"The Becoming of Opposites" - An Argument for the Immortality of the Soul - "The Phaedo" Paragraphs 70-73 - Plato

The Becoming of Opposites

Here in this section of the Phaedo Plato begins a series of arguments for the immortality of the human soul. This first one is related to what Socrates might call a law of nature regarding the generation and decay of related realities, in this case, opposites. When you identify two realities that are genuinely opposites, Socrates argues that they cannot exist without each other. Each of them is generated out of the other through mirror processes. For example, the opposites of large and small. When something is small it grows and from smallness we begin to have largeness in size. Vice versa, when something is large it can shrink from which we get smallness in size. They, by necessity, come from one another. 

Here Plato uses this law to talk about the opposites of life and death. If there were not these opposites and their processes, and all things died, then nothing would be living. Rather, from life comes death, and from death must come life. This means that souls cannot be completely destroyed with their bodies. Rather, they must survive death in order to participate in this cycle of life and death that exists. Life begets death and death begets life. Thus the soul is immortal. 

Now, this is certainly an interesting argument. I think one of his other arguments from the Phaedo, which I have written about here, is more convincing. Still, though, if the universe has been everlasting, then Plato is correct that there would have to be a principle of regeneration, otherwise there would be only death. And if the universe is not everlasting, then what is the principle by which it was given life? It seems that both are necessary, as he said. 

Facebook Introduction - "In Plato's famous work "The Phaedo" he give many arguments for the immortality of the soul. The soul is that which is most real about us, and survives the perishable material body. In this post I look at Plato's argument from the existence of opposites. All clearly agree that there are opposites that exist - light and dark - just and unjust - large and small -. And with a little thought, all can realize that each opposite is that from which the other is generated. It is from the small that things become large, from the darkness that something can be lit, and from the unjust that justice can take place, and vice versa. Each opposite has a process by which reality oscillates between them. So too to opposites of life and death. If there was only life there would be no death, and if there was only death there would be no life. Yet, we have both, and so there must be a principle by which the human body both dies and comes to life. This principle must be that which is without material parts like the body. Such is called the soul, or that reality which survives these oscillations of life and death and allows them to be possible."

Argument from the Generation of Opposites for the Immortal Soul
In this part of Plato's Phaedo Socrates has finished his discussion on the nature of death and the calling of the philosopher. But his friend, Cebes, is confused because he has heard others claim that he soul does not survive death. Here, Socrates is going to give Cebes five arguments as to why the soul must survive death. "When Socrates finished, Cebes intervened: Socrates, he said, everything else you said is excellent, I think, but men find it very hard to believe what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone, and is no longer anything anywhere. If indeed it gathered itself together and existed by itself and escaped those evils you were recently enumerating, there would then be much good hope, Socrates, that what you say is true; but to believe this requires a good deal of faith and persuasive argument, to believe that the soul still exists after a man has died and that it still possesses some capability and intelligence." 

In this post I am going to just treat the first argument that Socrates gives. It begins by him mentioning an ancient belief that when men die, their souls go down to the underworld, and when people are born, they are taken from the underworld and reincarnated on earth. "Let us examine it in some such a manner as this: whether the souls of men who have died exist in the underworld or not. We recall an ancient theory that souls arriving there come from here, and then again that they arrive here and are born here from the dead. If that is true, that the living come back from the dead, then surely our souls must exist there, and this is a sufficient proof that these things are so if it truly appears that the living never come from any other source than from the dead." 1 

In order to understand this question about the human soul, Socrates expands his search to consider all things that come into being and go out of being. He asks whether or not all things which come to be, come to be from their opposite (if they have an opposite). He uses the examples of beautiful and ugly, just and unjust, and large and small, but there are countless ones that could be used. So, is it true that things come about from their opposites? The beautiful from the ugly, the just from the unjust, and the large from the small, and vice versa? 

Socrates claims that this is necessarily so! If something proceeds towards justice, then it must progress from a state of greater injustice, and vice versa. If something becomes ugly, it comes into being from the beautiful. It's impossible to get around this fact. "So we have sufficiently established that all things come to be in this way? opposites from opposites? Certainly." Each of these opposites which is the source of the other's being also has a process by which something vacillates between them. For example, addition and subtraction for the large and small. "And so too there is separation and combination, cooling and heating, and all such things, even if sometimes we do not have a name for the process, but in fact it must be everywhere that they come to be from one another, and that there is a process of becoming from each into the other? Assuredly, he said." 

Now, bringing this principle back to the original question, is there an opposite to being alive, or being born? Of course it would be that of death or dying. If that is the case, then these two opposites generate one another and have processes by which one becomes the other and vice versa. It would be like sleeping and waking. There is the process of waking up which generates waking from sleeping, and there is falling asleep which moves one from waking to sleeping. "What comes to be from being alive? Being dead. And what comes to be from being dead? One must agree that it is being alive. Then, Cebes, living creatures and things come to be from the dead? So it appears, he said. Then our souls exist in the underworld. That seems likely." 

And so Socrates concludes that nature should not follow a principle in every other case and yet abandon the principle in this case. Therefore, the process of becoming generating death is dying, and the process of being born is coming back to life. This then would be the process by which those who have died come back, and thus they could not do this if their souls had been destroyed. Thus they must be alive in Hades there waiting. "It is agreed between us then that the living come from the dead in this way no less than the dead from the living and, if that is so, it seems to be sufficient proof that the souls of the dead must be somewhere whence they can come back again." 2 

If this were not the case that these two processes existed, but only one existed between opposites, then actually the one would wipe out the other. If there was only death and no rebirth, then all would end up dead, and so on. "If the two processes of becoming did not always balance each other as if they were going round in a circle, but generation proceeded from one point to its opposite in a straight line and it did not turn back again to the other opposite or take any turning, do you realize that all things would ultimately be in the same state, be affected in the same way, and cease to become?" Therefore, both processes must exist. 

Concluding this part of the conversation: "I think, Cebes, said he, that this is very definitely the case and that we were not deceived when we agreed on this: coming to life again in truth exists, the living come to be from the dead, and the souls of the dead exist." Here the discussion shifts to the logical tangent of Plato's idea of learning as a form of recollection. 3
1 - Miller, Patrick and Lloyd Gerson. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2006. Pg.113
2 - 114
3 - 115