Yet Plato did not restrict himself to this rational approach, but also attempted to construct a mythological philosophy to bolster our faith in the immortality of the soul. In this essay, I’ll examine some of the core myths of the Phaedo.

Plato highlights the central role that myth plays in philosophy at the very outset of the dialogue. Indeed, the dialogue itself is structured by myth. In the Phaedo, Plato goes to great length to distance his narrative from the events that it narrates by (I) pointing out that he, the author of the dialogue, was not present at the discussion (since he was ill (59b)) and by (II) framing the dialogue as a discussion between Phaedo and Echerates in which the former recalls Socrates last dialogue before his death. We, as readers, are thus several levels removed from the historical event of Socrates death. We read a story written by Plato, which recounts a discussion between Phaedo and Echerates, which, in turn, recounts a discussion between Socrates and his disciples.

Second, Plato frames the events of the dialogue in the language of ritual and myth. Near the beginning of the dialogue, Echecrates inquires into the long delay between the Athenian jury’s declaration that Socrates is guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth and Socrates’ actual execution. Phaedo responds that, on the day before the trial, a ritual voyage had been undertaken to commemorate Theseus’ rescue of the fourteen youths of Athens from execution at Crete by the Minotaur. Because Theseus “saved them [i.e. the 14 youths] and was himself saved”, the people of Athens vowed to Apollo that they would “send a mission to Delos”, his holy birthplace, “every year.” During this mission, the people of Athens must keep themselves pure and thus refrain from executing anyone. Phaedo explains:

“They have a law to keep the city pure while it lasts, and no execution may take place once the mission has begun until the ship has made its journey to Delos and returned to Athens, and this can sometimes take a long time if the wind delays it. The mission begins when the priest of Apollo crowns the prow of the ship, and this happened, as I say, the day before Socrates trial. That is why Socrates was in prison a long time between his trial and execution” (58b-c trans. Grube).

Plato thus places the execution of Socrates within a mythological and ritual context, leading us to ponder whether, rather than corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates, through his philosophical mission, has saved them as Theseus did. Likewise, we might suspect that rather than defending the piety of the gods, the Athenians have themselves polluted their city with the murder of Socrates. Or we could speculate whether Plato is comparing Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur (a legendary creature which is half bull and half man) with Socrates’ final overcoming of the bestial aspects of human nature at death.

Finally, Plato stresses the importance of myth in this dialogue when he presents Socrates as spending his last days “putting the fables of Aesop into verse and composing” a “hymn to Apollo” (60d). Socrates reports that he has done so to “find out the meaning of certain dreams and to satisfy” his “conscience” (60e). He notes that he has had a recurring dream throughout his life wherein a voice commands: “Socrates…Practice and cultivate the arts” (60e). Earlier in his life, he believed that these dreams were encouraging him to continue practicing “the art of philosophy”, since, “it was the highest kind of art” (61a). But, in prison, Socrates wonders whether the voice was telling him to take up poetry proper. Socrates reports:

“I thought that in case my dream was bidding me to practice this popular art, I should not disobey it but compose poetry. I thought it safer not to leave here until I had satisfied my conscience by writing poems in obedience to the dream” (61b).

As a result, he begins by writing a hymn to Apollo, the god of light and reason presiding over the festival which delayed his execution. Then, realizing that poets “must compose fables, not arguments”, and realizing that he was incapable of creating fables for himself, Socrates took stories of Aesop he was already familiar with and versified them (61b). In this manner, Plato invites us to consider the Phaedo itself as an attempt to articulate a philosophical fable. In the rest of this essay, I will examine three core myths articulated within the Phaedo: 1) The Myth of Socrates. 2) The Myth of the True Earth, and 3) The Myth of Philosophy.

1. The Myth of Socrates.

Plato presents Socrates as himself a mythic hero in the Phaedo. Phaedo, for example, announces to Echecrates that he will gladly recount Socrates’ last dialogue, since “nothing gives me more pleasure than to call Socrates to mind, whether talking about him myself, or listening to someone else do so” (58d). Socrates is here presented as a figure of repeated memorialization. In calling Socrates to mind, Phaedo is filled with pleasure and endowed with purpose. Or again, we see the mythic portrayal of Socrates in the way he heroically faces death. Socrates is not worried for himself, but is instead concerned that his disciples continue the work of philosophy. For example, when Crito asks Socrates how his affairs should be put in order, he responds:

“Nothing new… but what I am always saying, that you will please me and mine and yourselves by taking good care of your own selves in whatever you do, even if you do not agree with me now, but if you neglect your own selves, and are unwilling to live following the tracks, as it were, of what we have said now and on previous occasions, you will achieve nothing even if you strongly agree with me at this moment” (115c).

And when the time comes for Socrates to drink the hemlock, even the prison guard weeps, declaring Socrates to be “the noblest, the gentlest, and the best man who has ever come here” (116c). And this assessment is reiterated at the end of the dialogue by Phaedo when he proclaims Socrates to be “a man who… was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and most upright.” (118a). In this manner, Socrates is himself held up as a mythic figure.

2. The Myth of the True Earth

The Phaedo also presents a myth about the structure of earth to help bolster faith in the life of philosophy and the immortality of the soul. After telling the story, Socrates attests to its mythical character when he claims:

“No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief—for the risk is a noble one—that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation” (114d).

Here Socrates articulates his account of the proper use of myth. It is not something that one would insist is true. Yet, something like it would fit with the metaphysical arguments he has presented earlier, and it encourages one to undertake the noble risk of belief. As a result, it is something that should be repeated like an incantation to help one strive for nobility.

According to this particular myth,

“There are many strange places upon earth, and the earth itself is not such as those who are used to discourse upon it believe it to be in nature or size” (108c).

He claims that the earth is filled with many hollows which gather mist and air. We live in one of these hollows, and are unaware that our view of the sky and the earth around us is clouded by the atmosphere. In contrast, those who live on the earth’s true surface, experience the world in its purity.

Socrates explains:

“The earth itself is pure and lies in the pure sky where the stars are situated, which the majority of those who discourse on these subjects call ether” (109c).

Our situation is thus comparable to someone living underwater who believes he was living on the surface of the earth. Such a man would live in a world where nothing “is fully developed” (110a), surrounded by “endless slime and mud”, but think that he had an unobstructed view of the heavens and that all vantage points on earth were like his own.

“Our experience is the same: living in a certain hollow of the earth, we believe that we live upon its surface; the air we call the heavens, as if the stars made their way through it; this too is the same: because of our weakness and slowness we are not able to make our way to the upper limit of the air; if anyone got to this upper limit, if anyone came to it or reached it on wings and his head rose above it, the just as fish on rising from the sea see things in our region, he would see things there and, if his nature could endure to contemplate them, he would know that there is the true heaven, the true light and the true earth, for the earth here, these stones and the whole region, are spoiled and eaten away, just as things in the sea are by the salt water” (109e-110a).

We do not see things as they really are, but only see a small portion of the earth where things are “spoiled and eaten away.” On the true earth, above the hollows, they see colors “much brighter and purer” (110c) than our own. And all the objects of their world are more beautiful and substantial than ours. Socrates declares:

“Our precious stones here are but fragments, our carnelians, jaspers, emeralds and the rest. All stones there are of that kind, and even more beautiful. The reason is that there they are pure, not eaten away or spoiled by decay and brine, or corroded by the water and air which have flowed into the hollows here and bring ugliness and disease upon earth, stones, the other animals and plants. The earth itself is adorned with all these things, and also with gold and silver and other metals. These stand out, being numerous and massive and occurring everywhere, so that the earth is a sight for the blessed” (110e-111a).

Outside of the hollows, air plays the role of water, filling up the seas. And ether plays the role that air plays for us. The residents there thus enjoy health and longevity (111b). And, in their temples, the gods truly reside. For,

“They have groves and temples dedicated to the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and they communicate with them by speech and prophecy and by the sight of them; they see the sun and moon and stars as they are” (111b-c).

Socrates goes on to claim that the regions of the earth and connected by a series of rivers. After death, souls are judged and cast into one of the rivers that takes them to their appropriate abode. This gives one hope that if one lives righteously, one can escape from the hollows and come to dwell on the true earth.

“Those who are deemed to have lived an extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison; they make their way up to a pure dwelling place and live on the surface of the earth. Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body; they make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which it is hard to describe clearly, nor do we now have time to do so. Because of the things we have enunciated, Simmias, one must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great” (114c-d).

Socrates thus uses myth to here bolster philosophical hope in the face of death and encourage his disciples to continue striving for wisdom and virtue.

3. The Mythological Conception of Philosophy

Finally, in the Phaedo, Plato presents us with a powerful philosophical fable about the nature of philosophy itself. According to this mythic conception, “the aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death” (64a). On this view, the primary goal of philosophy is to prepare the soul for its ascent to realms beyond the physical.

Plato presents this account in a mythological context. After the making the abrupt request to Cebes to tell Evenus that “if he is wise, to follow me as soon as possible” (61c), Socrates is asked why suicide is considered wrong. He then explains the prohibition against suicide by appealing to the teachings of the mystery religions, observing that: “there is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries, that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away” (62b).

From this Socrates extrapolates that “the gods are our guardians and that men are one of their possessions” (62c). And he asks “would you not be angry if one of your possessions killed itself when you had not given any sign that you wished it to die, and if you had any punishment you could inflict, you would inflict it?” (62c). Cebes agrees, and Socrates concludes that “one should not kill oneself before a god has indicated some necessity to do so, like the necessity now put upon us” (62c).

Cebes objects that if this is the case, then it doesn’t make sense for Socrates to wish for death, since he would be leaving a good master (62e), and one should seek to stay with such a master for as long as possible.

Socrates replies that he is convinced that he will find even better masters after death. He maintains:

“I should be wrong not to resent dying if I did not believe that I should go first to other wise and good gods, and then to men who have died and are better than men are here. Be assured that, as it is, I expect to join the company of good men. This last I would not altogether insist on, but if I insist on anything at all in these matters, it is that I shall come to gods who are very good masters. That is why I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked” (63b-c).

It is at this point that Socrates defines the aim of true philosophy as the practice for death. He argues for this definition by first appealing to the definition of death. Death, contends Socrates, is the separation of the soul from the body. He inquires:

“Is it [death] anything else than the separation of the soul from the body? Do we believe that death is this, namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul, and the soul come to be separated by itself apart from the body? Is death anything else than that?” (64c).

His friends answer in the affirmative.

Socrates then proceeds to point out what philosophers do and do not concern themselves with. Philosophers do not concern themselves with the pleasures of the body. Qua philosophers, they do not seek the pleasures of “food or drink” or “the pleasures of sex” (64d). Likewise, they do not care for “the acquisition of distinguished clothes and shoes and the other bodily adornments” (64d). In fact, they despise such things (64e).

Philosophers do, however, concern themselves with wisdom and knowledge. And Socrates argues that the body is an impediment to this endeavor. The senses are ever changing and imprecise and do not provide us with accurate knowledge of reality (65b). Rather, it is only in reasoning that “reality becomes clear to the soul” (65c). And, in order to reason, one must avoid the distractions of the body:

“Indeed the soul reasons best when none of these senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor pleasure, but when it is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its search for reality.” (65c).

So in order to gain knowledge, the soul seeks to separate itself from the body and “to be by itself” (65d). In seeking to comprehend the true forms of Justice, Goodness, and Beauty, ideas that are not seen with our physical eyes, the philosopher must free “himself as far as possible from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it (66a).” Only such a person has the hope of grasping reality as it is in truth (66a). Socrates explains:

“All these things will necessarily make the true philosophers believe and say to each other something like this: ‘There is likely to be something such as a path to guide us out of our confusion, because as long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be the truth. It fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense, so that, as it is said, in truth and in fact no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body. Only the body and its desires cause war, civil discord and battles, for all wars are due to the desire to acquire wealth, and it is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved, which compel us to acquire wealth, and all this makes us too busy to practice philosophy. Worst of all, if we do get some respite from it and turn to some investigation, everywhere in our investigations the body is present and makes for confusion and fear, so that it prevents us from seeing the truth’” (66b-d).

As a result, knowledge will be attainable only if the soul separates itself from the body by gathering itself to itself. And, given that we have defined death as the separation of the soul from the body, it follows that true philosophy is the practice for death (67d-e).

“If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom, as our argument shows, not while we live; for if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then 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” (66e-67a).

Socrates then goes on to further clarify the mythological nature of this account of philosophy, by explaining the practice of philosophy as a process of ritual purification.1 He contends:

“While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge 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. In this way we shall escape the contamination of the body’s folly; we shall be likely to be in the company of people of the same kind, and by our own efforts we shall know all that is pure, which is presumably the truth, for it is not permitted to the impure to attain the pure” (67a-b).

Socrates claims that this account renders him “full of good hope”, since he has devoted his life to purifying his mind in this manner (67c). For he has sought:

“To separate the soul as far as possible from the body and accustom it to gather itself and collect itself out of every part of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body” (67d).

Philosophers thus have no reason to fear death. Not only have they been practicing for it their whole lives (67e), but they also yearn for the knowledge that it brings. Socrates explains:

“Many men, at the death of their lovers, wives or sons, were wiling to go to the underworld, driven by the hope of seeing there those whose company they longed, and being with them. Will then a true lover of wisdom, who has a similar hope and knows that he will never find it to any extent exception Hades, be resentful of dying and not gladly undertake the journey thither. One must surely think so, my friend, if he is a true philosopher, for he is firmly convinced that he will not find pure knowledge anywhere except there. And if this is so, then, as I said just now, would it not be highly unreasonable for such a man to fear death?” (68a-b)

If Socrates has been striving his whole life to attain an unobstructed vision of the Good, he has no reason to fear the possibility of actually attaining the object of his yearning.

Finally, Socrates closes this part of the discussion by once more highlighting the mythological character of the view, by likening it to the teachings of mystery religions. He maintains:

“It is likely that those who established the mystic rites for us were not inferior persons but were speaking in riddles long ago when they said that whoever arrives in the underworld uninitiated and unsanctified will wallow in the mire, whereas he who arrives there purified and initiated will dwell with the gods. There are indeed, as those concerned with the mysteries say, many who carry the thyrsus but the Bacchants are few. These latter are, in my opinion, no other than those who have practiced philosophy in the right way. I have I my life left nothing undone in order to be counted among these as far as possible, as I have been eager to be in every way. Whether my eagerness was right and we accomplished anything we shall, I think, know for certain in a short time, god willing, on arriving yonder” (69c-d).

In this manner, Plato presents philosophy as the true mystery religion. Philosophy is the practice that can purify the soul and prepare it for its journey through the worlds beyond. Socrates can thus depart in confidence, believing that “there, as here” he “shall find good masters and good friends” (69e).

This, then, is the mythical context in which Plato envelopes his rational arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo. Though both mythos and logos, he attempts to convince us that there is no concern more pressing than the care of the soul.

“It is right to think then, gentlemen, that if the soul is immortal, it requires our care not only for the time we call our life, but for the sake of all time, and that one is in terrible danger if one does not give it that care. If death were escape from everything, it would be a great boon to the wicked to get rid of the body and of their wickedness together with their soul. But now that the soul appears to be immortal, there is no escape from evil or salvation for it except by becoming as good and wise as possible, for the soul goes to the underworld possessing nothing but its education and upbringing, which are said to bring the greatest benefit or harm to the dead right at the beginning of the journey yonder” (107c-d).

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is “To Phoebus at His Birth” by John Flaxman and is in the public domain. It can be found here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Flaxman_-To_Phoebus_at_His_Birth,_From_Aeschylus,_Furies-_Google_Art_Project.jpg ]

1He later distinguishes genuine from illusory virtue through such a concept of purification. He claims that purification is attained by wisdom. “My good Simmias, I fear this is not the right exchange to attain virtue, to exchange pleasures for pleasures, pains for pains and fears for fears, the greater for the less like coins, but that the only valid currency for which all these things should be exchanged is wisdom. With this we have real courage and moderation and justice and, in a word, true virtue, with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and all such things be present or absent. When these are exchanged for one another in separation from wisdom, such virtue is only an illusory appearance of virtue; it is in fact fit for slaves, without soundness or truth, whereas, in truth, moderation and courage and justice are a purging away of all such things, and wisdom itself is a kind of cleansing or purification” (69b).

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