The Rational Kernel of the Platonic Corpus

Lesson 5(a). In the dialogues: from what is no-where to be seen to what is not impossible.

We will start with a reading of Phaedo. The intention here is to listen attentively to Socrates’ instruction in regard to what he terms ‘the world to come’.

This ‘world to come’ has two compatible forms: One extrinsic to the dialogues and one intrinsic to the dialogues (Republic). The former is the Platonic corpus and perhaps includes the Academy itself. In our reading thus far we have seen that the dialogues are instances of the event-truth-subject structure of non-sophistic discourse and practice.

In the Phaedo, Socrates sets out the praxis of non-sophistry for his immediate followers, Simmias and Cebes. The praxis he sets out is that of the enquiring subject who does not know what sophistry knows. It is patently clear that this is the way of life of non-sophistry and he of course is the exemplary figure in this regard. But Socrates stresses it is not his way of life alone, it is not particular to him but is for anyone at all.

When Plato has Socrates say to Simmias and Cebes ‘to pay no attention to Socrates but to the way of life’ (Phd. 91bc) Plato is returning us to the Apology where Socrates notes that his name is used by the oracle only as sign of what it is to live without the false conceit of wisdom (Ap.23b).

Plato also reminds us of the very same thing when Socrates tells Crito that, in considering the education of his sons, he ought not to listen to the tellers of tales concerning what a non-sophistic way of life consists in, but pay attention to the ‘thing itself’ (Euthd. 307bc).

This is all to say that in the Phaedo, the ‘world to come’ is not conceived in terms of some ‘far flung metaphysics’ (to parody Vlastos), but is the anticipated result of a prescriptive, materialist doctrine for revolutionary transformation.

In the Phaedo there are two interconnected discussions: on the Forms and on the immortality of the soul. Plato defines the soul as that which desires the forms and depicts it as being ‘riveted down’ by the mortal body. The latter, the site of immediate interests, perverts the soul’s access to the Forms. Plato suggests that free of this body the soul and the forms achieve an unmediated relation. Mortality, it seems, must in some way be overcome.

While each theory may stand independently, the purpose of the discussion as always with Plato is not to secure the technical niceties but to advance the non-sophistical way of life.

This is not to say that as ‘philosopher’ (if this is what he is) he eschews technique or method, that would be ridiculous, but as driven by the Socratic event, Plato’s singular concern is with securing the force of the rupture with the sophistic ‘body’ and in the form most faithful to this event and its conditions.1

For our purposes we draw from the Phaedo three central terminologies: soul, body and immortality; and one central concept, the ‘to come’. It is through these that Plato confronts the paradox of ‘subjective truth’, for the life of the non-sophist within the Athens of the dialogues results only in death, and yet, for Socrates, the result of being dead to Athens is the life which is ‘to come’.

To put it in terms of the body and soul disjunction, for Socrates the ‘would be philosopher’ is at every turn nailed down to the body of sophistic Athens. The latter, the body of knowledge the former must traverse, hinders the coming philosopher’s trajectory and threatens to spoil the pursuit of truth.

The true philosopher, or the ‘philosopher by truths’, confined as he is to this life of the body politic, must practice a step by step subtraction from this body, from its effects as from its demands. The philosopher, as Socrates says, must practice dying in regard to the state. This practice is the only path out of the confusion the body of sophistic knowledge renders upon the soul. ‘By keeping ourselves uncontaminated by the follies of the body we shall probably reach the company of other’s like us’ (Phd. 67b; emphasis added).

This path of purgation and purification, one that is removed from the dialectic of courage and fear, Socrates contends, passes through a form of death. The soul, however, never dies. It is imperishable and immortal such is why it ‘passes through’.

Having undergone the ‘trial of its subtraction’ from the state in this life, the soul of the philosopher finds its true place in what is the life ‘to come’, whereas the souls of those contaminated by too close a contact with the life of the body undergo theirs, so the concluding myth contends, in the afterlife.  Thus the ‘philosopher’, possessor of the ‘good soul’ let’s call it, prepares for the death that clearly is not its death.

The Phaedo, far from being a meditation on life after death is a meditation or rather a lesson, on what it is to live philosophically, which is to say, by truths.

What then must not live in order for philosophy to live? This is the question of the Phaedo and it inverts (rather than reverses) that of the Apology. For in the latter the question (posed by the sophistic state) was ‘what must die in order that sophistry continues to live’?

In the Phaedo it is Socrates who is to die this day. In the Apology he defended his way of life to no avail before a jury, who on the strength of the numbers, considered it to be no way of life at all. In the Phaedo he not only defends it in front of a more critical jury (Phd. 63e), the philosophers, he hopes, ‘to come’, but he sets down this way of life, the way of life which must not be, as the ‘way of life’ to come. Clearly, for Socrates, ‘death is no event’.

Never having discovered Truth in this form of life, nevertheless living by truths (participation) Socrates sets down what is to be thought here and now by reference to, or even by virtue of, that which is ‘to come’ (Phd. 66b).

As we have said throughout, the Republic, the thought ‘result’ of the displacement of the sophistic state (the ‘sophistic body’ in the sense we are using it here) is that which is always ‘to come’ in the dialogues. It is plausible to say that the Republic is the ever present Idea of the dialogues. In this way we can see that the Republic is the reasoned place that the figure of Socrates already inhabits, despite the ‘fact’ that it is within the Athens of the dialogues that he moves.

We have noted that Socrates’ strangeness to Athens is on account of his being an internal exile of the non-existent Republic.  Making use of a Lacanian formula, the Republic is thought throughout as that which is in Athens more than Athens knows. Put in positive terms, in each dialogue the Socratic encounter with the sophistic body/state induces the thought of the ‘place of philosophy’. In effect that which is ‘to come’, and can only come through the life of philosophy practiced in the here and now, is at the same time that which every non-sophistic thought thinks. It is the inherent aporia of such thought.

Here in the Phaedo, time being of the essence (at least in one respect) the Socratic instruction concerning an education by truths becomes more explicit. ‘Nothing new, Crito, just what I am always telling you … if you neglect yourselves and fail to follow the line of life as I have laid it down both now and in the past, however fervently you agree with me now, it will do no good at all’ (Phd. 115c).

The true philosopher, he contends, has been ever practicing for death (of this life); which, for the non-sophist, following our notion of the inversion, is the practice of the life ‘to come’. 

For Socrates, this practice, carried out by the soul living in the body of the state, is purification: A practiced purging of the soul through reason and by reason of all bodily constraints. The fancies, loves and fears of the body, desires from which all wars and demands for wealth and prestige and empire issue are constraints, for Socrates, on the very possibility of thought (Phd. 66bcd).

One cannot practice thought, which is to say, submit to its prescriptions, pursue wisdom, and know truth, when one is ‘riveted’ down to the body and so subject to its claims, its clamour, and its laws. What Socrates has laid down, by example, by reason, is the practice of ‘subtracting’ oneself from the perversions, distractions and desires of the body (politic), and this in order ‘to set out for the [other world] where there is prospect of attaining their lifelong desire’ (Phd. 68c).

As we have seen, in the dialogues, Socrates has no other recourse in the situation other than to orient his thought on that which (as yet) is not but has ‘happened’. ‘To invent content at the very place of the minimal difference, where there is almost nothing’.

And so ‘here must be, and there will be, a new act, a ‘new birth’ which it is the task to of anyone at all – the philosopher – to invent’. The ‘philosopher’ takes leave only insofar as he invents the world ‘to come’ of which this world is pregnant. In other words, the would-be philosopher is simply he/she who thinks the situation again under condition of what has remained unthought.

In the Phaedo, Socrates pursues this world ‘to come’ in a fantastical analogy: A labyrinth in which the pure are sorted from the impure in terms of their practice while alive. In this labyrinth souls undergo further sorting by means of being plunged into the depths, whirled about by force, risen to the surface to be tested and if failed plunged anew into the cavernous depths.

The metaphor of the Cave is easily read here, as is the form of the Socratic practice, but as he tells Cebes and Simmias, ‘no reasonable man ought to insist that the facts are exactly as I have described them’. But, he says, ‘something similar is the case’ (Phaedo, 114d).

Considered from within the situation of the Athens of the dialogues wherein Socrates is condemned, sophistry is triumphant, where war and wealth are the very objects of all desire ‘is not the Republic similarly fantastic’? Should any reasonable man believe that the Socratic way of life is ideal – just, true, courageous and wise?

Near the beginning of the dialogue Plato makes a point of situating Socrates: ‘As he spoke he lowered his feet to the ground and sat like this for the rest of the conversation’ (Phd. 61d).

This may be a retort to Aristophanes, but it is also a set direction telling us that what is to be said here has material import. This is no flight of fancy, no ‘famous last words’. What Socrates sets out to elaborate is the indiscernible soul as the carrier or the nascent form of a truth.

The soul is a part of every body. It is imperishable, immortal; it continues despite the exhaustion of particular bodies. It is a part of the body or is attached to the body – for Plato: what constitutes the impossibility of their ‘link’ is love. A good soul will, by love, constitute a good body – but the soul is an infinite part and any body only its ‘finite support’.

The body, heavy with the sensuous world ‘saturates’ the soul, reducing its sense of pleasure and pain to that which the body commands. In this way, it ‘makes the soul corporeal’ (Phd. 83d) and so unlike that which, by negation, it has affinity. The demands of the body, registered as pleasures or pains, have great effect on the soul. ‘When anyone feels a keen pleasure or pain it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotions is the plainest and truest reality; which it is not. It is chiefly visible things which have this effect, isn’t it’ (Phd. 83c)?

Thus we see that the good soul has intercourse not with that which is immediate to appearance, that which is already a resemblance, but with that which is indiscernible within that which appears to the body. The body, for Plato, deals in plausibility, in verisimilitude, and thought so based is an impostor. For Plato, there are other things than bodies and the languages which construct them.

For Socrates, the practices of the philosopher are eminently paradoxical in that really, they are those which prepare the soul for life. Philosophy, in Socrates’ terms, is lifelong preparation for life: A life which must pass through the mediation of death. But death is no end. Thus, what is the character of death or what dies at death and what cannot die?

For Socrates, the ‘good’ soul, that which has spent its time in this finite body under the condition of a reasoned practice ever persuading the body from its demands toward that which is the ‘desire of the soul’, far from coming to perish only truly lives in the ‘world’ that is ‘to come’. That which forms the consistency of this world, that which constitutes its body and of which anybody is a part, forms the prison house of that which is ‘to come’.

The immortality of the soul, the infinity of a truth, is linked by Plato to the theory of Forms through the theory of recollection. The question of how the soul can practice a subtraction of itself from the body is a question of recollection.

What the soul recollects are the Forms. This is illustrated by Plato with the famous example of equal sticks. We see two sticks; they appear to be the same length; this recalls to our mind the idea of equality. Importantly, it does not matter, in this sense, whether they are actually measured as equal, for the point is that something like and something unlike can prompt a recollection of the Form which is always the same.

Sticks are not ‘equality’ but their appearance together in a certain configuration recalls the Form. Upon measuring the sticks, after we have recollected the Form it presents, if we find them unequal this in no way diminishes the recollection of the Form which provides the stable of any measurement.

This is the Platonic trajectory: The indiscerning of that which appears in order to establish its truth. The Idea drives the enquiry; the enquiry does or does not establish the idea. ‘It is thus legitimate to treat the enquiry, a finite series of minimal reports, as the veritable basic unit of the procedure of [subjective] fidelity, because it combines the one of discernment with the several of classification’.

The Idea is what is re-collected in any confrontation with appearance, any generic enquiry, which is to say, any participative procedure of indiscernment. This is Plato’s point. Recollection of the Form is what allows the soul to live as if it were already dead to the body (politic).

That there are Ideas which exist with-out appearance, that are ‘generic’ in secular terms, suggests that there is ‘another world’ both prior to – in that it is to be ‘re-collected – and posterior to – in that through this recollection it is invented as such – life in the body (of the state). 

The good soul, which could be any soul, all being nothing but souls and thus partaking of a generic equality, orients its thought practice in the body (of the state) here and now, which is to say, ‘in life’ to this idea of that which is ‘to come’. The soul then, alive in the body but partaking of the (ideal – beautiful) world to come, the world wherein this ‘fiction’ will have been true, lives in this world as that which ‘will have been’.

‘Beauty is beautiful because it partakes of that absolute Beauty, and for no other reason. Do you accept this kind of causality’ (Phd. 100c)?

For Plato, the soul is the militant form whose enquiries produce ‘here and now’ that which is ‘to come’, which is to say, it is its immanent constitution. In this sense, Socrates is the soul for which the Republic will have been the body.

If one thinks the context in which the discussion of forms takes place, as we must, one immediately sees that Socrates is assuring his auditors, as he attempted to at the trial, that although the sophistic state has counted the exemplary non-sophist as sophist precisely because it cannot count a non-sophist (this would recognise the existence of what is not), the non-sophist can never be other than what he is.

Thus, Socrates, who participates in truth, retreats or disappears at the approach of sophistry which, inasmuch as it identifies itself with the interests of the state denies the real effect of participation itself. The reverse is also true: at the approach of non-sophistry, what is established as true sophistry is constrained to retreat; to assume its proper place.

Socrates is assuring his followers that truth is not destroyed in its retreat from sophistics even though, with his impending death, this may be what appears to take place. Sophistry, rule of opinion, can never be the discourse of truth no matter its ascendency, its strength, its force of numbers, within the body of the state.

Socrates, for sophistry, is the individual body, so singular that it must be and can be killed. Plato provides this dead Name with a body: The Platonic corpus. It is a ‘thought’ body of work, a series of dialogues, and a set of enquiries, which supports the immortality of this name. Such a body of thought is a set of possibilities. Thus, Plato provides the thought of the dead Socrates with a body qua set of possibilities.

Transformation is the form which transmission takes under the subjective procedure. The ‘for all’ to which a non-sophistic education is addressed (predicated entirely on the ontological fact that a non-sophistic education is lacking for all) is constituted in the very procedure itself. As we have argued, this latter is a step-by-step, connection-by-connection, generic re-collection of parts.

So here in the Phaedo, as Socrates takes leave of his friends the soul of the non-sophist takes leave of ‘the squat, snub-nosed, barefoot Silensus.’2  It takes its leave after a life of subtractive discipline, a discipline practiced on the basis of the immanent existence of the Idea of that which is ‘to come’.

The Platonic body, then, is the result of the Socratic practice of purification. It is Socrates’ ‘other side’.

The Phaedo is a dialogue that performs for us the movement of the philosophic soul from its Socratic embodiment to its eternal form within the Platonic corpus. ‘We should leave nothing undone to attain during life some measure of goodness and wisdom: for the prize is glorious and the hope great’ (Phd.114c).

1

The declension of his argument into analytic categories is a post-Aristotelian matter for others In general analytic readings of the Phaedo they divide the arguments therein into four types: a) the Cyclical argument deals with the generation of opposites – particular and general – sleep/awake, hot /cold, pleasure pain, life/death; b)the Recollection argument; c) the Affinity argument, which addresses resemblance between the soul and categories such as the invisible, the unchanging etc, as opposed to the visible, the mutable etc; d) the Final argument, in which Plato considers cause and attributes it to the Forms. As David Bostock contends, there is an ‘Interlude’ between the first two and the second two where the discussants re-address the ‘defects’ of the first two arguments. We have no interest in assessing things in this way, although we have no problem with the arguments being so divided. David Bostock, ‘The Soul and Immortality in the Phaedo,’ Plato 2, Ethics Politics, Religion and the Soul, (ed.) Gail Fine, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 404-424, esp. pp.422-3.   

2

Squat and snub nosed is the description given in Theaetetus: The comparison with a silensus is made by Alcibiades in the Symposium. The added inference here is that Socrates looks and acts like these. The Silenoi, followers of Dionysus, were drunks, and were usually bald and fat with thick lips and squat noses, and had the legs of a human. Moreover, there is an implied analogy to Marsyas who was a satyr, full of sexual appetite, who loved the musician Olympus, who in turn was flayed alive for daring to compete with Apollo. Alcibiades suggests to the company that Socrates either changes with each look or to look each time invites an image of Socrates. You look like them, he says and the resemblance goes ‘beyond appearance’ (Smp. 215b).