The soul has always been a category that thinkers have been debating. Some think of it as an artificial made-up concept inherited from religion, some view it as made-up of material components, and some see it as something of ideal nature. In this article, we’ll examine Plato’s view of the soul in his dialogue Phaedo, and see how Plato decided to conceive of the soul and argue for its immortality.
What Is a Soul, and What Does Plato Say About It?
Some deny that the soul exists, saying there is no such thing as something that would be invisible and living in the human being. On the other hand, some do indeed believe that it’s an ideal entity that’s living inside of something material. Such an entity is something that is completely detached from the material components of the body and therefore does not cease to exist with death but keeps on living. Some even fit their model of reincarnation into the whole view of the soul. No matter how many approaches there are, it’s certainly something that philosophers have been arguing about for centuries.
Plato writes on the immortality of the soul frequently and in various places. However, his most direct approach and detailed analysis can be seen in Phaedo. In it, in the last hours before his death, Socrates talks with his friends before drinking the poison he was ordered to take by the Athenian judges. In this dialogue, Plato explicitly comes up with five arguments for the immortality of the soul. All of them are logically correct and correspond to Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology. That’s why, first and foremost, it’s essential to take a look at his metaphysics and epistemology.
Exploring Plato’s Metaphysics
Let’s take a look at Plato’s metaphysics first—the study of Being. According to Plato, ideas are the ultimate objective Being from which the world is created. The ideas, says Plato, are eternal, not man-made, perfect, and immortal. For example, any single mother is mortal, but the idea of a mother is immortal. The idea keeps on living even after the death of the material thing that correlates to the idea.
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Furthermore, ideas do not exist in the same world as material things do. Even though material things come into existence as a direct cause of the ideas, they do not coexist in the same realm. Instead, they have a world of their own—the world of ideas. The world of ideas, or as Plato called it, topos hyperuranios, is an ideal world, located above the sensory-sensual (material) world. The ideas fall from the realm of ideas into the material world, which is how the world we live in is created. The material world is a copy of the world of ideas.
Along with the ideas residing in the world of ideas, the soul too resides in this world as well. Plato mentions 3 stages of the existence of the soul: pre-existence, existence, and post-existence. Just as ideas have a pre-existence in the world of ideas before they are materialized, the soul has a pre-existence as well. In the same way that the ideas fall into the sensory-sensual world and get materialized, the soul falls into the body as well and lives in it until its death. That’s why Plato sees the body as a kind of jail for the soul. The soul is locked up in the body and cannot realize its full potential until death. However, when the body dies, the soul does not die with it. The soul continues living. It goes back to the world of ideas where it existed before that, and thus, begins its post-existence.
Exploring Plato’s Epistemology
According to these metaphysical postulates, Plato creates his epistemology as well. When tackling the subject of the soul, Plato dives into the very nature of the soul and examines its epistemological aspects.
In the pre-existence of the soul, he says, the soul has a sort of omniscient character. The soul knows everything about the world and has known the full real Truth of the universe. However, when it falls from the world of ideas into the body of someone in the sensory-sensual world, it completely forgets everything it knew in its pre-existence. It goes through a state of oblivion. As a result, we are born as tabula rasa (blank slates)—we do not have any knowledge about the world around us, and are doomed to get to know the world from scratch once again.
Thus, Plato says that everything we get to know throughout our lives is actually the soul remembering the things it knew in its pre-existence before it fell into the world of material things. As a result, the process of learning is a process of remembering, according to Plato.
Plato’s Contemplative Arguments
We can now analyze Plato’s arguments about the immortality of the soul. He creates the first argument upon the premise that opposites are created from opposites because every that happens moves in opposites. The process of occurrence and what happens in the world is cyclical. Therefore, it is not linear. The opposite of life is death, and one occurs (comes to life) from the other. From the dead occurs the living, and vice versa: from the living, occurs the dead. Thus, he concludes that the souls of the dead must exist in a place where they are born, and reborn after that.
Plato comes up with the second argument about the immortality of the soul from his epistemological postulates. Knowing is remembering, according to Plato, and the soul remembers the knowledge it had before it was born, in its pre-existence in the world of ideas. Furthermore, he claims that the soul is only capable of having knowledge of concepts before it was born into the body. If this testifies that the soul existed before the birth of a body, then it will exist after the death of the body as well.
Plato conducts the third argument about the immortality of the soul from his premise about the very nature of the soul—the idea of the unity of the soul. He says that the soul is simple, not complex, and not made out of multiple parts. That which is simple and unified cannot cease to exist and decay into the smaller parts from which it is constituted. Because of that, the imperishable soul is immortal. The soul is similar to the ideas in this regard: they do not have any parts as well, and because of that, they are imperishable too.
The fourth and fifth arguments are linked to Plato’s objections to Simmias and Cebes. In his attempt to prove the immortality of the soul, Plato strives to knock down their arguments that the soul is mortal.
First, Simmias states that the soul can be compared to the harmony of a musical instrument—the lyre. The lyre alone and its stings are something complex, made out of multiple parts, and something that is changeable. However, the harmony that it creates is invisible and divine. Still, nobody will say that the harmony lasts longer than the lyre and the strings, he says. Simmias is confident that just as the unity of the strings produces harmony, the same way the soul is created through the harmonious constitution of the body. And, when the lyre breaks down, and the body dies and decays, the harmony, and the soul stop to exist as well.
In his objection, Plato cites his second argument here. If he proved that learning is remembering, and if that proves the pre-existence of the soul, he says that we have to conclude that the soul cannot be the harmony of the body, because it is older than the body.
Plato makes his fifth and last argument through the process of rejecting Cebes’s position about the soul. Cebes rejected the notion of the soul being immortal, although he believes in its pre-existence. To explain this, he gives an example of a weaver. He says that we can compare the soul with the weaver, and we can compare the body with the clothes. There is no doubt that the weaver outlives the clothing that he created, but the very last piece of clothing outlives him in the end. That’s why Cebes thinks that the same thing happens with the soul as well. Just as the weaver creates lots of clothes throughout his life, the soul consumes many bodies; however, in the end, the last body that it resides in outlives the soul. This means that the soul can outlive many bodies, but in the end, it dies as well and is thus mortal.
To reject this notion, Plato comes back to his metaphysical postulates about the ideas. He mentions that all things are included in the ideas and that the ideas are the only bearers of truth, and thus the only measure of truth. The ideas are the real reason that things are the way that they are. Through a detailed analysis of various examples, Plato concludes that the soul is inextricably linked to the idea of life, and that is its immanent essence. Because the living is the direct opposite of the dead, the soul does not consume death as its opposite because the opposite does not consume the opposite of itself. That which does not consume death is immortal. Thus, the soul is immortal.
The Impact of Plato’s Arguments in the Phaedo
From this very brief explanation of the theory of the soul in Phaedo, we can conclude that Plato proposed a view that is in accordance with his metaphysical and epistemological postulates. Even his theory of the soul is objective, as is his metaphysics. That’s why in the history of philosophy, he is known as the founder of objective idealism, and rightly so. He was the first one to propose such a theory, and also the first one to provide a systematic elaboration about the theory of the soul.
Plato saw the soul as the seat of reason and knowledge, and he believed that the ultimate goal of human life was to cultivate the soul in order to achieve wisdom and knowledge of the Forms or Ideas. Even though the arguments seem complex and interrelated at first glance, they remain an important contribution to the philosophical tradition and continue to inspire debate and discussion among scholars today.