The Phaedo holds within its pages the account of the death of Socrates as told by a Pythagorean, which is then further retold by the greatest student and admirer of Socrates, Plato. Thus, since this account has gone through the hands of so many men, there is a degree of doubt as to the authenticity of its content and, indeed, the true story of the account may never be known to us. Therefore, all the scholars in the realm of philosophy are wont to have their own interpretation, their own Socrates, whom they too will admire and who will be a great teacher to them, just as he clearly was to Plato. In this spirit, I offer here my interpretation of the final moments of that man, who is no less shrouded in the clouds of mystery than Pythagoras himself, Socrates. Who, in his last moments on earth, must resolve to faith that he may have comfort in his death. In the paragraphs that follow, I shall first explain why, according to The Phaedo, Socrates must resolve to faith, and afterward, I will discuss what this faith is.
An entire section of The Phaedo discusses the relationship between the soul and the body. An understanding of this relationship is needed to understand why Socrates, in the end, resolves to faith. At the beginning of the discussion two kinds of existence are established, the body belonging to the visible existence, and the soul to the invisible existence. The things of the visible existence are said to be in a state of constant change or flux, while the things belonging to the invisible existence are said to be unchanging, and pure. Due to the constant change that occurs in the visible existence, things like the body, trees, and rivers, it is concluded that anything examined through the body will be inconsistent and distorted. This is not only because the body itself is in constant flux, but it is also because the things which we sense through the ever-changing body (i.e. the external world) are themselves in a state of flux and therefore, distortions of the truth (79c). Because of this, Socrates says that only by investigating things through the soul or mind alone then and only then can a person come to know the truth. However, there is a problem. Socrates is still ensouled in the body. He is perpetually surrounded and “dragged down” (81d) by the sensations of the external changing world, which, as he stated, merely resemble what is invisible, pure, and true. In this sense, the body is acting like a prison that keeps Socrates from fully understanding the truth. Although through his body he perceives glimpses, distorted visions of the truth of things, he lacks the ability to fully grasp these things which are too high for him now.
This kind of deception by the visible existence and the body can be seen very clearly in the analogy offered against the immortality of the soul by Cebes. Cebes attempts to draw an analogy between the body and soul, and a tailor and his cloak. From this analogy he tries to illustrate how the soul, although resilient enough to outlive many bodies, may still perish over time, just as a tailor might live through the usage of many cloaks in his lifetime, but eventually die. Here is where it is evident that Cebes is being deceived by the visible existence. He likens the soul to a man, a body, and expects that it would behave just like any other visible thing that he has perceived through his sense-experience, which has deceived him.
Socrates is not immune to this, for he too is ensouled within the body. Everything he perceives in the external world, which is part of the visible existence, only gives him corrupt images, and he cannot know the truth through examining them. For Socrates, the body acts like chains that hold him captive inside a cave where he can only see mere shadows on the wall. However, what makes Socrates different from others, is that he has faith that the shadows he sees, while not the truth themselves, are shadows of a deeper truth. This truth, which I have delayed until now to reveal, is the Forms. For Socrates, the Forms are the cause of the way things are in the world. These Forms are part of the invisible existence and are therefore pure, unmixed, unchanging. So, when Socrates sees something beautiful, he believes that the reason for its beauty is its participation in the Beautiful. When he sees a tall tree, he believes the reason to be its participation in the Tall. Based on this way of thinking, it does not make sense to say that something that does not participate in the Beautiful is, in fact, beautiful, because the only way anything can be beautiful is through its participation in the Beautiful. With this understanding established, Socrates asks Cebes what in the body brings it life. Cebes gives the response that the soul brings life to the body. Thus, they conclude that wherever the soul is, it brings with it life. As it would not make sense, based on what they said previously, that the soul should ever bring or admit death since it was agreed to bring life. Socrates would say this would be like believing that the Beautiful was capable of bringing or admitting ugliness, which they already decided was impossible. This is Socrates’ faith in the immortality of the soul: that wherever the soul is, it brings with it life, and wherever there may be death, the soul shall retreat from it to a safe haven. Therefore, Socrates’ faith in the Forms is able to give him hope and comfort as he takes the cup which we all must drink.
He disregards other theories, like those of Anaxagoras, because he says, “…those things trouble me (tarattomai gar en tois allois pasi)” (100d, translation modified). Interestingly, he says those things trouble him. It is not as though those things do not make sense to him or that they confuse him, but it is that they destroy his hope in the immortality of the soul and leave him troubled. In order for Socrates to have this hope, he must “simply, naively, and perhaps foolishly cling to this, that… all beautiful things are beautiful by the Beautiful” (100d) and that wherever the soul is, there is life, for the soul always brings life and cannot admit death.
Cebes said that to believe in the immortality of the soul would require a “good deal of faith” (70b). Clearly, in The Phaedo, this is the case. In the end, we see Socrates, the Greek hero of philosophy, resolving to faith against his perception of the visible world. A world that is in constant change, where nothing lasts, and everything disperses like a breath (70a). Against this perception, he has a faith that gives him the hope that after his death, his soul shall be freed from the corruption of the body and, thus separated, will ascend to the certain knowledge of what it previously grasped for in the dark.