Selected Passages from Plato's Dialogues

In the Phaedo, Plato makes Socrates describes his life in the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) in a way that is that can come as a surprise to readers of the early dialogues.

The lover of wisdom makes a discovery about himself as a human being.

He comes to realize that his body is standing in the way of the knowledge of the "forms" (είδη) and thus the wisdom he wants. So he tries to separate his soul from his body by living ascetically and by not using his senses to think about forms in his pursuit of wisdom.

Phaedo 63e

I [Socrates] wish now to explain to you [Simmias and Cebes], as my judges, the reason why I think a man who has really spent his life in the love of wisdom is naturally of good courage when he is to die, and has strong hopes that when he is dead he will attain the greatest blessings in that other land. So I will try to tell you how this would be. Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue the love of wisdom aright practice nothing but dying and being dead. Now if this is true, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but this all their lives, and then to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing.

Notes on the Text

Socrates argues that those who practice the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) correctly should not fear death. His primary interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, are Pythagoreans.

The Phaedo shows Socrates on the day of his execution in a conversation with his friends. He is calm in the face of death (58e). Cebes passes along a question to Socrates from Evenus (60d). Socrates gives the answer to return to Evenus and tells him to follow after him (61b). His friends are surprised at the suggestion. Socrates counters that he thought Evenus was a lover of wisdom (61c). Cebes wonders instead whether the wise should not be troubled by death (62e).

Socrates says that those who pursue the love of wisdom correctly practice being dead.

What does this mean?

Socrates goes onto to explain himself.

Phaedo 64c

  "I have great hopes that when I reach the place to which I am going, I shall there, if anywhere, attain fully to that which has been my chief object in my past life, so that the journey which is now imposed upon me is begun with good hope; and the like hope exists for every man who thinks that his mind has been purified and made ready.
  And does not the purification consist in this which has been mentioned long ago in our discourse, in separating, so far as possible, the soul from the body and teaching the soul the habit of collecting and bringing itself together from all parts of the body, and living, so far as it can, both now and hereafter, alone by itself, freed from the body as from fetters?
  Well, then, this is what we call death, is it not, a release and separation from the body?
  Exactly so.
  But, as we hold, the true lovers of wisdom and they alone are always most eager to release the soul, and just this—the release and separation of the soul from the body—is their study, is it not?
  Then, as I said in the beginning, it would be absurd if a man who had been all his life fitting himself to live as nearly in a state of death as he could, should then be disturbed when death came to him. Would it not be absurd?
  Of course.
  In fact, then, Simmias, the true lovers of wisdom practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men. Consider it in this way. They are in every way hostile to the body and they desire to have the soul apart by itself alone. Would it not be very foolish if they should be frightened and troubled when this very thing happens, and if they should not be glad to go to the place where there is hope of attaining what they longed for all through life—and they longed for wisdom—and of escaping from the companionship of that which they hated? When human loves or wives or sons have died, many men have willingly gone to the other world led by the hope of seeing there those whom they longed for, and of being with them; and shall he who is really in love with wisdom and has a firm belief that he can find it nowhere else than in the other world grieve when he dies and not be glad to go there? We cannot think that, my friend, if he is really a lover of wisdom; for he will confidently believe that he will find pure wisdom nowhere else than in the other world. And if this is so, would it not be very foolish for such a man to fear death?
  Very foolish, certainly" (Phaedo 67b).

"The soul of a lover of wisdom believes that it must gain peace from these [the pleasures and pains that bind the soul to the body], must follow reason and abide always in it, beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion, and making that its only food; and in this way it believes it must live, while life endures, and then at death pass on to that which is akin to itself and of like nature, and be free from human ills" (Phaedo 84a).
  We believe, do we not, that death is the separation of the soul from the body, and that the state of being dead is the state in which the body is separated from the soul and exists alone by itself and the soul is separated from the body and exists alone by itself? Is death anything other than this?
  No, it is this.
  Now, my friend, see if you agree with me; for, if you do, I think we shall get more light on our subject. Do you think a lover of wisdom would be likely to care much about the so-called pleasures, such as eating and drinking?
  By no means, Socrates.
  How about the pleasures of love?
  Certainly not.
  Well, do you think such a man would think much of the other cares of the body—I mean such as the possession of fine clothes and shoes and the other personal adornments? Do you think he would care about them or despise them, except so far as it is necessary to have them?
  I think the true lover of wisdom would despise them.
  Altogether, then, you think that such a man would not devote himself to the body, but would, so far as he was able, turn away from the body and concern himself with the soul?
  To begin with, then, it is clear that in such matters the lover of wisdom, more than other men, loosens the soul from communion with the body?
  It is.
  Now certainly most people think that a man who takes no pleasure and has no part in such things doesn't deserve to live, and that one who cares nothing for the pleasures of the body is about as good as dead.
  That is very true.
  Now, how about the acquirement of wisdom? Is the body a hindrance or not, if it is made to share in the search for wisdom? What I mean is this: Have the sight and hearing of men any truth in them, or is it true, as the poets are always telling us, that we neither hear nor see any thing accurately? And yet if these two physical senses are not accurate or exact, the rest are not likely to be, for they are inferior to these. Do you not think so?
  Certainly I do.
  Then, when does the soul attain to truth? For when it tries to consider anything in company with the body, it is evidently deceived by it.
  In reasoning, then, if at all, something of the realities (ὄντων) becomes clear to it?
  But it reasons best when none of these things troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor any pleasure, but it is, so far as possible, alone by itself, and takes leave of the body, and avoiding, so far as it can, all association or contact with the body, reaches out toward the reality.
  That is true.
  In this matter also, then, the soul of the lover of wisdom greatly despises the body and avoids it and strives to be alone by itself?
  Evidently, Socrates.

Notes on the Text

Death is the separation of the soul and the body.

χωρὶς, chōris, adverb, "separately, asunder, apart"

As Cebes will point out, this definition of death does not imply that the soul continues to exist after death with any "power and intelligence" (δύναμιν ἔχει καὶ φρόνησιν) (Phaedo 70b). The soul might just be a Homeric shade.

Why do they believe that death is the separation of the soul and the body?

It is the common conception they inherit. It is in Homer.

The life of the lover of wisdom is ascetic. He is not interested in the pleasures that figure prominently in the way most people live their lives.


The body is a problem for the lover of wisdom.

Wisdom involves graping the "realities." The lover of wisdom wants wisdom. He arranges his life around getting it, not the pleasures of the body that interest the many. To get wisdom, it is necessary to think without interference from the senses.

What are the "realities"?

Phaedo 65d

  Now how about such things as this, Simmias? "we say that justice itself is something or not" (φαμέν τι εἶναι δίκαιον αὐτὸ ἢ οὐδέν).

  "Now call to mind, Euthyphro, that this is not what I asked you, to tell me one or two of the many holy acts, but to tell me the form itself by which all holy acts are holy (αὐτὸ τὸ εἶδος ᾧ πάντα τὰ ὅσια ὅσιά ἐστιν). For you said that all unholy acts were unholy and all holy ones holy by one form. Or don't you remember?
  I remember, Socrates.
  Tell me then what this form is so that I may pay attention to it and employ it as a pattern (παραδείγματι) and, if anything you or anyone else does agrees with it, may say that the act is holy, and if not, that it is unholy" (Euthyphro 6d).

  "Come now, Protagoras, let us consider together what sort of thing is each of these parts. First let us ask, is justice something, or not a thing at all (δικαιοσύνη πρᾶγμά τί ἐστιν ἢ οὐδὲν πρᾶγμα)? I think it is; what do you say?
  So do I, Socrates" (Protagoras 330b).

"[W]hen Socrates, disregarding the physical universe (τῆς ὅλης φύσεως) and confining his study to ethical questions, sought in this sphere for the universal (καθόλου) and was the first to concentrate upon definition. Plato followed him and assumed that the problem of definition is concerned not with any sensible thing but with entities of another kind; for the reason that there can be no common definition among the sensible things, as they are always changing. These entities he called Ideas (ἰδέας)" (Aristotle, Metaphysics I.6.987a).
Do we say that justice itself is something, or not?
  We certainly do.
  And beauty and goodness.
  Of course.
  Well, did you ever see anything of that kind with your eyes?
  Certainly not.
  Or did you ever reach them with any of the bodily senses? I am speaking about all such things, as size, health, strength, and in short about the reality of all other such things, that which each of them is. Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to think each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?
  Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with thought alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out each of the existences, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to hit on the reality?
  That is true as true can be, Socrates.

Notes on the Text

Justice and beauty examples of the "realities" that interest the lover of wisdom.

These realities are not the sort of thing we can know through our senses.

We know them through reason.

Phaedo 66b

"And the body fills us with passions and desires and fears, and all sorts of fancies and foolishness, so that, as they say, it really and truly makes it impossible for us to think at all. The body and its desires (τὸ σῶμα καὶ αἱ τούτου ἐπιθυμίαι) are the only cause of wars and factions and battles; for all wars arise for the sake of gaining money, and we are compelled to gain money or the sake of the body. We are slaves to its service. And so, because of all these things, we have no leisure for the love of wisdom. But the worst of all is that if we do get a bit of leisure and turn to the love of wisdom, the body is constantly breaking in upon our studies and disturbing us with noise and confusion, so that it prevents our beholding the truth, and in fact we perceive that, if we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the things with the soul alone. And then, as our argument shows, when we are dead we are likely to possess the wisdom which we desire and claim to be enamored of, but not while we live. For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two thing must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before. And while we live, we shall, I think, be nearest to knowledge when we avoid, so far as possible, intercourse and communion with the body, except what is absolutely necessary, and are not filled with its nature, but keep ourselves pure from it until the god sets us free. And in this way, freeing ourselves from the foolishness of the body and being pure" (Phaedo 66b).

  "[W]hen the soul inquires alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this condition of the soul is called wisdom. Is it not so?
  Socrates, what you say is perfectly right and true" (Phaedo 79c).
Then all this must cause good lovers of wisdom to think and say one to the other something like this: 'There seems to be some sort of track that leads us, together with our reason, astray in our inquiry (ἀτραπός τις ἐκφέρειν ἡμᾶς μετὰ τοῦ λόγου ἐν τῇ σκέψει). As long as we have the body, and the soul is contaminated by such a bad, we shall never attain completely what we desire, that is, the truth. For the body keeps us constantly busy by reason of its need of sustenance; and moreover, if diseases come upon it they hinder our pursuit of the truth.

Notes on the Text

What is the "track that leads us, together with our reason, astray in our inquiry"?

It is a way of thinking in which we engage because we have a body.

So the lover of wisdom has made a discovery about himself. He has been living a life proper to the body. He now realizes he must give up this life if it is to progress toward wisdom.

Phaedo 69a

My dear Simmias, I suspect that this is not the right way to purchase virtue, by exchanging pleasures for pleasures, and pains for pains, and fear for fear, and greater for less, as if they were coins, but the only right coinage, for which all those things must be exchanged and by means of and with which all these things are to be bought and sold, is in fact wisdom; and courage and temperance and justice and, in a word, true virtue, with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away. And virtue which consists in the exchange of such things for each other without wisdom, is but a painted imitation of virtue and is really slavish and has nothing healthy or true in it; but whereas, truth to tell, temperance and justice and courage may in fact be a kind of purification of all such things, and wisdom itself a kind of purification (καθαρμός). And I fancy that those men who established the mysteries were not unenlightened, but in reality had a hidden meaning when they said long ago that whoever goes uninitiated and unsanctified to the other world will lie in the mire, but he who arrives there initiated and purified will dwell with the gods. For as they say in the mysteries, 'the thyrsus-bearers are many, but the mystics few'; and these mystics are, I believe, those who have practiced the love of wisdom correctly. And I in my life have, so far as I could, left nothing undone, and have striven in every way to make myself one of them. But whether I have striven aright and have met with success, I believe I shall know clearly, when I have arrived there, very soon, God willing. There is my defense, then, Simmias and Cebes, to show that it is reasonable for me not to be grieved or troubled at leaving you...."

Notes on the Text

The virtues of character are a "purification"?

What does this mean?

Phaedo 78c

   Let us then, Cebes, turn to what we were discussing before. Is the reality itself (αὐτὴ ἡ οὐσία), whose reality we give an account in our dialectic process of question and answer, always the same or is it liable to change? Does the equal itself, the beautiful itself, what each thing itself is, the reality, ever admit of any change whatsoever? Or does what each of them is, being uniform and existing by itself, remain the same and never in any way admit of any change?
   It must necessarily remain the same, Socrates.
   But how about the many things, for example, men, or horses, or cloaks, or any other such things, which bear the same names as those objects and are called beautiful or equal or the like? Are they always the same? Or are they, in direct opposition to those others, constantly changing in themselves, unlike each other, and, so to speak, never the same?
   The latter, they are never the same.
   And you can see these and touch them and perceive them by the other senses, whereas the things which are always the same can be grasped only by the reasoning of the intellect, and are invisible and not to be seen?
   Certainly that is true.
   Now, shall we assume two kinds of existences, one visible, the other invisible?
   Let us assume them, Socrates.

Notes on the Text

Socrates explains how the "equal itself" and other "forms" (είδη) exist.

The forms are not subject to change, are grasped in reason and not through the senses, and thus have an existence different from the existence of sensible things.

What does this mean?

Consider equality or the equal itself. Suppose to the question what is it to be equal, the answer is "such-and-such." This can not change, but men, horses, and cloaks can and do change.

What does it mean to say the forms are "grasped only by the reasoning of the intellect"?

We can see that something is beautiful by looking at it. This is not true for what beauty is. It may be that we must see beautiful things to know what beauty is, but the experiences of seeing beautiful things in this case enable the knowledge. They are are not evidence for it. What beauty is, according the theory, is known by the "reasoning of the intellect."

Phaedo 82d

   The lovers of knowledge (φιλομαθεῖς) perceive that when the love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) first takes possession of their soul it is entirely fastened and welded to the body and is compelled to regard realities through the body as through prison bars, not with its own unhindered vision, and is wallowing in utter ignorance. And the love of wisdom sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment in the body is the fact that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his own imprisonment. ... The soul of the true lover of wisdom ... stands aloof from pleasures and lusts and griefs and fears, so far as it can, considering that when anyone has violent pleasures or fears or griefs or lusts he suffers from them not merely what one might think--for example, illness or loss of money spent or his lusts--but he suffers the greatest and most extreme evil and does not take it into account.
   What is this evil, Socrates?
   The evil is that the soul of every man, when it is greatly pleased or pained by anything, is compelled to believe that the object which caused the emotion is is most clear and most real, when it is not so; and such objects especially are things seen?
   Well, isn't it in this experience that soul is most thoroughly bound fast by body?
   How so?
   Each pleasure or pain bonds the soul as with a nail to the body and rivets it on and makes it corporeal, so that it fancies the things are true which the body says are true. For because it has the same beliefs and likes the same things as the body it is compelled to adopt also the same ways and the same sustenance, and can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore it has no part in the communion with the divine and pure and absolute.
   What you say, Socrates, is very true.

Notes on the Text

Socrates describes the soul before and after the love of wisdom takes possession of it.

Before the love of wisdom takes possession of it, experiences of pleasure and pain give the soul the "same beliefs" as the body and make it "like" the same things as the body.

So, at this point, the soul lives a life that is proper to the body but not itself.

How do experiences of pleasure and pain do this to the soul?

The soul comes to believe that certain objects are involved in its experiences of pleasure and pain and that these objects are "most clear and real," when in fact they are not. Moreover, because the soul also attributes a value to these experiences they do not possess, it acquires "the same ways and the same sustenance" as the body and thus acts on the basis of desires to pursue pleasures and avoid pains of the kinds it has experienced before φιλοσοφία took possession of it.

Phaedo 100c

"Parmenides, I [Socrates] think the most likely view is, that these forms exist in nature as patterns (παραδείγματα), and the other things have come to resemble them and are resemblances of them; their participation in forms is becoming like them, that and nothing else" (Parmenides ??).

The dramatic date of the Parmenides is about 450 BCE, when Parmenides is in his later years (Parmenides 127b). The dialogue is Plato's earliest depiction of Socrates.

The Parmenides is traditionally thought to be a late dialogue.
If anyone says to me [Socrates] that a given thing is beautiful because it has a blooming color, or a shape, or something else like that, I dismiss those other things, for all those things confuse me, and I hold simply and plainly and perhaps foolishly to this, that nothing else makes it beautiful but the presence or communion (call it which you please) of the beautiful itself, however it may have been gained; about the way in which it happens, I make no positive statement as yet, but I do insist that beautiful things are made beautiful by the beautiful.

Notes on the Text

Phaedo 102a

  But what was said after that, Phaedo?
  As I remember it, Echecrates, after all this had been admitted, and they had agreed that each of the forms exists and that other things which participate in these get their names from them.

Notes on the Text

The forms explain how things "get their names."

The idea is that if something is F (is "just," is "beautiful," and so on), it is F because it "participates" in the form the F itself. What participation, however, is is not specified, so how the forms function in the explanation remains unclear.

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