The character Phaedo recounts to Echecrates the final hours of Socrates. True to his nature, Socrates uses this time to engage in a dialogue with Simmias and Cebes on the nature of death and knowledge. The “dialogue,” if it can be called that given the flashback nature of the piece, discusses the place of philosophy in preparing one for death and engages in a long-winded dialogue about the existence of the soul before birth and after death. Socrates finishes their conversation with a myth reminiscent but different from the one in The Republic about the journey of souls after death. Then when the appointed hour arrives, Socrates drinks the poison, and everyone around him bursts into tears, which is the most emotionally interesting section of the work in what otherwise reads as a lot of mystic mumbo-jumbo cloaked in the facade of “reason.”
I didn’t enjoy reading this work in comparison to the other dialogues. It reads too much like a religious text than a philosophical one at times. In the Phaedo Socrates finally disappears and Plato articulates his own philosophical vision, which foregrounds the entire dialogue. Many of the concerns such as the immortality of the soul, the theory of recollection of knowledge, the introduction of the Forms that dominate the philosophical discussion of The Republic can be found here as well. We see Plato’s characteristic mistrust of the physical body and the senses as our primary sources of knowledge; he instead prefers to exalt intuition, reason, and what we can learn when we divorce ourselves from the senses. He goes so far as to blame the body and its desires for all the civil strife in the world.
Many scholars point out the similarities between Plato’s ideas of reincarnation and the Pythagorean’s; however, even more notable is the affinity many of these ideas have to Christianity. When Christianity arrived on the scene hundreds of years later it is not difficult to understand why so many Christians found a lot they could relate to in Plato.
The literary attributes of the “dialogue” are top-notch. The flashback structure of the dialogue compliments the theme of recollection as our source of knowledge since the reader experiences the entire dialogue as the recollection of one of the people present during the Socrates’ last hours. Similarly the flashback serves as yet another reminder that the soul which Plato associates with philosophy is more important than the body as we are hearing the immortalized words of Socrates, his philosophy, long after his body has decayed. The myth at the end is not as enjoyable or memorable as The Myth of Er in The Republic, however, I did appreciate the imagery of the rivers dragging those from Tartarus who only committed minor crimes up every few years, and who can only be freed from their punishment if the loved one whom they wronged forgives them.