Socrates’ Trial and Death by Execution.Farzad Mahootian - Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Socrates’ Trial and Death by Execution

Farzad Mahootian


The Socratic dialogues which examine Socrates’ trial and execution are unlike the other writings collected in this volume in that they were not written by the imprisoned person. The dialogues are included because they address issues such as political persecution, criminal justice, and execution, and they had a profound influence on future philosophers. Written by Plato, Socrates’ closest student, they are a reflection of issues surrounding the charges against Socrates, his defense, and the final questions he wished to bequeath to posterity. Throughout all these discussions, Socrates knew he was facing prison and execution. The Apology, Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Epistle VII deal with virtue—both personal and civic—and with the soul and immortality. Since Socrates considered it his mission to incite people to confront their own ideas and prejudices, it seems fitting that he is portrayed at the end of his life continuing with this process as if it is his only real concern. The dialogues are concerned not with death, but with the pursuit of the philosophical life.—J.W.R.


Socrates never wrote anything for posterity. Neither did Moses, Jesus or Mohammad; but unlike them, Socrates did not claim to be a messenger of God. In this and other interesting ways, Socrates resembled Buddha: neither claimed to be prophets, and both were devoted to advancing the collective good by exposing human ignorance. What differentiates Socrates so strongly from these great figures is that he denied being a teacher. On the one hand we have the tradition of great teachers, on the other we have Socrates’ explicit disavowal of the very possibility of teaching (Plato, Meno; Epistle VII). If we take him at his word, the “teachings of Socrates” would be an oxymoron, and yet he is rightly considered to be one of the world’s greatest teachers, the very exemplar of an ideal form of education: the so-called “Socratic method.” It seems that the simple act of introducing Socrates introduces paradox but it becomes clear that Socrates himself provoked paradox intentionally and, as I hope to show, succeeds in purposefully deploying paradox for the sake of deeper self-understanding. A measure of his success lies in how easily he confounds anyone who encounters him, challenging them to retrace their steps, to examine how they became so quickly confused about their own opinions of right and wrong, love and desire, and a host of other basic issues.

Who Was Socrates?

So how did Socrates teach if he never wrote? Most of what we know about him comes to us through Plato’s famous Socratic dialogues, each of which (with the exception of the Apology) is named, significantly, after a conversation partner. What Socrates taught about teaching is captured in several of the dialogues concerned with two co-arising questions: what is virtue and can it be taught (Plato, Meno 70a)? The second question is deceptively simple when couched in binary affirmation-denial mode, as if such a complex and fluid reality as the human mind could be grasped by answering a question that has the same grammatical form as “What is chess and can you teach it to me?” It’s no wonder that whenever Socrates encounters the question of whether virtue can be taught, he arrives at the same answer—albeit via different paths, depending upon the personalities of his dialogue partners. The answer is “no,” but one ought not be content with a one-word answer to deep questions; if Socrates taught anything, it would be to keep the significant questions open. Understanding what—and how—he did and did not teach requires an examination of Socrates’ ideas of knowledge, the soul and virtue. The story of his trial and death illuminates these points with unique clarity.

Socrates frequented the agora, the open market of Athens, immersed in the intense daily exchange of goods, services, information, opinion and the news of the day. Plato’s dialogues show Socrates challenging the famous orators, demagogues and teachers of his time—the so-called “Sophists,” and thinkers of ancient Greece, for the moral edification and intellectual arousal of the youth of Athens. Plato recreates Socrates’ open-ended exploration and discovery of the underlying presuppositions, contradictions and unfounded beliefs of his interlocuters. Indeed, “open-ended arousal” is a more fitting description than the actual charges brought against him, namely, the corruption of youth, the creation of new gods, while disparaging traditional ones. The charges were brought by two Athenian citizens who represented the anonymous power elite that was threatened by Socrates’ open criticism of Athenian politics. A war hero and a survivor of two political coups, Socrates was about seventy years old when he faced these charges in court. He was found guilty and executed by the state.

Most of Plato’s dialogues feature Socrates in dialogue with two or more figures but they were never intended as transcripts of actual conversations. They were meant to recreate in the reader’s mind a sense of intellectual curiosity and surprise, perplexity and frustration, etc., that could have arisen in actual conversation with Socrates. They are artful recreations whose purpose (it is obvious from their complexity) goes far beyond the intellectual entertainment and artistry contained in them. Plato’s dialogues are literary masterpieces that interweave logic, psychology, politics, ethics, mathematics, mysticism, mythology and physics—as these were understood and integrated in the mind of the great Plato at the dawn of the western academy. (The very term, “academy,” is one that we use in deference to the name of the school Plato founded.) Plato owed all of this and more to Socrates. While he may not have invented philosophy, it is certain that Socrates did invent the word philosophy, which means the love (philo) of wisdom (sophia) (Plato, Phaedrus 278). This word fits Socrates perfectly for it distinguishes him sharply from the Sophists (who, as their title indicates, claim to be “the wise”) and, more importantly, it characterizes his powerful yearning for what he knew he lacked—his life and death were shaped by his love.

His last days were consistent with the rest of his life: he spent his time in dialogue with friends, inquiring into the nature of the human soul, its immortality and its proper care—even in his last hours he still inquired about how one might live the good life. Socrates would not have it any other way. This constancy in the face of death invites the reader to find new depth in what could otherwise be construed as mere ideas, transforming these from subjective personal convictions into objective ideals. In the remainder of this essay, we explore Socrates’ paradoxical defense against these charges in court and in prison.

Socrates’ Defense: The Apology

The word apology derives from the Greek logos, an account, explanation, story (and several other meanings, including “meaning” itself), and apo, which means of, off, or from. In English, apology has had two major usages: speaking in defense of something to justify it, or to express regret about having done something. Beginning in about the 18th century, the latter meaning began to dominate, so that since the 20th century most people are familiar exclusively with apology as synonymous with saying “I’m sorry.” In both cases one admits to an action, but in the former case one justifies it, in the latter case one accepts some level of blame, or guilt. In certain circumstances the two meanings are blended: somehow both meanings resonate. One needs only to consider an argument with an intimate to recall how a slight difference of emphasis and tone is sometimes sufficient to make one sense of apology slip into the other. Whether the difference of tone occurs in the mind of the listener or the speaker, or unevenly distributed in both, is not easily determined. There are many reasons for the reluctance of politicians to apologize for their misdeeds, but at least one of these lies in their cautious avoidance of the slippery line between the two senses. Regardless of how easily the two senses of apology may be confused, we can recognize the difference and, at least with those close to us, we can usually distinguish an authentic apology and a real explanation from their false counterparts.

Two accounts of the trial of Socrates, written about ten years after the event survive to this day: one is Plato’s famous account, the other is by Xenophon; both are titled the Apology. The two are quite different, though they agree on the charges, sequence of events, the raucous atmosphere of the court—perhaps 500 jurors who also acted as judges—and, of course, the verdict. The two are radically different in tone. Neither is a transcript of the proceedings, nor an “objective” account, if such a thing can even be said to exist in such cases. Xenophon, a lesser student of Socrates, presents the lesser and more superficial account lacking all the subtlety, wit and defiance characteristic of the personality that attracted such charges to begin with. Classicist Paul Friedlander explains that it is a defense that anyone might give against trumped up charges: one which seeks to demonstrate that Socrates is like any other Athenian, that his religious expression and dialectical argumentation are (for many) practically indistinguishable from published authors and well-known Sophists of his day (Friedlander, Plato 159).

Bearing the two senses of apology in mind, we may note that Xenophon’s portrayal of Socrates’ defense tends to be an apology in the familiar contemporary sense of a sober explanation of a regrettable misunderstanding. Xenophon’s Socrates acknowledges the charges as stated and proceeds to explain that, like many Athenians he discusses novel ideas that are readily available in the marketplace; and again, like most Athenians, he celebrates all of the city’s traditional religious festivals. By contrast, in his Apology, Plato masterfully recreates the tone of Socrates’ confrontation of unjust charges before an unjust court; this is a portrayal of a man who is anything but common. Plato pays tribute here to a man who was “among the living what Homer says Teiresias was among the dead—‘He alone has comprehension; the rest are flitting shades’” (Plato, Meno 100). In Plato’s portrayal, Socrates defense is anything but that—on the contrary, it is presented as his highest statement of self-justification: it is a countersuit. In his short time before the court Socrates takes his opportunity to challenge the leaders of the city in the same way he challenges each and every one of his dialogue partners. Plato’s Socrates doesn’t so much explain his innocence as demonstrate his moral superiority by putting his accusers, and all of the jurors, on trial. We may now set aside Xenophon’s Apology and concentrate on Plato’s work.

A key tradition in ancient western rhetoric, one that lasted for several centuries, grew around Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense. Within that tradition of commentary there is a strand that maintains Socrates said nothing in his defense. The “Silence of Socrates” trope occurs often enough that it must be addressed (Friedlander, Plato 158). How did such a strange notion arise? One source is Plato himself: in Gorgias and Protagoras his interlocutors point out that, were Socrates to appear in a court of law he would be so out of place that he would just stand there dizzy and tongue-tied. Socrates simply agrees with their surmises. The literal silence of Socrates is highly unlikely—the Platonic Socrates is at least as ironic as the historical figure was. What is signified by the image of a silent Socrates? Is it a simple refusal to recognize the court’s authority?

The more closely one examines the Socratic defense the more paradoxical it seems. Socrates excuses himself at the start, noting that he is not accustomed to making speeches, then proceeds to make speeches of profound rhetorical artistry which have become examples of Greek rhetoric that have been studied and practiced ever since. And yet the most striking aspect of his speeches is their paradoxical and monumental failure to persuade the jury. Whereas proper use of rhetoric aims only at persuasion and has no necessary connection with the truth, Socrates sets out to differentiate rhetoric from truth. Some scholars claim that his speeches do not even try to persuade, that Socrates directs his rhetoric against rhetoric. He does this by action rather than by argument, by his ironic abuse of rhetoric itself (Allen 35). Perhaps the “silence” of Socrates refers to the self-consuming nature (Fish 1-20) of his speeches.

But what did Socrates “say”? Perhaps the more precise way of putting it is this, what did Plato understand of Socrates’ day in court, and what aspect of this event does he want to leave to distant posterity? Plato knows the limitations of language well enough: much more than mere language is required to understand the depth of Socrates’ meaning. What can be gleaned from his verbal and nonverbal communication in court? Socrates challenged all assembled to reject the baseless charges against him, not by answering the charges directly, but by demonstrating that his accusers, Meletos and Anytos, are unable to state their case without self-contradiction. He does this by his customary method of question and answer. This is the only point during his defense that he addresses the charges—or more accurately, his accusers—directly, and spends little time doing so. He says he regrets having only a few hours and not several days, for rather than making speeches he would prefer the modality of inquiry and dialogue to address the court—implying that he would like to engage each of the 500 jurors one-on-one, as he did with Meletos and Anytos. This, of course, does not happen. Nevertheless, Socrates gives the court a live demonstration of the techniques he uses to uncover ignorance. In even the most sympathetic reading, he appears to intellectually overpower the admittedly incompetent and malicious Anytos and Meletos by highlighting their inability to articulate their bogus charges. This exchange does not present the pair unfairly, but neither does it cast Socrates in the best light in the eyes of the jurors, who interrupt Socrate’s interrogation several times with their outcries and objections. Rather than winning him friends, this courtroom tactic confirmed the jurors impression of Socrates as a trickster.

Nowhere in his speech does Socrates claim to possess the truth. He is not a Sophist (from the Greek, Sophia, meaning wisdom), a dogmatist, or a prophet. Not only is he innocent of the charges brought against him, he claims that he is incapable of claiming any knowledge except for this: he knows that he does not know. This juxtaposition of opposites is characteristic of Socratic philosophy: we have already seen this in his use of rhetoric to open the mind rather than to persuade his listeners of a pre-decided formula. This philosophical pursuit of open-ended self-discovery is the precondition that makes the good life possible. Socrates takes the stance of man on a mission instead of capitulating to the unreal game of the court to mount an equally unreal defense.

Putting Athens on Trial

The focus of this essay is philosophical; space does not allow for treatment of the historical and political factors influencing the outcome of the trial. Many excellent sources for that kind of scholarship exist (Brickhouse and Smith; Waterfield). Nevertheless, an indication of Socrates’ standing among his Athenian peers is made clear by a reference about midway through his defense. He notes that his divine sign, “the voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something … is what stands in the way of my being a politician,” for

if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don’t be offended at my telling you the truth: … he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one [Plato, Apology 31e-32a].

This is not idle philosophical talk and Socrates makes it much more personal by recalling for the judges his role in a specific military tribunal, “the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae.”

[Y]ou proposed to try them all together, which was illegal, as you all thought afterwards; but at the time I was the only one of the Prytanes who was opposed to the illegality, and I gave my vote against you; … I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death [Apology 32b-c].

Socrates’ attitude toward death, expressed so starkly here, is highlighted a number of times during the trial, usually in political and moral contexts. However, he expressed his ultimate and truly transcendental idea of death in the context of the seminal experience of his philosophical life: his encounter with the oracle at Delphi. In court, Socrates recounted the story how a fellow Athenian, well-known to the court, once asked the oracle “whether there was anyone wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess answered that there was no man wiser” (Apology 21a). Upon hearing this, one would rightly expect most Athenians to start planning a party in celebration of what the voice of the god Apollo had announced through the oracle. But Socrates is no ordinary person: his first reaction is not unquestioning acceptance but profound perplexity. Socrates does not think himself as wise, so he is skeptical. He treats this statement just as he would any other: he sets out to disprove the oracle by finding someone wiser than himself. In this pursuit he found that people who were expert in one area often thought themselves expert in others; Socrates helps them to see things differently. After much searching and finding no one that is wise (and none the wiser himself), Socrates says he came to believe that the oracle must have meant that he is wiser in just this one thing: he knows that he is not wise. Whereas others think themselves wise when they are not, Socrates knows that he does not know. This turn of events defined Socrates’ mission in life. Plato skillfully employs this story to shape his response to charges of impiety in the form of the ultimate expression of Socratic wisdom on the matter of death:

I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom…. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance [Apology 29a]?

Here Socrates takes control and reverses trial, transforming it from a defense of himself to a concern for the well-being of his accusers and judges. He claims, as he has in several other dialogues, that a good man cannot be harmed by an evil one, that the attempt to do harm actually harms the perpetrator, not the victim of violence. Socrates treats the assembled company as he would any individual dialogue partner. The final sense of his defense becomes Socratic: he uses this occasion, with his own life at stake, to give them the opportunity to examine and perhaps come to know themselves better.

The “silence of Socrates” tradition expresses a definitive understanding that he did not defend himself, but instead gave the assembled company an opportunity to learn something that no one could teach them, something that is in principle not teachable: self-knowledge. The quintessential Socratic moment of this philosophic lesson is that self-knowledge can be learned but not taught. It cannot be learned by constructing logical proofs but only in response to provocations designed to arouse awareness and desire, a yearning for the life of philosophy. Socrates practiced this mode of education, offering himself as an example of living a philosophical life and dying a Socratic death. Upon receiving the death sentence, he admonished the jurors one last time:

The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them [Apology 39a].

Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives … if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves [Apology 39c-d].

Socrates in Prison: Practicing Philosophy and Planting Paradoxes

Plato’s Phaedo is a re-creation of Socrates’ final dialogue with his friends, his last day in prison, his last hours before drinking the deadly draught of hemlock. What does he choose to talk about? He does not engage in a critique of the state, but focuses on the individual: at issue are questions about the nature of the soul and its immortality. He quips that no one can accuse him of discussing abstract matters of no immediate consequence this time! In the lengthy discussions that ensue, various ideas of the soul are considered. But as always, this discussion is simultaneously about the nature of philosophy. To engage in philosophy, says Socrates, is to “practice death and dying.” This intriguing definition of philosophy is suggestive of multiple lines of interpretation. Some scholars have made a compelling case for reading death as the separation, not merely of soul from body, but more generally of logos from deed (Burger). This parallels in some ways the divergence between the words Socrates says in his defense and what he does in delivering them to the judges. The key divergence in Phaedo is the separation of the invisible soul from the visible body—a separation that we commonly fear and think we understand. If we follow traditional religious views about the soul’s immortality it becomes imperative to understand its fate after its separation from the body. This could mean quite a number of things, many of which are depicted in the iconography of most, if not all, ancient religions about how the shape of one’s life might shape one’s afterlife. Socrates urges his friends to care for the soul both when it is with and when it is without the body. To practice death is to practice the separation and union of opposites. This becomes the complicated and lengthy task of the Phaedo.

Socrates takes advantage of the separation between between word and deed to couch many ironies, including his last words (according to Plato):

The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it” [Phaedo 118a].

Why would these be his last words? Why the groin? Why the cock? Why Aesculapius? Scholars have offered literally dozens of interpretations to answer these questions (Brickhouse, Smith 265-73; Burger 206-17). To those I venture to add one more: Aesculapius is the god of healing, so invoking his name is a puzzling juxtaposition: poison-as-cure. This begins to make sense when one considers Plato’s Myth of the Cave, according to which the world we are conditioned to believe as real is only partially real. The world of the senses is a world of images, visible glimpses of an “invisible,” i.e., intelligible reality. To emerge from the cave to the light of the real world is to awaken from a false knowledge and to be cured of a soul disease. A harbinger of new beginnings, the cock crows at dawn, at the threshold of the new day, turning consciousness away from the darkness toward the light. The belled caps of medieval European fools are modeled on the cock’s comb for their function was to rouse the commoner from his slumbers, to trick one into seeing what is hidden behind a self-imposed veil of ignorance. The fool, like Socrates, lived to expose foolish ignorance by tricking people into seeing their own foolishness. Fools bestow opportunities to break free of illusion, to reflect upon and awaken to the reality of oneself (Willeford). The reference to the groin is also in keeping with the cock and the fool: the medieval fool is a bawdy character, and again like Socrates, modeled after the Greek god Pan, erotic fecundator of field and stream. Socrates’ resemblance to Pan is noted in the work of Plato and other ancient authors. A quick comparison of busts of Socrates with representations of Pan on Pantikapaion coins from 4th century bce bears this similarity out. There are key differences, however. Whereas the fool arouses passions to make fun, of and with, his audience, Socrates does the same in order to help his friends to detach from and rise above their passions. The fool arouses consciousness and his work is done: laughter signifies breakthrough and success. For Socrates, philosophy follows the fun, and hard work begins when the laughter is done. Where Pan’s fecundity generates semi-divine natural creatures, that of Socrates generates semi-divine creatures of the mind.

Plato has provided several clues to unravel the riddle of Socrates’ last words; it is up to the reader to pick these up and put them together to understand what can be found only indirectly in the words. Plato’s readers must be alert to more than one mode of reading, for he often relies on the mute language of myth, metaphor and symbol to express his deepest reflections on the primordial source of philosophy.

Let us examine Plato’s explicit statements about his own writing to better understand his systematic deployment of non-literal language. In Phaedrus, he equates the written word to an abandoned child to whose defense the parent cannot come. By contrast, he describes the living word, spoken in dialogue between student and mentor, as a seed: logos spermatikos. In a previous section we saw Socrates’ refusal to be called a teacher in connection with the experience that self-knowledge can only be learned, not taught. Here we find a second reason for deflating the power of instruction through “great books.” Socrates disavows the capacity of any and all forms of writing to contain wisdom. At best, books function as a potential trigger for remembering what one already knows. Planting words with ink on paper, will come to naught, but when

one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever [Phaedrus 276e].

Plato reinforces this in a rare autobiographical note about writing on wisdom:

There does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith. For it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself [Letter VII 341c-e].

The central paradox should not escape notice: he who has written hundreds of thousands of words of philosophy writes that no written philosophy should be taken seriously:

In one word, then, our conclusion must be that whenever one sees a man’s written compositions—whether they be the laws of a legislator or anything else in any other form …—these are not his most serious works [Letter VII 344c].

Plato dissuades readers from taking any written text seriously, but this must apply to his own writing: indeed the statement is self-referential. For a lover of paradox this is a delightful confection, but what is the lover of wisdom to do with it? What is the appropriate sense in which to take Plato’s dialogues? Non-seriously, of course … in other words: non-literally. The skillful play of irony, metaphor and myth puts the onus of examination and reflection on the reader, but also projects far more than a monomorphic literalist reading could ever provide.

The Role of Myth in Socratic Discourse

In the strange mixture of seriousness and play that characterizes any myth, Plato finds the appropriate medium for conveying his most serious topic: the death of his mentor and friend, Socrates. But there is subtlety here that should not escape notice: Plato presents a myth of cosmic proportions about the fate of the soul after death explicitly as a myth. What is not verbally explicit is enacted in the arc of the dialogue: the Socratic mythos of the Phaedo provides a broader context for the logical analysis that precedes and follows it.

In general, Plato’s dialogues demonstrate rather than discuss the relationship between myth and logic. Interjections of mythic references, and occasionally fully fleshed-out stories like the one found in the Phaedo, set the stage for conceptual analysis and dialogue. Plato’s deliberate placement of these references indicates the transitional nature of this form of discourse: the myth goes where logic cannot go and it does so with full self-disclosure as myth. It can thus serve either as a culmination or a starting point of analysis (Friedlander, An Introduction). A musical analogy for the role that myth plays in Plato’s dialogue, while imperfect, will nonetheless invite interpretations that are helpful to the discussion that follows. Improvisational interludes in a live musical performance work within certain constraints defined by the overall theme, but there are no actual rules that govern free exploration beyond the score. Just as the improvisational interlude seeks to capture the original aesthetic sense or intent of the musical piece, so too the myths take Socrates, his interlocutors and the reader on a journey back to the origins of thought, to the original set of projects, notions, and concerns that cluster around the “big” questions.

What Plato learned from Socrates is that articulating the right questions is much more fruitful than any single answer, regardless of the correctness of the latter or the strangeness of the former. For questions chart the terrain of viable answers. Thus, even though mythos and logos often seem to stand opposed we find that sometimes the best logos is a mythos. This often occurs at the limits of analysis; Socrates was wise enough to make the transition to myth explicit, thereby disclosing his rational ignorance through undisguised mythical discourse. Unlike many experts who keep talking in the mode of experts long after they cross the analytic limit of their own concepts, Socrates stops, explicitly notes the presence of the threshold then crosses it in the idiom of self-avowed semblance that is Socratic myth.

This manner of Socratic discourse, its recognition of the limits of logic, embodies a key point which Plato’s student and younger contemporary, Aristotle, makes explicit in treatises that establish the beginning of formal logic in western philosophy. Aristotle understood the power of logic: he established the foundational concepts, language and procedures of formal logic that survive to the present day. He also understood its limits: first premises of an argument cannot be derived by formal logic. The sources of first premises are as varied as their reliability: observation, tradition, hearsay, rules of thumb … and other “accepted truths.” None are immune to error. In short, Aristotle established formally what Socrates demonstrated in discourse: logic cannot produce truth where it doesn’t exist to begin with. Computer programmers know this as the iconic “GIGO” principle: garbage in, garbage out. Logical process, whether carried out by computer or by human intelligence, cannot add truth, it can only extend and apply truths present at the outset. The truth of the output necessarily depends on the truth of the input. At key points in his dialogues Socrates will recur to traditional mythologies—suitably modified to match his moral vision. These recursions most often occur at the culmination of inconclusive arguments. Whenever Socrates (or Plato) finds himself at such crossroads, he does not pretend that logical analysis can produce what it cannot. He presents such topics within the super-saturated context of myth and highlights pertinent aspects. While its details do not persist throughout the dialogue, the myth functions as a background that guides vision.

In Phaedo, the occasion that calls for a myth of cosmic proportions is a conceptual difficulty that arises when Socrates and his friends apply the “theory of forms” to the soul. “Forms” signify the ideal patterns which condition the existence of all material things, but are not themselves part of the material world. For example, geometrical forms enable us to develop designs and make predictions about material objects even though any given geometrical form (say, a triangle) doesn’t actually exist as a material thing among material things. And yet, this non-existent ideal form shapes our behavior toward material objects and enables us to literally shape material objects themselves. As such, these forms condition but are not conditioned by objects.

In granting these forms ontological status, i.e., considering them as real albeit non-existent, Socrates and Plato create an intriguing problem: what is the relationship between reality and existence, between form and thing? It is clear that the number 33 is eternal, as are the geometrical properties of a sphere, for time has no affect on them: number 33 never grows old, never wears down to becoming 32.998. The passage of millennia will not reduce the sphericity of the sphere, but of the thirty-three ball bearings in a machine, it is inevitable that some number of them eventually become less than spherical and begin to fail to perform properly. Several questions arise in the relationship between form and thing. Socrates invites us to imagine that any object, e.g., a ball bearing, “participates” in the form of the sphere, benefiting from the properties of sphericity (until it wears down or breaks). If opposite forms (hot/cold, great/small, etc.) can be present in the same object successively, or perhaps even simultaneously, do the opposite forms destroy one another? Does one retreat as its opposite one advances? If so, where do the forms “go” when they depart? Furthermore, it is clear to Socrates that the soul is like the forms (insofar as it is intelligible and invisible) but because it is not changeless, it cannot be a form. So, how does the soul participate in the world of forms and in the life of the body? Can it be immortal if it is not changeless? These lines of questioning highlight the inadequacy of the concept of form, soul and body as initially stated by Socrates. Further adjustment is required in order to have any hope of achieving clear understanding. A shift in perspective is needed.

Shifting Frames and Reconciling Opposites

At this point we ought to take note of the structure of the Phaedo dialogue. It opens with Phaedo narrating from memory the story of Socrates’ last day to his friend Echecrates—and an amazing memory it is, given the length and depth of topics covered. Nevetheless, memory is naturally faulty on occasion, and in a Platonic dialogue the question of when becomes interesting. Once at the middle and again at the end of the dialogue, Phaedo becomes a character in his own story. The significance of shifting the narrative frame is complex and admits of several interpretations. After all, Plato could have written this dialogue like most of the others, wherein the conversation unfolds with different characters coming and going in the “realtime” of the conversation. The dialogue is already a narrative, but Plato frames it as a literal narration (by Phaedo) to bring attention to the fact that this is a story told about the death of Socrates, years after the fact. Given that objectivity is difficult under the best of circumstances, objectivity in the highly emotional setting of an execution is nearly unimaginable. Phaedo notes that Plato was absent on that day due to illness; here Plato is made to stand in for all readers. Plato is said (by Plato, speaking through Phaedo) to be absent, so the reader who does not listen to the mythos of the dialogue is struck immediately with a profound cognitive dissonance: Plato is present and absent at the same time. Is this another clue about immortality: something—no, someone—always present, even when absent?

Plato, the master of his craft, uses various recursive self-referential loops which at times may tax the imagination if not the patience of the reader. At the center point of the dialogue is this: how do things participate in forms, or stated differently—and this is Aristotle’s way of asking the central ontological question—what is the relationship between things and properties? More generally still: how can we best conceive and talk about the relationships between immaterial forms on the one hand, and material objects, i.e., bodies, on the other? How can forms be both “separate from” and “together with” bodies? How can a property sometimes be present in, and other times absent from, things? This seemingly abstract question is of dire existential importance to Socrates and his friends in the hour before his execution. How can his soul exist with or without his body? In what does his soul’s immortality consist? Plato’s later dialogues indicate that he continues to wrestles with these questions, refining the concepts and the logic of his argument over the course of his 50-plus years of writing. But here, in the Phaedo, these questions bear an inextricably personal dimension. The questions are discussed at length, but not resolved, and the dialogue shifts the question: can Socrates’ logos persist after the death of Socrates? At the end, when Crito asks him how he’d like to be buried, Socrates replies,

However you please, if you can catch me and I do not get away from you.” And he laughed gently, and looking towards us, said: “I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse [Phaedo 115c].

None could restrain their wailing and tears, despite Socrates’ lengthy demonstration that he himself will not be buried, that he himself will abandon his corpse. If those closest to Socrates were unable to understand the proofs that Socrates presented for the immortality of the soul, where does this leave the reader? Amid the emotional outbursts, the wailing and the tears depicted at the end of the dialogue, we cannot help but ask why Socrates’ logos failed to help his friends watch him die. There are obvious inadequacies in asking, let alone answering, some of these questions—so much is embedded in each. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that no matter how adequately or inadequately the questions are asked, they express deep-seated human needs. Many of these, such as profound love and profound grief, for example, cannot ever be adequately expressed by words or captured in concepts. Human cultures have evolved a broad variety of expressive forms, such as music and ritual, to reach certain aspects of human nature more deeply and effectively than words alone could.

Recall the first myth that is referenced in the Phaedo, in the opening frame, indeed, on the first page. Echecrates asks about the unusually long time between Socrates’ trial and his execution. Phaedo explains that the entire city of Athens was waiting on the return of Theseus’ ship. The unstated reference is to Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, which had been celebrated every year since the mythical dawn of Greek history. The ritual purity of Athens was requisite during this festival, so no executions were allowed until the ship—the very ship in which Theseus set sail on his quest—returned from Delos. Despite the well-known fact that every plank in the original ship had been replaced over time, every Athenian still thinks of this as the same ship, the very ship invested with all the glory of that special day. What is it that allows one to identify this as the same ship? What aspect of Theseus’ ship survives? Certainly not its material … perhaps its shape— the simplest sense of its “form,” i.e., its structure. Yes, but this is certainly not what is celebrated. Rather more significant is its meaning, its logos. During the celebration, the ship and its logos are together and whole, just as Socrates is in life. But here, now, as he faces execution, the question of the separation of Socrates’ logos, his meaning, from his material presence, becomes most poignant.

Separation of soul from body is parallel to separation of Socrates logos from Socrates’ physical presence in the prison. Plato provides clues to reinforce the separation of Socrates from his existence, of his logos from his deeds. Conversely, one must also learn to see them together, for philosophy as practicing death—in the sense of “practice makes perfect— makes no literal sense unless one considers the separability, not merely the separation, of those opposites. Philosophy requires mastery over the art of separation and combination as required by necessities at hand: not dogmatic literalism. To do philosophy is also to practice living in order to live well, for, as Socrates said during his trial:

to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man … the unexamined life is not worth living [Apology 38a].


Near the center of the Phaedo difficult discussions generate even more difficult objections and alternatives to Socrates’ ideas of the soul. Anxiety among those present rises rapidly. Even Socrates fell silent, meditating. Phaedo admits that he had a moment of doubt. Socrates asked him at this point whether he would cut his “beautiful hair” in mourning tomorrow, to which he replied yes. Thereupon Socrates advised him, “You will cut it off today, and I will cut mine, if our argument dies and we cannot bring it to life again” (Phaedo 89b). According to Socrates, we should mourn the day that we distrust philosophical discourse and abandon the logos: misology is a fate worse than death … even the death of Socrates!

Somewhat later, Phaedo admits to a lapse of memory about a key juncture: someone—he can’t remember who—noted an apparent contradiction between how opposites were addressed at the outset and what they were saying at that moment (103a). Socrates praises the man’s courage, then, proceeds to intensify the discourse to clarify (a) a key distinction between two kinds of opposites: opposite things vs opposite properties; (b) questions about alternative ways of employing the method of hypothesis; and (c) how these final considerations prove the soul’s immortality. In Phaedo’s telling, all of this “heavy lifting” is done in rather short order and Socrates’ most articulate critics, Simmias and Cebes, readily consent to Socrates’ reasoning. With this behind him, Socrates concentrates on the implications of the soul’s immortality: one must learn to care for its fate. Here the mythic dimensions of the dialogue blossom as Socrates unfolds his grand cosmic vision of the soul’s afterlife. Lest they forget themselves in its epic beauty, Socrates tempers his tale with gentle irony to dissuade his fellows from the allied delusions of literalism, dogmatism and escapism.

Now it would not be fitting for a man of sense to maintain that all this is just as I have described it, but that this or something like it is true concerning our souls and their abodes, since the soul is shown to be immortal, I think he may properly and worthily venture to believe; for the venture is well worth while; and he ought to repeat such things to himself as if they were magic charms, which is the reason why I have been lengthening out the story so long [Phaedo 114d].

To practice philosophy as the practice of dying means to learn how to separate the eternal from its apparent presence in the changing instances at hand. It means the opposite as well: to learn how to see how the time-bound and the eternal are co-present. Is the separation ontological, epistemological, or psychological? For Socrates, the purpose of philosophy is purely practical: to live the good life. Rhetorical, analytical, psychological, social, political, metaphysical and every other intellectual consideration that philosophy may bring to bear on this central question are strictly secondary. By attending to how the stories of Socrates’ trial and death are told, what happened and what was said, the reader may glean a sense of who Socrates is, and what his life and death mean.

Works Cited

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