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Explain the First Three Arguments Socrates Gives for the Immortality of the Soul

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Explain the first three arguments Socrates gives for the immortality of the soul


This essay will discuss the first three arguments put forward by Socrates for the immortality of the soul as outlined in the Phaedo. The Phaedo is a dialogue written by Plato and is one of his middle dialogues. The dialogue examines the nature of the soul. The three arguments for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo that will be discussed are: the argument from recollection [1], the argument from opposites [2] and the affinity argument[3]. Before the arguments are discussed in the order mentioned, the purpose behind the arguments inclusion in the dialogue will be examined. This will involve looking at Socrates’ view of the philosopher[4]. It also requires Plato’s theory of the forms to be outlined.

The Philosopher’s Death and The Theory of The Forms

Plato views the soul as being imprisoned in the body unable to see reality through sensory experience[5] . Plato views reality as existing in the forms[6]. A form is eternal, constant and divine[7]. There is a relationship between the things we perceive and its form[8].  For example, beauty: there are beautiful things in the world and these are things which participate in the form of beauty but are not the form in itself. The form itself is not present in the material realm but is divine, unchanging, constant, law -like and immaterial[9]. Participations of the forms in the material realm exist in a constant state of change, for example one who is beautiful and young becomes old and ugly. To have knowledge of the form of beauty or of another form one must perceive the form itself not as it exists in beautiful objects but as it exists in the immaterial realm[10]. The soul of a philosopher when attached to the material body is only able to see things participating in the forms and not the forms themselves. The soul of a philosopher should be able to perceive the world of the forms, the true nature of knowledge [11]. To fit this purpose the soul therefore needs to exist after death independently from the body and must possess an intellect capable of perceiving the forms. For this to occur, it must first be established that the soul can exist immortally and possess the needed intellect[12].

The Argument from recollection

To establish an intellectual disembodied soul Plato puts forward the argument from recollection. The argument from recollection first occurs in The Meno and runs as follows[13]:

  1. If learning something new is impossible then what we think we know or learn is actually something that we already know and that we are recollecting
  2. If we do recollect then we either gained this knowledge in this life or in a previous life
  3. No evidence exists that knowledge was gained in this life
  4. Therefore, knowledge must be gained in a previous life
  5. We must have lived a previous life as a disembodied soul

In the Phaedo Socrates argues that his theory of recollection is founded by his theory of the forms[14]. He uses the example of equality to suggest that we can never through sensory experience, experience a perfect resemblance of equality.[15]This applies to other concepts we hold[16]. Yet we can recognise instances of equality and so possess some knowledge of the participation of things in the forms. Due to this, knowledge of these perfect concepts must be known a priori before birth. The soul must have existed before birth as an immaterial, intellectual thing holding knowledge of these forms[17] .

Cebes’ Objection

Cebes uses the example of a weaver to push Socrates to find an argument that the soul is essentially immortal[18]. Cebes asks why the soul cannot be like a weaver’s coat existing after the death of the weaver. So too the soul could exist after the body has perished by attaching itself to other bodies until like the weavers’ coat it wears out at perishes. The argument is taken more seriously than the other arguments by analogy put forward by Socrates interlocutors because it highlights a problem with the argument from recollection on which Socrates relies [19]. The problem with recollection argument is that by itself it does not establish that the soul is immortal rather it establishes that that the soul is independent from the body and pre-existing of it[20]. Socrates needs the soul to be essentially immortal so the philosopher can attain true knowledge of the forms. The forms which are eternal need the soul to be eternal in order to be perceived[21].

The Argument from opposites

The argument from opposites occurs in two parts in The Phaedo. The first time it occurs is just before the[22] argument from recollection. The second time it occurs is after Cebes objection mentioned above. The two parts of the argument will be treated as one when discussed below.

Through his use of the forms, Socrates first argues everything comes into being as version of its form and that all that comes into being generates change. Everything that exists participates in a form and exists as an opposite of it[23]. In the Phaedo he goes further and argues that when pairs of opposites exist one comes into existence from the other in the pair. He applies this to life and death. Life and death are opposites of each other death coming from life and life from death. This according to Socrates occurs in a cycle. This cyclic relationship prevents one of the pair becoming dominant in the relationship between the pair so that only one of the pair can exist at any given time. Plato assumes the existence of the soul and applies this argument to the body and soul and to life and death: when the body and soul have life, it follows they do not have death. When death appears in the cycle and enters the body life must end. Further, the soul not being able to be dead and alive at the same time must leave the dying body and so becomes immaterial and immortal in existence [24]



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