Like most plays, the Phaedo begins with an introduction of the protagonist. In this case, we are presented with two men, Phaedo and Execrates. They are the only ones who speak. However, there are many others on the stage as well who are simply present as an audience. They are mentioned by Execrates as he speaks for them and their interests. Phaedo simply observes them, and will, as we shall see, deliver the “entertainment” they request. This audience are for whom all theater, all plays, all spectacles on the political stage, are performed. Understanding their presence is incredibly important. They are the silent majority, the ones who speak only through a designated speaker, each individual remaining silent and unknown as far as the play goes. Understanding the presence of audience in all of life is important for each and every presentation that shows up on the world stage. In Plato, that which is not said, that which is silent, always has a presence that is important to remember.

Execrates name means “wielder of power”. He is the speaker for the multitude, in this case.  The one speaks for all is always the one who holds the power of all, deserved or not.  Phaedo’s name means “shining one”. Phaedo will only tell them the story of Socrates, and he will, as we shall see, attempt to reflect that light of philosophy to the best of his ability. Does he succeed? We shall see.

There are a few patterns that must be noted in this introduction.  Plato’s dialogues always begin with some kind of introduction, and in that introduction, you can see the all the patterns as if they were seeds that contain the possibility of every flower that blooms throughout the rest of the dialogue. Below, I will point out a few items that are critical for this dialogue. Please try to remember them as you continue to read, as they will show up again and again.

Duality and Unity

It’s no accident that the dialogue begins with a conversation between two men, Execrates and Phaedo. It’s also no accident that the two live in cities that are political enemies. During the Peloponnesian war, Execrates’ native city-state Phlius, allied itself with the Spartan League against Athens. As a result, embassies between the two became non-existent. The conversation between Phaedo and Execrates is a conversation between officially declared enemies or opposites. In modern times, this dialogue might have shown a Russian and an American speaking together about some Russian philosopher who died. Political polarities have no impact one what really brings us together, what makes us human. That’s the good news. The bad news is, that political polarities are constantly and consistently set in place in under to maximize mass death, destruction, and despair. Polarity is, essentially, the cause and foundation of all human suffering on the planet.  The reason is that polarity conceals the very thing that we are, namely, unity.

Polarity, as we shall explore, is an illusion that conceals itself from the human mind. The human mind postulates and accepts the logical principle of identity which is A = A and A != !A.  This is why it is so difficult to “understand” that two polar opposites are one and the same, and that the two are actually one. Even more difficult to understand is that the two polarities, as illusion, can be mixed together, added together into “one” object or concept and generally forced to cohabitate in some fashion, such as when you try to put oil and water into a glass together, or when you try to force people with different opinions to agree.  However, never do the two become one. Arranging stuff together to make them work together will not unify them, because they are on principle, repelled by each other, just as dark and light are repelled. Grey is a mixture of the two, white and dark. However, gray is just one of another polarity, namely, all that is not gray. War is created by peace, which creates more war. This is the suffering that humans endlessly suffer.

Unity cannot be achieved through human cleverness or intelligence. In fact, it is human intelligence that continues to create complex systems, separation, division, and all sorts of systems that create more and more polarity.  The truth, that Plato always attempts to reveal, is that all any polarities are ultimately a function of that which is already one, pure being, and pure awareness. That is to say, there is no need to do anything; no need to virtue signal, or try to make the world more diverse, or try to use arithmetic, or to force people to comply in order to “make” the two or many into one. The two cannot become one, because they already are one first of all, but they will never be one in the context of the polarity that constitutes the nature of the material mind.


Divine fate and human law

The word, Tyche is used to denote divine chance, fate, or even divine law. Fate is not something that human beings can understand or prevent. Fate is out of human control. However, Phaedo uses the word tyche is to describe the reason why Socrates’ death sentence by Athenian law was delayed. Divine law always trumps human law, and even the Athenians recognized that. However, in this case, the Athenians designed a human law that attempted to interpret divine fate and legislate on its behalf. This is the essence of religion – it’s an attempt to interpret the divine fate or the divine will through human (mind) means. But attempting to interpret and legislate divine law is like attempting to mix the polarities together in a polarity soup in order to make them one, and to threaten them with violence if they don’t comply.

Execrates
You, Phaedo[1]! Were you yourself near Socrates on the day when he drank the potion[2] in the prison[3], or did you hear about it from someone else?

Phaedo
Myself, Execrates.

Execrates
What sort of things did he say before death[4]? How did he come to complete life[5]? I would enjoy listening!  A Phliasian these days doesn’t have the habit of visiting Athens and it has been a long time since any foreigner has come from there who might be able to tell us anything besides the fact that “He died by drinking potion”.

Phaedo
What? You all weren’t informed about how things turned out at the trial?

Execrates
Yes, we were. Someone sent word to us about it, yet we were amazed how he seemed to die so long after the trial ended. Why was this?


Phaedo
A bit of chance assisted him[6]. It just so happened that on the day before the trial, the Athenians placed the wreath on their ceremonial ship to Delos.

Execrates
What is that?

Phaedo
This is the very ship which, according to the Athenians, Theseus once helmed, in which he brought the fourteen[7] to Crete, and saved them and himself. As the story goes, they had made a deal with Apollo, that if he should save them, they would send a theōria[8] to Delos every single year.  So, ever since then, each year as always, they send the theōria back to Delos for the god.  But whenever they begin this theōria, it’s customary for them to purify[9] the city and that means no public executions during the time it takes for the ship to reach Delos and return. Now this can sometimes take a long time, especially when there are winds that take them off course. So, to make a long story short, the beginning of this theōria is when the priest of Apollo coronates the stern of the ship. And this is exactly what happened, as I was saying, on the day before the trial; and because of this, while Socrates was in prison, a long time passed between the hour of the trial and the hour of death.

Execrates
So what happened around the death itself, Phaedo? What was said and done, and which of companions were there for the man? Or did the archons not permit them to be present, and so he completed his life without friends?

Phaedo
Not at all! There were some present – a good number actually!

Execrates
Try, as best you can, to tell us everything and as clearly as possible, unless you have other business to attend to.

Phaedo

Well I’m quite free, and will attempt to tell you the story, for the most pleasing thing in the world to me is to rememberSocrates, whether it is myself speaking of him or hearing about him from another.

Execrates
And you certainly have others who are a similar sort here.  So as best as you are able, try to go through everything as accurately as possible.


[1] It’s not translatable in the English, but the first word of this dialogue and of the question is autos, which means self. The best I could do was emphasize “you”. Phaedo’s name is constructed of the Greek root phae- which means “shining, light”.  The English word, photon, is a synaeresis of phaoton. Light, in Gnosticism is, the nature of the divine, and is close to what we call awareness.

[2] pharmakon. The Greek word generally means drug or medicine. It also can refer to a magical or enchanted potion and is associated with witches, sorceresses, and witchcraft. Another meaning, of course, is poison. I have chosen to keep the word neutral since the neutrality – or ambiguity – of Plato’s language is important, especially in this dialogue.

[3] In the Republic, Plato describes the human condition as being trapped in a cave as if in a prison. Our knowledge consists of false imitations, and puppet shows. See Republic, VII 514a – 517a. 

[4] pro thanatou. “before death” may also be translated as “pro death”, as if Socrates was making speeches in death’s defense and favor. Consider that Plato makes use of both senses, because in this dialogue, we find out that Socrates doesn’t see death as bad at all. In fact, he is sees it a possible improvement. Also, Execrates doesn’t specify how much time before the death. “Before death” can include Socrates’ entire life or lives.

[5] eteleuta. I will always mark this word in bold and translate it as “complete”. It is a word that means come to end, or die, but it also means perfection, and is a world that refers to the completion of one’s awakening to the truth about life.

[6] assisted him. The Greek verb here can mean to happen to one, but it also implies assistance, the kind that would arrive from a god who was walking with Socrates. The verb literally means “to walk together (with someone)”. In this case, Phaedo is suggesting that tyche (fate) was walking with Socrates.

[7] Seven boys and seven girls to sacrifice to the Minotaur, a beast born of a goddess (Pasiphae, whose name means all shining, the daughter of Helios and Wife of Minos. She was considered a witch) and a bull (divine bull sent by Poseidon). Athens had made a deal with Minos, due to the death of his son by hand of the Athenians, to sacrifice fourteen young people to the Minotaur, once a year. Theseus was the Greek hero who freed Athens from this cannibalistic sacrifice.

[8] Theoria is an interesting word, comprised of the root, theō, which means “seeing, sight, light, gleaming”. It is similar to pha-. The Greek word for deity is theos.  Plato here is making a connection with the light and the god Apollo, who is known as the god of reason, the sun. However, things get a little complicated with Apollo’s name which means destruction. He was once the god both of life and death. This is why Theseus (also containing the root -the-) saw Apollo as a god who could let them die or let them live at will. A theoria is something sent to an oracle or for some form of consultation. Its purpose is to see what the god sees and to align oneself to what the god envisions. This is the true nature of religion – an attempt to interpret the divine will into human law.

[9] καtharsis. Purification. The Mysteries requires that all initiates must be free of all blood guilt before they can reach wholeness (teleusis). However, Plato is subtly showing us that Athens only feels it needs to be purified at specific times, during ceremony. The rest of the times, it can engage in quite a bit of murder. You can easily see that, as long as Athens purifies itself in ceremony, it feels perfectly free to return to its murderous habits.

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