CriticaLink | Plato: Phaedrus | Guide to Sections 245 D - 247 C

Socrates: Every soul is immortal.

The account of the soul that Socrates offers is bound up with Plato's ontology and his epistemology, both of which are characterized by idealism.

Plato's debt to the Pythagorean tradition is evident in Socrates's explanation of the immortality of the soul, which argues that self-movement is the essence of immortality. His description of "the beginning" or arche is an example of his idealism. The arche is the uncreated and indestructible ultimate origin which provides the source of all movement. In Plato's theory of the Forms, which the following discussion will develop, all phenomena that make up the "reality" we apprehend with our senses have an archetype in the realm of the Forms from which they derive their existence.

Socrates states that to give a truly accurate account of the nature of the soul would be virtually impossible, but that it is possible to describe it by way of an analogy. Here is an example of philosophy's intimate relationship with the rhetoric of literary production: Socrates's use of the charioteer and the pair of winged horses as an analogy for the soul, as well as his fiction of the procession of gods into the realm of the Forms, allow him to illustrate abstract concepts and processes.

Socrates distinguishes between souls that are housed in the bodies of immortal gods and those that temporarily reside in mortal human beings. The soul, Socrates explains, works like a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. In the gods, both horses are well-trained, obeying the commands of the charioteer and driving forcefully ahead. In humans, however, one of the horses is unruly, constantly interfering with the charioteer's progress.

"Soul" often appears in the singular form in Socrates's discussion, suggesting that Plato envisions psyche as a collective entity that is distributed in individualized units among mortal and immortal beings. In the case of mortal creatures, soul is subject to metempsychosis, a process that resembles reincarnation. Units of immortal soul that fall out of the upper echelons of heaven enter physical bodies, animating them for the course of their lives, then leave them upon the death of the bodies and re-enter the cycle.

In the grand procession of souls that Socrates depicts for Phaedrus, the gods, led by Zeus, drive smoothly up the steep slopes of heaven, while the other souls struggle with their disobedient horses and fall behind. The gods advance into the region "beyond" heaven, the realm of the timeless, perfect Forms.

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