Phaedo (3/3) – the journey to the other side

Jacques-Louis David’s famous ‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787), depicting Socrates attitude to his death, and the pain suffered by his friends. Socrates points up, to the forms, just as Plato does in Raphael’s ‘School of Athens.’

Before you read this post, have you read about part 1 and part 2 of the Phaedo?

Socrates is in prison awaiting his death, and like the committed philosopher he is has chosen to spend his final hours engaging  his friends in a discussion about the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. Hoping to go to a good afterlife himself, Socrates has presented some tricky and rather controversial arguments for the immortal soul, the forms, and the idea of learning as recollection. In his final hours, he now digresses in mythological terms about what he thinks actually happens to the soul in the afterlife, and how the universe is constructed, after which he bids his friends goodbye. Here in the Phaedo, Plato is at his weirdest: and also (towards the end of the dialogue) his most poignant!

Phaedo digested (part 3)

Socrates: Well if my arguments for the immortality of the soul are anything to go by, it should matter a lot what happens to the soul in life as well as death! If the soul has to be pure in order to go to a good afterlife, we need to take care of it in this life. This is handy, as it means that bad people get the punishments they deserve, and good people get their rewards. Surely one of the most psychologically fundamental notions in all of humankind!

So what happens exactly to the soul after death, depending on whether it had a pure life? Well, the myth goes that a person dies, their guardian spirit (or angel) leads him or her to a kind of judgement place, like a court, where their fate will be decided. After this, they are guided on the path to the underworld, and after having served their time, a bit like in prison, they return. The path between here and the underworld has many forks though, I think, and it’s important for souls to follow their guides along the right path. Those that ignore their guides and cling on to the physical world, with all its pleasures and distractions, and engage in bad behaviour will wander for a long time before reaching its destination. Those of a pure soul who have lived a pure and moderate life, however, will be guided to a good place.

The ‘geocentric’ model of the cosmos, with earth at the centre, was a common (yet understandable) mistake made from antiquity up to Copernicus in the 1500s.

There are many strange places that souls can go; and there are many strange places on the Earth too! Humour me whilst, in my final minutes, digress about how the universe is put together. The earth, by my reckoning, stands at the very centre of the cosmos, and this is why it stands still, and doesn’t need anything (like air, of whatever) to keep it in place. Furthermore, the earth is very large and sits with the stars within the mysterious substance called the ‘ether’. We actually dwell in the ‘hollows’ of the earth, you know, but mistakenly think we live on its surface. We think of the atmosphere, the air, as beyond the earth, but it is actually a part of it. The heavens, which lie far beyond the atmosphere itself, are infinitely more beautiful than the sky we see. We live like deluded creatures, not seeing clearly the nature of the world or the heavens, but believing that what we see around us is all there is.

Simmias: That’s a nice image, Socrates. This idea that we don’t see the world for how it really is, and are mistaken about the nature of things…. it reminds me of what you said in The Republic, when you spoke about the allegory of the cave

Socrates: We will get on to that one in a later blog post! For now, let me continue my account of the heavens and the earth. When looked at from space, the earth is a colourful, spherical ball. Much that is beautiful grows on the earth: all of nature’s glories cover it. Just watch any of David Attenborough’s excellent nature documentaries if you don’t agree! The earth is also covered with living creatures on land, in the air and in the sea. But just as we live on land surrounded by sea, there are even people who live on islands surrounded by air. They are like a race of supermen; they have no disease, and can see the heavens for what they really are.

Tartarus, the equivalent of ‘hell’ for the Greeks, and a place that was literally underground.

What about below the earth’s surface? Well I’ve heard that there are all these interconnected rivers of fire beneath us, all of which are interconnected, and lead into a giant pit which Homer calls ‘Tartarus.’ – a terrible place. The Titans are imprisoned down there, you know. The rivers above the earth are all connected to Tartarus too, via a large and mysterious underground lake called Acherusia. One of the rivers that flow into this lake is the Styx, which you may already have heard of.

So if you believe this account I have given of the earth, it seems that there is much more to existence than meets the eye: in fact you can believe this without subscribing to the mythological account I have just given.

Simmias: That’s…. all a bit weird Socrates. I’m not sure I agree (or understood!) all of it. But tell me: how does this mythical account of the earth that you just outlined link to what you were saying before about the afterlife?

Socrates: I’m glad you asked! Let’s get back to the dead, and their journey to the afterlife with their guardian angel, or guide. They’re being judged. The ones who have led an average life go and chill in Acherusia (that lake) for a bit, until they have been purified more. It’s a bit like purgatory in Catholic Christianity. Most people go here. However, the people who have led such wicked lives, however, that they cannot be redeemed (murderers, rapists and the like) are HURLED into Tartarus (that big pit I was telling you about) and stay down there. Those who are criminals, but aren’t THAT bad (for example, those guilty of crimes of passion) get chucked into Tartarus but one year later get magically swept back out again and back to the lake. Once there, they have to convince the souls of their victims to forgive them… otherwise they get put back in Tartarus again! It’s a neat little system, if you think about it!

Simmias: Riiight…..

Socrates: Finally, those who have led a holy and virtuous life are freed from the earth altogether. They go to that pure place I was telling you about, with no disease and superhuman people. The philosophers go to a particularly good part of this place: they live in this unimaginably beautiful place, with no bodies: perhaps a bit like Buddhist Nirvana! There’s not point trying to describe what it’s like though; you have to be there to understand.

Simmias: Socrates, after listening to all of this, I’m starting to think you’ve been smoking the waccy baccy again…

Socrates: Not so, Simmias! Let’s be honest: no sensible man would ACTUALLY insist that the myth I have described is the definite truth, but it’s worth taking the risk and believing it, I think, or something like it. We’ve all agreed that the soul is immortal, so it makes a certain degree of sense to think that something of this sort, good or bad, happens to it after death. I myself am in high spirits about the state of my own soul; I have pursued the pleasures of learning and wisdom to the very end, and have gained virtue. Here’s hoping I go to the good place when I die! Which is any minute now…

Socrates opts to drink hemlock to fulfil his death sentence. It produces violent and disturbing symptoms when eaten; Socrates’ death was most likely sanitised by Plato (see thoughts at end of post).

[Addressing his friends]: Now then; you will all take this great journey I have described at some point. But my own turn has finally come. I’ll be drinking poison: specifically, hemlock. I’ll have a bath first though: it will save them washing my corpse!

Crito: My dear friend. I tried to persuade you to escape from here, but … here we are, and you have made clear your decision. Do you have any instructions for me, concerning your family or anything else?

Socrates: Nothing, Crito. All I would say is take good care of yourselves: I really mean your souls! Live as I have taught: with integrity and virtue. This is what I want for you and all my friends.

Crito: We will, old friend! But how should we bury you?

Socrates: Any way you like! After I have drunk the poison, you’ll only be burying a lifeless corpse: you won’t be burying ME at all! Tell yourself you are burying ‘Socrates’ body’; Socrates himself, hopefully, will have gone to a better place!


PhaedoWell, we’re nearly at the end of our epic story. After Socrates said these things, he and his friends, myself included, stayed on. We discussed all that we had heard and were heartbroken, for we felt we were losing not just a friend but a father as well. After he had bathed, he said his last goodbyes to his family. Soon, the jailer came in to instruct Socrates to drink the poison, but even he had tears in his eyes. ‘You’re not like the other prisoners’ he said to Socrates. ‘You are the noblest and best man to ever come into this prison. You know what I am bound to tell you; I wish you well!’. With that, the jailer left with tears in his eyes.

Socrates: What a nice chap! He’s been nothing but agreeable to me since I came in here. Anyhow, on with the job. Bring me the poison!

Crito: (desperately) Wait, Socrates! The sun has still not set. We have more time… why not sit with us, eat and drink, and spend more time with your loved ones?

Socrates: There is no use in doing this, Crito. I do not cling to life: I have none left, so now is the time to die. Do not refuse me: bring me the poison!

Phaedo: With that, the poison was brought forth by a slave. Socrates asked him what the procedure was. The slave told him that he should drink the hemlock, and then walk around until his legs felt heavy; then he should lie down. He offered the cup to Socrates… and he took it quite cheerfully. There was no hint of change in his expression. Saying a quick prayer to the gods, Socrates drained the cup of poison.

Up to this point, myself and his friends had held back their emotion; but after we saw him drinking the poison, we could do this no longer. I covered my face, and Crito was beside himself. Socrates himself seemed annoyed by this outpouring of emotion, and bid us control ourselves. His words made us feel ashamed, and we checked our tears.

After walking around for a while, and when his legs were heavy, Socrates lay down on his back. He gradually lost the feelings in his feet and legs; and as the numbing coldness crept up his stomach towards his heart, he whispered to Crito his final words: ‘Crito, sacrifice a cockeral to Asclepius, the god of medicine’. Crito promised him he would. ‘Is there anything else, Socrates?’ he asked through the tears. But there was no reply: the great philosopher’s eyes were fixed and unmoving.

Such was the end of our comrade Socrates: a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and most upright, we have ever known.


More ideas

What is this weird cosmological myth stuff all about? It makes no sense following on from Plato’s complex philosophical discussion about the soul!

Socrates bids Crito to sacrifice a cock to Aesclipus. In ancient Greece, this is what sick people did in hope of a cure; did Socrates see life as a kind of ‘sickness’ from which we must be cured?

It is unclear how seriously Plato meant his readers to take the mythological proposals at the end of the Phaedo. The dialogue itself is much better known for its arguments concerning the soul, afterlife and forms, which formed the bulk of the dialogue up to this point. However, it is not the only dialogue that consists of serious philosophical discussion quickly followed by mythology; though the transition can seem jarring to modern readers, Plato uses this combination of philosophy and myth in the Republic and the Gorgias, two highly substantial and respected dialogues. Furthermore, his epic work the Timaeus consists almost in its entirety of the kind of seemingly proto-scientific cosmological theorising found first in the Phaedo. Many scholars, like many modern readers, have been tempted to bracket off these myths from ‘Plato’s serious thought’, and treat them as a historical curiosity or otherwise not take them seriously. However, Julia Annas argues that this isn’t the right approach, and suggests that the myths link more closely to the philosophical arguments than have been previously thought; for example, they often serve to add allegorical context or imagery to thoughts expressed in Plato’s philosophy. This can surely be seen in the Phaedo, where Socrates uses the mythological account of the soul’s journey to Tartarus, Acherusia or the heavenly realm as a means of explaining how justice is served in the afterlife. Futhermore, Socrates explicitly states in the dialogue that it would be foolish to assume that his theory represents knowledge of how the afterlife is really like. It’s more likely that Plato is here drawing on the myths of his day to give a mere suggestion of how the afterlife might operate, rather than a literal description. I this vein, it is more satisfying for the modern reader to read the mythical sections of the Phaedo not primarily as comology or proto-science, but an attempt to gesture towards something which Socrates happily admits cannot be fully understood or conceptualised.

Socrates’ last hours: would he have had SUCH a peaceful death?

Socrates has a rather peaceful death as described in the Phaedo (‘euthanasia’ means ‘a good death’ from the Greek). The way Plato, through Phaedo, tells the story of Socrates’ final moments is touching and poignant in the extreme, not just because it relates the death of one of philosophy’s greatest figures, but also because of the manner in which Socrates goes to his death, and the visibly emotional reaction of his friends and the prison jailer. It makes sense in the narrative context of the dialogue for Socrates to pass peacefully to the other side, given what has previously been said about his virtuous life and his supposedly pure soul. However, there is good reason to think that Plato made Socrates’ final hours sound a little more bearable than they might actually have been! Socrates drank hemlock, a poisonous flower whose symptoms, if eaten, include ‘trembling, burning and convulsions.’ Here is more reason to think, therefore, that Plato is not simply giving a straightforward report on what happened, but an idealised account that is consistent with Socrates’ philosophy and beliefs about a good death. Should this trouble us? No; we should not read Phaedo, or indeed any of Plato’s dialogues, as history. They are philosophical and literary creations designed to provoke thought on the biggest questions of philosophy.  Still, we might well ask: where is Plato himself in all of this? Being a good friend and student of Socrates, we might expect him to be present in the prison. Phaedo, in part 1 of the dialogue, simply describes Plato as being ‘ill’ on the day Socrates died, which is unfortunate and more than a little mysterious.

Socrates is dead: is that it for Plato Digested?

We started with Plato’s early dialogues, which serve as a great introduction to the character Socrates and follow more of a quasi-historical / narrative structure. Now Socrates the character has been introduced, we can see him as a kind of permanent mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas from now onwards. I will now be working through Plato’s many other dialogues on this blog, which include The Republic, The Symposium and many others, in which Socrates plays a central role. Stay tuned!

Socrates calmly kills himself, showing an impressively (or chillingly?) measured attitude to his own demise. His friends are not so sanguine about it.


This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.

Phaedo (2/3) – the ‘two worlds’ of existence, and reincarnation

Before you read this post, have you read Phaedo (part 1)?

The Phaedo: is it Socrates’ swansong?

To recap on our previous post, Phaedo (one of Socrates’ friends) is re-telling the story of Socrates’ last few hours in prison before he meets his death. True to form as a determined and committed philosopher, Socrates has chosen to spend these hours discussing the nature of the soul and the afterlife, in a bid to comfort his friends that he is ultimately going to a better place after death. He’s already argued (based on the idea of ‘opposites’) that an immortal soul exists, and that it represents the pure and rational aspect of a human being, which is in constant conflict with bodily desires. Furthermore, Socrates has argued that the soul exists before death, and that all learning is remembering; and also, that the after death the soul will return to the perfect realm of the ‘forms’ from where it came. After being challenged by his friends, Simmias and Cebes, to provide a more convincing argument for the soul’s existing after death, Socrates responds…

Phaedo digested (part 2)

PhaedoI was discussing with my friend Echecrates the last hours of Socrates, and the discussion that was taking place between him and his friends Cebes and Simmias about death, the soul and the afterlife. Let’s get back the the flashback!


Cebes: We’ve heard your arguments so far, Socrates, which support the idea of an immortal soul that exists before we are born. But surely you’re aware that most people think that this ‘soul’ just… disappears when you die, or is scattered and doesn’t survive the death of the body? That’s what many say: that death is simply non-existence: and unlike Epicurus, I find this quite a terrifying thought! So perhaps you could say something against this view?

Socrates: You mean that the soul scatters after death? I’d imagine that it would scatter even more in windy weather! Ha ha: an ancient joke there.

Cebes: Don’t joke about it Socrates: this is serious stuff!

Socrates: I think your fears that the soul is scattered after death are childish: and I shall tell you why. You say the soul could be scattered: does that mean that it must be the kind of thing that can be split up into parts, and is changeable?

Cebes: That seems to follow: if the soul is scattered and dispersed after death, it must be the kind of thing that could be split up and be changed, rather than be stable and unchanging.

Socrates: I will now try to show that the soul cannot be split up in this way, and so isn’t scattered after death at all. Think back to the forms, the pure ideas, that we were talking about in the last post. What kind of existence to they have: do they change, and are made up of parts, or are they stable and unchanging?

Cebes: We’re talking about Goodness, Justice, Beauty, right? Well obviously, these things are objective and do not change or break down into parts.

Socrates: Right. And what about horses, cats, tables, chairs and clothes? What kind of things are these?

Cebes: A completely different kind! These things are changeable.

Socrates: So it seems as if we have ‘two worlds’ of existence: the invisible, unchanging world and the visible, changeable world. This idea is a favourite of mine! Now lets get back to the soul: which category does it fall into?

Cebes: Obviously, it seems to be the first category: the soul is invisible, unchanging, and can’t be split up into parts. The body, on the other hand, seems to be the opposite! It’s in the second category.

Greedy people, according to Socates, could get reincarnated as donkeys. How serious is he being?

Socrates: Well there’s a start. We’ve seen then, that the soul cannot scatter at death like the body, because it is in a different class of things: it belongs to the invisible, unchanging world, and this is how it has knowledge of these things before birth: remember? So you don’t need to fear that your soul will scatter at death: it’s clearly not the kind of thing (unlike the body) that could endure this fate! In fact, I’m thinking that when I die (which will be very soon, by the way), my soul will return to the world of the forms, having been purified during my life of practising virtue, philosophy, and the sacred art of questioning and annoying just about everybody in Athens! Remember what I said before about the  practice of philosophy being ‘training for death’: the pure soul goes to a good afterlife, whereas a soul that is dirty with ignorance and distracted by bodily pleasures during life goes to the bad place: or worse, is reborn as a beast! Think about it: if you’ve been greedy in life, and your soul is heavy with gluttony, you’ll be reincarnated as a donkey, obviously. Or if you’ve been unjust and tyrannical, you’ll be reborn as a wolf.  And perhaps those who have lived a decent life, but not trained in philosophy, will just get reborn as good people again. Not bad… but not as good as the world of the forms, where I’m going! Strange isn’t it, how similar this all sounds to Hindu reincarnation… funny, since I only got this idea from Pythagoras, who lived up the road. Seems to crop up everywhere.

Cebes: So what you’re saying is that in order for your immortal soul to get to a good afterlife (i.e. the form-world, though I can’t actually imagine what it is like), you need not just to be a good person, but to live a life away from bodily pleasures, and pursue philosophy wherever it leads? Sounds tough!

Socrates: Believe me, it has been! But I have cared for my soul, and this outweighs any trivial desires for my own bodily pleasure I might have had. Every pleasure and every pain provides another nail that pins the soul to the body! Philosophers avoid these nails, and instead calmly contemplate the Truth, wherever they find it, and also try to live as virtuous lives as possible. If they do this, there’s no danger that their souls will be scattered after death, or be reincarnated as donkeys, and so if you’ve lived such a life (as I hope I have), there’s no fear of death at all!

Socrates, after saying this, remains deep in thought. There is a long silence. Cebes and Simmias, moved but still not convinced, whisper to each other.

Socrates: What’s up, guys?

Simmias: Well to be honest, Socrates, we’ve still got some doubts. You’ve waxed lyrical about the forms, the immortal soul, and reincarnation. These all fit together well, but we’re still unconvinced about the whole picture. There’s so many questions to be answered! And you’re about to die… do you really want to spend your last few minutes persisting in defending your view?

Socrates: (laughing). Guys, guys. Here’s a fun (and oddly moving) animal fact for you: did you know that swans, when they’re about to die, sing louder and more beautifully than ever before in their lives? They do this because they know that in dying, they go to a better place. I feel just like a swan, except instead of singing, I philosophise. Never before in my life have I been more eager to pursue the truth. Fire away!

Is the soul more like the tone produced by the ‘body’ of a guitar than a separate, immortal substance?

Simmias: Well spoken! Well, both myself and Cebes here have objections to your view so far. Firstly, let’s imagine a guitar: maybe my nice new shiny fender strat. When I shred with the volume turned up to 11, the strings produce this kind of sweet tone that is invisible, clear, unchanging and without body. But the strings themselves, which produce the sound (with a bit of help from a distortion pedal or 5) are themselves physical, finite, and bodily: if I shredded TOO hard, they would break! Not ideal half way through a gig… Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that maybe the soul is more like this: a kind of harmony of the body. In this analogy, the soul is the pure tone of my strat, and its strings are the body. The pure tone of the guitar, or the harmony, is only present when the strings and the guitar are arranged in a certain way: if I was to smash the guitar on stage, or set fire to it Jimi-Hendrix style, the harmony would be destroyed. So just because the soul is invisible and not made up of parts (just like harmony or that sweet, sweet strat tone), doesn’t mean that it survives the death of the body! If we think of the soul like this, as a kind of mixture or arrangement of physical things, your argument doesn’t follow.

Socrates: That’s a nice point! Let’s hear what Cebes has to say before I tackle these issues.

Cebes: Well, I have a different possibility. Lets assume what you say is true: that the soul can survive death and be reincarnated in many different bodies, be they donkeys or men. Is it not possible that the soul, though it is strong and stable, could be worn out by each rebirth? It’s like a bit like a person buying, and wearing out, different coats. Each time he buys a new coat (just as a soul is reincarnated into a new body), he ages until eventually, after the last coat he wears, he dies. Why could it not be that the soul eventually dies, having been worn out by many bodies? That’s not a nice thought, and it doesn’t get rid of my fear of death, since even my soul could be destroyed eventually!


PhaedoWell, I can tell you, after Simmias and Cebes made their objections, we were all feeling pretty low! Socrates had done his best to convince us that our fear of death was silly, but here he was, confronted with two new arguments, both of which showed the possibility that there really isn’t an afterlife!

EchecratesI know what you mean! Sometimes with philosophy, it’s hard to know WHAT to believe. You hear one argument and are convinced that it’s a good one, and then you hear the counterargument and are convinced by that one too! How did Socrates respond to his friends’ criticisms?

Phaedo: Well I was hanging out with Socrates as we took a break from the discussion. I asked him how he was going to respond to such objections: even Hercules couldn’t fight two people at once! But Socrates was calm, and told me that he relished the opportunity to respond. He said that ‘there is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse’, and I agreed with him. It’s so important to calmly and rationally defend what one thinks is right in the face of criticism, for the sake of the Truth! This has never been more true than in the 21st Century, and in the current depressing political and social climate they find themselves in there! Socrates also said that instead of shying away from difficult discussion, we should confront it head on, and not give up our views so easily. I agreed with him. He was a competitive old bastard, and not one to give up on truth without a fight! Here’s how he responded:


Socrates: Simmias, and Cebes. You both laid out objections to my argument in an immortal soul. Simmias, you said that the soul could be a kind of harmony that whilst invisible, doesn’t survive death. Cebes, you said that the soul could get worn out by many reincarnations and eventually die. To both of you: think back to the theory of recollection that I spoke about earlier: that all learning is simply the soul recollecting past knowledge of the forms, from before birth? Would you stand by this?

Cebes/Simmias: Absolutely!

Socrates: Well, Simmias, you’d better abandon your view of the soul as harmony, then. You can’t hold that the soul exists before the body and that the soul is a harmony! How could the sweet harmony and tone of your guitar exist before the guitar itself was made? It doesn’t make sense. Harmonize THAT!

Simmias: Um….er….. I see that now. Well I’ll stand by the recollection idea, then. Maybe the soul can’t be a harmony after all!

Socrates: You’re right: it doesn’t make sense. Also, if the soul is a harmony, we would have to say that all souls are equally harmonious! And this clearly isn’t true: some people are just bad people, and have impure souls. And furthermore, isn’t the harmony and tone of your strat dependent on the build of your guitar itself? The strings control the sound, not the other way around. If your view was correct, the soul would be able to have no control of the body at all, but in reality, of course it does. The soul is able to control and resist all manner of bodily temptations and also guide a person into acting virtuously. Harmonies cannot have such control over their instruments. No: the soul is more divine than simple harmony.

Simmias: I consider myself refuted! The guitar tone analogy was rubbish!

Does a person wear out coats like the soul wears out bodies, and eventually become worn out itself?

Socrates (turning to Cebes): now Cebes. You raised the idea of a soul wearing out many bodies but eventually being worn out itself, like a man wearing out many coats, but eventually dies. So the soul isn’t necessarily immortal, but instead could just be long-lasting (but eventually disintigrates). Sound about right?

Cebes: That was my argument, yes.

Socrates: Hmmmm (*thinks for a while*)…… that’s a tricky one. You know, it might be worth telling you a bit bit about my own intellectual development in order to respond to you there. I used to be a keen scientist, you know, and like all scientists I wanted to know exactly how the natural world works, and what kinds of things cause other things to happen, especially in human beings. I was desperate to know, for example, what kinds of things cause us to be alive, and how the human mind works on the basis of this. I realized that I was just confusing myself by asking these things, and couldn’t solve such challenging puzzles. Then I came across the philosopher Anaxagoras, who claimed that he could solve the problems with the idea that Mind is the basis of all reality. I was soon disappointed, however, when I realized that he didn’t really give a good solution to these issues at all, but blathered on about something called ‘ether’, which sounded to me like a load of nonsense. HE had no idea what he was talking about either! Turns out that some philosophers really talk a load of rubbish: who knew? Anyway, to cut a long story short, I didn’t get very far by finding out things from observation or by reading Anaxagoras, so I fell back on my own way of seeing the world and explaining things: and my way of seeing things involves the forms, which we’ve already mentioned. The things that cause things to be in the world are the forms: the form of the Beautiful, for example, makes beautiful things beautiful. And the form of Bigness makes big things big. And from the idea of these forms, Cebes, I will prove that the soul is immortal. You might well argue: why should we believe in forms at all? But I’m not going to argue for them here: they’re just part of the way I see the world. Are we all on board?

Cebes/Simmias: Sure thing, Socrates! Let’s agree for now that the forms exist, and explain why things are the way they are. What’s the link with the soul?

Socrates: Well, here we go: let’s take the example of the form of ‘tallness’. Things in the world that share in this form, all the tall things, cannot also share in the form of ‘shortness’. If a thing is tall, and then becomes short, then it must cease to become tall. This also goes for other qualities associated with that thing. Now, think about the body. What gives the body life?

Cebes: Well, the soul of course!

Socrates: We could then call the soul a ‘form of life’: it brings life to whatever body it inhabits. Now then: we were talking about forms and their opposites, and we saw that nothing can become its opposite whilst remaining itself. What would you say the opposite of life is?

Cebes: Well: death, obviously!

Socrates: Ok. And as we’ve seen, the soul is a bringer of life, and so death is something the soul could never be involved with! Something can’t share in its opposite, and this goes for the soul too. It follows from this that the soul is indestructible: it brings life, and cannot itself die. It is deathless, and therefore immortal! I have therefore proven what you asked of me, Cebes: the soul does not degrade after multiple reincarnations as you suggested, like a man wearing out many cloaks, but is immortal!

More ideas

The ‘affinity argument’ for the immortal soul

Anaxagoras was one of the greatest pre-Socratic philosophers, but didn’t impress Socrates.

Up to the ending of this part of the Phaedo, Socrates has given three separate arguments for the existence of the immortal soul. They are the argument based on things coming from their opposites, and the argument from recollection (in my previous post, Phaedo (part 1)). The third argument, given in this part of the Phaedo, is the ‘argument from affinity’, and it’s a tricky one. Perhaps the thing that might puzzle modern readers of this argument, apart from the fact that it’s obscure and difficult to fully grasp, is the extent to which it depends on Plato’s idea of ‘forms’. I discussed this concept in the previous post, but it is particularly striking in this part of the dialogue how Plato/Socrates uses the concept of form to do heavy lifting in the argument for the soul, given that there is no real argument given for the forms themselves in this dialogue. Socrates, when he gives his ‘intellecual history’ and discusses the philosopher Anaxagoras, seems to suggest that the forms are a kind of ‘best explanation’ of how things come to have the features they do in the world; however, so much is left unsaid, and the idea of forms themselves remain obscure. It could be said, then, that though Socrates’ affinity argument for the immortal soul is interesting in itself, it can only be accepted to the extent to which the doctrine of the forms is accepted. Socrates’ friends seem to all too readily accept the idea in the dialogue, and perhaps this is the sign that here we have Plato propounding his own ideas directly, rather than simply reporting on the thoughts of Socrates. It might be also noted that another thing assumed rather than argued for throughout the Phaedo is the existence of the soul itself. Though Cebes proposes a view of the soul as disintigrating after death, which might sound rather materialistic, even he doesn’t consider the possibility that the soul doesn’t exist in any sense, which is what a modern materialist might say.

Metahor and imagery

Plato is a great literary figure as well as a philosopher, and this section of the Phaedo shows his great ability to use interesting images and metaphors to support Socrates’ arguments. Simmias’ idea of the soul being like the harmony produced from the strings of a lyre (replaced by a fender strat in my verson) is a lovely image, as well as Cebes’ notion that the soul is like a weaver who wears out many cloaks over a lifetime. Cebes’ view borrows from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, who argued that everything in the world, including souls, is subject to eventual change and decay. My favourite is when Socrates compares himself to a swan: swans, he suggests, are prophetic creatures that are devoted to the god Apollo, and sing the loudest and most joyfully when they are about to die, for they know that they will be reborn in a better place. Whether or not swans actually behave like this prior to death, this was a famous idea in ancient Greece, and it’s where the phrase ‘swansong’ comes from. Socrates, of course, is a swan in the sense that he is devoted to Apollo, and is convinced that after death, he will go to a good afterlife: his version of ‘singing’ is passionately and doggedly engaging in philosophical discussion until the very end.

What happens now?

The substantial argument of the Phaedo is now over: Socrates has outlined his (or more accurately, Plato’s) view of the body and the soul, the forms, and how these ideas relate. Join us in the next post, in which the Phaedo is concluded with one of the most poignant and memorable scenes in all of Plato, and indeed in all of philosophy: Socrates’ death.



This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.


Phaedo (1/3) – on a life after death

1de5b457361337760b26d99b43c69336To recap on our previous dialogues, Socrates has been condemned to death for blasphemy and corrupting the youth; furthermore, he was unable to acquit himself in court, and he refused the opportunity to escape from prison. In this famous dialogue, the philosopher Phaedo is asked by his friends what happened to Socrates in the end. In a kind of ‘flashback’, Phaedo tells his friends the remarkable story, and reports not only on a series of interesting arguments about life after death, but also on the remarkable and poignant way in which Socrates met his fate at last.

Phaedo digested (part 1)

Echecrates: I heard you were there, Phaedo, when…

Phaedo: Yes, so I was. And I can tell you, the way Socrates faced his own mortality in that prison cell was… memorable. And inspiring.

Echecrates: Tell us, Phaedo!

Phaedo: It pains me to think about it. I’ve never experienced a more surreal or astonishing day. All his friends, including myself, were there. Some were laughing, others weeping. It was an emotional rollercoaster, I can tell you.

Echecrates: Tell us more!

Phaedo: Very well. I will begin at the beginning….


In Socrates’ prison cell:

Phaedo: Socrates, what is this? We’re told that today is the day!

Xanthippe: (wailing): Nooooooooo!

Socrates: Please excuse my wife. Ýou know, I’ve been thinking. I sat up just now, after having been released from my chains, and noticed how pleasurable the feeling was. The relationship between pleasure and pain… it’s a funny one! They seem to always follow one another… like a creature with two heads.

Cebes: That sounds like something Aesop would say. Since when were you into poetry?

Socrates: I’ve been really getting into it recently. Helps pass the time in prison, you know. Anyway, it’s nearly time for me to die, so please wish well those who care about me, and tell them: those that are wise will follow me to the grave!

Simmias: What! What do you mean?! Are you advising that we should all commit suicide?

Socrates: All I’m saying is that sometimes, and for some people, it is better to die than to live.

Cebes: What a load of….

Socrates: Hear me out! You’d agree, right, that if the gods indicated to a person that they should kill themselves, then that would be a good reason to?

Cebes: Well I suppose; but you suggested that wise men (i.e. philosophers) should be willing and ready to die, and this seems strange. After all, we are the gods’ possessions; wouldn’t they want their finest possessions, the wise men, to live? And the philosophers, being wise, would surely want to remain in service to their masters. No; suicide is for the foolish!

Simmias: He has a point!

Socrates: Let me try to defend what I said: that philosophers should be willing to meet their deaths head on. By killing ourselves, we do not flee our masters, the gods: we join them! For I am convinced that there is a life after death.

Crito: You know, Socrates, it’s not a good idea to exert yourself in a long philosophical discussion right now… I’ve heard it makes the poison take longer to work!

Image result for plato pointing up png
Plato (whose views are spoken by Socrates in the Phaedo) points to the world beyond. His student, Aristotle, disagrees.

Socrates: Well, so be it! I’ve started so I’ll finish. The afterlife! It means we should be hopeful for death. As I’ve said before, the goal of the wise man is to practice the art of dying well. Why should we resent death when after death our soul goes to a better place? Let’s try and prove this. We can all agree that we will all die someday. What is death but the separation of the soul from the body? Only our souls go to heaven!!! Heh Heh: say that sentence out loud..

Simmias: Well that’s what they say.

Socrates: And we can all agree that philosophers are concerned with the state of their souls first and foremost, and not with other things like sex and eating and drinking: all the pleasurable stuff. The body is not knowledgeable like the soul: the eyes, ears, nose etc don’t tell us anything precise or accurate. However, the soul, or I could say the ‘mind’, can grasp the Truth, through logical reasoning! And it does this best when it isn’t distracted from the body. Nobody who is half way through a good old bit of hanky-panky can think straight, let alone philosophise!

Simmias: That is indeed so!

Socrates: Now lets think about the kind of truths that the soul has knowledge of. You’ve heard of the Just, the Good, the Beautiful: we know what these things are, but have we ever seen or heard them? We may have seen beautiful things in the world, for example, but we’ve never seen with our eyes the Beautiful itself, though we know about it. No: we grasp these truths though thought alone. Our minds are powerful: we can use them to track down reality itself, how things essentially are in themselves. The body and its senses just get in the way of this noble pursuit!

Simmias: This seems true. I do have the concept of the beautiful in my head, and it didn’t get there because I literally saw or heard it!

Socrates: Now then, given that the highest pursuit of the philosopher is to gain knowledge of these things (Goodness, Justice, Beauty etc), it follows that the body is a real pain in the arse in this regard. Bodily pleasures distract our minds from focussing on the Truth, and our desires, cravings and fears do the same. My friend Siddhartha over in India agreed, you know; and he seems a pretty knowledgeable guy. Pleasures and emotions, the stuff most people THINK is good, actually enslave us and prevent us from getting anywhere. It follows that we must escape the body if this true knowledge is to be found; which I think that it is. And of course, we can only do this after death (unless you believe what Pam Reynolds says…).

Simmias: This makes sense; anybody who loves learning must agree that true knowledge is possible, and that the body gets in the way of it.

Socrates: So I do feel that I can look forward to death: it will be a kind of purification. We’ve seen that this happens when the soul leaves the body, which kind of makes it dirty, and becomes clean. And this happens at death. Now then: how do I know my own soul is pure? Well, I’m a philosopher, and we clearly have the purest souls since we have spent our lives focussing on things like Beauty and Justice, rather than wasting our time having fun, like normal people! Well then, I believe I have proven my point: that philosophers should welcome their deaths.

Simmias: Well put that way, the idea of fearing or resenting one’s death seems downright foolish. Why would anybody fear going to a purer place?

Socrates: You’re right. And as I’ve said before: those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying, and they fear death least of all men. A person who has lived a life of wisdom looks forward to the trip to Hades, because it is only there that true knowledge will be found. It goes to show that what I was saying in my “apology” in the court was right; it IS irrational to fear death, at least for philosophers like us. Courage, and living a moderate life, makes us brave, so that we can face death without fear. True virtue comes with courage, moderation, justice, and above all: wisdom. I have tried all my life to gain this: and therefore I look forward to death as a place where I will find good masters and good friends.

Related imageCebes: This sounds great Socrates, apart from one thing: I’m not convinced about all this talk of your ‘soul.’ Many people think that after death, it is destroyed, and no longer exists: I’d like to hear you prove the existence that the soul continues after death, as your whole view so far depends on this point! And I’m not convinced. And probably neither are the many readers in the 21st Century currently reading this blog!

Socrates: Fair enough Cebes: all this talk of a ‘soul’ seems a bit mysterious. Let’s try and prove its exists like I suggested earlier. Let’s think first about opposites: beautiful and ugly for example, or wise (like me) and stupid (like that Athenian jury that put me in this prison). It seems that each comes from the other: beauty only comes from ugliness, and wisdom only comes from ignorance, and vice versa. Agreed?

Cebes: So far, so good…

Socrates: Opposites, furthermore, seem to change into each other via a process. Waking up, for example, is the process of going from sleeping to its opposite, being awake. And falling asleep is going from being awake to being asleep. Now then: dying is going from being alive to being dead. What is the opposite process here?

Cebes: It appears that living must come from dying too, because we agreed that opposites generate each other.

Socrates: Well there we go then! The living come from the dead, and the dead come from the living. This can only work if the souls of the dead don’t pass away after bodily death: otherwise, the living wouldn’t be able to come from the dead. I’m thinking of souls passing from life to death, and then back again, proving that souls continue after death!

Cebes: A whole load of other things seem to follow from your view there. This idea that the soul is immortal is one, and another idea that all learning is remembering is another. What do you say about these ideas, Socrates? I’m not convinced yet…

Simmias: Wait… all learning is… remembering? That’s a weird one. Why would anybody think that?

Image result for remembering
For Plato, all learning is actually remembering

Cebes: Well I guess because there are cases where people give correct answers to certain questions, and couldn’t have got the knowledge any other way. Socrates, didn’t you witness this once, when you got Meno’s slave boy to do a load of maths? Can you give us some more examples that prove that learning is just the soul remembering stuff from a previous life?

Socrates: Sure thing. Let’s get clear on what remembering actually is. For example, when I see something that belongs to somebody, I think of that person. Like when I see your iPad, Cebes, I think of you: I remember you, as I associate you with the iPad. Nobody else I know owns one of these ridiculous contraptions. But there are many other kinds of examples that show that remembering comes from association like this.

Simmias/Cebes: Seems like common sense so far.

Socrates: Well then, let’s get abstract (like us philosophers love to do). What about those pure ideas, those objective concepts that seem to exist above all earthly things. Things like Beauty, Justice, Equalness etc. How do we get knowledge of these? It seems that we get knowledge of these entities from things around us that are like them. For exampel, my pet cats Purrthagoras and Leucippuss, are beautiful:  I see them, and the pure idea of beauty comes to mind.

Cebes: Fair enough. They’re very cute.

Image result for beautiful sunset brecon beacons png
Like Leucippuss, seeing a beautiful sunset also allows us to recall the Form of Beauty. (Photo: the Brecon Beacons, Wales, UK, by Black Mountain Photography)

Socrates: But surely we can also agree that, if seeing these beautiful creatures makes us think of the pure idea of Beauty, then this is a case of remembering; we showed this before, in the case of you and your iPad. I see your iPad and remember you, Cebes. I see Leucippuss and remember Beauty itself. Now then, Leucippuss is lovely, but he’s not as beautiful as the concept of Beauty itself…. but still, when I think of him, my mind is also drawn to the Beautiful. From all this follows that I must have known about the Beautiful before I set eyes on Leucippuss, because as I have shown, seeing and stroking Leucippuss allows me to remember the Beautiful.

Cebes: Seems so… but… wait!

Socrates: Yes! It follows that we must possess knowledge of the Beautiful from before we saw beautiful things, and so on for Goodness, EqualityJustice and these other ideas. Where does this knowledge come from? Well, not from the senses (the eyes and ears etc). Everything we get from looking and hearing etc is imperfect, and lacking when compared to the pure ideas themselves. So the knowledge of the pure ideas must come from before we had the senses: before we were born! Can you see how this links back in to the idea of the immortal soul yet, that we were discussing beforehand?

Cebes: Wait, hold on. Let’s get this straight. You first raised the idea that the soul is separate from the body, and carries on after death. Now you’ve argued that all learning is actually remembering things from before we were born. So the natural conclusion to draw is…

Socrates: Precisely, old chap! Our souls exist apart from the body before death, and gained the knowledge we ‘remember’ in life from there. And also that this process is tied up with the idea of these ‘forms’ or ‘pure ideas’ that I’ve been speaking about: Beauty, Holiness, Goodness, Justice, etc.

Simmias: Your arguments are interesting, Socrates, and now myself and Cebes are convinced that the soul existed before death, and that this idea depends on these things you call ‘Forms’: the pure, objective ideas that objects in the world (like your cats) resemble in terms of Beauty, etc. But what Cebes and I are still curious about something. You haven’t actually proven that the soul goes on existing after death, just that it exists before death. And you claimed earlier to be able to convince us of the afterlife, which requires the idea of the soul existing after death, not before it. It’s not called the beforelife, is it now? And I don’t see a reason to believe in the afterlife. Why could it not just be that the soul comes from somewhere before life, but then is destroyed at death, and doesn’t carry on?

Socrates: Well guys, I did kind of already prove this when I pointed out that everything comes from opposites, and therefore that life comes from death as well as death from life. But ok… I’ll try harder on this. My modern fans are sceptical of religious mumbo-jumbo and other unfashionable ideas like the afterlife, so more arguments are needed. Stay tuned!

More ideas

Why does Socrates try to prove the existence of the immortal soul and the afterlife? Why even think that there is a soul at all?

Related imageSocrates is about to die by drinking poison in front of all his friends: however, he seems remarkably upbeat. The Phaedo is all about why this is: Socrates seems to be convinced that his soul, which has been purified during his life, is going to be separated from his body when he drinks the poison, and he will therefore go to the Good Place. The whole dialogue is about Socrates proof of this happy idea: first he suggests the idea of a soul separate from the body (which his friends are all ok with in principle), and then he argues that this soul is immortal on the basis of these things called ‘Forms’ (or ‘pure ideas’ in my re-writing). These beliefs then get put together in the next part of the Phaedo to support Socrates’ claim that there is an afterlife.

To modern readers, these ideas can seem strange. Intellectual history has come a long way since Plato, and the idea of a ‘soul’ can sound like religious mumbo-jumbo to many people these days. Even the idea of a mind somehow ‘separate’ from the body can easily concern us: how is it still possible to believe in these ideas in the light of modern neuroscience and the suggested scientific perspective that the mind not separate from the body, but dependent on it, or even the same thing as it? This could lead us to dismiss Plato’s dialogue as a historical, unscientific relic; however, this is not the case. Dualism, the view that the mind is non-physical in some respect, still has its defenders today, if not in the full sense of an ‘immortal soul’, and besides, Plato raises a number of interesting arguments in the Phaedo that might make us reconsider this notion. The argument from remembering, for example, is a genuine attempt to explain where our knowledge of concepts such as Beauty and Justice come from: Plato suggests a soul that pre-exists our bodies as a possible explanation, arguing that we can’t gain true knowledge (of the ‘forms’) through the senses, because in order to recognise beauty in a thing, we need to have some pre-existing idea of it. This is another intriguing idea, separate from the question of the soul: are some ideas innate, or do we gain all ideas through experience? The philosophical struggles of the 16th and 17th Century between ‘rationalists’ such as Descartes and ’empiricists’ such as Hume are based on this thought. Plato is very much an early rationalist.

Fine, but why should we accept that the forms exist in the way Socrates/Plato claims?

Plato talks in this dialogue (via Socrates, of course) about the forms existing objectively,Image result for platonic forms in a separate reality. This is in fact his actual view: there is an immaterial, almost heavenly world out there which we refer to when we say that something is ‘beautiful’ etc. This is one of Plato’s most famous and also most controversial doctrines, and is simply assumed in the Phaedo, rather than formally argued for. In fact, Plato rarely presents any detailed arguments for the forms in all his work, and the doctrine substantially evolved over the course of his writings as well. In Phaedo, the idea of the forms plays a role in establishing the existence of the immortal soul, but in other dialogues, such as the Republic, the forms get focused on in their own right. If it seems like a crazy, unscientific and baffling idea that there could be an eternal, spiritual heaven of abstract objects, it’s worth knowing that Plato himself thought of the world of the forms as a ‘mathematical’ kind of place, rather than a ‘spiritual’ one. Furthermore, he didn’t believe in the Forms as a matter of religious faith (and we are not talking about ‘heaven’ here in a religious sense): he thought that the forms was an idea that could solve all sorts of other philosophical problems about thinking, and also how things in the world have their qualities. We will be discussing the forms much more over the course of this blog!

As Socrates said: stay tuned for Phaedo: part 2!



This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.


Crito – the social contract and the nature of justice

1206578721112928526johnny_automatic_vacant_prison_cell.svg.medAfter the events of the Apology, Socrates awaits his execution in a prison cell. His friend Crito, who previously (and unsuccessfully) tried to pay for Socrates’ acquittal, arrives to try and persuade Socrates to escape. Though Crito’s arguments are persuasive, and he makes clear that escape would be a relatively safe and sure option for Socrates to avoid death, Socrates refuses, claiming that ‘justice’ demands that he face his own demise instead. Is Socrates mad? Read on to find out…

Crito digested

Socrates: (to Crito): *yawn*, I just woke up. I’m surprised you managed to blag your way in here!

Crito: I’ve actually been here a while, Socrates, watching you sleep. I’m amazed that you’re so happy, given that you’re a man staring his own death in the face. Did you know that your execution is scheduled for tomorrow?

Socrates: Perhaps it is for the best… you know though, I had a dream in which a woman in white approached me, and suggested that it would be the day after.

Crito: Riiight… but whenever it happens, I cannot (as your good friend) just stand by to see you executed! I’m afraid that people won’t realise that Plato and I tried to bail you out with our offer of €70,000 … they’ll think we abandoned you! In fact, the majority of people would surely agree that you should be freed!

Socrates: Well who cares what ‘the majority’ of people think? Why should I be bothered with the views of the majority?

Crito: Never mind all that now! Myself and your other friends are prepared to sacrifice our money, property and safety to bail you out! Take our advice: let us help you escape. Don’t be afraid to ask: we have the money, and places we can take you where I have friends, and you’ll be safe.

Socrates: ….

Crito: (Angry and impatient) What are you waiting for?!? But hold on…. aha, I see. You don’t think it will be just for you to escape from this prison … well I say that it would! By staying here, you allow your enemies the pleasure of killing you, and you’re abandoning your sons to a life without a father. How could you?! You claim to be good and virtuous, but a good and virtuous man would come with us, and not take the easy route and lounge around in prison like you are. I am ASHAMED of you, Socrates, both for that pathetic attempt at a defence speech in the court, and your apparent decision to resign yourself to death. Give up this stubbornness, and come with me now, and out of here!

Socrates: Calm down! Let’s just examine what the right course of action is here, and go where the arguments take us. Let’s start with whose opinions we should value in this matter. Presumably we should value some opinions, but not others?

Crito: Well yes, seems so…

Socrates: So I guess we should value the good opinions, those of the wise men, and disregard the bad opinions, those of idiots?

Crito: Can’t disagree with that!

Socrates improves by listening to his coach

Socrates: Let’s be specific then: footballers, for example. Whose opinion should they value: everybody’s, or those of their coach?

Crito: The coach, obviously.

Socrates: Good, so a footballer should do what the coach tells him to, otherwise he’ll get injured on the pitch, or otherwise come to harm. I’m sure my favourite footballers, Socrates and Sokratis, would agree with me! And so it is with justice too: we should disregard the opinion of the majority, and focus only on the opinion of those we think the wisest; if we don’t, we will corrupt our very selves! The wise man is to our soul what the coach is to the footballer.

Crito: Ok, I’m with you so far.

Socrates: There we go then: all those people who say this or that about whether what I’m doing is just or unjust can be disregarded: we should only listen to the wisest people with regard to doing what is just. YOU said before that I should heed all those people who would bid me be set free, but we have a reason to ignore that majority now.

Anyway, let’s look at whether it really is just for me to escape from this prison, ignoring those things that the majority of people would think relevant: money, reputation, children and all that stuff you mentioned earlier. If we do establish that escaping is the unjust and wrong thing to do, then it doesn’t matter if I die or suffer as a result not not doing it! Because staying here was the right thing to do.

Crito: I guess I agree. But what is the right thing to do in this situation?

Socrates: Well, we can agree right away that we should never do what is wrong. And so we are never justified in doing something wrong in return for being wronged: that is, we can’t hit back or retaliate against somebody who has hurt us. The majority of people, on the other hand, say that we should retaliate! But they’re wrong. Not to compare myself to Jesus or anything, but, you know, I think he’d agree with this point.

Crito: Well, I agree.

Socrates: But DO you though? Do you really seriously believe this important point about harming a person being wrong, even in retaliation? Will you stick by it?

Crito: I will!

Socrates: Good. The question is, then, are we harming anybody by escaping from this prison? Well, let’s imagine we were caught during our escape by a policeman, who represents the Athenian society. Let’s imagine a conversation, which might go something like this:

Philosophers Rousseau and (earlier) Hobbes are most famous for the ‘social contract’ idea, but Plato got there first, 1000 years earlier.

PoliceStop right there! You’re completely ignoring the law by doing this! If everybody ignored the law, the whole of society would collapse!

Socrates: The city wronged me, so I am right to escape!

PoliceWell you might be a bit cheesed off with your death sentence, but what you’re actually doing here is harming the whole of society by escaping! So ungrateful! You’ve been born here, grown up here, had a job here, made a life here… you’ve signed a kind of contract with Athens, you see, and with its laws, and you’re harming society if you break this contract, particularly in retaliation against your death sentence. You can accept the law, or you can persuade us to let you off (and you’ve already tried that one!) and that’s it. In fact, by trying to escape, you are extremely unjust!

SocratesWhat? Why?! I never signed a contract!

Police: Oh yes you did. You chose to live here and benefit from this society. You were free to leave at any time if you didn’t like how it was run, but you didn’t: you stayed and made a living here! You had your kids here … you signed your contract with us, for sure. And then when you were sentenced, you could have pleaded for exile, but you didn’t! And now you try to run away, which goes against everything in our little agreement.

Socrates: Well, I can’t help but agree, actually. You have a point! I DID ‘sign up’ to live in this society, and am now being a hypocrite by unjustly acting against it.

Police: Damn right. And also, think about your friends. By breaking out of here, you endanger them. And you’ll be hunted down wherever you go, as you’ll have a reputation for being a lawbreaker, and your reputation will be ruined, even more than it already is! Will you go live in another lawless society instead, like where Crito’s friends live? I don’t think so. Your children won’t thank you for it: they’ll get no education, and be worse off. You’ll be known as an unjust man, and Hades won’t take kindly to THAT in the underworld when you get there! Better to ignore Crito, and stay right where you are.

Socrates: So you see Crito, in escaping with you, I would be acting unjustly, breaking my social contract, and therefore wronging not just you and our friends, but the whole of society. I won’t be persuaded on this!

Crito: I…… I….. I have nothing to say to this, Socrates. I can see that your mind is made up.

Socrates: Indeed it is, my old friend. Let it be this way: justice demands it.

Socrates prison
An ancient prison cell in Athens in where (possibly) Socrates was held. Whilst Plato’s dialogue-based accounts of the events of Socrates’ death are almost certainly fictionalised, there is no doubt that in general, it all happened.

More ideas

Is Crito right in arguing that Socrates is unjust by remaining in prison?

It may sound odd to argue that by escaping from prison, a person might be doing what is good and just, but this is precisely the view that Crito argues for in this dialogue, and he makes a persuasive case. Crito’s arguments concern the duties Socrates has to his family and his friends, as well as to philosophy as a whole: his argument is that in failing to take advantage of Crito’s escape plan, Socrates is giving in to his enemies, neglecting his sons, and allowing the state to triumph in its attack on the pursuit of virtue and wisdom, to which Socrates and his friends are devoted. The idea of moral duties was not new in the time of Plato, but has been influential in ethics ever since: Crito seems to be saying that we have moral duties to those close to us, and also to fulfilling meaningful goals in life, that may outweigh the dictates of the law. But Crito’s argument also leans on the consequences of Socrates’ escape: he doesn’t understand why Socrates is unwilling, given that he could in all likelihood make a safe and easy escape, aided by his friends. Crito also appeals to the ‘majority’: he says that many people would agree with him that Socrates is acting unjustly by giving up his duties to his loved ones and languishing in prison. But to what extent does the majority opinion matter when it comes to morality?

Does the opinion of the majority matter?

Socrates is very quick to dismiss the opinion of the majority, and favours instead a kind of ‘expert’ view on morality, where one’s moral action should be guided by those who are wise. This is a key theme in Plato, and anticipates famous discussions of justice and society in Plato’s masterwork, The Republic: the just society is the one in which the philosophers (those who are the wisest, and the experts on morality) rule, and the idea of a democracy (where the majority vote dictates morality) is rejected. We’ll return to this one again soon, when the Republic gets digested.

Socrates ‘social contract’ argument

Plato’s Crito is renowned for featuring an early version of the ‘social contract‘ theory of political morality, which later came to be associated with Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The idea is that by voluntarily living in a society, we form implicit moral and political agreements with that society (a ‘contract’), which form the basis of one’s existence. The idea that we owe something to the society in which we live is a common one, because it is often impossible to imagine our lives, with all their benefits and opportunities, being the same without the society in which they were made possible. For Socrates, the Athenian society made it possible for his parents to meet and marry, and for him to be educated and grow up to live a full life. Furthermore, this situation was not forced on him: Socrates could have left at any time, but didn’t. Breaking out of prison would therefore represent a violation of this contract, and therefore would be unjust. A further implication is that by breaking the contract, society is ‘harmed’, in a similar way in which a person is harmed when they are wronged, which Socrates and Crito agree can never be right.

Did Plato himself mean to approve of the social contract theory in this passage? And is the fact that it is attributed to Socrates suggestive that Socrates himself advocated the view? Probably not. In The Republic, Plato presents a rival view of justice as harmony of the soul. In this view, justice is worth having for its own sake, rather than (as in the social contract theory) having for the sake of an agreeable life in society and a good relationship with its laws. This is the big question: is justice merely a contract with one’s society, which would seem to imply that since each society has different laws, the demands of justice can vary, or is it something more objective and binding, independent of society? Given everything else we know about Plato, it’s almost certain that he would opt for the second if pressed. We shouldn’t assume, then, that everything Socrates utters in Plato’s work is a straightforward picture of Plato’s own views.

So, who is right? Socrates or Crito?

Both men make a compelling case, and their disagreement turns on where the most important duties of a person lie: with our families and friends, or with society? Crito proposes a view of justice which focuses on family and friends; in particular, Socrates’ sons. Socrates ignores this view, and focuses on society at large, offering a more impersonal view of justice. How these two views fit together, and which one we should prefer, is one of philosophy’s most enduring questions. By placing the demands of society over the demands of his loved ones, Socrates is satisfied that he will go to a virtuous death; but was this really the right thing to do?




This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.


The Apology (2/2) – Socrates’ verdict


After making his not-very-apologetic apology to the Athenian jury and audience, Socrates prepares to face their verdict, on charges of blasphemy and corrupting the young. He tries and fails to appeal against their decision, and then like a true philosopher, prepares to face his fate…

Before reading this… have you read the Apology digested (part 1)?

The Apology digested: part 2

Athenian jury: Our verdict is…. guilty of all charges!

Meletus: Excellent! I recommend for Socrates the worst punishment of all… death!

Socrates: (sighs) Well this was not unexpected. I suppose I deserve it for being such a lousy speaker. I did warn you… but hey! I was expecting the verdict given to have a much greater majority!

(To the Athenians): Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Meletus recommends death. So be it. What alternatives do we have, now that you have decided me (wrongly, by the way) to be guilty as charged? Well, I deserve to be treated like a man who has neglected the usual pleasures of wealth, a job and social status in favour of caring for the thing that truly matters: the state of my soul, and teaching others to think the same. I’ll tell you: free dinner every night in the town hall! That’s what I truly deserve. I have literally spent my life trying to make other people – YOU – better. So that’s my recommendation. Instead of the death penalty: free meals for life! Digest that for a minute.

I presume you’re thinking even nastier thoughts about me than you already were, people of Athens. If only we had more time… I could easily convince you of my innocence. This trial has only lasted a day! But it’s irrelevant now. Shall I protest going to my death, the certainty of which we’re already seen is no reason to be afraid? Or shall I plead for a miserable life in prison or in exile, which will certainly be fearful? No, of course I won’t. Prison is miserable, and if I live out my last few days in exile, I’m damned either way: both for turning people away, and for continuing to teach them how to live, I’ll be hunted down. Could I live a quiet life away from it all? No. I can’t keep quiet when I am convinced that the only way to live is a life of virtue, a large part of which involves constantly talking about it to anybody who’ll listen! The un-examined life is surely not worth living at all.

But hey; let’s have one last go. I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t deserve any punishment, still less the harsh punishment recommended by Meletus. So how about I pay my way out of this? I’d say that… hmnn….€2,300 seems about right for me. I don’t have this money, of course, but wait … my mates Plato and Crito say that they’ll round this up to what they suggest is a more persuasive sum of €70,000. They’re good for it, so how about… you….set me free? Please?

Athenians: The sentence is death!

Socrates: You will regret this day! You will all regret it, and you will feel the incurable guilt that comes with the knowledge that you have killed me, Socrates, the wisest man in Greece! Even those who don’t actually think I’m very wise will say so now, as you will make a martyr out of me with this ridiculous verdict! You have convicted me today not because I failed to persuade you, but because I didn’t lie down like a dog and tearfully Image result for a pig satisfiedaccept your demand to live a boring, quiet and obedient life, like a pig. Well, I would rather die than live this kind of life. It is hard to avoid death, but it is even harder to avoid wickedness, which I see has caught up with you idiots as quickly as death has caught up with me.

Maybe it was always going to be this way. But as I’ve said: by killing me, you make my philosophy stronger. Now even more people will bother you like I did, and you’ll understand that it’s always better to bettering yourselves rather than discrediting others.

And with this prophecy, my apologia ends. But let’s stay and chat awhile, you bastards! Nothing prevents us from talking, and I am determined to do this until the very end. And to my friends, I say that it is some comfort that the fate to which I now go seems best. Let’s hope that death is a blessing, rather than a curse, though as I’ve said, we don’t rightly know which one it is, good or bad. I know one thing: either death means no perception of anything at all (like a dreamless sleep), or it means going to another place, like an afterlife. If it’s nothingness, well, I can live with that. A dreamless sleep is better, as you know than most nights, and even some days! And if there is an afterlife, where everybody who has died is not living, well what a great thought THAT is! The underworld, if a place like heaven, would contain all the Greek heroes from the myths, and wouldn’t it be nice to hang out with them. And if instead the underworld is like a kind of hell, I could question and annoy all the people there who have suffered unjust punishment, just like me. Either way, I could carry on my philosophical questioning of people free from punishment by all of you arseholes! Who wouldn’t want to meet all their heroes in heaven or hell? So actually, it’s all looking quite good…

So to conclude, things are actually looking up. Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you all go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except God.

What kind of afterlife will Socrates go to? And will he meet others there to question and annoy?


More ideas

Is Socrates really convinced that his death is the best option?

Following on from his thoughts about death in the previous part of his speech, Socrates seems to have convinced himself that it’s better off for him to die rather than grovel with the authorities and lead the kind of inauthentic and ultimately meaningless life that they might expect of him. Plato’s Apology thus turns out to be a rather passionate and moving treatise on the meaning of life, the nature of death and how to come to terms with it, and the importance of never giving in to those who would deny you an authentic existence, whatever the cost. This thought is later brought up in the Phaedo, in which Socrates faces his own demise and muses that the proper aim of philosophy is the ‘art of dying well’, rather than primarily the art of living well. We may well agree with him, and this is one of many passages in Plato that has a striking timelessness to it. The great insight here is that we rarely choose how and under what circumstances we die; the only thing we can do is to face our death with courage and without fear, knowing that we really don’t know what’s beyond the grave, and that we should try to be happy for the life that we’ve lived.

However, it could be argued that this is a noble but rather idealistic account of the proper way to approach one’s death. Could Socrates really have convinced himself that his death was welcome, to the extent to which he went to it gladly, and with no horror or fear at all? Is it even psychologically possible for a person to engage in reason and argument (as Socrates seems to do) to achieve such a sanguine and admirable outlook on one’s death? And if he was so prepared to meet his fate in this way, why did Socrates even bother to give the Apology at all, much of which seems laced with disdain and righteous indignation at the Athenians who brought the charges against him? These points, coupled with Socrates’ lame attempt to pay his way out of his punishment, suggest that perhaps the great philosopher wasn’t as ready to meet his own death as he made out. And we can hardly blame him, consoling though his words certainly are.

Image result for hemlock


This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.

The Apology (1/2) – the battle-cry for philosophy

Socrates attempts to argue / bullshit / insult / brag his way out of a death sentence

Socrates has been brought before the court of Athens on the charges of impiety (blasphemy) and corrupting the youth of the city. Whilst you might expect that a man who is in danger of being sentenced to death might plead with the jury, or proclaim his innocence in ‘apologetic’ terms, Socrates does just the opposite, and launches a passionate speech accusing his own accusers of hypocrisy and not caring for justice or virtue. But is it the right approach, and will it get him off the hook?


The Apology digested: part 1

Socrates: People of Athens! I have no idea how those that have accused me of these charges have got into your heads and tried to set your hearts and minds against me. I expect they warned you to be careful of the fact that I’m an accomplished speaker, and that I might trick or deceived you! But sorry to disappoint: I’m a terrible speaker. All I speak is the truth, and I’m here to tell it to you.

I’m an old guy for god’s sake: 70 years old, and this is my first time in court. I’m just going to tell it like it is. People around here have been slagging me off for years; all falsely, by the way. For example, that bastard Aristophanes, in his ridiculous play The Clouds, has tried to slate me in a load of nasty ways. Some people have been doing it for years; others more recently. I’ll start with the first lot first.

Aristophanes and other like him accuse me of talking a load of rubbish about a load of things, like which end a gnat farts out of. Fascinating, I’m sure, but I know nothing about farting. Really! Also, they have accused me of peddling my supposedly nonsense teachings for money in the city, like those arsehole Sophists that you hear so much about. Well, good for them if that’s how they want to earn their money. I myself couldn’t do this even if I wanted to: because I know nothing!

Image result for i know nothingThat’s right: you heard me. Just like Manuel in Fawlty Towers: I know nothing! But I’m very wise though. Perhaps the wisest in the land! You might think I’m boasting, but the Oracle at Delphi said I was the wisest, on behalf of all the gods. And if you don’t believe me, ask my mate Chaerephon. Well, actually you can’t do that because he’s dead … but anyway, ask his brother or something.

But you know, I didn’t believe my own brilliance and wisdom at first, even thought the Oracle had told me. So I tried to find some people who were wiser than me. But when I spoke to each, I realised that really, they were all idiots! They knew as little as me: which was to say: nothing! But at least in my case, I was aware of my own ignorance, whereas they actually thought they were wise! So that proves it: I really WAS wiser than them, and the Oracle was right. Which just goes to prove my favourite saying: the wise man (i.e. ME, obviously) knows he knows nothing. So I can have my cake and eat it too.

Anyway, all this questioning people’s wisdom has, I admit, made me a bit unpopular. I get it: it’s really annoying. And I’ve done it everywhere: I’ve questioned politicians, poets and craftsmen, and it turns out they’re all idiots! Especially those with the best reputations for being wise. But I get it: being brilliantly wise as I am makes me really annoying. But I can’t help it! It’s how I am, and it’s how I will continue to be, because it’s what the gods want me to do. And how can you argue with that! And it’s clear that the people I expose for being idiots resent me, and are the source of these accusations against me. So on the accusations from them that I ‘corrupt the young’, I rest my case that it’s a load of bollocks, and that’s that.

Now for the people who have been accusing me more recently. Meletus, for example… oh actually, here he is in this court! Well this could get awkward … Meletus, you’d say that it’s important that the young men of Athens are good and as well off as possible, right?

Meletus: (slightly taken aback that he’s been picked out by Socrates) Well, yeah, I guess…

Socrates: And who or what makes these men better off in our society?

Meletus: Well, these people of the jury here for a start….

Socrates: Ok, and what about the audience here too?

Meletus: Yep, them as well…

Socrates: And everybody else too, right? All the inhabitants of this city all make the young men of Athens better off. Everybody except me, I suppose?

Meletus: Actually, yes! You are the problem! That’s why we’re going to have you put to death!

Image result for socrates horse
Horses: only made better off by horse breeders?

Socrates: Well THAT’S a load of bollocks, because with everything else, for example horses, only one person (the horse breeder) makes them better off, and most other people corrupt them! And the same is true of all other animals, and humans. So you’re obviously talking out of your … hat.

Meletus: Umm….

Socrates: And following on from this, do you think that any man intentionally wishes to be harmed by another?

Meletus: Well, obviously not.

Socrates: Well you’ve disproved your own case then, since if I really WAS going around corrupting the young,  I would be running the risk of being harmed in return, and as you’ve said, no person would deliberately do that. [Turning to the crowd]: People of Athens! It’s clear (from the extremely convincing and water-tight argument that I’ve just presented) that Meletus is talking a load of rubbish when he accuses me of corrupting the young. He also, by the way, accuses me of being an atheist of all things! But this doesn’t make sense, for I am well known for believing in spirits, as Meletus knows. Isn’t that right, Meletus?

Meletus: Well, that’s what I’ve heard.

bottonSocrates: Well the idea of an atheist believing in spirits is absurd, since as everybody knows, spirits are the children of the gods! Come to think of it, the idea of an atheist being spiritual at all is itself absurd! Just look at Richard Dawkins: he’s cold inside. And what about Alain de Botton: isn’t he a so-called ‘spiritual atheist’? Well, yes: so it follows that he is absurd. Which of course, as everybody knows, he is.

So I have proven beyond doubt that I am neither a corrupter of youth, nor am I a blasphemous atheist. But seriously now: it’s tragic that in this world, standing up for your beliefs can lead to danger, and even death. Look at me: here I stand in court, possibly facing a death sentence for simply living according to the highest ideals of virtue, truth and wisdom. But it is always better to live authentically and carry on sticking to your principles in times of danger than to bow down to those who try and bring you down, and live a pathetic existence because of it. Partly because to fear death is irrational: we simply don’t know what death involves. It is not wise to fear death: it might be good, it might be bad, we just don’t know. So you see, out of ignorance comes wisdom: the wise do not fear death, BECAUSE they are ignorant of it. So don’t think about acquitting me on the condition that I change my annoying, questioning philosophical ways. I will NEVER do this. I will continue to teach people that the best thing to do in life is to care for your soul and live a life full of virtue, rather than pursue money or anything else. I will do this regardless however dangerous it is for me to do so or how much I am threatened.

And if you, people of Athens, do put me to death, you’ll only be harming yourselves. I’m a gift to this city! I only follow the truth, and the voice in my head, my ‘divine sign’ that guides me away from things I shouldn’t do, like deliberately cause a stir in public with my ideas. In all of my public and private dealings, I have acted justly: and by the way, I’m not responsible for those looneys who have heard my words and done things that I never said were ok! Because I feel I am increasingly being held guilty through my association with these people.

OK; so I have established that whilst I am an extremely annoying philosopher, I am not guilty of any of your charges, and am both wise and committed to living a perfectly just life. Look at all these people here who have enjoyed my conversation over the years; I must be wise, or else they would have abandoned me years ago, since I am simply unbearable to be around at the best of times. There must be something in it for them! I’m the most irritating man in Athens!

So, to sum up for now, some of you may be wondering why I haven’t come in here pleading my innocence, or meekly promising to ‘be good’ from now on on your terms. ‘My poor children, won’t somebody think of the children!’ I could have begged. THIS would have truly been unholy and impious, which is the very thing I’ve been accused of. But as you can see, I am neither. And having proven this, I expect you’ll all just… let me off now? Please?


More ideas

What kind of ‘apology’ is this?!?

Though we might expect the ‘apology’ of Socrates to be a grovelling attempt to get out of what could be a death-sentence at the hands of the Athenian court, what Socrates produces is anything but. Apologia‘ in Greek just means a ‘defence speech’, though this is no ordinary one. Though the language of my re-imagining of the first half of Socrates’ defence speech is adapted, the tone has (honestly) been kept pretty similar. Socrates moves quickly and unpredictably from sincerely proclaiming his innocence of the charges, to throwing accusations back at the jury and audience, and furthermore to openly insulting his accusers and at points even giving the sense that he is resigned to his fate. This has been taken as evidence that what we have here is a highly idealised account of the actual historical event, in which Plato attributes to Socrates a range of views and opinions which he either held but did not utter in such terms, or which Plato wish he had. Curiously, some of Socrates’ arguments and attempts to logically disprove his accusers, particularly Meletus, are hopelessly weak. This speaks to the real aim of the ‘dialogue’ being to simply put forward in an engaging way the ethos of Socrates himself: a passionate, unconventional but ultimately heroic philosopher who vows to live an authentic life and refuses to abandon his principles even when faced with death.

Wisdom consists of being ignorant

The Apology is one of the sources of a phrase often attributed to Socrates: ‘the wise man knows he knows nothing.’ This is perhaps deliberately playful and paradoxical on the part of Plato, but has a serious message behind it. True wisdom, for Socrates, consists of being conscious of what you don’t know; it is to see the world as a sea of complex and competing opinions, ideas and principles which need to be carefully distinguished and sifted through in order for a person to reach the truth and live a meaningful life. The world is not black and white for Socrates, and people who claim knowledge where they have none (for example politicians, whose sole aim is to propound the flawed ‘black-and-white-ist’ world view) are the truly ignorant ones.

Should we fear death? Does Socrates fear his sentence?

Socrates presents an interesting argument in this section of the Apology for why death should not be feared. Riffing off the ‘wisdom from ignorance’ idea, he argues that it is irrational to fear death, as this would be to presume that we know that death is a bad thing, and therefore claim knowledge where we have none. Since we are ignorant of what happens after death, we should not entertain such fears. As Socrates states in the actual dialogue:

“No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” Source

I wonder whether the reader of this post is comforted by Socrates’ insistence that death shouldn’t not be feared. And I wonder whether this argument gives a clue as to how Socrates could predict his trial would end. Come to think of it, is the Apology so far an attempt to be acquitted in any real sense at all? And is it obvious at this point (for those who don’t know the story) whether the jury will acquit Socrates or not?

Image result for socrates sorry
Socrates: a corrupter of youth?


This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.

Euthyphro – the mysteries of the gods

socratesSocrates has been accused of insulting the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens, and seems determined to prove his innocence. He meets his friend Euthyphro, who believes himself to be somewhat of a prophet and a sage when it comes to the nature of the gods. Socrates has a chat with Euthyphro in an attempt to get to the bottom of what the nature of holiness really is, hoping that this knowledge will help him prove his own holiness, and innocence, in court. But it turns out that Euthyphro has a tricky court case of his own, and also that holiness proves annoyingly difficult to define….

Euthyphro digested

Euthyphro: How’s it going, Socrates?

Socrates: Not so good, actually. I’ve been accused of corrupting the young men of Athens, and will have to prove my innocence in court! This is obviously nonsense. I fear that I’ve been accused wrongly, and am for the chop!

Euthyphro: Sounds serious. But from what I’ve heard, you have been saying controversial stuff about the gods, and even making up your own. Perhaps it’s all your talk about your ‘divine sign’ that follows you around. You know how touchy the authorities in Athens are: they’re not too keen on people like you challenging the status quo. You’ve been playing with fire there, you know.

Socrates: I guess you’re right.

Euthyphro: Anyway, I have a court case of my own to deal with, you know. Except in mine, I am the prosecutor rather than the accused!

Socrates: Really? Who have you accused?

Euthyphro: You’ll think me crazy, Socrates, but it’s my dad!

Socrates: Are you crazy? Why?!?

Euthyphro: To cut a long story short, one of our servants killed one of our slaves. My dad flew into a rage and had the servant tied up and left in a ditch; the poor guy later died. So my dad’s a murderer! I know what you’re thinking…. how could I betray my own dad on behalf of a slave? But I won’t hear of it. Justice is justice, regardless of whether the criminal is my dad or whether the victim is a slave. He’s done something really bad, so it is the right thing to do for me to bring him to justice!

Socrates: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I could do with knowing a thing or two about holiness right now… and you seem to know a great deal about it. Tell me: what do you mean by ‘holy’?

Euthyphro: Well… I’m currently being holy by charging my dad with murder! Besides, Zeus killed his own father, and he is a god, and therefore extremely holy. So that proves it. I know all about the gods, you know.

Zeus delivered swift justice on his father, Cronus, for swallowing him and his brothers Hades and Poseidon. By killing him. And also castrating him.

Socrates: So what you seem to be saying is that holiness is simply doing what the gods love?

Euthyphro: Yeah, that sounds about right. What is holy is what is loved of by the gods, and what is unholy is the opposite. Makes sense, no?

Socrates: Sounds good! But hold on… don’t the gods argue and fight all the time?

Euthyphro: Yeah, I guess so. They’re not perfect, you know. We all have disagreements from time to time.

Socrates: Sure, but that means that gods must disagree on all sorts of things. So what the gods love and hate is a matter of disagreement among them: some gods might say that a statue of Hera is more beautiful than a statue of Aphrodite, for example, but others may disagree. I can certainly imagine Hera and Aphrodite disagreeing strongly on this!

Euthyphro: I suppose so… where are you going with this?

Socrates: Well, if what is holy is what the gods love, and if the gods argue and disagree all the time, doesn’t it follow that what is holy changes too? And this make no sense: either an action or a person is holy, or it isn’t!

Euthyphro: Well… yeah…. but…. well, all the gods definitely believe that me prosecuting my dad is holy. So there we go.

Socrates: Even if that’s true, you haven’t answered my original question. I want to know what holiness is in general: I want to know its nature! You haven’t told me this yet; we’ve seen that the explanation you already gave doesn’t make sense.

Euthyphro: Well how about this then: something is holy if it is loved by all the gods.

The famous ‘Euthyphro dilemma’, which poses a problem for anybody who believes in a good god(s)

Socrates: Right-oh. So here’s one for you then: Is something holy because it is loved by the gods, or is something loved by the gods because it is holy?

Euthyphro: ….ummm….. what?

Socrates: Well it’s a bit like this. We call something ‘loved’ because it is being loved by something or someone, right? As in, I would say that my pet cat Purrthagoras is ‘loved’, because I love him!

Euthyphro: Makes sense. He’s a great cat.

Socrates: Yes. And you say that being holy is about being loved by the gods. But I’m asking: is something holy because it is loved by the gods? Or do the gods love something because it is holy?

Euthyphro: Well, I would say the second. The gods love things because those things are holy. The gods thus love me prosecuting my dad: because it’s the right thing to do!

Socrates: But in that case, what is holy cannot be the same as what is loved by the gods. We’ve seen that holiness and what is loved are different. As you just said, holy things are loved because they are holy. But things loved by the gods are loved because they are loved by the gods! Just like I love Purrthagoras. So what is holy cannot be the same as what is loved by the gods. As you have just seen, they are different. We’re still no closer to knowing what holiness is!

Euthyphro: Waa….. my head is spinning round and round, just like this discussion. You make these ideas go round and round with your reasoning and logic, and we can’t reach a conclusion!

Socrates: Let’s not give up right away. I still want to know about holiness, and maybe you can teach me yet. Would you say, for example, that everything that is holy is also just? Like you banging up your dad: it’s holy and therefore an act of justice?

Euthyphro: (losing patience) *sigh*. Yes, Socrates, as I’ve already said….

Socrates: Ok. Then would you also say that everything that is just is holy?

Euthyphro: I don’t follow…

Socrates: Pull yourself together, man! It’s not hard. Here’s an example. All cats are cuddly: like my Purrthagoras. Especially him. But not all cuddly things are cats. For example, a friend of mine has a dog called Dogenes. Dogenes is pretty cuddly…. but he’s not a cat. He’s a dog. So I was asking whether, given that all holy things are just, whether all just things are also holy.

Euthyphro: Ah, ok, I get it now. I’m not sure….

Socrates: Perhaps we could say that all holy things are just, but not all just things are holy. For example, it seems just for me to try to do my job well as a professional philosopher (and generally irritate people with endless questioning), but it doesn’t have much to do with holiness. So, holiness is simply one part of justice.

Euthyphro: Yep…..

Socrates: So we need to specify what part of justice holiness is, and then we’ll have found what we’re looking for! A definition of holiness. Any ideas?

Euthyphro: Well we could say that holiness is the part of justice that cares for the gods. The rest of justice is concerned with caring for men.

Socrates: Makes sense. But by ‘caring’ do you mean as a cat-sitter would care for a cat? And like a dog-sitter would care for a dog?

Euthyphro: I guess so…

Socrates: Well, I’m not sure that’s right. Caring means making better the thing you’re caring for: I make sure my cat-sitter makes Purrthagoras better by pampering him whilst I’m away annoying people with my philosophical questioning in other cities, for example. But we couldn’t possible care for the gods this way: there are no ways that us mere mortals can make them better. They’re the gods!

Euthyphro: It seems so. I guess when I said ‘care’, I had in mind a kind of service to the gods, rather than looking after. The kind of care servants take of their masters.

Socrates: Ok, so we’re like servants to the gods. Like a service to a ship-builder would be to produce a ship. So what kind of things do we do in service to the gods?

Euthyphro: Well that’s an easy one. We pray to them, and we sacrifice to them! So being holy means to have a kind of knowledge of how to pray, and how to sacrifice.

Socrates: Oh, crap.

Euthyphro: …. what now?!

Image result for cat png

Socrates: (shakes his head) I sense that we are no nearer to our definition…. let’s see. Holiness, according to what you have said, is a kind of trading with the gods. We offer things to them in sacrifice, and we also beg things from them in prayer. But proper gifts must benefit those who receive them: Purrthagoras benefited greatly from his last meal of kitty treats: he told me himself! How do you think sacrifice benefits the gods?

Euthyphro: Well, it at least gives them honour, reverence and prase, Socrates! What could be more pleasing?

Socrates: ah-ha! So you say that what is holy is what is pleasing to the Gods?

Euthyphro: Most certainly! Wait…….

Socrates: Can’t you see that what is pleasing to the Gods is the same as what is loved by the Gods? You’re saying that holiness is what is loved by the Gods! We’re right back where we started.

Euthyphro: (looking at his watch): apparently so….

Socrates: (smugly) So we’ve got nowhere. But I’m still super keen to find out what holiness is! So let’s begin at the beginning… tell me again what you think…..

Euthyphro: (interrupts him) Actually mate, I’ve got to go…. erm…. to see a man about…. a dog. Some other time? (Walks off, shaking his head).

Socrates: What! Wait! Come back! Now I’ll never be able to escape from my accusers!


More ideas

Should a man condemn his own father to punishment (or even death) for killing a stranger?

This is an interesting moral question raised from Euthyphro’s own tale of his father. Euthyphro is clear that a crime is a crime, no matter who commits it; but is he really duty bound to prosecute his own father? Would Euthyphro have been justified in turning a blind eye to his father’s crime simply because it was his dad?  Did his father in the story have an honest justification for punishing his servant for the death of his slave? And did his father’s killing of the servant (justified or not) count as murder, since the servant died later on, and was not killed directly?

What is the relationship between God and morality?

A passage of this dialogue has become one of the most famous in all of Western philosophy. It is called the ‘Euthyphro dilemma’, and can be found when Socrates says the following:

“For consider: is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” Source

Though this dilemma serves no great purpose in the dialogue other than to advance Socrates’ argument and eventually show that no good definition of holiness has been found, the dilemma has been extremely influential in later thought, particularly in the philosophy of religion. Christians believe in an omnibenevolent (perfectly good) deity; however, Socrates’ question here raises a serious problem for any Christian (or any theist for that matter) who believes that an omnibenevolent God exists. This is because either ‘horn’ of the dilemma is problematic for the theist. If what is holy/good is good because it is loved by God, then goodness (and evil) become largely arbitrary, and based on what God decides to love at any particularly point. This makes a mockery of traditional Christian morality, which generally is assumed to be objective, absolute and meaningful. On this picture, God could decree that he loves murder tomorrow, and it would follow that murder is therefore good; which doesn’t seem right.

Alternatively, if God loves what is holy/good because it is good, then it follows that there is an objective standard of morality independent of God, and God simply follows this standard. For theists who take the traditional view of God as an all-powerful creator and necessary being (which is most theists), this is a problem: God cannot be an all-powerful creator or necessary being if there exist objective moral standards independent of him. Plato himself (through Socrates) seems in the dialogue to consider this second ‘horn’ of the dilemma more acceptable, but perhaps this is because Plato and his Greek counterparts were entirely comfortable with the idea of objective values existing independently of God/the gods. Christianity, with its idea of a sole, all-powerful, benevolent deity who created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing) came later.

Is it possible to objectively define concepts like ‘holiness’?

It is assumed throughout the dialogue that there is a single, absolute concept of holiness (and also justice) that it is worth trying to define. This assumption is grounded in Plato’s universalism, and in the belief that there exist independent and absolute ‘forms’ of concepts such as holiness, justice, goodness, beauty and the like. Socrates’ argument at one point entirely rests on this assumption, but it is an assumption that Euthyphro could have challenged. Why believe that such ‘forms’ exist at all? And why assume that it is possible that through conversation and philosophical dialogue, it is even possible to arrive at a definition of the very nature of holiness that Socrates seems so keen to achieve? Plato of course responds to these questions elsewhere. But perhaps the ultimate failure of Socrates and Euthyphro to arrive at such a definition of holiness is itself an argument that the kind of conceptual analysis that Plato seems to value is ultimately not worth our while.



This dialogue has been abridged and re-worded, with some silly bits added, to make the key arguments more accessible and engaging. It doesn’t represent a totally accurate re-telling of Plato’s original (which can be read here). However, it is designed to preserve the key basic thoughts and arguments, as well as giving a sense of some of the fascinating philosophical issues that Plato addresses in this dialogue.