Socrates, the Phaedo, and philosophy as practice for dying and death.

It is extraordinary that Socrates makes such an unambiguous and absolute statement regarding what the purpose is of philosophy. He states, “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death” (Phaedo, 64a).

What does he mean by this? What he means, first of all, is that proper philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom in as pure a manner as possible. This is to say, the proper practice of philosophy involves recognition and separation of the effects and influences of the body upon one’s soul. As death is defined as the separation of a soul from a body (64c) this means that proper philosophy is a practice for an inevitable future life of separation from the body and its hindrances.

Secondly, flowing from this basic value distinction between that which is physical and that which is intelligible, the proper practice of philosophy is to focus upon and desire the Ideas which exist apart from the physical realms in the eternal and intelligible realm (i.e., the Good, True, Beautiful etc). If we have succeeded in grasping truth (i.e., reasoning upon eternal concepts as a soul ‘by itself’ and uninfluenced by bodily passions) we will be more prepared to think and interact with intelligible concepts (and those other souls who think and interact with them) when our souls are separated from our bodies.

Thirdly, in a negative sense, those who have lived this earthly life in thrall to the various appetites and passions of the body (i.e., contaminated by the body’s folly (67a)) will be hindered from properly dying. Their soul will not be fully separated and freed from the body, but will remain bound to the physical realm in varying degrees and will suffer as a consequence. Indulging in bodily passions and appetites fastens the soul more strongly to the body (83d) and means it can have “no part in the company of the divine, the pure and uniform” (83e). This bad state after death can only be avoided by properly practising philosophy.

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