Literature Study GuidesDialogues Of PlatoThe First Three Arguments For The Immortality Of The Soul Summary 69e 84b Summary

Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | The First Three Arguments for the Immortality of the Soul Summary (69e–84b) | Summary

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Summary

Cebes asks Socrates what can be said to those who claim the soul is destroyed at death. They will not easily be convinced the soul is immortal. Two necessary conditions for such convincing are that the soul continues to exist after death and that this existence includes intelligence.

Socrates begins his response by relating a legend that souls exist in another world after death and then return to this world again. This suggests that things come to their current states from their opposite states. Something that becomes smaller must have been bigger first. Moreover, opposites balance each other out; if they did not, then, for example, the smaller thing would get smaller and smaller. Similarly, living and death are opposites, with coming to life and dying being those processes whereby the opposites preserve their balance. Consequently, whatever dies is reborn.

Socrates's second argument is prompted by Cebes's mention of the theory that learning is recollecting, which supports the view that the soul is immortal. We often notice similarities between things, such as sticks that appear equal. From these individual cases, we derive the idea of absolute equality. This idea is not identical to the examples—Socrates says "these equal things are not the same as absolute equality"—so the examples only resemble or imitate, albeit inadequately. What looks equal to one person may not to another. Knowledge of absolute equality must, therefore, precede the experience of individual cases. Therefore, the soul existed before it was born.

Simmias thinks Socrates's second argument is good, but it proves only that souls exist before birth and does not prove that souls exist after death. This question is solved, Socrates thinks, by combining the argument from recollection with the first argument, from opposites. The first argument establishes that the soul returns from death, so it must go somewhere after death, as well.

Socrates offers a third argument in favor of the claim that the soul is immortal. First, two realities exist: absolute reality, which is "always constant and invariable," and "concrete," visible reality. The former is "seen" with the soul (mind), the latter with the eyes. The soul is like the absolute reality, while the body is like the visible reality: "The soul is most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, and ever self-consistent." The body, on the other hand, is none of these things. Consequently, when the soul is freed from the body, it likely goes to the reality most suited to it—assuming it has not been polluted by the body. Polluted souls are weighed down, tied to the physical world, and eventually reborn in new bodies.

Analysis

Socrates's first argument seems to involve a loose conception of "opposites." While "larger" and "smaller" are relative terms, "being alive" and "being dead" are not. Socrates's second and third arguments further fill out the indirect introduction of the forms in the Meno. "Absolute equality" is the Form of Equality, and although there is a relationship between it and its instances, it is not entirely clear what that relationship is. Plato uses language like "imitation" and "resemblance" here. In the Euthyphro, the reader can interpret Plato as suggesting a causal relationship between holiness and the gods' love. More specifically in the Republic, Plato asserts a causal relationship between the forms and particular things, which also establishes that particular things are dependent on their form.

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