Plato’s Phaedo: The Master of the Tao (66b-67b)

This article is the ninth installment of my translation of Plato’s Phaedo. Please read the previous installment before continuing. If you are just jumping in, please begin with my introduction.

This section represents the generation of a doctrine, based on the logos as clarified in the last section of the dialogue. As you read this small section, you will find that it is a fractal or replication of many religious beliefs in various different forms. The passage itself speaks of the “myriad distractions” of the body, and those myriad forms are what constitutes the “all” and its confusion with the “whole”. In the lower consciousness of mind, the world, the whole is always a sum of its parts. As a result, the problem of multiplicity inside unity or diversity inside unity cannot be resolved on that level of consciousness without violence or force. For example, if there are many different beliefs, one would have to force people to convert in order to make multiplicity “whole” or “pure”.

Religions and spiritual doctrines often confuse this kind of purity and so they justify not only violent acts of war, but feelings and desires for punishment, cruelty, disregard, and devaluation. Socrates suggests that the soul is “beaten black and blue” by the goings on of the “body”. That victimization of the soul, the picture of victimization, fuels the sense of righteousness and the conviction that the one must stop at nothing to destroy evil. In the context of this particular passage, murder and suicide would be consider just and in accordance with the purity of soul. That is enough to begin to notice that something is not quite right with the body/soul doctrine. Simmias still, however, doesn’t notice as most religious and spiritual people do not.

It is very challenging, the light of the logos, its prescriptions of purity and claims to innocent victimization, to see the shadow form that is also generated through that light. Plato is attempting to focus on this, through the dialogue. Those who see, see the shadow and will work to resolve it either through their own dialogue, or the dialogues of Plato, which are guides for how to unravel the programming of the mind, and to resolve the duality of light and shadow. Right now, Simmias, like perhaps many other readers, do not see the difference between belief, opinion, knowledge, wisdom, seeing, or any other form of perception. To Simmias, at this point, the only distinction is between the perception of body and the perception of soul. He is not yet master of the language he is using, and his mind has not reached the sophistication needed into order to be precise in the logos. As a result, he becomes a victim of imprecision and sloppy thinking. As a result, his consciousness remains stuck in kind of haze and overly simplistic dichotomy of soul/body, which is a typical one for any philosophical teaching of the day and today as well.

The interesting thing to note about Socrates is that he is incredibly patient with Simmias and never once interjects to correct or change his point of view. All Socrates ever does is help to illuminate his point of view, and, as we shall see later, use other interlocutors to help illuminate and transform this simplistic dualistic position into something more aligned with what Plato calls “Being” or the “Good”, or in ancient Chinese philosophy, the Tao:

The Tao doesn’t take sides;

it gives birth to both good and evil.

The Master doesn’t take sides;

she welcomes both saints and sinners.

The Tao is like a bellows:

it is empty yet infinitely capable.

The more you use it, the more it produces;

the more you talk of it, the less you understand.

Hold on to the center.

Tao-te Ching, 4.

Well, then it is necessary[1], to establish a specific doctrine[2] out of all of this for those who are genuinely [3] philosophers, and so they’ll in the following way:[4]
 There is of course a risk that there may be some sort of shortcut that is leading us astray by means of the logos in this investigation; for we are calling the following statement “truth”:

 ‘As long as we have a body, and our soul is bruised, beaten, and twisted up in that kind of evil, we may never satisfactorily possess that which we desire to possess.

Now the body provides us with a myriad of distractions due to its necessary care: and still more, if any diseases may befall us, they thwart us from the hunt for being.  And furthermore, the body fills us up with such longings and desires and fears and all sorts of imaginations and nonsense that, as the saying goes, truly and absolutely nothing at any time is able to be consciously created from within our being. 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 yet we are compelled to possess things due to the body, being slaves to its service.

So, at this point we have little time for philosophy due to all these things. And the worst part is that even when any one of us has some time away from the body and we then turn towards the investigation of something, it again hurls loud tantrums from every vantage point and fills us with such disorder and confusion, that we are unable, under its hegemony, to see the truth. But it has been in fact demonstrated to us that, if we intend to ever see anything purely, one must free oneself from the body, and one must see matters themselves by means of the soul alone: for at that time, as it seems, that which we desire and of which we say we are lovers, namely phronesis[5], will be possible for us when we have completed our life[6], but never when we are still living.

If it is not possible to know (gnonai) anything purely with the body, one of two things is the case: either it is not ever possible to possess knowledge (eidenai) of anything or it is possible only for those who have completed life. For at that time, the soul will be by herself according to herself apart from the body, while previously she was not.

Meanwhile, while we are still alive it seems that we will be able to come as close as possible to knowledge as long as we neither preoccupy ourselves nor have intercourse with the body beyond what is necessary; as long as we do not infect ourselves with its nature, but instead purify ourselves of it until the god himself lets us go. And in this way, being separated and purified from the thoughtlessness of the body, we will be in an appropriate relationship with such things, and we will know, by means of ourselves alone the whole that is unmixed and pure.  This is likely the truth: that it is not right that the impure be able to touch the pure. “

I believe, Simmias, it’s necessary that these things are both said and believed amongst those who are properly lovers of learning[7]. Does it not seem to you to be the case?

More than anything, Socrates.

[1] Simmias logos in the section before, creates the necessity here (anagkē). Necessity is a consequence of perception as seen through the logos.

[2] Doxa, from which we get our words dogma and doctrine. This is a very important word in Plato, and is commonly translated as opinion. In this context, it is important to note that Socratic philosophy doesn’t hold opinions, but questions them. Simmias doesn’t experience this in his experience of philosophy and philosophers. To him, philosophy is another form of religious or spiritual ideology.

[3] gnēsiōs, Unusual adverb. Appears to be cognate with gnosis (knowing) but is actually cognate with genos (race or species).  Implies “belonging to the race”, “lawfully begotten”, and so “truly”. Thus, I translate “genuine” since it is cognate with genetic. Socrates is suggesting that the philosophers are in some kind of genetic kinship with one another, like any other group of thinkers or believers. Of course, he is going along with Simmias’ train of thought.

[4] Socrates is formulating a philosopher’s doctrine based on Simmias point of view. It is important to always remember that Socrates only speaks in context of whom he is speaking with. He does not necessarily agree.

[5] Notice that above Socrates says they desire the truth. Now it is consciousness. Simmias doesn’t notice the change. He doesn’t see the difference. Socrates is suggesting they are hunting for consciousness – implying they don’t have any. It is quite remarkable.

[6] Socrates doesn’t use a cognate of Thanatos, and so is not explicitly referring to the death of the physical body. Instead, he uses a verb of the root -tel-, which implies the ego death of initiation. Simmias doesn’t see the difference, nor does he notice any difference between phronesis, knowledge, and wisdom.

[7] Notice that Socrates says that this is a doctrine for “lovers of learning”. He does not say “philosophers”. Simmias doesn’t seem to notice the difference between philosophy and knowledge and so doesn’t object.

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