Go back to the Plato page for more texts and other resources.

What has Plato to say about the Soul

Plato's doctrine on the soul, with particular reference to the Apology, Phaedo, and Meno


?Now it is time to be off, I to die, and you to live; but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God.?

Plato?s doctrine on the soul is both extensive and varied. In the Apology we are witness to the agnostic views of Socrates on his death, and in the Phaedo we touchingly observe Socrates? confidence in the face of death, that his very soul will live on. Plato comments on the necessity to lead a life that will be beneficial to the soul, that will allow it to achieve its potential after death, without the distraction of carnal desires. He also develops proofs that show that the soul is immortal and that it carries knowledge to its present life. This essay will serve to establish Plato?s main ideas on the soul, concentrating on the Apology, Phaedo, and Meno.

Plato saw that the best way to keep the soul healthy was to nourish it in a special way. He believed that its true health lay in reason, and therefore to nourish it properly was to practice the disciplines of logic and science. This intellectual pursuit helped the soul participate in eternal things, for ?it was converse with the sublime and with righteousness?. It was therefore the duty of all humans to nourish the soul. He saw as a power the ability to keep the soul pure, and those who spent their time as slaves to their body?s wants were wasting the chance to keep their true soul happy. There were eternally imprisoning the soul every time they gave in to a bodily desire:

?Because every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which it fastens the soul to the body and pins it down and makes it corporeal, accepting as true whatever the body certifies.?

He shows here that the body was imprisoning the soul, and that philosophy would help release it by preventing it from being misled by the perception senses:

?..that observation by means of the eyes and ears and all the other senses abounds with deception, and she (philosophy) urges the soul to refrain from using them unless it is necessary to do so..?

Plato, therefore, had to appeal to the conception of virtue as the healthy condition of the soul, as he does in the Gorgias and at great length in the Republic. It was necessary for him to convey the message that by living a virtuous life and refraining from ?acquisitions and tyranny? .

The desire for good, as Plato saw it, was a universal feeling. At the bottom of every voluntary action , the ultimate good was the aim, and therefore the soul aimed at the good. Every person had a rational principle in them which gave them the capacity to calculate benefit and harm, and if the individual followed what he thought to be right, then ultimately it would be good. If, however, he chose to use his senses to decide, then the act would not be good, for it would be ignoring the advice of the soul. Plato?s basic principle was to encourage the populace to devote their lives to thinking and logic - philosophy - where they could exercise the soul, and not be deceived by the senses.

The correct way to live in order to treat the soul properly is the main theme of the Phaedo. It tells that life is ?an unhappy partnership between body and soul? and that only death can leave the soul able to pursue the truth. We can thus learn here, that for the soul to live after death, Plato must have believed in its immortality, and through Socrates he shows just that.

At the beginning of the dialogue Phaedo begins to tell his companion Echecrates about the death of Socrates, and why he approached his death with joy. Socrates, as a true philosopher, saw death as the very means to achieving what he had been learning all his life - that the soul could only follow the true path once it had been freed from the body. The soul then no longer relies upon input from the senses, which distract it ?from intellectual activity...and fill it with images or fantasies.? . It was the aim of the philosopher to reach this situation:

?Then it is a fact, Simmias, that true philosophers make dying their profession.?

Once the soul was freed, providing that it had not been too corrupted by the body, it had a much better chance of attaining the truth.

His first proof of immortality , in answer to the comment by Cebes that surely the soul would disintegrate on death, showed only that life and death, as opposites, must pass into one another without end ?lest the world of generation should cease to be.? The second proof was based on the assumption that two states and two processes are involved in everything. Therefore if dead and alive are the states, then being born and dying must be the processes. However, after dying the process would stop unless it was followed by a process of rebirth. The final proof showed that the soul had kinship with the Forms, being truly itself when it mingles with these eternal essences. Plato thus concludes that the mortal portion of a man dissolves at death, while the immortal portion of him retains its immutable eternity.

Immortality was also an issue in the Phaedrus. Here Socrates talks of a choice that fallen souls must make every one thousand years - that of which creature they would like to become. Some may be able to turn into animals, having once been human; and some my turn human after a spell as an animal. The myth of the Republic agrees with this, adding to it the point that the form in which it is to be reborn is chosen by the discarnate soul and is chosen in accordance with the nature acquired in its previous incarnation. However, for a soul to appear in human form, it must have seen the ultimate truth, the Forms, for humans are required:

?To understand the language of Forms, passing from plurality of perceptions to a unity gathered together by reason.?
This language of Forms is nothing other than the recollection of the vision which the soul had before incarnation. To understand these universal principles, and to be able to classify data from sense perception would not, according to Plato, be possible if we had not already had knowledge of the general concepts. However, Plato does not try to show that only philosophers are able to reach this truth through immortal souls. He believed, in the Phaedo, that all human souls were immortal.

Plato held that everyone had in them knowledge of the Forms. Yet this knowledge could not have been acquired since birth, for we cannot use our senses to determine the true Form, rather we must use rational reflection, and therefore it must have pre-existed birth. This theory of recollection is one of Plato?s most well-known doctrines, yet it only appears in three of his works which we know of - the Phaedo, as we have already discovered; the Phaedrus, shown above; and the Meno. It has been claimed, however, that ?the theory of recollection is actually a theory of innateness?.

The Meno is the earliest of the three dialogues, and notably follows the form of the Socratic elenchus. Socrates begins by asking Meno for a definition of virtue. When he fails three times to provide a satisfactory answer they conclude that they can go no further if they don?t truly know what virtue is. However, as they know, but can?t define, what virtue is, Socrates introduces recollection as a way to combat the problem. With this theory he is able to argue that since the soul pre-existed the body, it was obviously in possession of the knowledge in an earlier state. When the soul enters the body, though, it forgets its knowledge, but ?retains it latently in the form of a memory?. Therefore the soul knows what Virtue as a Form is, although there is nothing in human life that equals it.

The idea that prenatal knowledge is in the soul here shows that learning is not really learning at all, rather it is the recollection of forgotten knowledge trapped as memories. To illustrate this, Socrates shows how an uneducated slave boy can solve a geometrical problem with only the guidance of a series of questions. Originally the slave answers wrong, but with Socrates posing further questions he realises his answer was wrong and goes on to solve the original question. According, then, to Socrates, this shows that anyone can have knowledge without having been taught. However, surely it is so that this recollection can only arise from particular questions and diagrams being given by a ?teacher?. Somebody is, in effect, teaching the other person to recall, with suitable prompting. Socrates, though, professes himself at the end of the interview with the slave boy to being none too sure about his theory, and that is where he goes on to ?have another go? in the Phaedo.

Socrates then uses a ?cyclical? argument to infer that the soul will continue to exist after it has left its present body. He says that the human soul is immortal, and that he has learnt from several religious teachers:

?They say that the soul of man is immortal: at one time it comes to an end - that which is called death - and at another is born again, but is never finally exterminated.?

He then goes on to suggest that what we know in this life we actually learned from our soul?s trips to Hades in between lives, and the time that it has spent on earth:

?Thus the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything there is.?

This is different from the Phaedo in that it proposes that the soul waits in Hades for its new incarnation. This suggestion, however, is similar to an ode composed by Pindar, in which Persephone sends souls back to earth as heroes, kings and the greatest of men. This ode is also mentioned in the Meno.

It may be important to note that, in the Phaedo, Socrates says that he will survive his own death - the implication here being that the soul carries his identity, his rational thought processes, and that his body is merely a ?tool? for carrying this information. He attempts, in the Phaedo, to persuade his friends that they should not concern themselves with the death of his body, for it is not him:

?I can?t persuade Crito that I am Socrates here who is talking to you now and marshalling all the arguments; he thinks that I am the corpse whom he will see presently lying dead; and he asks how he is to bury me!?

The main problem with this argument, brought up by Irwin, is that if the soul is released from the body as pure then what would make it distinguishable from the soul of anyone else? Plato does not appear to make any claim to know the answer.

Perhaps the most vague of the dialogues concerning the soul, is that of the Apology. In this dialogue Socrates does not claim to know what is going to happen to him after his death. He is unsure as to whether death is ?nothing?, a state of dreamless sleep; or whether there is some other change to be brought about:

?Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.?

If his death leads to his soul meeting up with the great heroes of the past, then Socrates would be a happy man. He saw that such a ?life? would be better than that on earth, where he could continue to question people?s minds. If, on the other hand, death placed him in a continuous unconscious sleep, then that also would be better for him than being alive. For Socrates, whatever the result was, death was a means of escape from a society that condemned him for the very thing that they fought so strongly to achieve - freedom of speech.

We can learn much about Plato?s views on the soul from the three main texts. He moves from the simple idea that after death comes eternal sleep, or even a ?migration? to a new place, in the Apology. In the Meno he goes much further with his famous doctrine of recollection, and the suggestion of reincarnation; and in the Phaedo, he links care of the soul with living a good and virtuous life without succumbing to the desires of the body. He saw that we must nurture and nourish our souls with practising logic and reason, and living the life of a philosopher. We must not fall victim to carnal desires for they ?nail? the soul to the body, and make it more difficult for it to search for the ultimate truths.

In all, Plato had many varied views on the soul and it is difficult to really understand just what he really believed. However, it is probably fair to say that he saw some sort of life after death for the soul, even if he does not explicitly state just what that life was. His concept of the soul relied on treating it well in life, and much of his work goes to show us how to care for the soul. Perhaps in such a life as we lead now, we should heed his advice.


Crombie, I. (1962) Examination of Plato?s Doctrines Routledge

Day, J. (1994) Plato?s Meno in Focus Routledge

Irwin, T. (1989) Classical Thought Oxford U.P.

Kahn, C. (1998) Plato & The Socratic Dialogue Cambridge U.P.

Laird, J. (1924) The Idea of the Soul Hodder & Stoughton

Scott, D. (1995) Recollection and Experience Cambridge U.P.

Plato Last Days of Socrates tr. Tredennick, H. Penguin

Plato Protagoras and Meno tr. Guthrie, W. Penguin

Authors | Quotes | Digests | Submit | Interact | Store

Copyright © Classics Network. Contact Us