Plato has roused many readers with the work of a great philosopher by the name of Socrates. Through Plato, Socrates lived on generations after his time. A topic of Socrates that many will continue to discuss is the idea of “an immortal soul”. Although there are various works and dialogues about this topic it is found to be best explained in The Phaedo. It is fair to say that the mind may wonder when one dies what exactly happens to the beloved soul, the giver of life often thought of as the very essence of life does it live on beyond the body, or does it die with it? Does the soul have knowledge of the past if it really does live on? In Plato’s The Phaedo, Plato recounts Socrates final days before he is put to death.
Socrates has been imprisoned and sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens and not following the rights of Athenian religion. Socrates death brings him and his fellow philosophers Cebes, Simmions, Phaedo, and Plato into a perplex dialogue about this notion of an afterlife and what does one have to look forward to after death. Death is defined as the separation of the body from the soul. In The Phaedo death has two notions a common one which is the basic idea that the soul dies and the physical, idea that the soul separates from the body after death.
“The soul is most like that which is divine, immortal intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, and ever self-consistent and invariable, whereas body is most like that which human, mortal is, multiform, unintelligible, dissoluble, and never self-consistent.” (Phaedo) According to Socrates, knowledge is not something one came to understand but it was actually imprinted on the soul. Knowledge to Socrates was an unchanging eternal truth, something that could not be acquired through experience and time. Socrates friends believe that after death the soul disperses into the air like a breath. On the contrary Socrates believes that the soul is in fact immortal and if one wants to become free of pain they way to do so is to exempt themselves from the physical pleasures of the world. In this dialogue Socrates and the philosophers explore several arguments for this idea of an immortal soul.
These arguments were to illustrate and verify that death is not the dying of body and soul collectively, but when the body dies the soul continues to live on. Socrates offers readers four main arguments: The Cyclical Argument, which is the idea that forms are fixed and external. The soul is the sole purpose of life in this argument, and therefore cannot die and it is also to be seen as virtually never-ending. Next is The Theory of Recollection, which insists that at birth everyone has knowledge that the soul experienced in another life. Meaning that the soul would have had to be existent before birth to bear this said knowledge.
The Form of Life Argument confers that the soul bears a resemblance to that which is imperceptible and godly because it is abstract. The body bears a resemblance to the perceptible and the corporeal because it is objective. The Affinity Argument maybe the simplest of all. It reiterates Socrates thoughts of the body and soul, in saying that when the body dies and decomposes our soul will continue to exist in another world.
Since the soul is immortal it has been recycled many times, and has also experienced everything there is to experience, for Socrates and Plato this idea of recollection is much deeper than remembering something once forgotten. Socrates views knowledge as something that cannot be learned but the soul recalls it as it is being recycled. Grasping the understanding that things come to be beings by being composed of something pre-existing and when ceased these parts will continue to exist. Focusing on The Theory of Recollection, this is the claim that knowledge is innate, and cannot be learned. “What you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies.”(Cebes) Socrates’ point for this argument is that our soul with holds this knowledge and we are born with it. Although we do not remember things before we are born it is said that
certain experiences can nevertheless re awaken certain aspects of that memory.
For example in The Meno, Socrates raises a mathematical problem to Meno’s slave boy, who does not have any prior training in mathematics. The boy thinks he knows the answer but Socrates makes him see that his initial hypothesis of the answer is wrong. By purely asking questions, Socrates gets the slave boy to state the right answer. Socrates insists that he has not told the boy the answer, but through questioning the slave boy, Socrates aided him to recollect the slave boy’s own knowledge of mathematics. Furthermore Socrates also makes another example of recollection by stating if one were to come in contact with a picture or an item of a beloved then it would be simple to recall said person to the mind. This is the idea of how recollection works. If we examine this example and change certain aspects of it, it does not become very clear either.
If a picture of a beloved one was shown to a stranger it is safe to say that the stranger would not be able to recall any thoughts, memories or details of the person in the photograph because they do not have any prior knowledge of said person. In order for the stranger to do so they would have had to been in acquaintance with that person in the photograph at one time or another. This act of resemblance is easier for someone who already knows the person. Plato also uses an example of a vehicle stating that before a vehicle is mobile there were parts that were made to turn it into a vehicle such as the engine, steering wheel, and etcetera. He continues to make the point that even after the vehicle breaks down that these pieces will still remain to create the next vehicle. According to Plato ordinary objects participate in this recollection of platonic forms themselves; these things remind of us platonic forms because the soul once encountered it. He persists that the soul must have existed because of this.
All of which are ways to reiterate that this idea that knowledge is imprinted on the soul may have validity to it. In essence there was time where only the soul existed and it soon found a home in a body of another, making it now a mortal being(birth). Reincarnation is not only a rebirth of the soul but the neutralization of the knowledge one attained before birth as well. Then there is a period where our a priori knowledge seems to disappear only to reappear when it is recalled. It is claimed that we lose our knowledge at birth; then by the use of our senses in connection with particular objects we recover the knowledge we had before.
However, this relationship between the perception of sensible objects and our capacity of finding knowledge can produce a series of confusions concerning whether it is possible to recall all prior knowledge. The problem in this argument and certain aspects of this notion of an immortal soul is that even if it were proven that we were made up something before birth, and something will remain after death, it is not for certain that it is the soul.
Through scientific study it is understood that the body is also made of atoms it is also known that atoms existed before the body and will continue long after the body. The atoms that make up the body will in fact be recycled as well just as Socrates has the concept that the soul lives on. Plato and Socrates were correct on the idea that certain parts were in pre-existence does come to make one existent and will exist after death. Although even with this idea one cannot be certain that the soul is one of the parts of the body that is solely immortal.
There is not adequate information given by Plato or Socrates to make this argument suffice. We must raise an inquiry of why is that in order to think of perfection we must have already had to have seen it? Aside from philosophical views, in everyday life we encounter imperfections and it is safe to say that the mind is capable of wondering what something of beauty, perfection, or a perfect circle appears to be. The mind is also able to think about these ideas even if the soul has never encountered it. If these arguments prove anything it proves that The Theory of Recollection and The Cyclical Argument both attest that the soul existed before but the arguments do not prove that the soul will continue to exist after this life.
1. Cahn, M Steven. Classics of Western Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc 2006
2. Morgan, K, 2000, Myth and Philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Plato, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Partenie, Catalin, “Plato’s Myths”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . (April
 Cahn- Plato’s, The Phaedo
 Quote from the philosopher Phaedo
 Socrates theories discussed by Plato
 Phaedo 70a
 Plato’s The Meno