Book Reviews

Phaedo by Plato

Socrates is seen as the paradigm of the philosopher. If anyone thinks of the philosopher, then you think of Socrates. The man with the white beard, asking questions to everyone and annoying the shit out of them. That’s what a philosopher is. Someone who doesn’t take for granted the things we think we know. Socrates was the prime example as the good man, as represented by Plato. And like the philosopher who has to risk his life by returning to the cave and save the chained-up prisoners, Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death. This is the book talking about the immortality of the soul, just before Socrates drinks the cup of hemlock poison and dies.

            For Plato the soul was something immortal. He believed, like Pythagoras, that the soul would live on after the body had died. In many ways the body was rather a prison for the soul. Something that needed to be cast away if the soul was to be happy. As Plato’s Forms are immaterial only an immaterial object like the soul can become one with the Forms. Thus, the body was something not to be sad about when it died.

            Only those who live the philosopher’s life, the good life, would remain in the eternal world of the Form of the Good. So, Socrates wasn’t really sad he had to die. In a way he was happy that he died a virtuous man. He lived his life ethically, more ethical than anyone in the room with him. But how did he do that? Well, he listened to a voice that he called his Daemon.

            What this daemon exactly is, is unsure. Personally, I would give a Nietzschean twist to this and say that it was actually his conscious, like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. It was the voice that didn’t tell him what to do, it rather told him what not to do (which was quite a lot). And in a sense, we have all experienced this. We did something we knew to be wrong and then that little voice in our head would say: ‘That’s not it.’ It’s the voice that makes us responsible. It’s that judging voice that tells us when we are not doing the things we should be doing, when we’re doing the wrong things. That’s our daemon. Now we can listen to that daemon or we can choose not to. Because sometimes the daemon might say frightening things. Like for example saying to Socrates that he should not leave Athens and that he should drink the hemlock cup and die. That’s exactly what Socrates did.

            Socrates is the paramount of virtue in Plato’s work. He is the one good person in a city with lesser people. He is the wise man who went back into the cave and tried to educate the other prisoners. As Plato said in the Republic: even if that means his own death.

To live the virtuous life is hard. Socrates is the one who tried to show us this. It is to take responsibility of your actions and not run away from them. It is to try and find knowledge about the things that are good. It is to always question things whenever someone has an answer ready. That’s what the philosopher is all about: trying to learn how to live. And more importantly: trying to find out what is worth dying for. Because just like Socrates, dying is the surest thing we’ll ever do.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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