I taught the Phaedo this semester, and needing to divide it over two class sessions, I found a convenient stopping point — Cebes claims that Socrates has only demonstrated that the soul lasts longer than the body, but not that it’s immortal, a claim that throws Socrates’s companions into a depressed and confused state of mind and even prompts a return to the framing device. Focusing on this first half in relative isolation from the rest of the dialogue was helpful in that it forced me to grapple with the question of why the arguments of the first half run aground. It has to be more than the simple fact that Socrates usually analyzes and discards several arguments in the course of a dialogue, since the break here is so dramatic and pronounced.
Dealing with this question has led me to some observations that are doubtless unoriginal, but hopefully at least a little interesting. First, it’s worth noting that Socrates starts his demonstration of the immortality of the soul from the properties of the physical world. There, everything comes out of its opposite, meaning that death must come out of life. Here there is of course a contradiction already, as the soul apparently remains unchanged in either state, and from this perspective Cebes makes a necessary correction, including the soul among the objects of the physical world that all eventually dissolve. In restarting the argument, they begin from the one conclusion they find reliable: namely, the notion that all knowledge is recollection of the forms (which was established as a kind of aside without much explanatory weight).
This progress of the dialogue perfectly matches up with Socrates’s autobiographical sketch in the second half of the dialogue, where he claims he was initially fascinated with the natural sciences. Upon reading the works of Anaxagoras, he became obsessed with the notion that Mind is the cause of all things, but was disappointed that Anaxagoras spent most of his time on physical causes that seem not to match up with the claims about Mind. (In class, I used the example of the brain science that supposedly “explains” mental states but really only introduces trivia about the physical phenomena that seem to accompany them. Students were familiar with the sensation of disproportion and disappointment, a feeling of “I thought we were supposed to be talking about the mind here, not some tedious chemical formulas!”)
Socrates then “reboots” his own quest for knowledge with the dogmatic assertion that the Forms exist. From that point on, he doesn’t have much confidence in physical explanations — indeed, he has complete confidence that they don’t provide reliable knowledge — and instead clings to the simplicity of the Forms and trusts in the immortality of the soul that follows from it. One can’t arrive at this stance starting from our experience of the physical world. It has to be literally a priori, literally “before” our physical experience, when our souls supposedly existed in a purely immaterial realm.
This obviously opens up a yawning gap in his philosophical system, traced by questions such as “if the soul is so pure, how could it ever become entangled with the body in the first place” or “what relation could the physical world have with the Forms, or how could the Forms be thought of as causes of the physical world.”
What’s striking to me is how often he uses mythological language to fill in these gaps. In the Phaedo, he introduces a mythological account of the afterlife that asserts that the world is structured in such a way as to reward philosophers for their “training for death.” In the Phaedrus (the first half of which I taught last week), he provides a myth for (among other things) how souls became entangled with the body in the first place. Such examples can be multiplied.
Even more striking is that when Socrates finishes his myth of the afterlife, he admits that no one can insist any such account is absolutely reliable, yet he exhorts his hearers to take the “noble risk” of believing that something like it is true — that is, that the philosopher will be rewarded by escaping from this lowly world. One of my students brought in the obvious comparison: this is a precursor of Pascal’s Wager.
All this indicates to me that it’s difficult to distinguish Socrates’s philosophy, at least as presented in the dialogues centered on the Theory of the Forms, from religious faith.