Plato’s Phaedo is one of the hardest dialogues for me to understand. The way some commentators present it seems uncompromisingly, patronizingly self-righteous. Yet, I think there are more humanistic ways to understand it.
It doesn’t help that many, though certainly not all, published translations of Plato’s dialogues are academic, pompous, and stuffy. People unanimously mention Plato’s literary, as well as philosophical, genius. What could be the basis for their judgment — if what they see in him is what I read in some translations? Further, when they discuss him, they assume that the dialogues — though presented as dramatic conversations — are just thinly coded expositions of Plato’s views. I don’t understand. As an artist, I always believed that such didacticism is the essence of Philistine, the stuff of pamphleteering. I have more respect for Plato than to believe such things about him.
The most famous translator of Plato was Benjamin Jowett. There’s no denying that Jowett has a way with words, a literary power many subsequent translators lack. There’s also no denying that Jowett was a Victorian academic clergyman. For example, here’s Jowett’s translation of a passage from Phaedo:
. . . I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded in the first place that I am going to other gods who are wise and good (of which I am as certain as I can be of any such matters), and secondly (though I am not so sure of this last) to men departed, better than those whom I leave behind . . .
(Update: For more critique of the Victorian clergyman interpretation of Plato, see my later post Rupert Brooke’s “Tiare Tahiti”)
How do we understand this? First, it would help if we avoided assuming that every word out of Socrates’s mouth is sacred and inviolable, especially those he spoke at the moment of choosing to die in the name of some perhaps unspecified higher morality. (I’m not necessarily saying that his words aren’t sacred — only that the sacredness might come later, after we trouble to understand, rather than as a prior prejudice.) It might also help if we didn’t assume Socrates is Plato’s mouthpiece.
Let’s try to see it as literature, as a story — not as abstract philosophy. Think about the dramatic situation. Socrates has chosen to die, as his city demanded. His friends, who love him and have given up hope of persuading him not to, have gathered in his prison cell to say goodbye. So what does he tell them? The surface meaning of the words in the quote would be something like, “Don’t worry about it: I’m going to better friends than you are because I don’t need you anymore.”
Really? Is that what he’d say then? Is that what we’re supposed to admire him for saying? Is that “morality?” It seems boorish to the point of wickedness.
I suppose many would feel it’s precisely the difficulty of admiring such sentiments that makes them moral: because they’re lofty and hard to reach. I would contend it merely makes them preposterous. There’s an emperor’s-new-clothes effect in which I’m supposed to be ashamed to appear not able to reach such heights. Actually, I’d be ashamed to reach such depths. In Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw makes fun of people who think they’re being moral when they’re only uncomfortable. I agree: morality takes something more strenuous — it requires more imagination.
So what does that quotation mean, then, if it doesn’t mean what it seems? Well, again, read it as literature. Expect verbal play, figures of speech. One tipoff could be the parallel remark, “I am going to other gods who are wise and good.” Oh, so it’s not only his present friends who are crummy and unnecessary? It’s his present gods too? This seems a dangerous remark. Any reader of Homer — or Euripides — knows what happens to people who slight the gods. It seems also an incomprehensible remark. Is Socrates really postulating there is another set of gods, entirely different from the present ones, who are only accessible after death? I find this hard to credit.
The quotation would appear to mean that Socrates thinks after death he’ll have new friends who are better than the present ones there assembled. But, reading it as literature, could we understand it in an ironic way? Socrates may say something in an image that has more meaning as well as more vividness than if he said it directly. Without the imagery, and therefore without most of its content, the quotation might mean that he’s doing what he does (including both the present conversation and the later sacrifice) as a way of making his friends — and himself — better than they were. He’s not going to new friends but to new editions of the friends he already has — the ones who love him.
I’m saying that, throughout his dialogues, Plato uses figures of speech — that his meaning is between the lines and often contrary to them. He probably does this because he thinks the meaning of life itself is between the lines and often contrary to them.
There’s a moment in the middle of Phaedo I find powerful — not because there’s fanfare about it or because the sentiments declaimed there seem lofty, but because of its position in the dialogue’s structure. It might seem a brief interlude, a throwaway little bit of stage business. (Of course, to a writer, such bits are often the main points.) Most of the first half of Phaedo is taken up by a conversation that eventually seems to reach a dead end that the characters find disconcerting; then the second half of the dialogue has a further conversation in which they try to get through the previous impasse. When I write a play or story with two act structure, I insert some short bit of concrete imagery to serve as the hinge between the acts and thereby, with the dramatic spotlight on it, to symbolically illustrate the main point.
So, the moment I refer to is fleeting, and hard to appreciate without seeing it lodged between the two huge, heavy, gloomy conversations it moderates. Still, I hope I can show some trace of its loveliness. In the opposite of the seeming insensitivity of the quotation above, Socrates — an old man who often laughs about his own ugliness — physically caresses Phaedo, a young, beautiful man who loves Socrates as a teacher and who is the narrator of the dialogue. It comes across as a gesture of affection, expressing the value Socrates, as he dies, finds in Phaedo as a human being — a signal, a step in Socrates’s program, his street theater, to make himself and his friends better people.
(translated by William P. Coleman)
“That he had an answer didn’t surprise any of us. But, for myself, I was amazed at three things. First, the sweetness, kindness, and respect with which he accepted the young men’s words. Then, how keenly he sensed the impression their words had on us. Last, how he healed us well; and, just as if we’d fled and resigned ourselves to defeat, he recalled us from the dead and rallied us to follow along with him and ponder the logic together.”
“And how did he do this?”
“I’ll tell you. I happened to be sitting on his right, next to his couch on a kind of stool, and he sat higher. He had a habit of playing with my hair whenever the chance came. Now he ran his hand through it and pressed it close at the back of my neck. ‘Phaedo,’ he said, ‘in the morning you’re probably going to cut off this beautiful hair.’
“‘It would be the right thing, Socrates,’ I said.
“‘Not if you listen to my advice. . . . ‘”