By Ben Potter
The Phaedo takes places in 399 BC at the scene of the final days of Socrates’ life. The dialogue is primarily an argument for the immortality of the soul that Socrates is trying to convince his grief-ridden colleagues, and maybe indeed himself, of in order to prove that his execution is merely the separation of his soul from his body… and not his actual ‘death’.
But how does Plato/Socrates prove that there is an immortal soul? It’s not an easy task, no doubt, and so he employs the idea of recollection (or anamnesis). However, like with most of Plato’s concepts when fully investigated, it reveals far more than what is immediately obvious.
The theory of anamnesis was, in fact, first introduced in one of Plato’s earlier works, the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates informs Meno that nothing can be either taught or learnt as we already possess all the knowledge in the world. Socrates explains that, through the lifetime of our soul, we have already learnt all there is to learn and that we can answer every question, provided we are asked in the correct manner.
He goes on to prove this by getting an uneducated slave to figure out a math problem by asking him a series of extremely leading questions. ie. “Is your personal opinion that the square on the diagonal of the original square is double its area?” Socrates seems convinced that he has done nothing to ‘educate’ the slave, but merely asked him the appropriate questions that allowed him to recollect.
This argument for recollection is taken a step further in the Phaedo, as Plato claims there are two aspects of recollection. The first involves no lapse of time and is less a recollection of something, but more a reminder of it: “you know what happens to lovers, whenever they see a lyre or cloak or anything else their loves are accustomed to use: they recognize the lyre, and they get in their mind, don’t they, the form of the boy whose lyre it is?”
The second aspect of recollection is one that does involve the lapse of time and is more familiar to the theory of recollection in the Meno. Additionally, it relates to Socrates’ goal of establishing the immortality of the soul. The argument that he lays out is that we are neither capable of learning anything new, nor were we born with the knowledge of things, but that we knew these things before our birth.
But before we proceed with the Theory of Recollection, we must first examine Plato’s Theory of Forms. As many will no doubt recall, Plato believed that the Forms were ethereal entities of extremely general terms, ie. sameness, difference, justice, purity, vice, beauty, etc. The reason these things were entities, rather than concepts, was due to the fact that Plato perceived them as something very real indeed, even though it seems they were invisible… at least to our eyes.
Returning to our foremost theory, Plato uses the Form of ‘equality’ to try and transmit his views on recollection. He states that in viewing two sticks of equal length, we recognize that they posses ‘equality’. However, he also makes clear that two sticks of unequal length can also cause us to recognize ‘equality’ by its absence. He also conveys that even what appears to be perfectly equal, can, in fact, fall short of ‘equality’, for the simple reason that only the Form of ‘equality’ can be truly, purely equal.
So how do these ideas bring us to the primary aim of the dialogue, the immortality of the soul?
Essentially, in order for the theory of recollection to work, our souls would have had to exist before our earthly incarnation, as well as go on existing after it. Additionally, if the soul is immortal then it must also be eternal, because if something can never come to an end, then it must never have had a beginning in the first place.
The fact that we can identify ‘equality’ (or any Form) is due to the fact that we have experienced the true Form ‘equality’ during a time when our souls were apart from our bodies and at one with (or at least closer to) the Forms.
So, when we see double yellow lines, we can recognize the equality that they posses by recollecting the Form ‘equality’ and concluding they are the same length, width and distance apart. The conclusion then is that because we can recognize/remember the Form of ‘equality’, our soul existed before our bodies, and consequently it will exist afterwards. Hence, the soul is immortal.
Interestingly, despite the willingness of Plato to change his opinions throughout his works, the Theory of Recollection seems to be the one he particularly cares to develop, rather than disregard. What is more of a passing thought in the Meno becomes an intrinsic part of his dialogues in the Phaedo. The elaboration of the concept almost appears to be a consequence of Plato himself re-reading the Meno in search of inspiration.
That said and despite Plato’s inclinations to put words into Socrates’ mouth, the concept of recollection might actually be one we can assign to the older thinker. Cebes, in fact, comments to Socrates in the Phaedo, ‘there’s also that theory you’re always putting forward, that our learning is actually nothing but recollection.”
Although the idea of recollection is vital for the Phaedo, the Phaedo itself is not purely a dialogue about recollection, but about the soul’s immortality. As it was obviously written after the death of Socrates, it could be Plato’s attempt to not only convince the philosophic community that Socrates, and his great mind, lives on, but also his endeavor to make one of the great theories of his friend and mentor persevere throughout time. And maybe that’s how Socrates really achieved his immortality…
You can read Plato’s Phaedo for yourself for free here: