Dying Well

Phaedo, 2

In Plato’s Phaedo, we find Socrates awaiting his execution, explaining to his followers why he does not fear his impending death. All that follows in the dialogue is an effort to prove that “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy feels confident when about to die, and is hopeful that, when he has died, he will win very great benefits in the other world.”1 It is Socrates’s assertion that “all who actually engage in philosophy aright are practicing nothing other than dying and being dead.”2

In the previous entry here, I critiqued the Platonic metaphysics that drives the argument of the Phaedo, the institution of the divided line that inverts the structure of the real, establishing the knower as primary to the known, a blatant reversal of the Presocratic recognition that the knower is unilaterally and irreversibly determined by the known, a position most clearly articulated by Heraclitus. Here, I shift my focus to critique the Platonic physics that undergirds his metaphysics, and which, if scrutinized, causes the entire edifice of Plato’s argument to collapse. If we take the Socrates of the Phaedo at his word, checking his statements of fact for ourselves, we discover the support upon which he relies to be a simple falsehood with no basis in the real.

The argument is as follows:

  1. Death is a reality.3
  2. Death can only be the separation of the soul from the body.4
  3. Souls continue to exist in Hades after the death of the body.5
  4. Souls are born again from Hades into new bodies.6
  5. This is possible because all things come to be from their opposites.7
  6. If death comes to be from life, life can only come to be from death.8
  7. Living things and living people are born.9
  8. Souls must survive the death of the body, continuing to exist in Hades, so that birth can occur.10

On its face, this is a difficult line of reasoning for modern readers to accept. But it is Socrates himself who provides us with the counterargument that is his undoing. He supposes that if “there were not perpetual reciprocity in coming to be, between one set of things and another, revolving in a circle, as it were,” then there would be no guarantee that the soul would not ultimately perish.11

Socrates says it plainly, and those familiar with the second law of thermodynamics will find the articulation of his counterpoint quite striking: “if, instead, coming-to-be were a linear process from one thing into its opposite only, without any bending back in the other direction or reversal, do you realize that all things would ultimately have the same form: the same fate would overtake them, and they would cease from coming to be?”12 Even more emphatically, “if all things that partake in life were to die, but when they’d died, the dead remained in that form, and didn’t come back to life, wouldn’t it be quite inevitable that everything would ultimately be dead, and nothing would live?”13

Put otherwise, if the second law of thermodynamics, the concept of entropy, is true, if coming-to-be is indeed bound in a linear direction by the arrow of time, as determined by the second law, then everything will in fact die, and even the divine soul will be found to be without ultimate power over death, and indeed be subject, in the last instance, to death.

Considering such a position to be obviously false, Socrates moves on, point proven. He proceeds to make two complementary arguments for the persistence of the soul, the argument from recollection and the argument from affinity, which we will not analyze in detail here. But, continuing from these two arguments, Simmias and Cebes, Socrates’s interlocutors, have a chance to pose their objections. Simmias proposes his theory of attunement, arguing that death comes to the body when its natural tension, which he calls “soul,” is loosed, so rendering the soul the “first thing to perish in what is called death.”14 Simmias goes right to the base of Socrates’s reasoning, striking at the second of his premises, that death can only be the separation of the soul from the body. If death can be defined differently, then the rest of Socrates’s argument does not follow.

Cebes is shaken by Simmias’s theory of the soul, but cannot accept that “soul isn’t stronger and longer-lived than body.”15 However, even if the soul is stronger than the body, and might die and be reborn multiple times, this does not guarantee that soul “does not suffer in its many births, and does not end by perishing completely in one of its deaths.”16 Cebes struggles with the fifth of Socrates’s premises, uncertain that the reciprocity of coming-to-be is in fact perpetual.

After these two objections, Plato has the dialogue briefly pause, shifting the frame back to Phaedo, who has been relaying the conversation with Socrates to Echecrates, a Pythagorean philosopher who had not been able to be with Socrates prior to his death. Echecrates remarks, “What argument shall we ever trust now? How thoroughly convincing was the argument that Socrates gave, yet now it’s fallen into discredit.”17 This is the flaw of magisterial philosophy, of the logic of scission, which necessitates the institution of schools for the induction of students into mysteries, rather than simply directing students to look for themselves, say what they have seen, and verify with others what they have said. Simmias and Cebes rightly consider the physics Socrates presents, recognizing how the evidence before them contradicts the premises that Socrates uses to support his metaphysical claims.

To be clear, none of this ought to be taken as disproving the existence of the soul. Such an accomplishment is an impossibility. Socrates’s doctrine of the soul as “divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, unvarying, and constant” is unfalsifiable because the soul is also defined as “invisible,” entirely removed from empirical ways of knowing.18 Socrates’s doctrine of the soul is precisely that: a doctrine, not a fact. This is what makes many of the Presocratics, on the other hand, so marvellous to read. No matter the radicalism of their assertions, they remain consistently realist in their claims. In my series on “generic science,” even a thinker so apparently anti-realist as Parmenides nevertheless makes falsifiable claims about what the real actually is and how it is structured, claims that have fascinating analogues that are still debated in contemporary cosmology. Socrates, on the contrary, is no realist.

To Simmias’s objection, Socrates shows that Simmias’s assent to the theory of recollection (itself an unfalsifiable theory) undermines his own theory of attunement.19 To Cebes’s objection, Socrates first recounts his dalliances with “natural science,” which ultimately led him to a teleological theory of the real as governed by the forms.20 Because the forms determine the real, the soul must exist and be completely imperishable, because the only way the soul can know the forms, and so make knowledge possible, is by existing together with the forms for all eternity. So, the only refutation for Cebes’s objection is the same unfalsifiable theory that Socrates uses to discredit Simmias’s objection. Truth, for Socrates, cannot properly be known, only taught.

To conclude the dialogue, Plato has Socrates recount the myth of the afterlife to explain why souls exist in the cycle of death and rebirth, and how practicing philosophy aright helps one to die well, attaining to an afterlife spent in a “pure dwelling” above the earth, like the gods.21 Here, Socrates fully resorts to religious and mythological language, pure doctrine, directing his followers to recall their shared cultural beliefs, taking comfort in Socrates’s instruction in how best to navigate the afterlife. And yet, if we are to believe Socrates that to “practice philosophy” is to “cultivate dying,” there is a peculiar fear of and aversion to death that motivates the dialogue as a whole.22 In the imperishability and immutability of the forms, and of the soul, their instrument, the Platonic doctrine shows itself not to be an exercise in dying well, but the very repudiation of death, losing its life in the very effort of trying not to die.

Socrates is not wrong that if we are to practice philosophy we must cultivate dying. He is wrong in that his philosophy does not in fact cultivate death but propagates undeath.23 If we are to do philosophy today, we must strike at the very premises that Simmias and Cebes challenge, the premises that address the very physics of death as a phenomenon of the real. And as noted above, it is Socrates who points the way: it is to the question of entropy that we now must turn.


  1. Plato, Phaedo, trans. David Gallop (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2009), 63e-64a. 

  2. Plato, Phaedo, 64a. Implied, but not stated here, soul is therefore the principle of life, that which makes a body a living body. This reasoning follows on Presocratic association of soul with intelligence, and intelligence with air, and so with breath. See my series of essays beginning with “Being and Motion” for a tracing of the lineage from motion to soul

  3. Plato, Phaedo, 64c. 

  4. Plato, Phaedo, 64c. 

  5. Plato, Phaedo, 70c. This and the next premise are according to “an ancient doctrine.” 

  6. Plato, Phaedo, 70c. 

  7. Plato, Phaedo, 71a. 

  8. Plato, Phaedo, 71c. 

  9. Plato, Phaedo, 71d. 

  10. Plato, Phaedo, 71e. 

  11. Plato, Phaedo, 72b. 

  12. Plato, Phaedo, 72b. 

  13. Plato, Phaedo, 72c-d. 

  14. Plato, Phaedo, 86c-d. 

  15. Plato, Phaedo, 87a. 

  16. Plato, Phaedo, 88a. 

  17. Plato, Phaedo, 88d. 

  18. Plato, Phaedo, 80b, 79b. For falsifiability, see Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1935, trans. Karl Popper, Julius Freed, and Lan Freed (London, UK: Routledge, 2002). 

  19. Plato, Phaedo, 92b-c. 

  20. Plato, Phaedo, 96a. Specifically, from 97c-99c, Socrates uses Anaxagoras as a support to argue that “intelligence should be the reason for everything,” and that if intelligence is the reason for everything, then one can determine how “each thing comes to be or perishes or exists” by asking “how is it best for that thing to exist, or to act or be acted upon in any way?” By framing scientific inquiry in this way, Socrates is able to argue that things are the way they are because it is “best for them to be just the way they are,” and it is the “good or binding” that “genuinely does bind and hold things together” in that way. This is a remarkably twisted reading of Anaxagoras, whose “intelligence” or “mind” is rigorously Eleatic in its constitution, and Milesian in its origin. The universe, for Anaxagoras, is one, and mind is the principle of its becoming, the principle of becoming as such. Becoming is not being, but it is always of being. 

  21. Plato, Phaedo, 114c. 

  22. Plato, Phaedo, 67e. 

  23. Plato’s Academy is the first vampire castle. See Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” The Northstar, November 22, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20131129003704/https://thenorthstar.info/?p=11299. Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” 

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