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Philosophy and the Figurative


The opening of the Phaedo is as complicated as that in any of Plato’s dialogues, including Symposium. Symposium’s opening has been carefully analyzed , but even though at least five book-length treatments of Phaedo have been published during the past 20 years , no thoroughgoing analysis of the opening was part of any of these works. I believe that the opening offers fascinating, even indispensable information about how to read the dialogue and also tells us important things about what Plato thought about the activity of philosophy and the subject of the dialogue, dying and the fate of the soul.
What I choose to call the “Prologue” (57a -61c) has at least three sections: the journey motifs (57a –b); the opposing theories about the relationship between pleasure and pain (58e–59b; 60b–60c); Socrates’ self-description (60d-61b). This paper concentrates on the first part. There are three (or four) of what I call “journey motifs”: Phaedo’s journey from Athens to Elis, which combines themes of homecoming and liberation; the “accidental” journey of the theoroi from Athens to Delos in Theseus’ ship to honor Apollo; Theseus’ trip from Athens to Crete and then into the Labyrinth to slay the monster Minotaur. My claim is that each of these journey motifs foreshadows key themes in the dialogue -- the fate of the soul and the nature of philosophy – and offers the reader/listener figurative templates for thinking about various aspects of both philosophy and dying. All three motifs suggest that both philosophy and dying are kinds of journeys, or are like journeys. The three templates suggest, in turn, that dying and philosophy are forms of homecoming and liberation, that they can be forms of pilgrimage that offer prayer and thanksgiving, and that they are journeys to the underworld to do battles against “monsters.” The affining of both dying and philosophy with the thematic of the journey is also an implicit rejection of the skeptical position that neither philosophy nor dying take one anywhere, that they are not journeys at all, or in any way. The multiplicity of journey templates, and the fact that all three are figures that dying and philosophy are like, and with none of which either is identical, suggest further that even though the piece clearly wants to suggest that both dying and philosophy go somewhere worthwhile, Plato understands perfectly, as Rosen among others have suggested, that humans can have no dependable knowledge about what happens to us after death. The best we humans can produce are likely stories about the fate of the soul and the value of philosophy, and the three journey motifs affirm this limitation, and begin the series of likely stories of which this dialogue is composed.

The First Journey Motif: Phaedo Heads Home

Phaedo is a dialogue that begins on the run, on the road about halfway between Athens and Phaedo’s native Elis, a city on the west coast of the Peloponnese. It also begins not only in the middle of a journey but also in media res, with a peremptory question and a reflexive pronoun: “Autos!” Inflected Greek allows this pre-positioning of the pronoun. It has the effect of stopping Phaedo’s journey by calling out to him, by challenging him: “You! – Phaedo – were you yourself present when Socrates drank that poison in the jail?” The peremptory, challenging interrogator is one Echecrates, a Pythagorean who might have migrated from Italy, and who was said to have been a student of Greece’s greatest Pythagorean, Philolaus.
We find ourselves on the road – somewhere – in an immediate, tenseless narrative present. We know from the question that Socrates must already be dead. We know who Phaedo is (because we know, or can now know, that we must be savvy Athenians who would know such a thing) – that devoted follower of Socrates. And we also know, or can be presumed to know, that Echecrates is who we just said he was. We soon learn that we are in the little city/town of Phlius. Echecrates makes clear that “no one ever goes to Athens from here anymore, and no Athenians have visited for a long time.” (Phaedo, 57a-b).
Echecrates’ peremptory question aside – we will return to it in a moment – another question hangs in the metaphoric air. What in the world are we (by “we” I mean the putative audience, both for the Phaedo-Echecrates interchange, and for the dialogue, and/or for both) doing in Phlius? Plato rarely sets his works in far-away places. The only dialogue that happens further away from Athens than Phaedo is the Laws, and Socrates is absent from this work, as are his Athenian “cronies”. Phaedo is unique in taking Socrates (or, to be more accurate, some version of Socrates) out of his home area. Theaetetus carries Socrates, in written form, to the nearby city of Megara, and Phaedrus takes him outside the city walls under the plane tree. But only in Phaedo does some iteration of Socrates venture far from Athens, farther than he ever ventured in life.
So here we are, far from Athens, and clearly far outside Athens’ sphere of influence, in a city that has no important connections with Athens, and almost no human connection with it. This setting cannot be accidental , even though Phaedo’s presence there seems like an accident. He just happens to be stopping on his way home, in one of those towns that any traveler finds on a long trip, a wide place in the road that comes along just as night is falling. Phaedo is not in Phlius to do anything. His “visit” is not really a visit at all but a stopover. We can imagine Echecrates, whose questions indicate a serious interest in Socrates and philosophy, hearing that a traveler from Athens, said to be a known close associate of Socrates, is passing through town. We can imagine Echecrates seeking Phaedo out and introducing himself. Perhaps they had mutual philosophical friends (no such person is mentioned), but they had, at any rate, a shared interest in Socrates. And we can imagine Echecrates prevailing on Phaedo to tell what he knows about the death of Socrates.
All this is plausible – but consider. The dialogue whose subject is the all-important story of what Socrates said and did during the final hours of his earthly life only happens at all because Phaedo, with other things on his mind, happens to meet up with a curious and half-informed Pythagorean in the out of the way town of Phlius. And we, whoever we are, happen, mirabile dictu, to be along for the ride! If Phaedo had arrived in Phlius earlier in the day might he have pressed on to the next town and missed Echecrates entirely? Would there have been another Echecrates in that town? What if Phaedo had decided to take a ship along the Gulf of Corinth and then out into the Ionian Sea, so that he never made landfall and never had such a conversation? What if he had met with an accident along the road and never gotten to Phlius? What if Echecrates had been out of town when Phaedo came through, or was rushed and had no time to talk? These and any number of other possible scenarios would have cancelled this fortuitous meeting, and if it had never happened would the story ever have been told? There is no way for us to tell because so far as we know that narrative, the one in which the story of Socrates’ death never gets told, or gets told differently, or by another person, does not exist. We have only this narrative in which, amidst the implicit anxiety provoked by the idea that this event need never have taken place, it does take place.
The first level of sense in Phaedo’s journey home is that journeys are inherently contingent. They need never happen, and nothing in the deep order of the world makes them happen. Once they are initiated, chance proliferates. They can go this way or that way, quickly or slowly, on track or off. Journeys are a continual temptation to divagation and happenstance. Is Plato suggesting something here about philosophy, and about dying? Is he perhaps beginning to hint that philosophy itself is an optional activity, that it might or might not be practiced, and as important, that it might or might not be remembered and preserved? Philosophy could just stop being, perhaps, if a certain man took the wrong turn on a certain day.
It might also be the same with dying. Dying as separation of soul from body seems to be just something that befalls us and over which we have no ultimate control. But if dying is conceived as a kind of journey, as a planned path one takes from one locale – this life – to another – that life – then this sort of dying, over which we do seem to be able to exercise some control (especially if we are philosophers), might, like any journey, and like philosophy itself, either happen or not.
Under this description Phaedo’s “accidental” appearance in Phlius and his “accidental” meeting with Echecrates take on a different coloring. Perhaps they might not have happened but in this narrative, which Plato creates and entirely controls, the appearance and the meeting will happen. Of course, Plato might not have written Phaedo, but this “chance” is always already obviated when we pick up a copy and begin reading. Plato did write the thing and because he wrote it Phaedo will always show up in Phlius and Echecrates will always be there to meet him. However accidental the meeting seems, its contingency is a function of the narrative, and is raised there so that we will feel some anxiety and raise the sorts of questions I just raised – if we are very careful readers.
But why Phlius? This question has not yet been answered. Aside from questions of accident and contingency there is the more pointed question of location. Could it be that Plato is sending philosophy-as-story on the road because its putative home city, Athens, is no longer fit to be its site? Could there be a trenchant political commentary here to add to the philosophical reminder about the contingency of the enterprise? Doesn’t any old town, even an obscure Phlius, “deserve” to be the site of an all-important telling of an all-important dialogue because in killing Socrates Athens orphaned philosophy, abandoned it, and in that sense set it free to wander the roads of Greece looking for a home? Is philosophy being asked to survive hand-to-mouth as a wanderer, like Eros in Symposium? And is Phlius then Anytown? Has philosophy been oddly universalized in being rejected by Athens? Is its “exile”, or voluntary departure, both a judgment on the city and an opportunity for philosophy to flourish in more salubrious climates? If, finally, philosophy might or might not have survived, it is clear that the only place it could survive was in Phlius, for which read, non-Athens.
These two ruminations on place and this dialogue also remind us that the readers/listeners are Athenians, who are still either practicing philosophy or hearing about it, in Athens, and who therefore know that philosophy still resides there in some way. Thus the exile/departure of philosophy from Athens has both happened, narratively, and not happened, because in the narrative philosophy returns to Athens in the sense that the story of its non-Athenian exile is being told in Athens, and in the second sense that the setting of the last dialogue is in Athens even if the tale itself is being told in Phlius. At the same time, this narrative Athens, the Athens of Socrates’ jail cell, has also been displaced to Phlius, so that in the end the anxiety about contingency is reborn as an anxiety about where philosophy really is, and where it belongs.
Finally, some of the listeners/readers could well be individuals who had been there in the jail on that day with Phaedo and Socrates, and whom Plato had not chosen as the one to tell this crucial tale, though he could have chosen any of the fourteen named people present. It would appear that Athens’ culpability for killing Socrates and thereby “killing” or banishing philosophy, or, alternately, for allowing it to leave (for Elis?) extended to Athenians and their near-neighbors even if those Athenians had been loyal devotees of Socrates. Apparently no one too closely affiliated with the guilty city could tell Socrates’ tale, and could certainly not tell it in Athens, which brings us to an examination of the person whom Plato did choose to tell the tale – Phaedo.
Phaedo’s displacement of philosophy from Athens and the subsequent unsettling of the question of where it is now to be found raises issues about who Phaedo might be, as well. First, we are on the road with Phaedo at all because Phaedo is not an Athenian (and how telling that Plato chose the single non-Athenian, non-close neighbor, to tell the tale!) and he has no reason to stay in Athens, because he has no reason to love Athens.
Classical sources tell us that Phaedo was born to a noble family Elis. He was taken prisoner in an obscure war that involved Athens and Elis but that was not part of the larger Peloponnesian War then raging throughout Greece. Phaedo was taken to Athens as a captive/slave and “employed” as a male prostitute, a catamite, in an Athens brothel. The story is that he heard Socrates conversing in the Athenian agora or on the street and was captured by what he heard. He began to sneak away from the brothel to become part of Socrates’ circle. Socrates was said to have noticed him and, having learned of his situation, prevailed on Crito or Alcibiades to persuade their wealthy friends to purchase Phaedo’s freedom, which was done.
After his freedom was purchased Phaedo devoted himself full-time to learning how to become a philosopher. While he lived Socrates represented freedom to Phaedo in a double sense. First in a more literal sense he owed Socrates his physical freedom. In a more figurative but powerful sense Phaedo also owed his freedom from the unwanted desires of his clients, and his own freedom from his body, to the purification that philosophy offered.
But when Athens killed his mentor Phaedo had two reasons to hate the city: it had made him a slave and it had killed his master and guide. He was neither citizen nor metic, and so when Socrates died Phaedo left. The remaining circle of philosophers left behind, of whom Plato was one, were clearly not enough to keep Phaedo in the city.
Something interesting happened. When Phaedo left the city he took someone with him. Plato imposes a heavy narrative/dramatic burden on this homeward bound ex-slave. As a prostitute he took on bodies against his will. Now, willingly, he bears another body, that of the dead Socrates, not in the form of his corpse but in the shape of his story, which Phaedo carries along with him on his journey home. Socrates is dead. His corpse, we can be sure, is buried in Athens, perhaps in the Kerameikos district on the road leading into the city. But the speaking Socrates, Socrates-as-soul, the essential Socrates, has disappeared. Perhaps his psyche has already migrated to the next world to be with the gods. Socrates cannot be found in the city that he refused to leave. But here, in Phlius, in the person of Phaedo, in Phaedo, Socrates can still be found in the world in the “person” of a nearly perfectly remembered conversation. In this remembered (re-assembled) conversation the essential, speaking Socrates can be resurrected into a timeless narrative present. Whenever Phaedo chooses to open his mouth, the missing Socrates comes back to life.
It is appropriate that Phaedo should carry Socrates, and by extension philosophy, and by further extension the death for which philosophy is said to prepare one, inside himself. Phaedo is a philosopher in training who knows enough about the activity to be able to remember what was philosophically significant in Socrates’ conversation about dying. But he is better able to carry Socrates around inside himself because, unlike his aristocratic rivals for the function, Phaedo has suffered exclusion, humiliation, imprisonment and a kind of death (being torn from his native surroundings). Even in the Socratic circle Phaedo was an inveterate outsider – a foreigner, from a faraway city, with the dubitable “pedigree” of having been what is now called a “sex worker” and a slave. He knows what it means to be marginalized, and this set of experiences affine him with a Socrates who, despite being a native Athenian and entirely loyal to his city, ended his life as a shackled convict, rejected by the laws of the city he loved so well. Phaedo the alien unfortunate is in a better existential position to preserve his master’s message than anyone else – even, ironically, the Plato who gives Phaedo the privilege of bearing this precious tale, and this precious memory. We belong in Phlius with Phaedo because Phaedo is Socrates’ most apt witness.
But not only is Phaedo the best witness because he is an outsider who has suffered unjustly. Phaedo is also the one whose departure speaks of liberation, and of something new and exciting that is happening to philosophy. As Phaedo leaves, shaking off Athenian oppression, he shatters the putative Athenian hegemony over philosophy. It is no longer an Athenian monopoly but can be made portable, and revealed to any Greek who cares enough to listen and participate, be that individual a Phliasian or an Elian. With Phaedo philosophy goes on the road, becomes broadcast, leaves the confines of that fatal jail. And with Phaedo goes Socrates. The dead Athenian master, too, goes on the road – and that is the only place where you can “see” him.
This liberating homeward journey in which Phaedo carries “Socrates” (his psyche?) around inside him as an invisible gift aligns Phaedo even more deeply with Socrates. Just as, in Symposium (215b), Alcibiades compared Socrates to a statue of Selenos that, when broken open, fell away to reveal that it hid images of the gods, so, too, is Phaedo now like Socrates/Selenos in the fact that, when he is “broken open” by Echecrates’ peremptory question, he too reveals inside himself the hidden images of the divine Socrates and his godly secret, philosophy. Phaedo has become the Socrates who is like Selenos, but the “gods” Phaedo hides are Socrates himself and his philosophical activity. Extending the likeness we can also affine Phaedo with the satyr Marsyas, cited in the same passage in Symposium. If Socrates is like Marsyas in Symposium, (216a) he is even more closely allied with music and enchantment in Phaedo (61e, 77e, 84d – 85b, 114d). In Phaedo Socrates soothes the childish fears of death, represented by the female vampire figure of Mormolykeia (also known as Lamia) by “singing” consoling if less-than-perfect arguments about the soul’s immortality. Phaedo, in replicating these same consoling arguments in Socrates’ voice, also becomes Marysas, “singing” his master’s song and enchanting audiences all over Greece.
We can maintain a connection with Symposium by suggesting, further, that Phaedo’s trip away from Athens, carrying Socrates as a hidden god and a song, is also readable as Phaedo carrying the “verbal child” that Diotima identified as the proper issue of a philosophical union/marriage. (209 b-e) Phaedo is “pregnant” with the story of Socrates’ death: ironically, he can keep giving birth to the death narrative and to the dead Socrates, who is now not only an image of the gods but a kind of philosophical newborn.
A final way to characterize Phaedo and the “things he carries” is that he is also like a living sarcophagus, or “flesh-eater”. He has “eaten” (taken in, remembered) or introjected the all-important final conversation about death, and when his “lid” (his mouth?) is opened by the right questions he disgorges, or less colorfully, he reveals, the Socratic “remains”, the last conversation that has now become the lasting substitute for Socrates’ body and has in effect become that body.
The outcast ex-slave is freeing himself from his Athenian imprisonment and taking with him, also away from its Athenian imprisonment, the “body” of Socrates, the tale of his death and transfiguration, which has also now been liberated from its “body”, the Athenian prison, and which has now perhaps become not Socrates’ body but an earthly version of his soul. This body – the body of the remembered discourse – now become a “soul” – the invisible essence of the conversation – is also, like Phaedo, going “home”. Its “home” is now wherever Phaedo is asked the right question. Socrates’ last conversation, and philosophy, which it embodies, has become a “moveable feast”, free from Athenian constraints and at home anywhere and everywhere men have ears, and Phaedo has the leisure to speak.
This reflection brings us to the last thing we need to say about the first journey motif. How did this tale told on the road (we have no idea how many times, or in how many places, by the way) far from Athens and in a town (or towns) Athenians never visit, and from which no visitors come to Athens, make its own journey of “homecoming” back to the Athens from which it had been expelled, and from which it had fled? As far as we know Phaedo went to Elis, became a philosopher, wrote dialogues (mimicking Plato rather than Socrates!) and never returned to Athens. There is nothing in the set-up of the dialogue to indicate that he was the source of the conversation replicated in the piece. Nor do we hear that some philosophically adept and interested Phliasian came up to Athens and repeated this story. In any event, why would a Phliasian bother to carry such coals to an ancient Newcastle? Socrates died in Athens with plenty of witnesses and the last thing these witnesses needed was a second-hand rehearsal of events with which they were already familiar. Traveling to Athens to tell Athenians what had happened there makes no sense.
At the same time there is also no record of an Athenian accompanying Phaedo just as far as Phlius and then turning around and going back to Athens to retell the tale. We certainly have no indication that Plato himself ever traveled to such an unlikely place. And again, there would be plenty of Athenians who could tell the tale just as fully, and so Phaedo’s version of it would not be required.
All these considerations make clear that there were no Athenian witnesses to the event (our “presence” then, as auditors of Phaedo’s performance, becomes entirely mysterious) and no reason for a Phliasian to bear the tale back to Athens. We know that Phaedo never returned. Then, how did we get this tale that begins in media res? The “secret” is that this tale could never have made the journey from Phlius to Athens. There is no doubt that Phaedo left Athens and went home. We have no idea what he did or did not do on the way. But such considerations are irrelevant. What matters is that we have this “report”, this “retelling”, which is clearly a useful fiction. This tale of Phaedo’s wonderful journey home, the tale of his retelling of his tale, the marvelous resurrection of Socrates on the road – it is all just that, a tale, a mythos, a likely story, perhaps an Aesopian fable or cautionary tale.
What does this final caveat make clear? It makes clear that the set-up, the characters, the site, the entire frame are a product of art and not of nature. If there were ever a clearer demonstration of the operation of the principle of “logographic necessity”, that Socrates attributes to well-made writing in Phaedrus this is it. Since this event – Phaedo’s performance of Socrates’ final conversation – could not be have happened or, if it had, could not have been known as directly as the form of the piece implies, we have perfect knowledge that this work is perfectly crafted in the most plausible possible way. The dialogue never did make its journey back to Athens because Plato crafted it entirely in Athens, and putting it on the road must then be a fully self-conscious strategy that gives us warrant for just the sort of overdetermined hermeneutic frenzy that I have just elaborated on it.
There is something else, something more still, to say about this first journey motif. If this is a carefully crafted tale, essentially a piece of fiction designed to tell us the meaning of Socrates’ death, and the significance of both death and philosophy, then why not just get on with the job? Is it economical, aesthetically or philosophically, to delay the conversation itself, and to interpose these motifs, which establish allusive connections between doing philosophy, and dying, and taking journeys? If my read is reasonable at all what Plato is telling us very early in the piece is that doing philosophy, or dying, is like going on a journey home, like being liberated, and that Phaedo is like Socrates, who is like Selenos and Marsyas, just as this reproduced conversation is like an immediate report of something we are directly witnessing. Nothing in this Prologue is anything; there are only likenesses and no identities.
Perhaps we are being introduced to an idea about philosophy: perhaps it can only tell of likenesses, not of identities, even though its longing is to speak of identities. Perhaps it has to keep deferring its explanations along a line a likenesses that is forever receding, because in the face of the question of the soul’s fate philosophy cannot become “metaphysics of presence” . We are being reminded by these motifs and deferrals that philosophy – and Socrates – are both always on a journey homeward, a journey to name Being, but a journey that, at least in this world, always asymptotically approaches home, and perfect liberation, without ever getting there.

The Second Journey Motif: The Voyage to Delos
The second journey that interposes between the reader/listener and the performance of Socrates’ final conversation is the one that “accidentally” deferred Socrates’ execution and therefore made the long final conversation possible. If Phaedo’s journey home was the occasion for the unveiling of the tale, the voyage to Delos is the journey that gave Phaedo a tale to carry home. When Echecrates asks why the execution was delayed so long, Phaedo tells him that it “just happened” (Phaedo, xx-yy) that the priests crowned the prow of Theseus’ ship with a wreath the day before Socrates’ trial. Phaedo explains what this means because this festival might not have been known to a non-Athenian like Echecrates even though the event that it commemorates, Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur, would be well known.
The festival commemorates the assistance that Apollo was said to have given Theseus when he went to Crete to battle the Minotaur. During the time that the ship was en route to Delos, Apollo’s birthplace and the most important religious site in Greece, and on its way home, the city could not pollute itself with executions. Delos lies in the Cycladic island group southeast of Athens. Adverse winds and rough seas could lengthen such a voyage considerably, and Socrates was given the “gift” of this extra time to interpret his dreams, and to versify a hymn to Apollo and some of Aesop’s fables. (Phaedo 61b) It also gave him the “leisure” to lead a lengthy final conversation unpressured by anyone more powerful than his jailer.
The first thing that strikes one, before we address the substance of the journey, is the note of chance that reminds one of the apparent contingency of Phaedo’s performance of the body of the dialogue. Now we hear, explicitly, that the temporal respite that made the dialogue possible at all was also a function of sheer coincidence, thereby redoubling the anxiety: not only might Phaedo never have told his tale, but there might never have been a tale to tell, barring the happy accident that led to the co-incidence of the festival and the trial. The dialogue is doubly contingent.
If we revert to our earlier remarks about logographic necessity the situation becomes more complex and more interesting. On one level there is no question but that there really was such an Apollo festival and that it really did happen just before Socrates’ trial. But in a piece so carefully crafted as this, the fact that Phaedo opens his remarks on this festival with the phrase “It just happened” did not just happen. Plato made that happen, and he introduced, or privileged, this coincidence so he could make something out of it.
What does he make of it? The first thing to note is that there seems nothing chancy, in a religious or spiritual sense, about the coincidence. The festival honors Apollo and Apollo had always been Socrates’ special patron. Apollo gave Socrates’ his philosophical mission – or at least the elenchic elements of it – when the Delphic Oracle, which operated under his direct protection, under his temple at Delphi, announced that Socrates’ was the world’s wisest man. (Apology, 21a) Socrates’ career as a philosopher was thus sanctioned and launched by Apollo’s oracle, the very same Apollo whose hymn we find Socrates reworking in the Phaedo. It is fitting that his temporary reprieve from death, at the very end of his philosophical career, be made possible by the god whose pronouncements began that career. Apollo, it appears, is protecting his philosopher one last time.
But this festival is not supposed to have any reference to Socrates, nor to Delphi and its oracle. The festival involves a trip to Delos, Apollo’s alleged birthplace that he turned from desert to garden. Delphi lies north and west of Athens. Delos lies south and east. Athens stands on the center point of an axis that passes from Delphi to Delos, Apollo’s two earthly homes. So the two Apollonian sites sketch out a world that includes Athens at its center. At one extreme is the place where Socrates’ career began; at the other extreme lies Delos, where, putatively, Socrates has never been. Would it be asking too much of the reader to suggest that this dialogue itself, the “body” of Socrates, or the body of his last conversation, might be one of the gifts of thanksgiving that
Theseus’ ship is bearing to Delos? Might the priests and functionaries be carrying more than a tribute having to do with Theseus? And mightn’t this soften the raw irony of Socrates’ life being spared temporarily by a festival that putatively honors Apollo, and yet that happens as Athens rudely dishonors the god by condemning one of his favorites to death? Mightn’t this whole festival have been narratively hijacked by Plato and transformed into a sacred pilgrimage to Delos honoring Apollo, with Socrates’ last conversation, for all he has done, not for Theseus, but for Socrates?
If we allow ourselves to read Phaedo in this way could we extend our fancy and suggest that the gifts the priests are bearing to Delos, unknown to them, are not only Socrates’ last words but his entire life and work, his philosophical activity, and his dying itself, done in such a way as to honor the god? And is Socrates’ work as a philosopher a gift precisely because he always moved toward the gods, trying to know things as they know them, but always without deceiving himself that he could ever know what the gods know? And doesn’t the manner of his dying reveal that he knows, as he says in the discussion on suicide (Phaedo 61d -63a) that he belongs to the gods, and that he sees philosophy, and right dying, as two interdependent way of drawing closer to them? Is the dialogue itself, and his philosophy as a whole, as well as his dying, taken together a kind of hymn to the god, perhaps the very hymn that he is setting to verse later in the piece? (Phaedo 61b)
Read in this way the dialogue becomes a figure for a pilgrimage towards the god. As we proceed through the arguments and stories that make it up, we are perhaps showing respect to the god but also coming closer to him and to his realm in the other world. Philosophy then can be seen as both the way to the god and as an offering to him.
We refer back now to the first journey motif. If philosophy and dying are both journeys home and journeys of liberation they now reveal themselves, through the second journey motif, as forms of pilgrimage and prayer. Philosophy is both lyrically self-creating and religious, homecoming and pilgrimage.

The Third Journey: Theseus and the Minotaur

Now we arrive at the last and most complicated journey motif, the one “hidden” deepest inside the dialogue, imbedded both temporally and spatially inside the Phaedo journey and the Delos journey. When Echecrates asked what the ship sailing to Delos signified, Phaedo answered that it was the very same ship that Theseus sailed to Crete with the twice seven maidens and young men. (Phaedo, 58 b) Phaedo does not go into any detail about the story, presumably because it is sufficiently well known outside Athens that, unlike the Apollo festival, it required no elaboration. But we, as Athenians, are intimately familiar with all the details of the story (there are many!), and as we will see, in this case it is the details that matter, and that have been universally neglected in all the commentaries.
This last, epic motif is based on the familiar story about Theseus of Athens who accompanies fourteen young Athenians who must be sent each year as tribute to King Minos of Crete. Their fate is to provide food for the terrible monster, the Minotaur, product of the unnatural lust that Minos' wife Pasiphae felt for a bull who was, some say, a god in disguise. When Pasiphae bore the half-human, half-bull monster, Minos imprisoned it in the Labyrinth, a maze crafted by the master inventor/craftsman Daedalus, who was at that time in exile from Athens. The fourteen hapless young Athenians would be let loose into the Labyrinth. They would all be hunted down, killed and eaten by the monster, who would thereby sustain himself.
Theseus' journey is clearly a hero's quest. He goes to Crete expressly to slay the Minotaur, at the risk of his own life. Theseus introduces a whole set of new themes and ideas into the dialogue. He is a great hero, and heroes are people who go on dangerous quests. His journey is not as indeterminate as a homecoming or a fleeing from slavery; Theseus has a job -- to kill the Minotaur. As a hero Theseus also does something specifically heroic: he battles monsters. Monsters are a proper object of attention for heroes because heroes, like the monsters they battle, are marginal humans. If monsters stand on the unclear border between animality and humanity, between bestiality and culture, heroes generally have a strong dose of divine ancestry. Either a parent or a grandparent was a god. In Theseus’ case, myth provides him with both a divine and a human father, Poseidon and Aegeus. Heroes therefore exist at the upper register and limit of human being and are never entirely human. They demonstrate this in more than one way, but one of the ways is to encounter and overcome a variety of monsters.
Monsters stand at the opposite register from heroes. Rather than having divine parents or grandparents monsters are defined by their changeling status: they are part animal, part human. Thus, heroes occupy one margin of the human type, and monsters occupy the other, lower boundary between the human and the animal. But note that both heroes and monsters are marginal figures who are half-human, half something else, unstable composites of two opposing orders of nature and each, therefore, somewhat unnatural.
In any event Theseus does what heroes do. He enters the maze of the Labyrinth, find and kills the Minotaur, in the darkness of this man-created “underworld”, and escapes by retracing his steps using the thread that Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, provides him.
Is Socrates Theseus as well as being Phaedo and a priest of Apollo? Is Socrates a hero? In the dialogue he explicitly likens himself and Phaedo, in an ironic sense, to Herakles and Iolaus, and says that as these figures they will not let the arguments for the immortality of the soul “die”, and that they will defeat the anti-immortality arguments that Simmias and Cebes have advanced. (Phaedo, 89 b-c). The specific reference he is making is to the time when Herakles battled another monster, the Lernaean Hydra. As he was fighting this multi-headed being, the crab, Cancer, was attacking him from the rear. Iolaus helped him at this point, saving Herakles by dividing the labor of fighting two monsters/animals at once. So, Socrates aligns himself with heroes who battle monsters.
It is not surprising then that scholars such as Dorter have linked Socrates with Theseus on this basis, but again most commentators fail to make much out of this affinity. The first question is: what kind of monsters does Socrates have to fight, and how are they like and unlike the Minotaur? Second, if we can establish that Socrates sees himself as fighting monsters, and also sees philosophy as a battle against them, and also suggest that he sees dying as a kind of battle against fear and skepticism, then in establishing Socrates as a kind of hero and therefore like Theseus we can begin to ally him with Theseus who was, after all, once Athens’ king and a great Athenian figure?
The first of these "monsters" is Mormolykeia, the "bogeyman" of death, or of men's fear of death, against whom Socrates must cast charms and enchantments to soothe the child-like fears of his interlocutors. (Phaedo, 77 d–e) Interestingly, however, Socrates does not use heroic language in talking about dealing with Mormolykeia. Rather than killing the fear of death in men, or using martial metaphors to discuss it, Socrates says that he will enchant it away, sing it out of existence with endless reassurances, which might take the form of myths (likely and consoling stories about the afterlife), or poems, or of arguments that are like poems and stories in that they might not stand up to rigorous logical examination but that might console those afflicted with fear, even if they do not fully convince some people. If Socrates is to be seen as a hero, and if philosophy is to be more than the singing of consoling songs, or the weaving of soothing verbal spells, he must face more substantial opponents than the “mere” fear of death.
Indeed the “monster” Socrates must fight as if he were Herakles or Theseus is more like the Minotaur, more of a true monster, then Mormolykeia. The true enemy is Misology, which Socrates describes at length (Phaedo, 89d – 90e) Misology is defined as “hating argument” (Phaedo, 89d), and, says Socrates, “no worse evil can happen to a man” (Phaedo, 89d), than this. The reason misology is so baneful is that it consists in losing faith in arguments, or explanations, because one has used one’s reasoning powers to discern that some arguments are undependable. They seem true sometimes, but then prove false at other times. Misology is a monster because it is an unnatural hybrid between something more human, the ability to make arguments, and something less than human, an unsound or under-developed spiritual condition that makes men incapable of learning the right method of making sound arguments. It is misology, the rejection of the idea that there are any sound arguments that Socrates must fight.
He needs two things. First he needs Phaedo to cover him as Iolaus covered Herakles in the battle with the Hydra and the crab. Socrates, like Herakles, faces two opponents at once – Simmias’ harmony argument and Cebes’ “old coat” argument – both of which Socrates must be reading not as free-standing objections to the claim that the soul is immortal, but as rejections of the soundness of the arguments for immortality that he has thus far advanced. Defeating these arguments will require not only showing that they fail as arguments but much more importantly that there is a rational method of constructing arguments that will show up their insufficiencies.
Phaedo does not literally “cover” Socrates because it is Socrates who copes with both arguments. But Phaedo is Socrates’ Iolaus in a narrative sense, in that he carries on Socrates’ mission against misology after Socrates is unable to do so. This close identification between Phaedo/Iolaus and Socrates/Herakles/Theseus reinforces the identification I urged in interpreting the first journey motif.
Second Socrates needs a weapon to fight misology. Theseus had two; the sword Ariadne gave him and the thread that she had him tie to a pillar outside the Labyrinth. Socrates has his method of argument, given to him in Symposium by his Ariadne, Diotima. Socrates will use this method, dialectic, or logos, or whatever we need to call it, to kill misology and then to safely weave his way back out of the labyrinthine traps it lays for the unwary. One way to see the dialogue is as itself a labyrinth, a set of dark passages through which Socrates wends his sure way using his “thread”, the logos.
So, we can say that Socrates has journeyed into the labyrinth of arguments against the immortality of the soul and into the labyrinth of skepticism that espouses the position that because one argument failed, all must necessarily fail. If this self-contradictory stance convinces anyone, they will suffer a true death because misology makes thought impossible and belief untenable. It is this that the dialogue sees as the genuine enemy. Fear of death can be quieted by an array of arguments, stories and examples from life. But this fear will be unchecked if the people to whom Socrates is singing do not believe the arguments he advances and the tales he tells because they are misologists. So misology more than fear of death must be attacked and slain, as it metaphorically is, not by any single argument in the dialogue but by the total ensemble of arguments, tales and examples.
Fighting monsters, whether physical or logical, allies Socrates with Theseus. But is there a further political subtext here as well, once the identification has been made? Theseus is Athens’ greatest hero. He was a king of the city and fought off many enemies, including the Amazons, and it was said that his spirit appeared to rally the Athenian forces during the Persian invasion, at the battle of Marathon. His bones, a huge skeleton, were found in Scyros, where he died, and brought back to Athens, where their tomb became a refuge for outcasts, a protection for the otherwise unprotected. Finally, Theseus was treacherously driven from power and into exile. He was then, as treacherously, murdered by his supposed host, the king of Scyros.
Is Plato making the outrageous suggestion that the dead Socrates should now be elevated to a status equal to that of Theseus? Is he proposing that Socrates, in his own way, was a kind of philosopher-king of the city, protecting it, not from weapons-wielding physical enemies but from more subtle spiritual and conceptual foes? Does he also mean us to remember that Theseus, too, was rejected by the city he led, that he was exiled, and that his exile led to his murder/execution? Is Plato suggesting that the rejected and “murdered” “hero”, Socrates, should be, or someday will be, rehabilitated as an Athenian hero? And his bones be memorialized as a refuge for outcasts (such as, perhaps, Phaedo?) Or is Plato proposing something even more outrageous, that Socrates’ “bones”, and his monument as well, are precisely these dialogues, that also serve as a refuge for outcasts, a safe haven from the ravages of an untrustworthy city? We cannot say that Plato intended any of these outrageous comparisons, but it is clear that a case can be made that in Phaedo Socrates and Theseus have an interesting, even provocative, connection.

The Three Journeys: Some Tentative Conclusions:
Here then we see philosophy as a kind of combat, a battle against misology, and a journey into the heart of the enemy. If we graft this set of images on to the others we have already accumulated we see three journey motifs: the lyrical personal journey home that is also a journey of liberation from a form of enslavement, a journey in which one carries a gift inside one, in Phaedo's case the gift of Socrates, in Socrates' case the gift of his vision and practice. Under this rubric both death and philosophy are also foreshadowed as kinds of journeys home and as practices of liberation. Second, in the journey to Delos, death and philosophy are also represented as journeys to the gods, to pay homage to them, and to return to them, as well. This is the sacred motif, in which the business of dying and practice of philosophy are both forms of prayer and pilgrimage. Finally, the journey of death and philosophy are also hero quests in which an enemy has to be found and overcome, or else neither death nor philosophy can survive. In this case the two "monsters" to be slain could be the fear of death and misology, but misology, as we have argued above, is by far the strongest candidate.
Lyric, sacred and epic -- three kinds of journeys, three reads on the role and meaning of death and of philosophy, and only two of the journeys, that of Theseus and that of the priests to Delos, have been completed when the dialogue takes place. Phaedo's journey home, his homecoming and liberation, are still in suspense even though misology has been slain and the gods are satisfied. Phaedo is still en route, and the suggestion is that Socrates too, as well as philosophy and death, are also not quite home yet. I mean that in Phaedo there is no final resolution to the question of dying, and the efficacy of philosophy is still in suspense, although one could make a strong case that the manner of Socrates’ dying existentially vindicates both dying and philosophy.
This reading instruction or context setting tells us that both death and philosophy can be understood as kinds of journeys and that in this respect they parallel each other. When Socrates says in Phaedo that philosophy is a preparation for death he means it, in the sense that philosophy properly conducted leads us "home" not to a site in this world but to Ideas that exist somewhere other than this world. Philosophy tends to take one away from the immediate, from the extraordinarily strong pull of the body's desires and the allure of perception, to a world of pure thoughts and deathless ideas. Even if the soul cannot see these things clearly from the perspective of this world, it knows these things are real, and seems to derive some benefits from affining itself with them, whatever they are -- and what they are, we must admit it, is never very clear, in Phaedo or in any other of Plato's dialogues. But lack of clarity, either in Plato's presentation or in the sort of knowledge humans can have in this world, does not mean that Plato ever doubted that whatever these things are, they are real, and a fitting "home" for the human soul.
This affinity is much more pronounced as death approaches because death draws one away from the body even as it reasserts the centrality of the body for most people. I mean that for Plato dying is about getting closer to whatever these things are because one is departing this confusing, intoxicating world for another in which everything will be clearer, if one has lived the right way. And the means of departure is death. But as Socrates says we have to learn how to die because the mere act of dying is not the entrance into a world of pure objects that nurture the longings of the soul. It can be the entrance to a nightmare world of half-existence in which one, dead, longs for the very things, the desires and perceptions that kept one's soul from achieving itself in life. And what is most peculiar is that it is the soul itself, which seems made to know and bask in the higher things, that has a deep hunger for the lower things.
If one does not live the right sort of life -- and to read this piece one is convinced that Plato believed that most people did not lead this life -- one will end up another sort of monster, half-alive, half-dead, hovering on the margin between the two conditions, never properly attached to earthly life or liberated from it, caught in the labyrinth created by one's own unnatural desires.
So, both philosophy and death, in Phaedo, liberate the soul to know higher things. Here, however, death is also a quest and a contest, as is philosophy, to overcome the fear of it and a misunderstanding of it. Misology is a danger around the issue of death in particular because it is in the face of the terrible pressure of death that people tend to become misologists. So much depends on trying to prove that one does not really die that people can become hypercritical in the face of this pressure and if arguments manifest flaws, which they must do in the face of death, whose other side remains unknown, people tend to lose all faith in argument when what is really happening is that arguers are marshalling the best evidence and reasons for believing in immortality, and these reasons and this evidence might not be very good. But losing all faith in arguments because they cannot prove what cannot, in this life, be proven, is a large mistake. One cannot expect more from arguments than they can reasonably give, and so in facing death we must make a journey into the heart of the way arguments get made and vindicate the process in all its limited glory.
Thus the rich tapestry of the journey motifs that are suggested in the opening sentences of the Phaedo. What they collectively suggest is something radical and important – namely that both dying and philosophy are, genuinely, forms of passage, journeys, rather than dead ends. And perhaps even more radically Plato seems to be suggesting that even though there is a religious component to doing philosophy, the passage that philosophy makes beyond dying, the way it transforms death from something that we suffer to something whose meaning we create, is the nub of what make makes being a philosopher worth the effort. Philosophy transfigures death, without godly intervention – which does not mean that we cannot then honor the gods for giving us the nous to achieve our own deaths.
The best instruction about how to read and appreciate these three suggestive motifs, none of which is identical to the other and none of which reduces to any of the others, is to re-read what Simmias says about achieving truth in these matters. After Socrates has presented his first set of arguments for the immortality of the soul, Simmias states that (Phaedo, 85 c-d) when one is faced with such questions as the fate of the soul, which he thinks that it is all but impossible to answer in this world, (Phaedo, 86c) one has only two recourses. As he puts the matter: (Phaedo, 86d)
For he must do one of two things: either he must find out
or discover the truth about these things, or he must take whatever
human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking on it
as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers.

We could read this passage as a striking, lyrically powerful version of a Socratic commonplace, namely that the arguments and positions we ought to accept, as philosophers, are only those that stand up to the most relentless testing. This is the way of the elenchus. But is this what Simmias means in this case? Recall that he has already admitted that such questions as the fate of the soul are all but impossible to answer. So it is not as if he were relying on the elenchus to produce a deductively impeccable argument. What he must be looking for is an argument or arguments that stand up best against attack, not at perfect or wholly conclusive arguments. And in the case of answering a question nearly impossible to answer the arguments might not be very strong at all and might not, strictly speaking, be arguments in the ordinary sense at all. These logoi might, instead, represent an array, a family, in Wittgenstein’s sense, of stories, themes, locales, poems, myths, plausible and consoling fictions, and relatively weak arguments from analogy, or arguments based on debatable hypotheses – which is exactly what one gets in Phaedo. Just as Simmias himself employs an analogical figure (the raft) and a metaphor (life is a stormy sea) to weave a dramatic cautionary tale (one must cling to the best “raft” in life’s stormy sea) to gesture toward, but certainly not to prove, the difficulty of answering the question about the fate of the soul, so he, and by extension Plato, might be endorsing just such an assembly of strategies as legitimate components of a philosophical practice that must persuade a variety of different people about an issue about which no one, including Socrates, can have certainty.
The point is reinforced when, after Simmias and Cebes present their arguments against the immortality of the soul, Phaedo breaks off his performance and shares with Echecrates that the company in the jail were all thrown into a state of anxiety because they had all been persuaded by the first wave of Socrates’ pro-immortality arguments. Now, equally persuaded by the counter-arguments, they did not know what to believe. Echecrates allows that he shared the same feelings. (Phaedo, 88c)
The point here is not that the assembled devotees lose faith but rather that in this matter of the soul no arguments are conclusive, and many are alluring. Plato’s point is that this lack of certainty cannot lead us to lose faith in argument itself and become misologists. Uncertainty must drive us in the other direction, to look for that techné of logoi, the craft of argument making that will best answer the difficult questions philosophy, and life, pose. It is never clear in Phaedo whether Plato believes he has achieved this techné, but what is clear, and is illustrated in the three journey motifs we have analyzed, is that when questions cannot yield certainty every linguistic and conceptual resource can and must be enlisted in assembling the most plausible and persuasive picture of a truth we might not, in this life, ever be able to attain in its unvarnished form. The three journey motifs are, I believe, important parts of that plausible picture.

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