Some thoughts on the Phaedo
A little something I developed for my class
I enjoyed the dialogue very much and wanted to write a little about it. What struck me the most about the dialogue was the strong religious dimension to it? That’s not surprising since Socrates is about to die and hence inclined to ask ultimate questions. However Socrates seems to have had a rather complicated relationship with traditional Greek religion and what I read in the dialogue didn’t really square with what I knew about Greek religion, in fact, the religious content of the dialogue sounded more to me like a cross between Persian Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.
Part of the key to key to resolving this mystery may the influence of Pythagoras on Plato. From what I have learned, Pythagoreanism appears to have shaped Plato’s beliefs in, among other things, reincarnation, body / soul dualism, and the necessity of the philosophical life for the salvation of our souls.[i] In addition, Pythagoreanism itself appears to have been influenced by Orphism which was an oriental mystery cult that likely originated in Persia and which later became very popular in Greece. The Persian connection might explain the strong dualism present in the dialogue where the pure soul is seen as trapped in a material body. Interestingly, Orphism which emerged in Persia, may have, in turn, been influenced by contact with the Indian sub-continent. Could this be why in the Phaedo, the philosopher having escaped the wheel of death and rebirth in the Hindu sense would join the company of the Gods (82c) while less pure souls would be reborn as in animals whose characters they had embodied such as donkeys or wolves? (82a)
Maybe or maybe not? You never know with Socrates who is always practicing irony. Socrates himself says that the details he relates about the afterlife are only likely. Still, I think it would be safe to say that Socrates in the main accepted the Pythagorean outlook on the afterlife; he was fairly cheerful in facing the prospect of death after all and the arguments he used to bolster his cheerfulness were likely Pythagorean in origin. This belief in the Pythagorean account of the afterlife may be the best explanation for why Socrates considered the “unexamined life is not worth living” and why he was so insistent on practicing philosophy even if it resulted in his death. Philosophy in this sense became a religious practice where the believers sought to learn his true nature in order to purify his soul in order to achieve blessedness in the next world.
Plato’s Metaphysics-Plato’s Dualism: lecture notes by professor Jim Martin http://www2.palomar.edu/users/jfmartin/adobe/knowledge/plato_metaphysics.pdf
See also The Pythagorean Connection- Plato and the Pythagoreans at http://tab.faculty.asu.edu/pyth.html