Each fall, our students in The History of Western Thought find themselves reading Plato’s Phaedo, an account of the last day of Socrates, and the work in which he treats of the immortality of the human soul. This is, many times, the boys’ first foray into a full Platonic dialogue. Why do we begin the year there, and what do we hope a student will gain from reading this seminal text?
To begin, Plato provides for . . . a good beginning. Serious thought, on the level of our capstone senior course, is often encountered in dialogue with others—with fellow students, with teachers, and (if the young men can see it) in some way with the authors of the texts they are reading. It makes sense, then, to start the course by reading a philosophical dialogue—a style of writing of which Plato is widely considered the master.
For example, this text helps one see the importance of raising good objections. One of the high points of the text comes when Socrates finishes the first of his two arguments for the immortality of the soul. A whispering ensues in an aside—Socrates asks what is being discussed, and it comes out that his two main interlocutors are not convinced of his proofs. How awkward, they feel, to let Socrates know that they are not convinced that the soul lasts after death—and this, on the very day that Socrates is to die! Socrates does not despair, of course. He listens to their objections, considers them carefully, and aims to bring them back to the truth with a trust in the power of human reasoning.
Also, the Phaedo helps the boys to see the importance of definitions in philosophical inquiry. Early on in the text, Socrates defines death as “the separation of soul and body.” Our in-class discussion considers this expression, as some grapple with the very way in which one defines a term in the first place. But later in the text, Socrates inserts a new motion into his definition – as he speaks of the soul being released from the body, as if from chains. This provides an opportunity to consider the nuanced expression and how it illustrates a certain bias Socrates seems to have.
Finally, many of the dialogue’s themes are motifs that serve for the entire year of study: The role of philosophy in one’s life, the importance of the manner in which one approaches pleasure and pain, our hope in a life after this life – these are all worthy of our consideration – and the treatment of eternal life in Plato’s Phaedo brings one to a key insight. For as Plato attempts to prove the soul to be immortal, as one critiques that Philosopher’s arguments, one ‘bumps up against’ truths revealed by God. And therein, a consideration of Divinely-revealed and naturally-known truths begins – a consideration which follows through to the fourth quarter of the year . . . and beyond.