It seems that I can never get past the first few lines of a dialogue before I’m utterly beset by question. Normally, that might be a good thing, but I fear that at this point I may simply be not “getting it”. Once again, I’m confused by the presentation and the oddness of the narration.
Firstly, I think it’s very odd that the speaker is called Cephalus. Is it our old defender of justice from Repbulic? Probably not. At the same time, the first two people we meet by name in the narration are Glaucon and Adeimantus. If this is not the Cephalus we know and may or may not love, we surely must be thinking of him; the juxtaposition of the name demands such association. I don’t think that this is the same Cephalus of Republic, if for no other reason than the familiarity of the two brothers when the speak to our narrator. Nonetheless, the similarity of the name cannot be insignificant. What are we to make of the name?
Furthermore, why is Antiphon presented such as he is? Adeimantus says that he recited the story of Parmenides over and over. He has the entire thing memorized, and we are meant to notice this given Cephalus’ bad memory (126b). Nonetheless, apparently he shucked off the philosophic life for taking care of horses. Is this laudable?
Did Antophon find the meeting of Socrates and Parmenides to be too much? If so, does this make us question the effectiveness of Parmenides as a teacher? The introduction claims that Parmenides is the “spokesman” of Plato in this dialogue. I wonder if the life of Antiphon might make us question that assessment.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that re-reading Phaedo only made me even more confused as I noticed more things and possible themes.
Socrates’ words about the form confuse me a bit. He seems to want to argue that natural science gets itself tied up into knots by looking at causes that are unimportant, and in fact make one look like an idiot. He says he never wants to fall into error (100e). IS he being facetious, or is there a deeper point? He says that the beautiful is beautiful because of beauty, which seems a little vacuous to me. True, but vacuous. Wouldn’t it be more satisfactory if someone could appeal to a more specific reason, like shape or color? (100d)
Along similar lines, he says that if one and one is added and becomes two, we ought to loudly say that we have no clue how it happened beyond that the addends partook in twoness. This, again, seems pretty weak. Socrates ascribes it to fear, which makes me think that he’s really undermining the utility of the forms, and perhaps the very notion of formal cause (101c). Plato draws out attention to this problem by having Simmias and Cebes answering as one (102a). Socrates’ immediate words would have us say the two are two because of twoness. Would a more daring answer about the human soul and unanimity be a better answer, if not the safe answer?
More generally, why does Socrates spend so much time with his second best search for the good? (99d)
Obviously, the first thing to strike us about the dialogue is the context. We get a story via Phaedo because Socrates is dead, and he recounts the story of how he died. It is drawn to our attention several times that the discussions about the immortality of the soul are taking place directly before Socrates’ death (84e). How should this color our reading? Is Socrates speaking rhetorically for his own benefit? Or does he speak rhetorically for the benefit of his companions? It is possible that the arguments of the dialogue should not be reduced to mere rhetoric – it seems to me that some of the arguments are better than others, and Phaedo does point to the importance of the argument itself (88c).
Of course, this is a much commented upon line, but I can’t help myself. What is the significance of Socrates’ last words? Even now, I find them surprising. I certainly do not think that Socrates is impious, but that his last words should have been about a sacrifice, and a sacrifice to a relatively minor god, is startling. In a way, the whole dialogue is his last words – but Phaedo draws special attention to these last words. Are they just for Crito? Or all of us?
Another interesting motif is laughter – 62a, 70c, 77e, 84d. Plato’s dialogue seem to often weave in themes of comedy, even in such a sad dialogue. What is the significance of comedy in Phaedo?
It seems that one possible answer would have something to do with feeling pleasure and pain at same time, which tie into the theme of opposition that is so important. It seems like it could also undercut Socrates’ arguments about immortality.
I am very happy with the way out first class went. The group is small enough to allow for back and forth on details and the nuts and bolts of arguments, but large enough to allow for stale repetition. I am excited to see this group engage with Plato’s work, and particularly what it makes of Socrates. I have a feeling that Socrates as a soi-disant midwife of ideas will deliver many good ones this semester.
I was particularly struck by Dr. Schultz’s description of each dialogue as a mountain which must be climbed. I was taken by the idea at first but upon reflection some questions intruded. First, what is on the other side of the mountain? If the conversation begins in a public place and the particularity of day to day life, ascends to the level of ideas and universals ( “what is” in the words of Dr. Schultz), and then comes back to the workaday world. I may be too anxious about this, but one can start the Everest ascent in Nepal and end up in Tibet. Does this mean that I’m looking for too much in the metaphor, or that the philosophic mountain climb changes the workaday world for the mountaineers? In the case of ending up in Tibet, such a change would be very much for the worse.
Second, does the process of ascent and descent reflect poorly on Socrates? If one has gotten to the point where he is actually contemplating the true and good, why should he leave? Dr. Schultz suggested that it is because most of Socrates’ patients do not “get it.” If so, then the dialogue would be about Socrates ascending and descending the mountain of philosophy with others who are trying to follow, but can’t. Does he leave them at the tree line? Or is it the case that he really does take them to the top of the mountain, but they are too blind to see the forms? If that is the case, what does it mean to be at the top of the mountain? Perhaps it would mean listening to a philosopher teach about what is.
At any rate, hopefully asking Socrates questions in the context of Charmides next week will yield fruitful conversation. I look forward to it.