Plato’s “Phaedo” is a dialogue between Echecrates and Phaedo of Elis. Phaedo is a first-hand witness to the execution (forced suicide) of Socrates, thus, the setting and theme of the work is a recount of the death and the events leading up to it. At the provocation of his friends and disciples, those present at his death, Socrates proceeds to share his philosophical insight concerning the human soul and its nature. In correlation with his willingness to accept his death penalty, Socrates’ view on his ensuing death is one of resignation and even optimism. Although Socrates sees suicide as impermissible morally, he proposes that death itself is not to be feared. In fact, Socrates insinuates that the truly enlightened mind (the philosopher) will look forward to the death of the body, as it indicates the separation of the flesh from the immortal soul. Socrates puts forth a number of arguments to base his claim upon.
The first of these arguments asserts that all things originate from their opposite. Socrates applied this to life and death, proposing that perhaps the opposite of death (life) shall be a product of death. From this theory can be deduced an ordered cycle of the human in which the concept of ‘new life’ may be possible. The second argument is a theory essentially supposing that all knowledge is a matter of remembrance, suggesting that if we had knowledge at birth, perhaps our soul contains data from before we were born. The third argument finds Socrates suggesting that soul is in fact immortal, and thus not bound by physical death. At this point, Socrates’ companions raise objections to his theories. However, Socrates’ dismisses their critique as logically in conflict with the theories he already presented. From this, he lays out his final argument. This argument asserts that the soul can never be anything but alive due to the theory of Forms.
Having seemingly maintained a philosophical nature to the death (literally), Socrates determines to have ‘said his peace’ and prepares to die. He says final goodbyes to his loved ones and drinks the poison given to him as the method of execution. Despite his ability to come to ‘peace’ with his own death, one must question and criticize other aspects of his life in conflict with his philosophy as a whole. Socrates is often deemed as (even specifically in ‘Phaedo’) the epitome of a just man. However, his understanding of the soul seems to be exceedingly self-centric.
Truly - as Socrates is content with, and considering the immortality of the soul - physical death is not really the “last word”. However - by the very same principles - our very immortal soul gains even more ‘merit’ of virtue through the just and humble living of our physical human lives. In this way, suicide or indifference to human life would be nothing short of cowardice. I suppose that it could make sense for the philosopher to ‘look forward’ to death, if only considering that through death, he will finally break free from the binds of the flesh. But - in this separation, Socrates is also separated from all human ties of the flesh, including the responsibility of providing for his wife and infant son. This complete dismissal of the flesh includes the dismissal of “The Good” that the flesh can be associated with (human communion, new life, justice for other human persons, etc.), and this seems hardly ‘just’.
Is the soul alive? Surely! But - Is there no value at all to physical human life? Or perhaps - are we the integrated units of matter and form - body and soul - therefore only reaching our true enlightenment as human persons through the authentic living of virtue and justice, as manifested through our bodies and souls alike?
- “The Five Dialogues”, Plato