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Phaedo – Plato

26 May

6346The Phaedo is acknowledged to be one of Plato’s masterpieces, showing him both as a philosopher and as a dramatist at the height of his powers. For its moving account of the execution of Socrates, the Phaedo ranks among the supreme literary achievements of antiquity. It is also a document crucial to the understanding of many ideas deeply ingrained in western culture, and provides one of the best introductions to Plato’s thought.

There is nothing quite like reading a bit of philosophy to perk me up (or perhaps that really is just me) and the immortal Plato weaves his magic once again in the Phaedo a fine book of the mysteries that captivate and frighten all of us at some stage.

The book primarily deals with the nature and immortality of the soul and includes ideas which would be adopted by the Christian church.  Although still in a polytheistic world the Greek natural philosophers had already begun to put forward the idea of one force that created and changed things in the universe.   they were already embracing duality with body and soul and setting the foundations for western philosophy as we know it.

Unlike Aristotle’s sometimes challenging works, Plato chooses to write in a literary style which is the basis for his easily understood arguments which are written in the form of a dialogue.  The author was well aware that such questions concerning mortality and the fate of the soul were not just the property of learned and the rich but were for the masses to contemplate and discuss as well.

All this talk of life is handled calmly by Socrates who has been condemned to death and uses his remaining time to have a forum with a few friends to discuss all things concerning death and afterlife. Which is then finished off with the great philosopher taking his own life by drinking hemlock,   Whether the scene happened as Plato claims it did or not, is neither here nor there for it is a fine piece of writing in any case and is still oddly moving.

Questions relating to the afterlife and the existence of the soul are debated in a simple conversation structure, where examples are given for and against arguments and shot down accordingly, this easy to follow style is rooted in logic and knowledge or physical evidence which are brought forward to support them.  It is no surprise that years later we still argue and over these defining ideas to questions that we still discuss today.

There are lots of metaphors and literary panache littering this work and the shortness of pages (80 pages not including notes and introductions and the other usual stuff) as well as the reader-friendly style do make this an insightful read.  Which is still much as Plato wanted it to be, a book that anybody can pick up and with a little concentration get an insight into the thinking of the past and the edgy theories of the time.

These days it’s more of a curiosity to read perhaps, which is not to do a disservice to the book, for those who have an interest in the early arguments that have gone on to influence so much in the human life thereafter, or just for the merely curious it is an excellent read, Of course in hindsight it has its flaws in the reasoning given but this is a fascinating look at embryonic ideas that would be used in christianity and deep thought throughout the West and you will be relieved to know that philosophers will be amongst the first in heaven, so that’s alright then.

 

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19 Comments

Posted by on 26/05/2014 in Philosophy

 

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19 responses to “Phaedo – Plato

  1. Letizia

    26/05/2014 at 16:23

    This is one of my favorite of Plato’s works: suicide, the value of life, responsibility of the citizen, etc. Interesting themes.

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2014 at 16:25

      You would think that given the centuries that we have had to ponder the questions we could have come up with something approaching sanity with the earthly issues.

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      • Letizia

        26/05/2014 at 16:27

        Sometimes it seems we have gone back in time rather than forward….

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        • Ste J

          26/05/2014 at 16:32

          Sad but true, being ‘civilised’ has certainly put us back in some areas…

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  2. Alastair Savage

    26/05/2014 at 16:39

    I’m not sure that it’s right to say that reading Plato is just a curiosity because many of his ideas still have power and relevance today. It is true though that he is a wonderful author. Before reading his books, I had assumed he was a dry, academic author like so many twentieth-century academic philosophers so it was an absolute delight to discover that he was such a poetic writer. I particularly like Agathon’s speech in the Symposium, which ends with all the other characters applauding him. Panache is the operative word!

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2014 at 16:47

      I should have clarified I meant a curiosity for the average reader such as myself that surfs willy-nilly through literary genres of all sorts. For those with any sort of interest in philosophy/theology/science/politics, will already have Plato on their essential reading list (one would hope). I have yet to enjoy the Symposium, in fact the majority of his works which is a good thing whilst at the same time disappointing considering what I have read in the last decade.

      I agree, I thought he would be dry and difficult as a result but he writes well and is almost as readable as Bertrand Russell which is great news. Philosophy is something I have neglected all too much but I look forward to reading more from the collection that I have somewhere.

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      • Alastair Savage

        26/05/2014 at 20:20

        Aha, now I see! I’ve never read anything by Bertrand Russell so now you’ve piqued my interest. Any suggestions on where to start?

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        • Ste J

          27/05/2014 at 19:13

          I enjoyed The Problems of Philosophy which has plenty of dry wit in it and the first book I read which is somewhat dated now but still fascinating is Roads to Freedom. He puts things simply and gives you a laugh in most of the singular essays I have read but RtF was serious but compelling and I flew through it in a day and a half.

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          • Alastair Savage

            28/05/2014 at 07:11

            Sounds good to me. I would never expected that from Bertrand Russell, So many books, so little time…

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  3. shadowoperator

    26/05/2014 at 16:48

    Have you seen the “Wallace and Gromit” short in which Gromit is reading “Fido” by “Pluto”? (The first being a great sound pun on “Phaedo,” at least in American pronunciation). It’s actually a serious thought in the midst of a desirable amount of frivolity, because Phaedo is in essence about all humans (as “Fido” would presumably be about all dogs), being the portion that comes to us all when we live by our beliefs (the hemlock whether of untimely or even natural death). It was one of the reasons I re-read “Phaedo,” a couple of years ago, believe it or not! Just to confirm my sense that Socrates’s death was really in a way according to nature, or at least the nature of humankind. Important messages in playful places!

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2014 at 17:00

      I think I remember seeing that years ago, I had forgotten all about it, I wonder if it had such deep connotations as you have mentioned or if it was just an easy fit…still I like jokes that are nicely obscure. I don’t know many people that would think about a pun so much but that that is the way analytical minds work and that makes me happy. I see Socrates death as inevitable, I mean obviously it is but I mean at that point it time…it fascinates me more than I care to admit.

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      • shadowoperator

        26/05/2014 at 17:34

        I once made a brief attempt to learn Sanskrit, and for some reason, the instructor pointed out the puns in what we were trying to read. He said that the pun was “the lowest common denominator,” by which he meant not that it was just a “low” form of humor (as most people even in using it see it as), but the irreducible something that all peoples have in common. If you think of James Joyce’s use of multi-lingual puns in “Finnegan’s Wake,” you run across odd and peculiar meanings that languages crazily enough seem to have in common even when they are not from the same language family. Not that I’ve made it through much of “Finnegan’s Wake,” but I was in a class once where the instructor had translated for us as many of the puns as he was able, and it was fascinating, if a little insanity-making. Personally, though I’ve read several of the dialogues of Plato, I take my philosophy where I find it. Maybe it’s just a desire to have it easy, maybe I’m lazy, I don’t know, but I’ve sort of enjoyed reading a number of philosophical works without feeling that I could do more than just boil them down to a few very essential points. Maybe I don’t have a sufficiently complex mindset, who knows? But I enjoyed your essay very much, and am glad you chose Plato to write about. I always enjoyed watching Socrates put facile thinkers in their places. I guess a man who chooses to die rather than give up his point of view and practices does that in a very final way.

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        • Ste J

          26/05/2014 at 18:52

          Sanskrit, I bet that was a challenge and a half! I never made it very far through Finnegan’s Wake either, coming on the back of my attempt at Moby Dick didn’t help matters either. I find language and the ideas it brings to be universal even when the actual languages are at odds, I do love my etymology…the problem I have when writing any review but mainly philosophy is that I wish to avoid spoilers whilst trying to bring out the essence of a book, sometimes it is a balance that fails me I think but that may be down to the haphazard way that I pick up books to read. I would love to sum up the books but to do so, I feel robs the new reader of finding the treasures themselves.

          Plato is probably the philosopher I have read most of, although Russell, Camus and Sartre are closing up with Nietzsche on the horizon and that’s before I get to Aquinas and the other Medieval theosophy thinkers…Actually I’m quite excited now.

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          • shadowoperator

            26/05/2014 at 19:16

            As to other philosophers, I have a funny problem with Sartre; I don’t know if you will be able to relate to this or not. I first read him in my late teens and early twenties, and really liked him, and felt I knew what he was all about, first shot right out of the cannon, when I had only read perhaps a handful of other formal philosophers. Now that I’m fifty-seven and have ingested more philosophy and other sorts of related ideas from literary theory and criticism (which often have their own little philosophies attached or borrowed from elsewhere without formal attribution or proclamation), I find I simply can no longer understand what the word “existentialism” even means. The concept has become not hated or dreaded or feared, but simply foreign to me! Maybe I should hang up my shingle under Socrates’s motto of “I know only that I know not,” only now I’m looking at Socrates with a suspicious eye too (he was soooo canny!).

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            • Ste J

              27/05/2014 at 19:16

              I am not so widely read in philosophy yet (although I strive to catch up) but it occurs to me that books rewrite books that have already been read, I think any basic foundation of thought can be ‘made wobbly’ by reading other books. It is a fascinating and scary concept to boot. I think Socrates had it right…perhaps sometimes ignorance is bliss as well.

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  4. Morgan

    26/05/2014 at 16:58

    Ok you have officially Impressed me 🙂 I think it might take me an entire year to read this…not because it would be over my head, but because I would be stopping so often/ too often to ponder and, more than likely, write from being Inspired. Hmmm…may have to pick this one up after all 🙂

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    • Ste J

      26/05/2014 at 17:02

      Yes please do…it is good to ponder, It took me a week to read because there were so many side avenues of thought to explore and ideas that needed a lot more thought. Any work that can reach through time to inspire is indeed a magnificent thing…yes go explore and enjoy. Philosophy is just great!

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  5. Tom Gething

    27/05/2014 at 02:30

    It has been a long time since I read this. Your review makes me want to refresh myself. Thanks!

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    • Ste J

      27/05/2014 at 19:08

      This pleases me, there is bound to be some complete works of Plato knocking about, as if you needed the excuse to read more.

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