An Easter Egg in Plato’s Phaedo

I have a longish post I want to write on Plato’s Phaedo. This is not that post. This is a different one.

When reading Plato’s dialogues, it is tempting to identify every view attributed to Socrates as a view of Plato’s, and from there to suggest that Plato wished the reader to adopt said view in his own turn. But that is, I think, not true, and Plato sometimes leaves us clues to that effect. What follows is one of those clues–a seemingly insignificant detail that actually reveals a larger point about what Plato’s dialogues are asking us to do, which is to think for ourselves.

In Phaedo 60b (that is, right near the beginning of the dialogue), Socrates says:

But Socrates sat up on his couch and bent his leg and rubbed it with his hand, and while he was rubbing it, he said, “What a strange thing, my friends, that seems to be which men call pleasure! How wonderfully it is related to that which seems to be its opposite, pain, in that they will not both come to a man at the same time, and yet if he pursues the one and captures it he is generally obliged to take the other also, as if the two were joined together in one head.

 ὁ δὲ Σωκράτης ἀνακαθιζόμενος εἰς τὴν κλίνην συνέκαμψέ τε τὸ σκέλος καὶ ἐξέτριψε τῇ χειρί, καὶ τρίβων ἅμα, ὡς ἄτοπον, ἔφη, ὦ ἄνδρες, ἔοικέ τι εἶναι τοῦτο ὃ καλοῦσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι ἡδύ: ὡς θαυμασίως πέφυκε πρὸς τὸ δοκοῦν ἐναντίον εἶναι, τὸ λυπηρόν, τὸ ἅμα μὲν αὐτὼ μὴ ‘θέλειν παραγίγνεσθαι τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ, ἐὰν δέ τις διώκῃ τὸ ἕτερον καὶ λαμβάνῃ, σχεδόν τι ἀναγκάζεσθαι ἀεὶ λαμβάνειν καὶ τὸ ἕτερον…

Socrates asserts here that one cannot feel pleasure and pain at the same time, because they are opposites to one another (perhaps foreshadowing all the arguments about opposites that are to follow).

Yet in the dramatic framing of the dialoguing, Phaedo had already said the following (59b):

And for this reason I was not at all filled with pity, as might seem natural when I was present at a scene of mourning; nor on the other hand did I feel pleasure because we were occupied with philosophy, as was our custom—and our talk was of philosophy;—but a very strange feeling came over me, an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and of pain together, when I thought that Socrates was presently to die.

διὰ δὴ ταῦτα οὐδὲν πάνυ μοι ἐλεινὸν εἰσῄει, ὡς εἰκὸς ἂν δόξειεν εἶναι παρόντι πένθει, οὔτε αὖ ἡδονὴ ὡς ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ ἡμῶν ὄντων ὥσπερ εἰώθεμεν —καὶ γὰρ οἱ λόγοι τοιοῦτοί τινες ἦσαν—ἀλλ᾽ ἀτεχνῶς ἄτοπόν τί μοι πάθος παρῆν καί τις ἀήθης κρᾶσις ἀπό τε τῆς ἡδονῆς συγκεκραμένη ὁμοῦ καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς λύπης, ἐνθυμουμένῳ ὅτι αὐτίκα ἐκεῖνος ἔμελλε τελευτᾶν.

Phaedo, that is, says exactly the opposite of Socrates: he claims to have experienced exactly what Socrates had said was impossible.

Why is this significant? After all, Socrates disagrees with his interlocutors all the time. But consider the timing: Phaedo’s remark comes, as I said, in the framing of the dialogue, that is, sometime after the events Phaedo goes on to narrate.

What does this mean? It means that Phaedo, who was present at the death of Socrates, had heard Socrates’s claim about the impossibility of feeling pleasure and pain simultaneously. And yet here he is afterwards, still asserting that he had experienced just that. And Plato offers no editorializing comment to the effect that Phaedo was wrong to continue to maintain that he had had such an experience; he is allowed simply to report it, and it stands as is, without irony or critique.

So what is Plato saying? Apparently, he is indicating that Phaedo was not convinced by what Socrates had said–and that, perhaps, we should not be convinced, either. In other words, the juxtaposition suggests that Plato does not always want us to take Socrates at face value as some sort of divine oracle whom we simply hear, believe, and obey. Instead, as readers we must, as I said at the outset, think for ourselves.


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