Phaedo is the dialogue of Plato that concerns Socrates’ final words. The discussion revolves around a proposal by Socrates’ associates to defend his views of the afterlife and the immortality of the soul, followed by a counter argument by a Pythagorean, and a final rebuttal by Socrates before the recounting of his drinking the hemlock. A great read, the work constitutes one of Plato’s most notable dialogues: The influence of Phaedo on subsequent Western thought is clearly tremendous. Until recently, I hadn’t thought about it since my undergrad days of philosophy 101, where we read a selection and hit the highlights of the doctrine of forms and immortality of the soul. Returning to the unabridged work years later and with a much wider range of knowledge, the discussion struck me as profound as much as it is bizarre and mysterious. In this article, we will investigate the epistemological, metaphysical and esoteric teachings sprinkled along the way, as well as problematic areas.
Early in the dialogue, Socrates mentions his desire to practice the “arts” based on a recurring dream he has had. In response to queries about this, Socrates tells his friends “philosophy is the greatest of the arts,” based on his attempt to create an Aesop’s Fable of his own about the duality involved in pleasure and pain. The dialogue is also littered with reference to “initiation into the Mysteries,’ the allegorical understanding given in religious initiations, and that the “initiates of the Mysteries” are prepared for journey of the dead undertaken in the afterlife. Pleasure, he argues, is dialectically tied to pain, and both tend to ever bring their opposite. In this life, our attachment to bodily pleasure and passion thus becomes a hindrance that wears down the lofty, immortal nature of the soul. The allegorical meaning of the Rites of the Mysteries is therefore the philosophical understanding of how to live well so that in the next life one can pass on to blissful Valhalla. However, Socrates does not entirely “spiritualize” or “allegorize” the rites of the gods – he follows them in both senses.
The references to the Mysteries and the rites of religion is curious, given the standard, secular version of this topic in academic settings, which generally focuses on a cursory overview and a discarding of any esoteric ideas in the dialogues. Marxist, feminist and statist education in our day is universally programmed to read all great works as externally imposed class and gender warfare diatribes, subverting everything wholesome and wondrous in them. And should you happen upon a male professor that isn’t a feminist/Marxist, you likely got an atheist materialist who scoffed at anything in the work beyond his feeble grasp. Contrary to these sophistical losers, Phaedo is a religious treatise about initiatic knowledge through revelation. While all of its theses and ideas are not what I would recommend, Phaedo is a perennialist document, and not a secular one.
For Plato and Socrates, the “philosopher” is he who lives according to virtue and reason, cultivating the pleasures of the soul/intellect, and not the pleasures and passions of the baser desires of the body. The key to this path is grasping first that there are absolutes – absolute truth, goodness, beauty, etc. These are universal forms that are recollected from our past lives, and ultimately back to the One, or the Monad, from which all things mysteriously emanated. Man “sees” truly by his soul, and seeing with this higher, awakened eyesight allows one to peer into the higher realm of existence where truth is eternal, not subject to the chaotic flux and temporal finitude and change of this life. Anti-material and, anachronistically, gnostic elements emerge here, and later Christian theology, for example, would connect gnostic movements to Platonism. One thinks of Origen’s debates with Celsus, for example, or Augustine and Porphyry, and in both of those cases, Augustine and Origen unfortunately share too many of Platonism’s presuppositions. Regardless, the anti-physical stance of Platonism actually demonstrates origins in much older traditions of the far east. As the Timaeus recounts, the “mysteries” of Pythagoreanism and Platonism are those of Egypt.
As I’ve criticized before in Augustine, the clear influence of Platonic errors is evident from Phaedo. The ascetic tendency to “despise the body” is present, also hearkening to older, ascetic traditions found in religions like Hinduism, so we are again presented with a perennial tradition at work here that is based on syncretic principles. The “seeing” the soul does is achieved by the awakening of the philosophical sense, where the soul wanders through the mirror reflections and copies of things (the particulars), on the way back to the One (the universals and the Monad), and then to engage in the cyclical process again, where Socrates gives a detailed account of how the transmigration of souls takes place. The unfortunate and central place of Western dialectics is given primacy here, where the eternal realm of unchanging forms is set over against the temporal realm of illusory reality. Ancient far eastern ideas of maya and empirical “reality” as un-reality and deception are clearly present, and along with the transmigration of souls, these ridiculous doctrines should be dropped, based as they are on pagan conceptions of cyclical time and the chain of being, wherein God, forms, man and matter, are all placed at different levels on the same continuum of being. All based on the presupposition of dialectics raised to a status of ultimate metaphysical principle, contraries and oppositions found in nature are not transcended by setting these forces in eternal dualistic opposition.
In this scheme, death is on the same continuum as life, as a “natural” process, and time is illusory. The central absurdity here is that if life is illusory, then the realization of life is illusory, as well. In other words, a presuppositional critique of the faulty metaphysical assumptions of Platonism can actually free us from the dialectical tensions and allow us to plumb its depths for good points and insights. Nevertheless, the central problem here is the dualistic tension of binary opposition, where all binaries require their opposite. So, pleasure requires and brings pain, death requires and brings life, etc. By this reasoning, time necessitates eternity, and the good requires and necessitates either evil or negation of the good, etc. If that is true, then the eternality of the good is based on the simultaneous eternality of evil. If the two require and necessitate the other, then the value judgment of adjudicating something as “good” and something as “bad” must also be illusory, relative, and whichever appellation is chosen can logically be interchanged with the other. If both good and evil are relative terms based on the eternality of both in dualistic tension, then good is evil, and evil is good, and we are back at monism. Numerous other ways of modelling this presupposition as contradictory nonsense could be given, but this should be sufficient to show it’s nonsensical on its own grounds.
In like manner, the location of knowledge of the forms is placed by Plato in past lives. Transmigration of the soul and reincarnation (clearly borrowed from older pagan religions) is nonsensical on numerous grounds, but the most obvious is the impossible bridge or link between the realm of the forms and this life of flux. How can the good, eternal, invariant and universal actually be in our realm of the opposite? It cannot, and for Plato the only bridge between these two realms is the human intellect. Since the human intellect clearly makes connections and associations that extend beyond the empirical, how is this possible? If human autonomy and rationalistic primacy of intellect is the starting point for epistemology, then it stands to reason that the knowledge of universals we obtain must originate in a past life. However, this does not solve the problem of finitude, as the ability to link what Kant called a transcendental unity of apperception or a unitive identity in an object over time (identity over time), cannot be solved by a finite human intellect. The only way out of this dilemma is an infinite Divine Mind which contains all the logoi (forms), and not a human intellect. The human intellect is a small mirror of this Logos, but it is not a mirror of the divine Monad’s essence (as Platonism, Origenism, Augustinianism, and Thomism say).
The bridge between the infinite and the finite is the human nous, a faculty given by God to know God. The human nous is able to, through remembrance of God (not remembrance of past lives) achieve actual gnosis of the logoi (forms) through union with God, not intellectual and rational accumulation of facts. The rationalist tendency to identify intellect and soul in Platonism must be rejected, as this identification is also the root of the anthropological trend the West would take, turning it to its own oblivion. The reason for this is Plato’s idea that the soul, because it is invisible, must be a perfect unity, like the original Monad, and thus in dialectical tension, the multiplicity and flux of the body is in tension against the perfect unity of the soul, identified with the intellect. No, man is not a duality of body and soul in tension, but a body, soul and spirit, and by returning to God through repentance and love, his heart (nous) is changed, thus altering his intellect, placing intellect under the rule of nous. For Plato, it’s man’s intellect that is primary – for Orthodoxy, it is man’s heart that must change in submission to God which cleanses the mind to submit to the nous, and thereby man perceived the truth of things (logoi). For Plato, theosis is achieved by man’s intellect – biblically, theosis is achieved by placing intellect under the dominance of the heart and God’s law.
However, these criticisms aside, Plato’s argument against naïve empiricism is excellent and crucial. The mind of man does connect similar concepts in objects of experience, and these connecting concepts themselves are not empirically experienced. They are also not mere token terms invented by social structures, but real ideas, real connecting universals that objects share through participation in the universal. This doctrine of participation of many things in one, while retaining their identities was chosen in the patristic era because of this balance, over against Aristotelian hylomorphism. Hylomorphism and Aristotelian thought excludes the possibility of more than one unity in an object – any singular substance must be an absolutely simple substance. However, for Plato, there is at least the notion of the balance of the one and the many in an object, which is able to share the universal characteristics of roundness, whiteness, etc., without roundness and whiteness and particularity losing their real identity, as Sherrard has elucidated. Plato’s arguments about forms from the problem of the one and the many are the ultimate antidote to the naïve empiricism and scientism that have so drugged the masses in our day. Socrates even jokes that in his young days, he was taken up by the naïve empirical natural science of Anaxagoras, as if it was the answer to everything, only later in life coming to the realization that it was a fundamentally flawed and presuppositionally nonsensical view, which attempted to explain causality by reference to other causes or descriptions. This circular, contradictory nonsensical view would be highlighted a few millennia later by David Hume, who would take the skepticism of empiricism to its logical conclusions – total insanity and the destruction of all possibility of knowledge.