The faith of Socrates

I taught the Phaedo this semester, and needing to divide it over two class sessions, I found a convenient stopping point — Cebes claims that Socrates has only demonstrated that the soul lasts longer than the body, but not that it’s immortal, a claim that throws Socrates’s companions into a depressed and confused state of mind and even prompts a return to the framing device. Focusing on this first half in relative isolation from the rest of the dialogue was helpful in that it forced me to grapple with the question of why the arguments of the first half run aground. It has to be more than the simple fact that Socrates usually analyzes and discards several arguments in the course of a dialogue, since the break here is so dramatic and pronounced.

Dealing with this question has led me to some observations that are doubtless unoriginal, but hopefully at least a little interesting. First, it’s worth noting that Socrates starts his demonstration of the immortality of the soul from the properties of the physical world. There, everything comes out of its opposite, meaning that death must come out of life. Here there is of course a contradiction already, as the soul apparently remains unchanged in either state, and from this perspective Cebes makes a necessary correction, including the soul among the objects of the physical world that all eventually dissolve. In restarting the argument, they begin from the one conclusion they find reliable: namely, the notion that all knowledge is recollection of the forms (which was established as a kind of aside without much explanatory weight).

This progress of the dialogue perfectly matches up with Socrates’s autobiographical sketch in the second half of the dialogue, where he claims he was initially fascinated with the natural sciences. Upon reading the works of Anaxagoras, he became obsessed with the notion that Mind is the cause of all things, but was disappointed that Anaxagoras spent most of his time on physical causes that seem not to match up with the claims about Mind. (In class, I used the example of the brain science that supposedly “explains” mental states but really only introduces trivia about the physical phenomena that seem to accompany them. Students were familiar with the sensation of disproportion and disappointment, a feeling of “I thought we were supposed to be talking about the mind here, not some tedious chemical formulas!”)

Socrates then “reboots” his own quest for knowledge with the dogmatic assertion that the Forms exist. From that point on, he doesn’t have much confidence in physical explanations — indeed, he has complete confidence that they don’t provide reliable knowledge — and instead clings to the simplicity of the Forms and trusts in the immortality of the soul that follows from it. One can’t arrive at this stance starting from our experience of the physical world. It has to be literally a priori, literally “before” our physical experience, when our souls supposedly existed in a purely immaterial realm.

This obviously opens up a yawning gap in his philosophical system, traced by questions such as “if the soul is so pure, how could it ever become entangled with the body in the first place” or “what relation could the physical world have with the Forms, or how could the Forms be thought of as causes of the physical world.”

What’s striking to me is how often he uses mythological language to fill in these gaps. In the Phaedo, he introduces a mythological account of the afterlife that asserts that the world is structured in such a way as to reward philosophers for their “training for death.” In the Phaedrus (the first half of which I taught last week), he provides a myth for (among other things) how souls became entangled with the body in the first place. Such examples can be multiplied.

Even more striking is that when Socrates finishes his myth of the afterlife, he admits that no one can insist any such account is absolutely reliable, yet he exhorts his hearers to take the “noble risk” of believing that something like it is true — that is, that the philosopher will be rewarded by escaping from this lowly world. One of my students brought in the obvious comparison: this is a precursor of Pascal’s Wager.

All this indicates to me that it’s difficult to distinguish Socrates’s philosophy, at least as presented in the dialogues centered on the Theory of the Forms, from religious faith.

15 thoughts on “The faith of Socrates

  1. Adam,

    I do not find this point of view plausible. It barely mentions background ancient Greek worldviews and the various problems within which Plato dealt, e.g., the reality of the intelligible that we’d not call the reality of universal, the presumptions that the perfectly real is eternally self-same, etc. As I say it in class, we do not see “the good” sitting on a shelf such that our failure to be good merely requires someone slapping us upside the head and saying, “look over there, you fool!”

    I just taught Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Meno in my Intro to Ethics and am leading into Aristotle.

  2. It is hard to know what to think when Plato has Socrates get all mythological and dogmatic, especially when he includes the disclaimers (and when he cites the authority of poets, as he often does at such times, given how quick he is to criticize the poets normally and how harsh he is on poets in Republic X). But it seems that for Plato, truth is God. The mythological trappings don’t say much about the nature of truth, but they perhaps convey how fundamental truth is supposed to be for him. It’s hard to provide analogies for truth, as it isn’t like anything else; hence the confusing and shifting stories about forms. Truth is eternal, we have some truth in ourselves, the truth we possess is the best part of ourselves, so the best part of ourselves is eternal, as argued in Phaedo. The reincarnation doctrine in Phaedrus is more detailed, but Phaedrus is also about rhetoric, of course. So it seems to me that the notions of God and the soul that Plato is working with (if I’m right) are not very much like what most people think of those things. But perhaps that only shows that I’m not a theologian, or perhaps I’m interpreting Plato as being too much like Kant and dismissing the mythology too quickly.

  3. Adam,

    It’s on RSS feed, so I received it instantly, and it doesn’t take 11 minutes to read it and recognize that “religious faith,” as commonly understood, is not a good description for what Socrates (Plato) is doing. Also, having just taught it as I said, it’s fresh, and your themes are well-worked in the scholarship and thus immediately recognizable. You might disagree, but you would have to admit it’s at least a controversial point.

    So, the “dogmatic assertion” about the forms is, as I take it, as solution to the problem of the reality of universals. Rather than read it as such, I took it as a postulate held to with the fervency of an axiom. Is math suddenly religious faith, then? Both are, in a qualified sense, ideal. That is perhaps the common point.

  4. The problem, in the context of the Phaedo, is the immortality of the soul. That’s what Socrates cares about, because he’s surrounded by friends who are devestated that he’s going to have to die and he wants them to be reasonably sure Socrates has a good fate awaiting him. I’m analyzing one dialogue of Plato’s on its own terms, not a synthesis of them all into an overarching “theory of the forms” — and nevertheless, I don’t think anything I say above contradicts, in any obvious way, the incredibly well-known theory of forms, which you seem to think I’m ignorant of.

  5. The dramatic setting certainly seems relevant to me. Simmias and Cebes give up a lot more easily than it seems like they perhaps should, given how well thought out their positions seem to be and all the additional things that could easily be said. No doubt they didn’t feel very motivated to win the debate under the circumstances. Obviously, I tend to take that as helping my interpretation.

    At the end, Socrates asks Crito to make a sacrifice he owes to the god of medicine. The classic interpretation is that Socrates is saying that life is a disease from which he has been cured. But there’s a recent scholar (I wish I could remember who) that has argued that it means something quite different. We are told at the start that Plato is absent because he is ill, and given the occasion it seems unlikely that anything minor would have kept him away. The Greeks believed that people about to die could fortell the future. Perhaps the sacrifice was for the recovery of Plato, a bit of good fortune which is of course not unconnected with the survival of Socrates’ teachings.

  6. I seem to remember reading that any mythological two in Plato is, if understood correctly, really a one. So the horses and chariot myth of the soul in the Phaedrus is really one horse falsely broken into a black and white horse. Socrates offers the key to this sort of bogus mythology at the beginning of the Phaedo when he claims that if Aesop were to write a myth pleasure and pain, he would portray the duo of pleasure and pain as two monsters with heads fastened together (rather than as one monster or one monster with two heads, I suppose). So when Socrates separates body and soul as a two he is operating on a non-Socratic premise, such as Pythagoreanism. I don’t know if that is always accurate, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.

  7. Adam,

    I am not claiming that you are ignorant of anything. Rather, I am insisting on a different interpretive standpoint that is counter to one that insists on reading the Phaedo through “religious faith,” whatever that means. I pointed out that the common reader would read those words with a connotation that I thought not helpful. I do not see how I’ve said anything un-toward or unexpected.


    Yes, m’lord.

  8. Maybe the “common reader” should infer what I mean by religious faith from the post, rather than projecting whatever unspecified thing you have projected onto it. I still don’t understand anything specific you are objecting to — you just kind of say “no” in an unarticulated way. I’m somehow neglecting the background, or using the wrong interpretive framework, or something. All I’m getting from you is a vague discontent, and it’s neither helpful nor informative.

    I don’t think I’m an expert in Plato, nor do I assume I’m doing anything terribly original in this post. If you have something to contribute to my knowledge, I’d be grateful. So far all I’ve learned from you is that you disagree and for whatever reason don’t want to share your reasons in any concrete way.

  9. Adam,

    I’m sorry that this seems to have raised your ire. Let me be more specific, since you seem not to have grasped my small objection.

    Your conclusion is “All this indicates to me that it’s difficult to distinguish Socrates’s philosophy, at least as presented in the dialogues centered on the Theory of the Forms, from religious faith.” Now, I can understand the reference to “religious faith” in two immediately obvious ways: 1) as an analogy to contemporary Christian religious “faith,” i.e., belief on the basis of some subjective certainty (as stated from an atheistic perspective), or 2) as a claim about ancient Greek religious “faith”; e.g., Plato should kick himself out of the Kallipolis as being one of the poets for all his myth-making. The former was my first thought, and the latter occurred to me. If it is the former, then I should understand the “dogmatic assertion” of the theory of forms as analogous to the subjective self-certainty of Christian “faith.” This is quite a statement and much, much more should be said it it was meant so. If it is the latter, which is a point often made, then sure, but that would portray the theory of forms as a myth rather than a response to the issues mentioned. Recall that the Meno, which raises these issues even more explicitly, follows on the heels of the Phaedo in this respect.

    I strongly suspect that you meant neither of these two alternatives, but something else. I have been waiting some more clarification rather than ire. As you must have read my blog more than a few times, it should be obvious that I do prefer exacting specifications of positions and am more than capable of doing so. I would ask for a bit more respect, as I think you are over-reacting, as if I hit a nerve, m’lord. ;)

  10. I mean something closer to #1, but is it possible that you are reading “religious faith” as necessarily contrary to reason as well? If so, some of your previous responses make more sense.

    (I’m sensitive to the fact that you feel I’m overreacting, but you need to realize that you’ve come across as dismissive this entire time, without really providing reasons. That strikes me as every bit as disrespectful as my “tone” or “ire” whatever else you’re reacting to. In any case, I don’t want to discuss “how the thread has gone and which one of us is in the right” any further.)

  11. re: socrates’ ‘religious faith’ and/or ‘mythological’ commitments, it’s also interesting in the ‘crito’ how socrates trusts fully a vision/dream that he has about the arrival of the ship which then signals the time of his execution. although he of course says to crito ‘let us examine’ which argument would be best to determine his course of action later on (i.e. whether he should escape prison or not) it also seems clear, at least in this particular example and the one you note here, that reason as understood according to contemporary sensibilities is not what plato/socrates had in mind. there seems to be much less skepticism toward meta-physical (and i mean this in purely etymological terms here) and much more willingness to espouse some form of what we might be identified as religious faith… all that to say, i concur!

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