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The immortality of the soul

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2473 words Published: 7th Mar 2017

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Title: What arguments are there in the Phaedo for and against the immortality of the soul?


A large portion of the Platonic dialogue Phaedo concerns itself with attempting to establish well enough the Socratic teaching of the immortality of the human soul. In all, there seem to be three main types of arguments for immortality offered by Socrates in the Phaedo. The first and third arguments are known by various names. The second main argument offered is generally known to everyone by the same name: the “recollection argument.” It should be admitted here that it seems more suitable to refer to these, not as strict proofs, but certainly as argumentative support for Socrates’ overall position of immortality. David Gallop seems to concur in his commentary on this passage of the Phaedo dealing with immortality. “Plato does not offer a set of discrete, self-contained proofs of immortality, but a developing sequence of arguments, objections, and counter-arguments,” (103).[1] Joseph Owens agrees that the Platonic arguments offered do go quite far in making their case,[2] though they fall short of establishing a certainty between immortality itself and an attending guarantee of immortality toward every human person. So whereas it is important to note the strength of the arguments, it remains to be seen whether their strength stands up to close scrutiny, especially the scrutiny offered by Socrates’ interlocutors.

The First Main Type of Argument for Immortality

Before entering into this argument proper, it would be beneficial to indicate what had been admitted prior to the first argument beginning at 69e. It was admitted by all Socrates’ listeners that the philosopher as the one who seeks after true wisdom and truth itself is aware that the body he inhabits works against these higher inclinations of the philosopher. The soul and the body are really distinct from each other. One could say that they are two separate substances, and the soul is clearly superior to the body. The soul seeks the higher things: the forms, truth itself, etc. But, the body interferes with these pursuits and brings down the soul from these great heights.[3] This is the metaphysical anthropology to keep in mind as underlying the arguments.

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Now onto the first type of argument, which has been categorized in several ways, depending on the commentator. It has been known as the cyclical argument, the opposites argument, or the argument from contraries.[4] We shall refer to it here by the latter option, though noting the cyclical nature presupposed by the argument from contraries.[5] The arguments begin as a result of a direct challenge by Cebes (69e6) that there have been many who have held that the soul perishes on the day of the death of the body. Socrates’ first argument in establishment of immortality begins by noting the received Greek “myth”[6] of the cycle of rebirth – the transmigration of souls (70c5). He proceeds to argue that in the whole of reality one perceives the “generation” of contraries one from another. “And the weaker is generated from the stronger, and the swifter from the slower,” Socrates notes.[7] From these several examples, he finally gets Cebes to admit that this principle applies equally well to life and death. Death is certainly generated from the living, and Cebes concedes that his only answer to what is generated from the dead is “the living,” (71d13).

This “contraries” argument gains final strength with a type of modus tollens argument.[8] It could be structured in the following way. If the world were not cyclical in its generation of contraries, then all life would have reached the same state of death. All life has not reached the same state of death. Therefore, the world is cyclical (72b-d). This argument is a valid version of the modus tollens, and it anticipates objections like that of Copleston when he asserts that Plato’s first argument is reliant on the “unproved assumption” of an eternally cyclical world. However, the modus tollens above shows that it is much more than an assumption. He argues from the way things are now (i.e., continually generating and decaying and generating again) to the necessity of the cyclical world to account for present reality. Therefore, one would have to find a faulty premise in the argument in order to overturn it. Cebes, however, sees the force of the reasoning and accepts it argument wholeheartedly (72d4-5).

The Second Argument for Immortality

As noted earlier, this second argument is commonly called the argument from recollection. It supposes that when we know the Forms (or “Ideas”) through recognizing particular instances of those Forms, we could only do so if we were either (1) informed of all Ideas at birth (and then lost them immediately after we received them, which is absurd) or (2) merely recollect the Ideas from having known them previously (i.e., prior to our birth).[9] Hence, we all have existed previously. For example, in order to perceive equalities among things, we would have to already possess a notion of “absolute equality.” Else, we would not be able to recognize equality at all, if we had no prior Ideas with which to compare the instances of things we encounter in reality (74). Simmias and Cebes accept the force of the argument, though Cebes concludes by noting that Simmias raises an interesting point which implies that only half of the argument has been given in this second line of reasoning. What one concludes from the second argument is merely that the soul existed and was vested with the Forms prior to its arrival on Earth (77c1-5). This does not, however, establish life after death – merely prior to death. However, Socrates’ retort is that the second argument is meant to be understood “in conjunction with the preceding argument,” (Copleston, 213). This satisfies both Simmias and Cebes, as they are moved along to the third argument given by Socrates, having to do with the very nature of the soul.

The Nature of the Soul and Its Implications: Argument Three

This is perhaps the most pointed of the arguments and crucial to be established in order to make the belief in immortality more firm. There are two aspects of this third argument, both of which deserve explication. The reason, it seems, why some philosophers prefer to call this the “affinity” (Gallop) or “likeness” (Stern) argument is that Socrates argues that the soul is able to peruse the invisible realm of the Forms, even though the body merely has contact with the sensible, physical world. In this way, the soul can be shown to have a propensity toward the realm of the Forms. It could be said to have a “heavenly” aspect to it, as it were. Since the forms are very clearly not subject to any change or decay, and the soul is readily in contact with them, it must be the case that this shows an immortal aspect of the soul (79).

This aspect of the argument does have some force. Perhaps though the most pointed argument offered by Socrates is founded in the simplicity of the soul. Unlike any body, the soul, being immaterial, is not composed of parts. Every body though is composed of many and various parts. The soul, lacking any parts, therefore must be simple in its constitution (78b-80). Moreover, anything that is simple in its makeup is not subject to degeneration. Mortimer Adler explains,

Degeneration is decomposition. The soul would be mortal, too, if it were materially constituted and decomposable. The crux of the various arguments that Socrates advances for its immortality, therefore, lies in two assertions he makes about it. It is immaterial; and it is simple, not composite. It must, therefore, continue to exist

after the body perishes.[10]

Richard Swinburne, in an article on “immortality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy reasons that since Plato argues that the destruction of anything consists (at least) in the disassembling of its various parts, yet the soul has no parts and is not spatial, it follows that “the soul can not be destroyed.”[11]

Simmias’ Objection

At the end of all of this there still remain objections in the Phaedo. Simmias offers one, which has been called the epiphenomenal objection (85e3-86d). According to Simmias, the soul could be seen as merely the harmony of the body, and when the body dies, that which gave it harmony dies alongside it. The Socratic reply is that the soul is the master of the body (i.e., it can control emotions and subdue desires), and it is not reasonable to think that that which merely is the harmonizing principle of a thing could simultaneously be the very ruler of it as well.[12]

Concluding Thoughts

There are many arguments offered by Socrates and, in the end, more or less conceded by all the participants in favor of viewing the soul as immortal. It seems that the strongest arguments unfold as the dialogue itself unfolds. The argument from the simplicity of the soul, while deserving some further explication and clarification (which subsequent philosophers do – cf. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas), does ultimately stand up to the objections of his interlocutors. Whether they are altogether successful as a conglomerate or whether each one might stand on its own as sufficient of proving immortality is difficult to discern. Continued revisiting of these Platonic thoughts, however, seem certainly to be appropriate, as we have witnessed at times throughout this brief the various weaknesses of contemporary commentators on Plato.

Works Consulted

Adler, Mortimer J. The Angels and Us. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1: Greece and Rome. New York:

Image Books, 1993.

Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University

Press, 1995.

Owens, Joseph. A History of Ancient Western Philosophy. New York: Appleton-Century-

Crofts, 1959.

Plato. Phaedo. Translated with Notes by David Gallop. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Stern, Paul. Socratic Rationalism and Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s

Phaedo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993.



[1] Gallop goes on to note that these arguments of the Phaedo are to be contrasted “sharply with the solitary, and quite different, proofs of immortality in the Republic (608c-611a) and Phaedrus (245c-246a),” Phaedo, translated with notes by David Gallop (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 103.

[2] “The Platonic arguments have shown that the nature of the intellectual soul demands immortality,” A History of Ancient Western Philosophy (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959), 234.

[3] See especially Socrates’ pointed comments at Phaedo 66b-e.

[4] Joseph Owens and Paul Stern refer to it as the “opposites” argument. David Gallop employs the category of “cyclical” and Frederick Copleston seems to prefer seeing it as an argument from “contraries.”

[5] “Contraries” as opposed to “opposites” is preferred because, as shall be seen, the argument is not reliant solely on what are true opposites. There are many times when Socrates transitions to talking about gradations in types of being, rather than true opposites. Gradations can be included under the head of contraries.

[6] Mortimer Adler refers to this as a myth rather than a religious or even philosophical doctrine that Plato inherits. Angels and Us (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 161.

[7] Phaedo, 71, 3-4. All quotations from the Phaedo are from the older translation by Benjamin Jowett (rather than from that of David Gallop), unless otherwise noted. The Jowett translations of Plato have appeared in numerous editions and are therefore readily available.

[8] Which, if the reader needs reminding, has the following construction: If P, then Q. Not Q; therefore not P. Or, P→Q; ~Q; â-¡ ~P.

[9] This argument is worked out in much detail in another dialogue – the Meno. In that dialogue, Plato attempts to establish this, we may call it along with Copleston, a priori type of knowledge in all men by questioning a boy, who has never been instructed in mathematics, in basic principles of a mathematical proof. Through this questioning he is able to draw out of the boy an abstraction for a mathematical proof – a proof with which, prior to this questioning, the boy was altogether unfamiliar.

[10] Angels and Us, 157.

[11] Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 396. However, immediately following this Swinburne proceeds to give the following objection, which he takes to be successful. He states that since an atom (which is physical) can be reduced to energy (which is also, in some sense, physical) and thus destroyed, it must not have to be the case that a thing must have its parts separated before it is destroyed. But, of course, the argument of Plato is untouched by such an objection. An atom is both physical and composed (of at least protons, neutrons and electrons). Hence, it bears no analogy to the soul which is neither physical nor composed of anything.

[12] Frederick Copleston makes this point masterfully in his History of Philosophy, 207.


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