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Phaedo

Plato

115b - 118a

107a - 115a

Study Questions

Summary

Having wrapped up his myth, Socrates remarks that the time has come for him to drink the poison, though he would like to have a bath first so that no one will have to clean his corpse. Crito asks if Socrates has any instructions for them--about what should be done with his children, or anything else. Socrates answers that if they all take care to look after themselves, good things will inevitably follow. Crito then asks how Socrates would like to be buried, to which Socrates replies that Crito may do as he pleases. He has just gone to great lengths to explain that when he dies, his soul will leave his body and will live on eternally. The body that will be left behind will not be Socrates, because Socrates' soul will no longer inhabit it. Thus, Crito should not be upset to see Socrates' body buried or burned, since that body will no longer be Socrates.

Socrates then goes into the next room with Crito in order to bathe. There he is met by his three sons and the women of his household. He says his last goodbyes to them, gives them some final instructions, and then sends them away and returns to join his companions.

The sun is setting as the prison officer enters to tell Socrates that he must take the poison. The officer remarks that he knows that Socrates will not be angry with him for telling him so. During Socrates' time in prison, the officer has become convinced that Socrates is the noblest, gentlest, and bravest man he has ever met, and trusts that Socrates know that he is following orders against his wishes. The officer says goodbye to Socrates, offers his best wishes, and then bursts into tears and departs.

Socrates now indicates that he should take the poison. Crito objects, telling Socrates that there is still time, that many prisoners don't take the poison until well into the night. Socrates replies that these men cling too desperately to life, whereas he has no reason to fear death. Socrates is brought the cup of hemlock, which he receives quite cheerfully. Socrates offers a prayer to the gods that his journey from this world to the next may be prosperous, and then downs the cup in one gulp. At this point, Phaedo and all the others break down in tears, not for Socrates' sake, but for their own, at losing such a friend. Socrates chastises them, saying he sent the women away to avoid such a show of tears. He would like to meet his end in reverent silence, and urges his friends to be brave.

Ashamed by his rebuke, Socrates' friends fall silent. Socrates then gets up and walks about a bit to help the poison spread throughout the body. As he begins to feel numb, he lies down on the bed. His last words are: "Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don't forget." After this, Socrates drifts imperceptibly from this world to the next. Phaedo concludes his narrative, remarking that Socrates was the bravest, wisest, and most just of men.

Commentary

The account of Socrates' death is not meant to be factual so much as illustrative of the exemplary manner in which he lived. The actual effects of hemlock, if one were actually to drink it, are far different from those described by Phaedo. The important point to note is the calm and ease with which Socrates leaves this life. A theme that has run throughout the dialogue is the idea that a philosopher is someone who prepares himself for death. Socrates has done such a fine job in preparing himself that his departure from this world is almost imperceptible. Those whose souls have become attached to the flesh in a manner that Socrates warns against might cling to the body at the moment of death, making the separation of the soul from the body a rending, painful affair. Socrates, on the other hand, has practiced studied detachment from his body, and has no fear whatsoever of slipping away.

We should note that the dialogue has been building toward this point, especially in the closing myth. Socrates is no longer the astute dialectician ready to knock down his opponents' arguments. Here, Plato presents him as a man confident in his own theories and his own knowledge. His reference to swans singing at their death suggests an almost prophetic knowledge of what is to come for him. In this light, his myth at the end could also be read as divinely inspired. Certainly, it does not result from Socrates' normally preferred method of question and answer. By the time he drinks the hemlock, Socrates' soul is already in the grasp of the divine, and little else is required to release him.

Asclepius is the Greek god of medicine, and an offering would typically be made to thank the god for curing a disease. Socrates' suggestion in his dying words is that he has been cured of the disease that is life, and should therefore be thankful to Asclepius. For as long as we are alive our soul is tempted and distracted by the flesh. Only through death can our soul achieve that release that "cures" it of these ills.

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Interpretation of Heraclitus

by Clown_Clopopisky, December 27, 2013

In the commentary, the phrasing: 'Heraclitus [...] maintains that everything is in constant flux and that the only constant in the universe is change' is misleading. While purposeful for the Phaedo since this may very well have been Plato's interpretation of Heraclitus, it is not necessarily correct from an objective point of view. While Heraclitus probably held that 'you can not step into the same river twice', 'Πάντα ῥεῖ' or 'everything floats' (by extension, everything is in a flux), was probably added by his disciple Cratylus,... Read more

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