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Socrates on the Soul


In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates sets out a number of arguments to prove the immortality of the soul. One of these, which many of the others rely upon, is the Cyclical argument, or argument from opposites (Plato, 2002: 70c-72e). This essay will be outlining the argument and responding to each premise separately to evaluate its claims and how it fits into the wider argument. The argument can be simply outlined as follows:[1]

  • The souls of the living come only from the dead. As such, the souls of dead men must be alive in the underworld. (Hypothesis)
  • Everything which exists and has an opposite, exists due to its opposite.
  • If opposites come from their opposites, then there is a process in between each, making two processes by which one opposite becomes the other. (The dual process)
  • Without this process, everything would be unbalanced. (Balance)
  • The opposite of life is death. The opposite of their processes are “dying” and “coming to life”.
  • To maintain balance, everything that dies must come to life again. As everything has an opposite that is true for its own existence, then the processes must exist.
  • Therefore, the soul never dies, only going through a cycle of underworld and life.

Ultimately, this essay will find the argument inadequate in arguing for the existence of an immortal soul, as it contains too many internal flaws.

Socrates places a great deal of importance on the hypothesis that the souls of the living come from the dead, and vice versa. He even states that “if this is not the case, we should need another argument” (Plato, 2002: 70d). Socrates argued that the souls of the living came from the dead, and as such, the souls of the living go to the underworld (Plato, 2002: 70c). While this idea can be taken poetically as meaning that our lives are shaped by our predecessors, Socrates did not mean this. For all intents and purposes, Socrates literally believed that an entity known as a soul went to a place called the underworld and then came back to the world of the living. The problem with dealing with such an argument, as is the case with the vast majority of death debates, is that it is completely unprovable. We cannot observe this metaphysical underworld and we cannot track the journey of a soul. We don’t even know what a soul is or if the Socratic vision of one exists.[2] Despite this, Socrates attempts to construct an argument for the immortality of the soul on this hypothesis.

Things which have opposites, come to be from their opposites and nowhere else (Plato, 2002: 70e). The example given is that “larger” comes from “smaller” and vice versa (Plato, 2002: 71). Socrates extends this example to life and death.

One of the fundamental problems with this is that it conflates the comparison of larger/smaller with life/death. Tim Connolly indicates that rather than being opposites, being dead and alive are contraries (Connolly, n.d.). Smaller and larger are relative terms. By their very nature, they only exist in relation to one another. In this way, Socrates’ argument that they exist because of their opposite is correct. This cannot be so easily transferred to life/death. Being alive and dead is not a process of degree or relativity. You are either dead or alive. You cannot be deader than dead. We only contrast dead/alive in the way that we recognise them. It is true that we cannot die without being alive, but this does not mean that we have to be dead to come alive. Not being alive does not mean one is dead. Socrates may argue that because death requires life beforehand, then this backs up his point that death leads to life again, but this would be arguing that an unconceived child is dead. Being unborn is not a state of death, and neither does it come from death. In addition, life could hypothetically exist without death. While this is not a reality, we can construct a thought experiment whereby people live but never die. The fact that they never die does not make them any less alive. In this way, we can see that while opposites contribute to recognition and the relative treatment of opposites, it is not necessarily the opposite that leads to its existence.

If things come from their opposites, then there is a process whereby things move from one opposite to the other (Plato, 2002: 71c). Socrates argues that in the contrast of life/death, birth is a process of coming alive again (Plato, 2002: 72). As has already been dealt with, however, birth is not a state of the dead coming to life, but rather the not-alive-yet becoming alive. The fact that they are not alive doesn’t make them dead. Socrates tries to prove otherwise through his idea that opposites are integral to the existence of the other and that a process is needed to fulfil this existence, but this argument is easily rejected by the fact that there is no observable way of determining that death turns to life. The only observable fact is that life is needed to die. Socrates argues that this process of dying would have an opposite in order to exist (coming alive), thus the soul survives death and cycles into a new life, but this has fundamental problems. First, it is unempirical and, second, it doesn’t account for population growth. The unempirical nature of Socrates’ argument has already been mentioned, and I have chosen to give Socrates the benefit of the doubt by not addressing it severely, but it is a damning criticism that there is no method of proving even the existence of a soul. The second is that Socrates believes all souls come from those once dead, but the population of not only humans, but all living things, has rapidly grown. Are more souls created? Where did the initial souls get created? If a soul can be created, why then can it not be uncreated and cease to be, disproving the immortality that Socrates argues for?

The opposite of to be created is to be uncreated, which is effectively a process of dying. By Socrates’ logic, after being uncreated, the soul is recreated, but is it then effectively the same soul? If I turn a wooden chair to cinders, does my act of creating another chair replace that chair? No. All that has happened is the creation of another chair. So while the uncreation of a soul requires its creation, the creation does not require uncreation. In this way, opposites and contraries do not necessarily require one another to exist.

Socrates further tries to argue for the existence of these integral dual processes through the idea that without moving backwards and forwards, there could be no balance. If everything grew larger, without anything growing smaller, there would be no recognition of larger, under this view. But this is incorrect. Size is relative, not a dichotomy. Larger would exist as a relative term, as it was once smaller. On the other hand, death/life is a dichotomy, but this does not make the dual processes thesis correct. As said, it is true that there is a process of dying, but this does not immediately translate into a twin process of coming alive. Trying to argue this by reference to the smaller/larger example is incorrect, due to the different natures of the cases. Overall, Socrates’ argument here is inadequate.

For the sake of argument, let us presume that the dual processes are true, and that there is a process of coming alive again – this does not specify what is coming alive. If it is the soul coming alive again, then it has died. If it has died, then it is not immortal. One could argue that the death is an illusion, but then there was no process of dying, so then there is no opposite process of coming alive. If the soul did die, and comes back alive, then can we really say it is the same soul? Is death a process of breaking, whereby birth is its repair? Perhaps. Socrates’ negative views of our physical bodies may actually see this as the other way round. What is probably the case, is that the mortal body is what is dying, with the soul transferring as a continuous entity through the cycle of birthing and dying. While the dual process means that the body is dying and coming alive again in another form, the soul is what links that process for one being. But this is not required for the case to be correct. The dual process could be a mere case of conceptual recognition. We may only be able to recognise dying because we understand coming to life. This idea does not necessitate that there be one being with a continuous consciousness in between.

This leads onto another criticism: whose soul is it? Regardless of if the soul is being uncreated, or being made dead, or if is it continuously travelling through death and life, there is very little chance of the soul being the same soul. In the first case, I recall the earlier argument of the chair being uncreated. It is no longer the same soul after being recreated. For the latter, the identity of our soul would change so much during our revivals that it would no longer resemble itself. It would no longer be the same soul in any form. There would be no point in identifying a soul as our own, as the new experiences and identity of it in its many forms would make it so far removed from our bodily connection with it, that our relationship with it would become irrelevant.

One could treat the soul as an independent entity, without our identity being relevant. But even if there is a cycle, a soul could still die. Cebes brings up a compelling objection to the immortality of the soul. He argues that if we were to compare the body to a cloak and the soul to the wearer, then while the cloak may be outlasted by its wearer, the wearer eventually passes (Plato, 2002: 87a-88b; Clayton, 1998). The soul may live through many bodies, but this does not mean it won’t eventually expire itself. Socrates attempts a response through stating that a soul does not have the crucial opposite of death in order to exist, life, so cannot die (Reeve, 1975: 199). As Reeve (1975) puts it, the “soul lacks death” (Reeve, 1975: 199). But this does not prevent it from going out of existence. By Socrates’ own logic, if a soul comes into existence, then it can go out of existence. For the soul has the property of existence, so then it has the opposite of non-existence, in which it is capable of achieving. Therefore, by its own nature, a soul can move into non-existence which, for all purposes, is akin to death – perhaps worse.

There are other arguments presented in the Phaedo to argue for the existence of an immortal soul. The Cyclical argument is meant to complement some of these and back-up the assertion, but this can no longer be the case. Perhaps the other arguments may do a better job at it, but I doubt it. The problem with arguments based around the soul, especially when examining them from the view of analytical philosophy, is that there is no empirical foundation from which to test them upon. To give Socrates a fighting chance, we have to accept some of his assumptions, rather attacking the internal logic. If we were to hold this view to the same standards in which we often hold modern theories, it would not be able to stand, unless we reject empiricism and accept faith-based arguments as adequate. This essay dealt with Socrates’ arguments in both manners, but dealt mainly with deconstructing its internal logic. First, I outlined the argument itself, pointing out the troubling nature of the underworld hypothesis. Then I showed how Socrates conflated smaller/larger and death/life, proving that the comparison is not adequate to verify his opposites premise. I then showed how his dual processes premise was inadequate, due to the fact that we can construct processes which do not necessarily possess opposite processes. From this, the need for dual processes to achieve balance is inaccurate, as one does not need certain processes to achieve a balanced reality. Lastly, for the sake of argument, I allowed Socrates to assume his dual processes premise. From there, I presented further arguments to prove how even that wouldn’t lead to a compelling proof of the immortality of the soul.

Fundamentally, Socrates’ Cyclical argument has too many internal logical flaws, not to mention its unempirical and confusing nature, in order to be accepted as a compelling proof for the immortality of the soul.


Clayton, B.B., 1998. An Analytic Outline of Plato’s Phaedo. [Online] Available at: http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/calhoun/courses/201s/201phd.html?lookup=aristoph.+eccl.+1 [Accessed 16 September 2016].

Connoly, T., n.d. Plato: Phaedo. [Online] Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/phaedo/#SSH3bi [Accessed 16 September 2016].

Plato, 2002. Phaedo. In Plato Five Dialogues. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Inc. 93-154.

Reeve, M.D., 1975. Socrates’s Reply to Cebes in Plato’s “Phaedo”. Phronesis, 20(3), 199-208.


[1] The following outline was partly inspired by Brian B. Clayton’s summary, which has been included in the references (Clayton, 1998).

[2] Reeve identifies the Socratic conception of the soul along the lines of the Platonic forms (Reeve, 1975: 200).