Plato on life after death

Phaedo - 'Plato'

I have noticed that a number of people consider that this text is the crowning piece that defines the Western philosophical method. In a way I agree and in a way I disagree. In one sense one can see how the idea of the separation of the body and the soul has come down to us and which has formed a major part of Western spiritual thought and in turn forms one of the bases of what I tend to term as our civil religion. However there are two things that it is not. First of all it is not Christian, and secondly it is not Socratic.

I will deal with both in turn and I will outline my argument about how it is not Socratic first and then how it is not Christian secondly. Before I go on, one of my primary sources of the fact that it is not Socratic is my Classical History lecturer David Hester (who is now retired). Secondly, since this not an academic essay to be handed up to a university to be marked I will not be referencing or sourcing my arguments. However, if anybody wishes to debate either point I more than welcome them, since that is what the comment section below the commentary is for.

Anyway, the first thing that stood out when I read this work was that it differs from a lot of other Socratic dialogues as it is a second hand account. Most of the Socratic dialogues come across as first hand accounts, and we know that Plato was present at the trial because we are told that he was (and I also suspect that he was present when Crito visited Socrates on the night before his execution). However, this particular work is based around a conversation that occurred months, or even a couple of years, after the event. We are told that Plato was not present at the execution (apparently he was sick), so we are relying not just on Plato being present at this conversation, but also on the accuracy of Phaedo, who claims to have been present at the execution. As such we see that Plato appears to be distancing not so much himself, but rather Socrates, from the philosophy that is being outlined.

Secondly, the theory of forms is being discussed in this work (I am hesitant to call it a dialogue because it is not actually a dialogue in the way that the other Platonic works are dialogues). The theory of forms, as my lecturer explained, was purely a Platonic idea and not a Socratic one (and I will give my reasoning below). The theory of forms, though, is the idea that everything in our reality is flawed, however they are shadows of a much greater reality. Therefore a table that we see is not a perfect table but rather a shadow of the real table. We see this argument developed elsewhere, and in particular with the cave analogy that Plato expounds in The Republic.

Thirdly, this particular dialogue deals with what I would term as pseudo-scientific speculation, in particular the nature of the body and the soul, and what happens to the soul after death. We note that the Socrates in this dialogue talks about the purpose of life is to pursue knowledge, or gnosis. However, and while I have not read the Socratic dialogues in Greek, I get the idea that Socrates is not so much interested in gnosis, but rather in sophos, or wisdom. In the dialogues of Socrates that I have read and commented on I have noticed that Socrates' main focus is on how were are to live in society, which is the idea of wisdom, as opposed to gaining knowledge of things, which is gnosis.

Finally, we have Socrates, for a large part, lecturing, which is something that Socrates simply does not do. Granted, in the Apology, we do have him providing a defence, but even in his defence we see him falling back on what we call the Socratic method, that is taking the position of ignorance and asking a series of questions that tend to guide the person in the argument around to your point of view. However, it is interesting to note that there are a lot of spurious arguments and questions that seem to come from nowhere only to try to bring the point around to what Plato wanted to prove.

Now, I make the statement about it not being Christian. Most of you, I hope, would look at me oddly and say 'of course it is not Christian, idiot, it was written by an Ancient Greek five hundred years before Christ walked the Earth'. However, while this text may not be Christian, it has had a tremendous impact upon Christian thought (along with other Platonic works). The first and main thing that has influenced Western thought is the idea that the body and the soul are connected but not the same. Many of us, and it has permeated the church for centuries, believe that when we die our body rots in the ground and our spirit goes to heaven or to hell. Just take a look at Dante where we see him travelling through hell and seeing it full of spirits. That, my friend, is Platonic.

However, here is an extract from 1 Corinthians chapter 15:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain ... but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another.

So, as you can see from this passage (which has been truncated a bit, but can be found in its entirety here), the biblical position on life after death is not a spirit drifting around a spiritual realm, but a restored and resurrected physical body in a restored and resurrected physical world. Oh, and there is also discussions and proofs on reincarnation in the Phaedo as well, which as we all know, it pretty much not a Christian belief (but was, in fact, an Ancient Greek belief).

Now, the other interesting thing I noticed is that I recently read a book called Gospel and Wisdom, and in that book it tries to identify what it is that the bible terms as worldly wisdom. The writer suggested that it was attempting to determine biblical truths through human reason and logic. Pretty much as soon as I began to read this text it struck me that this is probably what he was referring too. Here we have a discussion on the idea of life after death from what effectively is pure speculation. Remember that, according to Christianity, the only person that can actually comment on life after death is Jesus Christ and that is because he died and rose again. As such, according to the bible, he is the only person with authority to speak on the subject because he is the only historical person that has ever travelled there (in an identifiable historical period) and come back to talk about it.