Were you yourself, Phaedo, present with Socrates on the day where he drank the potion in the prison, or did you hear about it from another?Phaedo, 57a
αὐτός, ὦ Φαίδων, παρεγένου Σωκράτει ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ᾗ τὸ φάρμακον ἔπιεν ἐν τῷ δεσμωτηρίῳ, ἢ ἄλλου του ἤκουσας;
The Phaedo is a conversation about the soul. But not only that. It is also a conversation about the nature of the body. In Ancient Greek, soul (psyche) means spirit and life force, but it also means breath. In that sense it is both the physical and spiritual animator of the body. For Plato, the soul is the self, the true nature of the human being. The soul is also infinite. It is not defined by its physical connections or appearances. That is to say, it is not defined or limited by the body. Yes, your soul, yes YOU, is everywhere at all times. The essence of all mystery schools is this teaching, that we are all capable of experiencing eternity through our soul in this life and the life to come. The source of all mystery schools, both ancient and modern, is written in the peculiar Emerald Tablets of Thoth:
Yea, to the highest worlds may ye pass.Emerald Tablets of Thoth, XV, Secret of Secrets
See your own possible heights of unfoldment,
know all earthly futures of Soul.
Bound are ye in your body,
but by the power ye may be free.
This is the Secret whereby bondage
shall be replaced by freedom for thee.
So let’s start seeking out this “Secret” by taking a look at the Phaedo.
My late professor at Boston University, Dr. Motzkin, always used to say that if you can deeply comprehend the first introductory part of any Platonic dialogue, you will comprehend the whole. That is the way the dialogue works. I will constantly remind the reader that Plato follows the Seven Hermetic Principles both in terms of the content of the dialogue and the dialogue itself. The principle I am reminded of here is the Principle of Correspondence, which states that all beings contain the entire universe, and that the entire universe contains all beings. Each part of the dialogue contains the essence of the whole. If you deeply understand a part of nature, you will easily grasp the whole. Why is this? Because the nature of the soul is the nature of the universe. It is not formed or limited by physical appearances. That is the illusion that all students must learn to overcome.
“Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)
Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.Rumi
Now, in Phaedo, the self or the soul shows up in different ways, and that is because our relationship to self, in this life, is mostly illusion. We think that the soul is in a place, in a body, with a name, and in a certain time or not in a certain time. The soul is in a jail or the soul drank something on a certain day and died. Don’t you believe that that is what you are right now as you read this article? The reason for this is simple. When the soul incarnates inside a body it is surrounded by its influences and preoccupations, rather than its own. It looks outside of itself for confirmation. And low and behold, other souls are looking outside for confirmation as well. That is what is called collective appearances, which are always at face value. However, for Plato, the soul is by nature autonomous. It doesn’t need outside confirmation. It resists the illusion.
Yet when the soul becomes absorbed in the preoccupations of the body, it loses that autonomy.
Isn’t this what we were saying before, that the soul, whenever it makes use of the body to contemplate something either through vision or through hearing or through any other sense – for this is the way of the body, to contemplate a thing through sense perception – at that very moment the soul is dragged by the body into those things that are never the same, and so the soul herself wanders and is agitated, and becomes dizzy as if drunk in as much as she is overcome by these things?Phaedo, Translation by Anastasia Harris
You can say that when someone does this, they are giving away their power. This is why many people seek out a shaman to “retrieve their souls”. Their soul becomes fragmented and lost as they give their power away piecemeal to illusions. The ego does this gladly because it feels like it is actually gaining and seeking power by becoming absorbed in more things, people, circumstances. The Greek word for ego in Plato is simply “body”. The ego’s or body’s primary and only intention is to survive, to win, to gain the advantage, to get more, feel more. Why? It knows it will die and wants to avoid it. It is no wonder that the Greek word for body is sōmata, which is near cognate to the word sōs, meaning safe. The ego wants to protect itself. It is always in defensive or offensive mode. Meanwhile, soul is always just being. It doesn’t need to save itself, because, again, it is deathless and limitless. This is why Jesus says in John 8:23 that “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
I want to make it clear that Plato’s notion of “body” qua ego does not intend to lead us to the conclusion that we should not take care of it. The physical body, in the way Plato views it, is that it is like a wild horse that must be tamed. The soul, through its powers of consciousness with mind, is the only one fit to do this. If the soul is left undeveloped, it will be consumed by the body in away that leads to bad health, obsessive compulsiveness, anxiety, depression, and various others diseases and ailments.
Self: First Word of the Dialogue
It is no wonder that a dialogue about the soul begins with the Greek word autós. Autós, is from where derive our English “autonomous”, “automatic”, “automobile”. All of those words suggest independence, without outside force or influence. An autonomous country is one that runs under its own laws without outside control. An automatic response is something you don’t have to think about. It just happens by itself with or without your consent. The last and most interesting one is automobile. An automobile doesn’t drive itself, does it? Well, it does if you consider that previous to the automobile, you needed horses in order to move your carriage! The automobile gives both the horses and us freedom.
Now autós in Ancient Greek is generally emphatic. Greek verbs contain the subject of the verb. For example, ἤκουσας, means “you heard”. You don’t need a separate word for “you”. However, if that pronoun is present, it is only there for emphasis. In English we would use italics to express this. ‘He is the singer’ vs. ‘He is the singer’. It is a difference of tone. autós can also mean same, when paired syntactically with a specific noun. It also can mean “itself”, like the dog itself or the table itself. The emphatic nature of autós however does not overwrite the fact that autós means self-same. It represents a being that has an independent form. In Plato, it is the soul and the self as it is without the body or as master of the body. The implication is that the soul is infinite and self-same. It is not divisible and it is not limited by the limitations of the body.
A Quest/Question: First Sentence of the Dialogue
While the first word of the dialogue is autós, the first sentence of the dialogue is a question. This is also no surprise as questioning and answering are the primary motions of the Socratic dialogue. Contrast the questioning/answering nature of the dialogue, the constant back and forth and movement, to lecturing or declaring. Dialogic conversations are transformative. If you make a statement in your head about something, you question it, or remain open about its possible falsity. Eventually, as you find more information, that statement will transform into something else. Declarations or argumentation is the opposite. It is either one person making a statement about something and other people arguing. Argumentation is a like ping pong match that lasts for infinity. When we do this in our bodies, we create strife and lack of resolution, we store it in our bodies and our children’s bodies. This is called Epigenetics Inheritance. In dialogue, the winner is chosen after healthy interchange, and both go out for drinks after. They will even come back for a second round, to see if they can improve. They don’t hold on to things. The “battle” between them is dissolved. This is called detachment. However, when you are in a state of argumentation, you are not engaging the true nature of your soul. You are attached to your opinions like a miser attached to his gold. What you are doing is simply entertaining the ego or as Plato would say, the body. And remember, the ego is always the false soul. It is an impostor, as it is always making us think that we “are it”, instead of the soul. It is always making you think that you are your body, its wants, needs, etc.
And most of what you talk about to yourself comes from ego. Ask yourself if your self-talk, the talk that generally goes on in your head about yourself, others, and the world at large, is in the form of questions or declarations and judgments? Do you question yourself when you make statements about something or someone? Or do you assume that what you are saying is true? Most of what goes on in our head is not dialogue, but something else. And it is that something else that causes us to become even more distant from our soul. For Plato, the essence of the soul is dialogic. The soul works with the logos in a way so that it can learn and grow. It will look at statements and assumptions and questions them until it can find the truth. And even then, it will continue to question, until it reaches that truth it is seeking. The soul by itself is not attached to the results. It only cares about truth. That is the nature of yoga. That is the nature of Platonic philosophy.
So that is the reason why Plato starts this dialogue with a question that starts with autós.
The War with Others
Now it is time to have a quick look at allos, other. The idea of the allos/autós polarity shows up all over this dialogue. I am not writing this commentary in order to cover every place it occurs. That would take years. I will however write a different piece on its polarity. So I am just going to stick with how it shows up in this first question of the Phaedo. Here is the question again for reference:
Were you yourself, Phaedo, present with Socrates on the day where he drank the potion in the prison, or did you hear about it from another?
Did you hear it from someone else (allos), or were you present there yourself (autós)? allos is essentially the opposite of autós. It means “other”. Pretty straightforward. Whatever is considered to be outside of the self is put into the camp of “other”. It implies that there is something outside the self at all, as if it were not an illusion. I will get back to this point in a minute. First, let’s just look at the question being asked.
It would seem that it is very easy for Phaedo to answer this question. He replies “autós”. Don’t you answer things in this way? If you were listening to a speech given by a politician, and at a later date someone asked you if you were present or if you heard about from someone else, wouldn’t you reply “autos”? Okay, you don’t speak Greek. So, you would probably “Yes, I was present myself”. Obvious isn’t it? But is it so obvious what “being present” means?
Now, in the dialogue, we don’t know what Execrates would have said, had Phaedo replied that he heard about Socrates’ death from someone else. Would he have turned around and walked away, taking his friends with him? One thing we do know is that Execrates is content with himself hearing from someone else (allos). After all, what choice would he have? The death of Socrates occurred in a time that has already passed and Phaedo was actually present at the time of his death. But alas, the soul can be present to the past, because it can be present everywhere, and you have intuitive awareness that it can. That is the real reason why you trust the account of a person who was present at a past event versus a person who was not. They were present in the “now”. The only thing we get wrong, is that we assume that the person with the body was paying attention and was consciously present in his soul, rather than his body. The reason? The body only perceives through senses. The soul perceives in another way all together and most of us, except some very advanced yogis and psychics, are able to travel beyond the confines of time and space in a conscious way. The rest of us do it, but we are generally not aware of it. The practice of philosophy and yoga both aim to achieve this kind of consciousness, because it is simply pure soul consciousness, the ultimate truth of who you are.
We are, as long as we are in our body, limited in our experiences, not only in time and place and our understanding of time and space, but also in the scope and clarity of our consciousness. When it comes to the five senses, we can only perceive the things that are in proximity to our self (autós) as ego. And they are always experienced as being “outside” self. We think that world is outside of us, that people are outside, that everything we see, hear,feel, and touch is outside. Doesn’t matter if it is “mine” or not “mine. It is all there outside of me. And that is where all our suffering truly comes from.
Furthermore, our perceptions are very very limited and restricted to what is in front of us or immediately around us. And even then, we (autós), are not able to perceive everything around us. Do you perceive everyone’s fingernails? Can you hear their hearts beat? Can you see everyone’s eye color? In essence, whatever is outside the self (autós) is perceived as other (allos) and it is never a complete picture. It gets even more confusing when you start to remember that each other (allos) is also a self (autós), just like you. But we often avoid that kind of confusion by convincing ourselves that others are just others and don’t relate to our self at all, or only do so by accident or coincidence or by attribute (likes, dislikes, other similarities). How do we convince ourselves that they are separate from our self? They are not always with us and most of them eventually leave our side. Their bodies are separate from ours. Physical perception completely informs us. Later in the dialogue Socrates points out that all wars are caused by the body (ego) but because through the body we perceive ourselves as completely separate and so different from the “others”. “Others”, in fact, only appear so because of the body. The physical senses create “others”. The implication is that if we did not possess a body, we would see ourselves through the perception of the soul, which he calls phronesis or consciousness, as a single self, a single soul.
For what causes wars and factions and fights is nothing other than the body and its desires. It is due to the possession of things that all wars come into being, and we are forced to possess things due to the body, being slaves to its service.Phaedo, 66c, translation by Anastasia Harris
And this bring us to another interesting point. Phaedo and Execrates are actually supposed to be enemies. Phaedo is an Athenian. Execrates is of a small polis that allied itself with Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian War. To make matters worse, it is due to this devastating loss by the hands of Sparta, that the Athenian dream of democracy fell into a corrupt and bloody tyranny. That tyranny, the Tyranny of the Twelve, is what brought Socrates the verdict of death by poison. So here we have Execrates asking to hear the story of Socrates from an “other”, a “foreigner”, not because Socrates was Spartan or because Socrates was Athenian, but simply because Socrates was himself (autós). Philosophy, the interest in reaching awareness of self is universal. It is through the soul that we find our humanity and our connection, not with others, but with others as soul. It is through dialogue, not judgement that we find peace.
After Phaedo agrees to tell Execrates what happened at Socrates’ death, he first gives Execrates a short summary of his emotional impressions. Phaedo remarks the following:
Truly I experienced thaumasia (wonder) while I was there. For although I was present for the death of a man dear to me, pity never occurred to me: the man appeared quite happy to me, Execrates, both in his manner and his words; and he came to his end so fearlessly and nobly, that he seemed to me to be going to Hades by divine fate, and when he would get there, he would do quite well if indeed anyone ever could. Because of this, in no way did pity sweep over me, as is usually the case in an experience like this, but neither did I take any of the usual pleasure in philosophy- for the speeches were of a philosophical nature –but instead there was an uncanny affliction that came over me, a strange mixture that contained equal portion of pain and pleasure, knowing full well in my heart that he was destined to end his life (teleusis). And so, all of us present were also constituted in the same way, at one time laughing, and another time crying, each one of us and most especially Apollodorus, for you know the man and his ways.Phaedo, 58e, Translation by Anastasia Harris
Phaedo describes his emotional state and impressions during that day. The marvel and wonder that he felt was the state of bliss Socrates displayed, despite everyone else being on a see-saw of both despair and joy. It is very important to remember Socrates state of consciousness, for it is the state that all practitioners of the mysteries schools wish to achieve: not just fearlessness before death, but the absolute awareness that the end of the body is not the end of the soul at all. Socrates repeats this often in the beginning of the dialogue to explain why he is not upset about the verdict of his death. However, none of those present are quite convinced in the eternity of the soul. They do not yet have that kind of level of consciousness.
Now Execrates doesn’t really appear to be interested in Phaedo’s physical impressions. Execrates specifically asks for the logoi. “What were the logoi?, he asks. What he wishes to hear are the logoi that weave together into the dialogue, the dialogue that is the natural conversation of the soul, where all wars, all “others” dissolve into one beautiful and most just conversation, a conversation and a gathering where we experience ourselves, each other, as one. In this case, the conversations are a conversation about the nature of the soul as eternal and everlasting, a place that we would all like to be aware of, for in that state of eternity there are no fears and no desires, only bliss, only peace. And that is why the last line of the dialogue complements the first word of the dialogue. Socrates is the manifestation of the purified soul on earth, in the form of the philosopher, around whom all souls gathered to dialogue in order to seek within themselves truth, justice (balance), and, above all Being herself.
We all “relate” to Socrates in our soul. Because we are THAT. सो ऽहम् ( “I am That”)
The final line of the dialogue refers to his “end” as teleutē. That word doesn’t mean death as much as initiation (as into the mysteries), as much as reaching perfection, as much as reaching the highest state of consciousness (nirvana). Unfortunately, there is no word in English that captures the idea of initiation/end/perfection/death all in one.
ἥδε ἡ τελευτή, ὦ Ἐχέκρατες, τοῦ ἑταίρου ἡμῖν ἐγένετο, ἀνδρός, ὡς ἡμεῖς φαῖμεν ἄν, τῶν τότε ὧν ἐπειράθημεν ἀρίστου καὶ ἄλλως φρονιμωτάτου καὶ δικαιοτάτου.
So here the end has come, Execrates, of a friend, of a man, whom we would say, of all those we had made proof of at the time, to be the most noble, and beyond all others, the most conscious and the most balanced.Phaedo, 118a.
And so between the first question to the last answer of the dialogue, we have a journey that takes us from question to answer. The question is always: are you listening for yourself or through others? Are their others at all? Are you present in body or present in soul? Are you present to both? The answer will not come until the final perfection of higher consciousness on earth, until you reach that state of perfection where all dissolves in the one and one dissolves into all, beyond body, beyond what mind can comprehend, namely, what you truly are, always were and always will be. Perfection is now in the now, for eternity. Our only job is to become conscious of it – now.