This dialogue presents Plato’s account of the philosophical discussions that occurred amongst Socrates and his friends on the night of the former’s death. Never having read the classical philosophers but awed by a vague awareness of their reputation, I expected the main topic of discussion—the controversial idea of the immortal soul—to be proved by the rigorous application of flawless logic, secular rationality and esoteric thinking.
This assumption caused me some problems as I read through the first 3/4 of the book and found many of the arguments it contains to be…well…unsatisfactory. Questionable assumptions were frequently made and used as the basis for further arguments. Often, issues of linguistics and philosophy seemed muddled up together, with shifting definitions leading to unconvincing conclusions. Some lines of reasoning seemed frankly circular and many explanations seemed to create more questions than they answered.
At first, I was very frustrated with myself, thinking my stupidity surpassed lack of understanding to reach actual disagreement! But as I read on, it became more and more apparent that Plato and Socrates must be famous for something other than infallible reasoning about philosophical issues. In his complex “myth of the afterlife” near the end of the dialogue, Socrates finally gives up all pretense of logic, weaving a strange and wonderful tale of rivers and regions of the earth where souls travel after bodily death.
When I finally reached the following quote, I realized that what I had expected to be a grand testament to human intellectualism was in fact something much more touching and powerful: a dying man’s hopeful affirmation of faith that death is not the end.
Now to insist that those things are just as I’ve related them would not be fitting for a man of intelligence; but that either that or something like it is true about our souls and their dwellings, given that the soul evidently is immortal, that, I think, is fitting and worth risking, for one who believes that it is so—for a noble risk it is—so one should repeat such things to oneself like a spell; which is just why I’ve so prolonged the tale (114d).
[Why I read it: my knowledge of Greek literature is lacking, so when I saw this short book encompassing two famous philosophers at the thrift store, I thought it might be a good place to start.]