Philosophy Political Philosophy

Plato’s “Phaedo”: The Battle over the Soul and the Polis

The Phaedo is one of the more famous of the Platonic dialogues.  The dialogue concerns itself with the nature of the human soul and the afterlife. The dialogue contains the famous Affinity Argument, and Simmias’ response, in which the soul and body are linked together in a harmony like a Lyre.  We will explore the four basic arguments of the Phaedo along with why, from this dialogue in particular, there is controversy as to whether Plato’s philosophy implies world flight as many have claimed – or charged – over the millennia.

The Problem of “World Flight”

One of the undercurrent metaphysical debates in Phaedo is between physicalism and idealism.  Physicalism is the philosophy that maintains that the first principles of existence are entirely material, that is, physical – hence the term.  Idealism, by contrast, asserts that the first principles of existence are ideas (consciousness), or the soul (since the soul is the seat of our ideas as part of our minds – the larger claim here is that our minds are not really meat blobs but idea warehouses, so to speak, in which all of our ideas and recollection emanate from).  There are many other metaphysical positions to take and have been presented throughout the history of philosophy, but these two are embedded in-between the lines throughout the dialogue.

Socrates asserts the immortality of the soul but is also questioning what transpires to the body and soul upon death.  For Socrates, as it is with traditional Platonism (e.g. non-Christian Platonism), body and soul seem to be separate – the body is an imperfect reflection of the ideal, which the soul has engrained in it.  (Socrates visits this idea in the Recollection Argument.)  But for Socrates we can ask the question: is the body an obstacle to knowledge?

Ultimately Socrates concludes that to be freed of the body is a form of purification, he who lives for wisdom and knowledge looks forward to death.  It is this issue that has historically led many to assert that Platonism always has the tendency to veer toward world flight, although Plato himself seems pretty at home with the material world in other aspects of his philosophy as we covered here.  It is wrong to see Plato as advocating any type of world flight; even regard to the soul, the soul is embodied in this world and knowledge is tied to the embodied life in this world.


So again, it is important to remember that in classical philosophy the soul is considered the rational part of the mind.  The question of the first principles of reality contrasted between the monistic materialists or physicalists, arguing that everything was matter including consciousness or the soul, the monistic idealists, who argued that reality was really consciousness or to be found in the apprehensions and understanding of the soul, and the pluralists (more prominently associated with Christianity which argued a combination of both).  Plato’s view is more nuanced since it the ultimate reality is the realm of the Forms which only the mind has access to.  Hence again the tendency to see world flight in Plato.  However, Plato does not deny the reality or importance of the physical, or the body.  But the Phaedo is about the soul and not the body.

Argument of Cyclicality

The first argument concerning the immortality of the soul is the cyclical argument.  It draws from Heraclitus’ principle of the unity of opposites.  Thus, living and dead go together, much like sleep is tied to awake, and hot tied to cold.  Thus, death is tied to life and life tied to death.  Therefore, in death, one moves to life.  In life, one is moving to death.

But this assertion has an obvious problem.  If the soul is immortal and death linked to life and life linked to death, the only logical position to take from cyclicality is some notion of reincarnation.  Which is something Plato possibly believed in from other dialogues.  Why?  If one dies, whereby the soul keeps on living in this unity of opposites through cyclicality, the soul cannot “live eternally” in heaven since this would break the cycle and unity of opposite: Life + Death.  So the only possible option is that the soul migrates in death to life.  This idea of the migration of the soul is called Metempsychosis in Greek.  Plato tentatively lays out this view right here in the Phaedo, but also in Republic and Timaeus.

Since the unity of opposites and the cyclical nature of opposites cannot be broken, the soul is immortal as it migrates in death to life.  Because souls experience the world, this is why, according to Plato, humans have the ability to recollect things without needing necessarily to be taught.  This moves us to the second argument of the soul’s immortality in Phaedo.

Argument of Recollection

It is again important to remember that classical philosophy generally rejects the idea of the tabula rasa, or blank slate.  Though early signs of a proto-tabula rasa can be found in Aristotle.  The argument of recollection is simple: To recall knowledge comes from having learned it in a prior life.  Hence the soul is immortal and gained knowledge of things in the past, which are now recalled in the presence.  This is the “awakening” of the soul or “awakening” of the mind.

But this leads to another problem.  Was the mind ever a blank slate to begin with?  For example, the first person with the first soul.  Does that soul learn then migrate to another after death.  If so that means the first person had a blank slate.  Of course, this is not the topic of conversation in this dialogue, it is the immortality of the soul.  But this argument of recollection ought to provoke other questions from the reader or listener.

Affinity Argument

The Affinity Argument is one of the most famous arguments for the immortality of the soul.  It is the third argument offered in Phaedo.  The Affinity Argument is an argument that more closely remains tied to Plato’s doctrine of the Forms.  The soul is immortal, invisible, and akin to something divine.  This is the divinization of Reason – human reason is the “divine spark” of existence which gives humans the ability to understand much like God understands everything.  This, again, is a common view in ancient philosophy: Reason is God and God is Reason (Logos philosophy and Logos theology).

Human bodies, though material and mortal, need something to actualize them – to awake them.  Reason, or consciousness, is not a product of materiality in this argument.  Thus, the human is a composite of body and soul.  The unvirtuous, or those who lacked appreciation for beauty and knowledge, have the soul “imprisoned in another body.”  The virtuous souls ascend to the realm of Forms, or Heaven, to experience the bliss of pure beauty and knowledge on account of their virtue.  This, of course, moves us into a dualistic metaphysics: the soul is immortal and immaterial, while the body is material and decomposes (in time).  Thus, there are two kinds of existence: the immaterial and the material, with transcendent reason (the soul) belonging to the former and the human body with its desires belonging to the latter.

Simmias, one of the dialogue partners, interjects with a famous rebuttal.  The analogy of the harmony of the lyre is not a denial of the soul, but rather a denial of the immortality of the soul.  Each soul is unique to each body.  The soul dies with the body.  According to Simmias the soul and body is the lyre and strings and all other physical parts of the lyre, and when in harmony this is the soul.  It allows the lyre to do what the lyre is made to do.  In this manner the human, who is “made” for coming to understand himself and the world, needs the soul (the rational mind) in order to make him fully human.

The anthropology laid out by Simmias, or at least implied in the argument, is rather Platonic insofar that both Simmias and Plato agree that the telos of humanity is the satisfaction of being in harmony with the self: the body enjoying what it has come to know – e.g. leaving the cave to experience and understand the sunlight and “true world.”  However, the difference is the soul is immortal for Plato while it is mortal for Simmias.  In time the lyre decomposes and is no longer in a harmony and therefore becomes useless and “dies.”  This happens to humans too.  Ergo the soul dies with the body.

Form of Life Argument

The final argument for the soul’s immortality is the “form of life argument.”  This again is a close companion to Plato’s doctrine of the Forms and explicitly contradicts the cyclical argument.  Most scholars believe this contradiction is intentional on Plato’s part.  The four arguments are meant to get the mind—soul—thinking, for the thinking mind is the living mind.  It is also generally accepted that the form of life argument is the argument for the soul’s immortality that Plato most personally identified with and likely adhered to in his own life.

The argument is simple because it follows directly with Platonic Idealism.  Since reality, and therefore life, is the product of the human mind (soul/consciousness), the soul is the cause of life.  Life is fulfilled by beauty, beauty is a form, and the soul is what permits us to know beauty since it came from the realm of the forms.  This is why, for instance, one need not necessarily be a philosopher, per se, to have an experience and appreciation of beauty.  One simply sees beauty and knows that this is something beautiful.  This is because the soul knowledge of the beautiful is rooted in its origination in the realm of the Forms.

Each form correlates with its respective form.  Thus, we move away from the unity of opposites which served as the foundation of the cyclical argument – thereby contradicting it.  Again, this contradiction is intentional, most scholars believe, because it is a literary device used by Plato to show maturation and dialectic at work: The earliest argument is moved away from because it has become untenable, a new argument is advanced, this argument (form of life) seems much more solid than the others and is settled upon.  Of course, you also have the progression of the text moving in the direction to Plato’s famous doctrine of the forms.  It is the form of life argument that directly correlates with Plato’s known philosophy.  Hence, through the earlier arguments – though in principle they agree, e.g. the immortality of the soul – Plato is also critiquing arguments from within his own text even if they “agree on principle.”  The aim is Truth.  Not agreement on principles.  ‘We agree to disagree’ is an anti-rational argument.  The point of dialectic is to arrive at Truth.  To say ‘we agree to disagree’ is a failure to arrive at Truth.

The soul, then, comes from the realm of Forms.  The Soul understands all the forms (beauty, most importantly), and since the soul is the beginning of life the soul brings awareness (consciousness) to the human body.  The human body, or person, now with their soul, is able to experience and understand the world he is in.  Since the unity of opposites is excluded, soul as beginning of life means the soul is life.  Life cannot be overcome by death since the unity of opposites is now rejected.  The body dies because the body is not the source of life.  The soul is.  Ergo the soul is immortal.  The death of the body leads to the freedom of the soul, and the soul returns to the realm of the Forms before bringing life to another body (e.g. in birth).


Though this dialogue doesn’t seem to have much to do with politics, in reality, it does. As mentioned, Plato was the great political philosopher and ethicist. He was concerned with what kind of city do we live in. He was intensely political in the classical sense of the word; i.e., not the ideological sense of political which is actually a form of anti-politics. Political, in the Greek philosophic tradition, was to belong to a community, a politeia, a polis. To be political was to be an active member of that polis and to know one’s place in the polis. To be political had nothing to do with changing the social and juridical fabric of one’s city. Nor was it to be the scoffed at “man of action” Aristotle derides in his Politics.

In the backdrop of the sophist era who wield logoi (speech) for power, Plato was confronting this power-centered materialist worldview with nature, truth, and absolute knowledge. Plato felt that, ironically, those who denied nature, truth, and knowing, put the political in a dangerous situation. For all the power of Athens in the age of the sophists, they had lost the Peloponnesian War. They had seen their democracy so eloquently eulogized by Pericles in his funeral oration (see Book II of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War).

The integrated harmony of Simmias’ argument is one of the most wonderful and memorable speeches in all of Plato’s dialogues. It is easy to fall for its seduction. However, Simmias, as we noted, claimed the soul was mortal in the end. This is why Plato challenges Simmias’ account with the final “form of life” argument where he proves the soul is immortal.

The soul is a code word for the polis. Simmias is right that the soul, the polis, is an integrated body. An integrated body – just like the human body and human soul. But Simmias is wrong that the soul is mortal. This would have sweeping reverberations to political society if true. Life cannot be overcome by death, as Plato presents through the form of life argument. This too would have sweeping ramifications to political society if true.

For Plato, it is necessary that the “soul” be immortal for the sack of the political. Without the immortal soul, a civilization will grow weak and succumb to death. It will descend back into the world of the tyranny of the sophists which he challenged in The Republic. But if the soul is immortal then the polis is immortal. If the polis is integrated in its proper form, aligned with truth, and ‘becomes one with the forms,’ so to speak, it will be able to endure all hardships and not decay into nothingness. The soul is necessary for man to be man; it is also necessary for the political to be political, and its immortality is the same end of the polis. For the soul to know the Forms, and the Forms include the cardinal virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude; thus the souls, who make up the integrated body of the polis, divinize the polis in the movement to justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude, which is what Athens lacked and was the cause of its descent into tyranny. If the polis is material, it decays and dies. If the polis is immortal because of the soul, it will ascend and endure.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: