“The Phaedo” by Plato

This post is in the theme Influences on my own Creative Work. Read the first.

January 4, New York: In retrospect it seems odd that this is the only work of philosophy from college to make the list. I read a lot of philosophy in college, enough to make a whole major out of it. But my experience of being a philosophy major was a disappointing one. My focus was the philosophical study of consciousness. I, being all of 20 or 21, wanted to talk about the soul. I wanted big ideas and modernist philosophical thought.

I was not in the right place to do that. USC, a lovely university, had recently lost a handful of its top Philosophy department chairs and was slow to refill the seats. I looked through the course catalogue with excitement when deciding on my second degree, but many of those classes were never offered while I was in attendance. That was problem number one.

Problem number two was that in the present-day academic environment, talking about ‘the soul’ in philosophy has gone firmly out of fashion. Maybe you can get away with that shit over in the divinity school, but here we have elevated Philosophy from art to science. This was my major beef with academic philosophy— it wasn’t interesting or exciting in any of the ways I thought philosophy could be. How fun would it be to debate the implications of time travel in a class entitled “Philosophy of Time”. Nope, all causality. How rad is a class called “Metaphysics” going to be? Nope, just an extension of linguistics. And the cool stuff— “Existentialism”, for example— those professors had decamped to East Coast universities.

So I read a lot of the classics, a lot of Enlightenment philosophy, and a collection of nit-picky academic papers about the science of consciousness. Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Hume. No Nietzsche, no Sartre, no Kierkegaard. Hell, I didn’t even get to read Enlightenment *political* philosophy!

Death of Socrates by David, from Wikipedia

Which brings me back to Plato and “The Phaedo”. This was one place where curriculum and interest overlapped and I clung to it like a raft in a stormy sea. “The Phaedo” is a dialogue conducted in the last hours of Socrates’ life, before and as he drinks the hemlock poison. He and his followers are interested in the nature and fate of the Soul. Yes!

This work ended up being only tangential to what became my college thesis work in Philosophy of Mind. (I’ll discuss that in a subsequent post.) But this is why I came to Philosophy in the first place— deep discussion of the nature of being. (Not linguistic arguments about how we construct an epistemic world, thankyouverymuch.)

It was fun to re-read this and have the fires re-ignite in my brain. I found myself close to scribbling in the margins again when I came to the “attunement theory” that Socrates argues against— that the body is like a lyre and consciousness is like the state of being correctly tuned. This is actually what most physicalist philosophers believe— that the brain’s chemicals come together in the right accidental way for consciousness to emerge. I’m a bit of a dualist myself, body and soul. And that’s one thing I liked about Plato.

The Phaedo is one of four dialogues in a book called The Last Days of Socrates.

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