Literature Study GuidesDialogues Of PlatoThe Philosopher And Death Summary 59c 69e Summary

Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide

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Dialogues of Plato | The Philosopher and Death Summary (59c–69e) | Summary

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Summary

Once inside, they find Socrates's wife, Xanthippe, and one of their children. After asking his friend, Crito, to have a servant take his wife and child away, Socrates rubs his leg. His fetters having been removed, Socrates remarks that it is strange how closely related pleasure and pain are, yet whenever one is secured, the other goes away; they never appear at once.

One of Socrates's friends, Cebes, asks Socrates how his poetry is coming along. Evenus, a Sophist, asked Cebes to inquire about it. Socrates responds that recent dreams have prompted his writing, including setting Aesop's fables to verse. He then asks Cebes to say goodbye to Evenus for him and to remind him that he should be prepared to die like Socrates, as should any philosopher.

This turns the conversation to the topic of the philosopher's disposition toward death. Cebes asks why, if philosophers are prepared to die, it is wrong for them to commit suicide. Socrates responds, saying because men are the gods' possessions, they will be angry if a man kills himself without their permission. When both Cebes and Simmias point out that this view is inconsistent with Socrates's claim that a philosopher should be ready and willing to die, Socrates offers a defense that, he hopes, will be more convincing than it was to the jury.

Socrates asserts, "those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death." He goes on to claim that death is the separation of the soul from the body, so philosophy is a process whereby the philosopher frees himself from his body. He disdains bodily pleasures and turns away from the senses as he seeks knowledge of things as they are in themselves, such as "absolute beauty and goodness." These things are not found through sense experience, but through reason. If anything, the body is an impediment to knowledge: "if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself."

For this reason, Socrates concludes, a philosopher does not fear death. If the body is an impediment to knowledge, and death frees one from one's body, then death is nothing to be feared.

Analysis

Socrates's discussion of the philosopher's relation to death brings together ideas Socrates has discussed in various dialogues. For example, in both the Crito and the Apology, Socrates rejects the idea that one should commit an injustice in order to save his own life. Given what he says about philosophy as practice for death, the contours of the reasoning for this idea come into sharper focus. Socrates holds that one's beliefs and actions directly develop one's soul (or character). Insofar as those beliefs and actions are directed toward knowledge, they will not be concerned with the empirical world, which is the world of the body.

In the Meno, Socrates advances the theory of recollection, which is that the soul is immortal and, when freed from the body, associates with reality. The reader can infer from this, and from Socrates's present comments in the Phaedo, that reality is encountered not by sense experience but by reason. It is the only part of a human that can contemplate that which is absolute, that which is universal, rather than particular. The senses provide information about individual things, but not universals; they reveal this or that dog, not the idea or Form of Dog.

Socrates's argument regarding suicide is an important one in the history of philosophy and one that will recur in the 20th century, for example in the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, respectively nihilist and existentialist. Both believed life was absurd and death was the only possible answer to any of life's questions. Therefore, suicide was humanity's ultimate temptation. In the absence of God, as the events of World Wars I and II had led much of the world to conclude, Socrates's explanation was no longer relevant. Still, to resist was the greatest act of heroism a person could commit, in a sense defying the ultimate absurdity of life.

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