A Third Defense of the Soul - Ideas are Eternal - "The Phaedo" Paragraphs 77 - 80 by Plato

A Third Defense of the Soul

This post is an updated version of an older post that I had done, here. Here I am picking up with the third of five arguments that Plato gives for the immortality of the soul. You can view arguments one and two if you click the links. This third one is my favorite and I believe most convincing. If I had to summarize it in so many words, I would say something like:

The beginning of philosophy in Greece was marked by a fundamental discovery and debate. Nature (what we live in) is marked by two opposites which color everything, those are change and stability. Things around us are always changing all the time, yet their identity (what they are and what we call them) stay the same many times through those changes. A river runs constantly, with the water always moving. You'll never step in the same water twice, but yet is it not the same river? And so how do we explain what nature is? Is it change? Is it stability/identity? It is some combination of both? 

Plato makes his contribution to this question by himself discovering more fully the difference in the nature between ideas and physical objects. Physical objects are always changing around us. They grow. They decay. They die. They break apart. etcetera. But the ideas we have about them and what they are (their identities) don't change at a certain level of abstraction. The farther and farther in our ideas that we ascend away from individual peculiarities and consider universal and common characteristics, the more such an identity becomes less like the physical world and more like something divine. Moving away from this particular river to the idea of all rivers, or what might be called "river-ness". 

This is the idea of Plato's forms. And then there are the most universal forms like Beauty, Goodness, Oneness which seem to be all encompassing and from which we can go no higher. Plato rightly pointed out that these forms/ideas cannot change. They cannot break apart. They cannot be destroyed. They cannot die. They cannot be killed. They have always been true. They will always be true. For example, can 2+2=4 ever be different? No. In so many words, ideas are of a wholly different nature than physical things. And it is this combination of these ideas and the physical matter of the world that makes up nature and the fundamental dichotomy that the Greeks were trying to explain, change and stability. 

Okay, with that background, we can understand Plato's argument here. What does it mean to die? To die means to break apart and decay such that the identity (what it is) is no longer the same. Well what types of things break apart and lose their identity? The answer could only be those things with parts can break apart and change. The body certainly has parts, and we all know the body can die. But does the soul have parts such that it could die and break apart? That's the question here. 

Socrates makes the point that the body is akin to the physical and changing aspect of reality, the rational mind (which we call the soul here) is akin to the identity in things which we understand through eternal ideas and forms. We said that these ideas/forms can never die or change or be killed. They have no physical parts then. So what does that mean about the human rational mind/soul which is able to know and perceive and think these eternal ideas? That means that the soul/mind is of the same nature. How could the physical body alone interact with the eternal reality of beauty? It couldn't. 

Therefore, the soul cannot die because ideas cannot die. The soul must exist on another eternal realm with those ideas, and after death it is finally totally freed to join them. 

I hope that summary helps! Here's the content from the Phaedo below. 

Composite and Simple, Changing and Unchanging, Visible and Invisible
Socrates, now, has given his interlocutors two arguments for the existence of the immortal soul. They are still stuck, though, on the popular opinion that the soul just disperses into nothing at death. They wonder why the soul couldn't simply be created from earthly materials at birth, and then disperse back into them at death. Here Socrates [in my opinion] gives his strongest argument to them. "What is to prevent the soul coming to be and being constituted from some other source, existing before it enters a human body and then, having done so and departed from it, itself dying and being destroyed?" Socrates begins by pointing out that such is a childish conception of the soul. "You seem to have this childish fear that the wind would really dissolve and scatter the soul, as it leaves the body, especially if one happens to die in a high wind and not in calm weather." 

So here the argument begins. Socrates asks them, if something is destroyed when it comes a-part, like something scattered in pieces, then what are the types of things that can be broken apart? Obviously, understanding the question, we can now see that those things which can be broken apart are those that are "composite," or made up of many parts put together. "Is not anything that is composite and a compound by nature liable to be split up into its component parts, and only that which is non-composite, if anything, is not likely to be split up?" Those things that have parts or are not composite would then remain the same. Well what type of non-composite and unchanging things even exist then? The answer is ideas! Socrates brings the discussion back to earlier in the Phaedo where he talks about universal ideas such as "the Ideal," "the Beautiful," and the "the Real." These ideas are always the same. "...can the Equal itself, the Beautiful itself, each thing in itself, the real, ever be affected by any change whatever? Or does each of them that really is, being uniform by itself, remain the same and never in any way tolerate any change whatever? It must remain the same, said Cebes, and in the same state, Socrates." 

As opposed to these ideas, there are particular examples of them such as a beautiful house, or beautiful clothes, etc. These things change all the time and are never the same. These are all physical realities you can see and touch, while the others are idea which can only be grasped with the intellectual mind, not the physical body. "These latter you could touch and see and perceive with the other senses, but those that always remain the same can be grasped only by the reasoning power of the mind? They are not seen but are invisible? That is altogether true, he said. Do you then want us to assume two kinds of existences, the visible and the invisible? Let us assume this. And the invisible always remains the same, whereas the visible never does? Let us assume that too."

So the physical world is always changing, and that is what the bodily senses investigate when they seek the truth. But the invisible world, say of ideas, is unchanging, and such is what the rational mind investigates. And so the soul is more akin to the simple, non-composite realm than the physical and compound realm. "But when the soul investigates by itself it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal, and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do so; it ceases to stray and remains in the same state as it is in touch with things of the same kind, and its experience then is what is called wisdom? ... I think, Socrates, that on this line of argument any man, even the dullest, would agree that the soul is altogether more like that which always exists in the same state rather than like that which does not." 

So Socrates has quite clearly proved a point about the soul. He sums up his conclusions in a beautiful paragraph. "Consider, then, Cebes, whether it follows from all that has been said that the soul is most like the divine, deathless, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, always the same as itself, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, soluble, and never consistently the same. ... Well then, that being so, is it not natural for the body to dissolve easily, and for the soul to be altogether indissoluble, or nearly so? Of course." 2
1 - Miller, Patrick and Lloyd Gerson. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2006. Pg. 118
2 - 119