Socrates and his Bones

by Jeroen Bouterse

When Socrates’ students enter his cell, in subdued spirits, their mentor has just been released from his shackles. After having his wife and baby sent away, Socrates spends some time sitting up on the bed, rubbing his leg, cheerfully remarking on how it feels much better now, after the pain.

The Phaedo, Plato’s vision of Socrates’ final conversation with his students before drinking the hemlock, is a literary piece overflowing with meaning and metaphor. Its main topic is the immortality of the soul. Socrates’ predicament provides not just the occasion but also a handy analogy: Socrates sees his death as the release of the soul from the bonds of the body (67d). His students are not so sure.

With Plato, every moral, existential and philosophical question is in the end related to a problem of knowledge. So when, in the last hours of his earthly life, halfway through Plato’s dialogue, Socrates suddenly starts off on a lecture about the epistemological paradoxes of the natural sciences, no-one is too surprised. After all, the question whether death is bad for you naturally flows into the question whether the soul can actually die, and therefore into the question what kind of thing the soul actually is, and what we can say about it and how. It is Socrates’ excursion into science that I want to zoom in on here.

Socrates reminisces about how he was really into science when he was young. By the way, I’m using that term assuming that you don’t think lab coats and research papers; science obviously didn’t mean the same for the Greeks as it does for us. With Plato’s Socrates, we have to be especially careful, since he is constantly thinking about how to conceptualize and classify knowledge. Luckily, he gives us some hints as to what he means: questions such as “do we think with our blood, or air, or fire, or none of these, and does the brain provide our senses of hearing and sight and smell, from which come memory and opinion, and from memory and opinion which has become stable, comes knowledge?” (96b-c).

The younger Socrates, in the older Socrates’ reconstruction, was interested in understanding material things, and in the material processes that underlie our very capacity to know. That we are being set up for disappointment shouldn’t distract us from observing that young Socrates was not completely naive: he seems to have been well aware that just naming some fundamental kind of ‘stuff’ (air, fire) will not do, and that we need to say more about how things hang together. But the bottom line is that young Socrates believed all the answers to be material: men grew, for instance, because they ate food, which added “flesh to flesh and bones to bones” (96d).

However, Socrates then came to be confused about how this ‘adding’ actually works – what does it mean? Socrates is elliptical about his reasons for doubt, but apparently even saying that one and one ‘make’ or ‘become’ two became incomprehensible to him. Why do two ‘ones’ become a ‘two’? Just by being near to each other? But why does nearness have anything to do with it? This nagging unsolved problem, this tiny crack in a system intended to link abstract thought to the material world, became a source of great dissatisfaction with what Socrates now went on to call “the old method of investigation”.

Socrates, psychologically ready for a conversion experience, heard someone read from a book written by the natural philosopher Anaxagoras. To Plato’s credit, unlike Augustine later, his Socrates didn’t treat this chance encounter with a random excerpt from a book as almost-gospel. But he was eager to learn more about what Anaxagoras had to say, since he promised a worldview in which ‘spirit’ governed everything. Now this was exciting, Socrates thought. The question whether the earth was round or flat, for instance, could now be traced back to the question what this ‘spirit’ would have thought the best shape for the earth to be.

But alas, “this wonderful hope was dashed as I went on reading”; for in reality, Anaxagoras still spent all his time talking about “air and ether and water and many other strange things” (98b). And this paradox, this mismatch between a belief in intelligent design on the one hand and materialistic explanatory strategies on the other, led Socrates to a casual yet profound metaphor – one that brings us straight back to the location of the narrative, reminds us why we are here, and why that is so enormously important.

“[Anaxagoras’ explanations] seemed to me much like saying that Socrates’ actions are all due to his mind, and then in trying to tell the causes of everything I do, to say that the reason that I am sitting here is because my body consists of bones and sinews […]. Again, he would mention other such causes for my talking to you: sounds and air and hearing, and a thousand other such things, but he would neglect to mention the true causes, that, after the Athenians decided it was better to condemn me, for this reason it seemed best to me to sit here and more right to remain and to endure whatever penalty they ordered. For by the dog, I think these sinews and bones could long ago have been in Megara or among the Boeotians, taken there by my belief as to the best course, if I had not thought it more right and honorable to endure whatever penalty the city ordered rather than escape and run away.” (98e-99a)

The paradoxical nature of Anaxagoras’ views is a sign that there are two contradictory worldviews intermingled in his philosophy. A clash between materialistic and moral explanations either of natural phenomena or of human actions has gradually come into clear view. It is a clash that Socrates evidently believes can be resolved, by the way, but only by a science that actually embraces intelligent design. (And that, lest we forget, proves that the soul is immortal and death isn’t bad for us.)

Socrates’ identification of this paradox has aged better than his solution. We are not inclined to accept his analogy as an argument for his flavor of creationism, but we can see his point about how our moral choices can’t be reduced to our physical or material makeup. Of course, not everybody will agree; maybe you found you sympathized more with the younger Socrates and his eagerness to understand ourselves as material beings, than with the older one who dismisses this whole project as a giant category mistake. Even so, I expect you see what Socrates is saying, and I think that this passage resonates with more recent debates.

Last December, political theorist Steven Klein wrote a compelling interpretation of the supposed conflict between the sciences and the humanities in terms of their different relation to reasons and values. He writes (the specific context is the controversy around Steven Pinker’s work):

“Both sides think they are talking about the same thing — the Enlightenment — but in fact they are disagreeing about a more fundamental question: how we should study action, and ideas, in the first place. While scientific approaches to human behavior call attention to transhistorical mechanisms underlying, say, ethnocentrism, humanistic scholarship, at its best, tries to understand the nature of the reasons through which people justify their actions — and how those reasons unfold in history.”

The language in which we phrase these distinctions has changed significantly. For Plato’s Socrates there is little historical about ideas, for instance. But I think we can plausibly discern in Socrates’ tale an intuition that indeed, two different attitudes towards human values and reasons are possible: one that tries to explain those values and reasons on a level where the domain of ‘values’ or ‘reasons’ ceases to have meaning, and one that begins from the assumption that this domain makes a difference that can best be understood on its own terms.

Socrates’ reasons for dismissing the first (reductionist) option are hard to follow, and some of them have been superseded by the advances of modern science, which is able to use abstract tools to understand material processes to an extent that the younger Socrates could not have imagined. But Socrates’ reasons for embracing the second option are as powerful as ever, even if we don’t follow the chain of reasoning through to the immortality of the soul.

Socrates is sitting up in his cell, waiting to die. Why? Because Athens put him there, for confused reasons; and because he decided, for good reasons (presumably), that it was better to die here than to flee elsewhere. The heroes of both parts of the story are reasons, strong or flimsy. If we want to understand, really understand, why Socrates is here, we need to understand why he believes – why he thinks he knows – it is best for him to die, then and there. That is, we have to know what his reasons are; we have to understand his conversation with his students; we have to read Plato’s Phaedo.

Plato makes sure we never forget the poignant circumstances of the dialogue, and he has Socrates invoke them at precisely the right moment, where the very fact that this conversation is taking place here and now can serve as evidence for his thesis that the soul is not material. As far as he is concerned, when Socrates was sitting up and rubbing his leg when his students entered, he had already proven his point.



Plato, Phaedo. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. In: Plato, Complete Works. John M. Cooper ed. (Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis/Cambridge) 49-100.

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