By Dr. Steven R. Cain
The following remarks are adapted from tutor Dr. Steven R. Cain’s report to the Board of Governors at its May 13, 2016, meeting. They are part of an ongoing series of talks about why the College includes certain texts in its curriculum.
A few years ago, Dean Brian T. Kelly spoke to you about the importance of Plato in our curriculum. Plato’s dialogues are a great place to begin the pursuit of the intellectual life, for they introduce one to the life of the mind in a charming and inviting way, and they introduce us to Socrates, or at least Plato’s representation of him, who in many important ways embodies the virtues necessary for and the joys that spring from the pursuit of the truth. Through the figure of Socrates, Plato raises so many questions — so many important questions — and discusses them in such a searching way, that Alfred Whitehead once said that all Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.
If this is true about his dialogues in general, it is particularly true about the work I would like to talk about today, the Phaedo. I first became acquainted with this dialogue when I was about 15 years old, and it had an immediate and profound influence on my life. It is an influence, I am sure, that the work has exerted, to a greater or lesser degree, upon all of our students.
But I am afraid that my first meeting with Plato, and with this book, arose from rather unflattering circumstances. I was one of the brighter students in my school, and I took an unhealthy pride in that. This led me to sign up for a book club called the Classics Club, or something like that. I did so not so much to learn from the classics and become wiser (I was not yet wise enough to want that), but so that I could boast about having read them, and so appear wise to my peers. However, as God is in the habit of doing, He took my foolish pride and worked it to my good.
The first volume that I received from this club was a volume of Plato’s dialogues, and I sat down and read through them. I enjoyed them, and was intrigued by Socrates, and so continued with them until I came to the Phaedo, which was, I believe, the last of the dialogues in the volume. In this dialogue, Plato relates what purports to be a conversation between Socrates and his friends on the day of his death. He had been condemned to death because of his habit of questioning those who thought themselves wise to see if, in fact, they were. As it turned out, most of those he questioned were found not to be wise, and this caused Socrates to be resented by some fairly powerful men. They trumped up charges against him and had him condemned to death, as is related in the Apology.
At the beginning of the Phaedo, his friends have come to visit Socrates for the last time. As they are lamenting his fast-approaching death, Socrates attempts to comfort them, and in response to their wonder at his peacefulness on this fateful day, he says that it would be ridiculous for him to shrink from what he has been working toward his whole life, for, he says to them, philosophy is nothing other than the preparation for death.
His friends are shocked at this, and so was I. At 15, I had hardly given death a thought. I was not particularly religious, and I was enjoying the pleasures of life with youthful, largely thoughtless, exuberance. I had given myself somewhat to the life of the mind, but as I pointed out, this was mostly because of the acclaim it brought and because it fed my pride. To think that such a life should be aimed at death shook me deeply. Socrates now had my attention in a way that he had not before. Like his friends, I was seriously in need of being convinced that this was so. And so I read on. How his arguments affected me is curious, and I still look back upon it with grateful wonder.
Here is a quick summary of the course of the rest of the dialogue: To see that philosophy is aimed at bringing one to death well-prepared, one must see that there is some good for the soul that will come to it after death. Therefore one must see that the soul survives death, that it is immortal. Most of the dialogue, then, is devoted to showing that it is.
At the heart of this discussion lies Plato’s famous doctrine that knowledge is recollection, which in turn leads to the theory of the forms. What it means for us to know, to really know something, shows us that the soul must be immortal. Then there needs to be some assurance that, given the soul’s immortality, there is some life for it that comes after death that depends on how one lives in this life. Socrates gives his listeners a likely account (what he calls a myth) about what such a life will be: Those who, in this life, have separated themselves as much as they can from the pleasures of the sensible world, and raised their minds to what is really true, good, and beautiful, will enter into a life of blessedness with the gods, while those who have given themselves over to these false goods will spend a period of purification before being sent back into bodies so that they can be tested again.
There were a number of things in his arguments that immediately put me off. The notion of reincarnation that is implied in the theory of recollection, the notion of the forms, which are what we really know but are entirely unware of, and the fundamental opposition between the soul and the body are ideas that I was uninclined to accept as true, and so it was hard not to be suspicious of the arguments that follow from them.
I recall having serious misgivings about these arguments when I first encountered them, but I also remember being strangely moved by them, being led to think that, in spite of my misgivings, there might be something to those arguments. I have since come to see that, though somewhat missing the mark, these arguments, in fact, contain much that is true. At the time, however, I was unable to account for this double effect of the dialogue, finding Socrates’ arguments at once compelling and not compelling.
But what is even more curious, and points to Plato’s greatness as a teacher, is that he anticipated this effect. He inserts into the middle of the conversation a little digression. Just as everyone is becoming convinced of his account of the soul, a couple of his friends raise objections to what he has been saying. These objections are felt to be quite strong by those who are there with Socrates, and there is a sense of despair that arises among them because of this.
Socrates breaks from his arguments in order to attend to this despair. He points out to them that if we cannot see the truth or falsity of these arguments, we must attribute that not to the arguments but to ourselves, and recognize that if we are to advance to the sight of these truths, we must develop in ourselves the art of reasoning well so that we can see more clearly when our arguments are good and when they are not. This only increased my wonder and made me think, not that the question of the soul’s immortality was something unattainable, but rather that, in fact, it was attainable. What I had sensed in his arguments to be compelling gave me that hope. But I also realized that if it was to be attained it would not be easily attainable; that bright as I was, I was in the presence of truths that were greater than I, and if I wanted to understand these truths, I would have to devote much time and energy to doing so.
This was really the beginning of the life of the mind in my own soul. Socrates’ insistence that philosophy is a preparation for death raised in my mind the importance of finding out what life is really all about. His arguments for the immortality of the soul, though they did not convince, nevertheless compelled me to wonder if it was and to try to find out. His exhortation to develop in myself the art of reasoning pointed the way to how to begin to find out, and his myth at the end of the dialogue showed me that there were limits to how far the human mind, on its own, could see into these things. He showed me, in other words, the need for faith to fill out our understanding of the soul and to see clearly why our life should be a preparation for death.
Though, at 15, these impressions were only seeds that would take some time to grow to fruition, God, in His providence, kept prodding me on. Through the influence of this book, I became drawn to the study of philosophy, and through philosophy, into the Catholic Church. I owe Plato a great debt.
These talks are supposed to be accounts of why we read what we do in our curriculum, but I have been speaking about the Phaedo’s influence on my life. I have done so because I think that it moved me the way Plato intended it to move all his readers, and the way I believe it moves our students, at least to some degree. The work shows very concretely the importance of the philosophical life, the importance of pursuing the goods of the soul rather than those of the flesh, and leads the reader toward the study of nature, the study of logic, the study of ethics, the study of metaphysics, and even points toward a greater object of pursuit, but one that depends upon the gift of faith. And it does so in a way that moves the reader to desire to pursue these things. It is truly, I think, one of the seminal texts in our curriculum.