by Plato

Written ca. 360 B.C.
Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Persons of the Dialogue
PHAEDO, who is the narrator of the dialogueto ECHECRATES of Phlius
The Prison of Socrates.


Socrates paused awhile, and seemed to be absorbed in reflection. At length he said: This is a very serious inquiry which you are raising, Cebes, involving the whole question of generation and corruption, about which I will, if you like, give you my own experience; and you can apply this, if you think that anything which I say will avail towards the solution of your difficulty.

I should very much like, said Cebes, to hear what you have to say.

Then I will tell you, said Socrates. When I was young, Cebes, I had a prodigious desire to know that department of philosophy which is called Natural Science; this appeared to me to have lofty aims, as being the science which has to do with the causes of things, and which teaches why a thing is, and is created and destroyed; and I was always agitating myself with the consideration of such questions as these: Is the growth of animals the result of some decay which the hot and cold principle contracts, as some have said? Is the blood the element with which we think, or the air, or the fire? or perhaps nothing of this sort-but the brain may be the originating power of the perceptions of hearing and sight and smell, and memory and opinion may come from them, and science may be based on memory and opinion when no longer in motion, but at rest. And then I went on to examine the decay of them, and then to the things of heaven and earth, and at last I concluded that I was wholly incapable of these inquiries, as I will satisfactorily prove to you. For I was fascinated by them to such a degree that my eyes grew blind to things that I had seemed to myself, and also to others, to know quite well; and I forgot what I had before thought to be self-evident, that the growth of man is the result of eating and drinking; for when by the digestion of food flesh is added to flesh and bone to bone, and whenever there is an aggregation of congenial elements, the lesser bulk becomes larger and the small man greater. Was not that a reasonable notion?

Yes, said Cebes, I think so. Well; but let me tell you something more. There was a time when I thought that I understood the meaning of greater and less pretty well; and when I saw a great man standing by a little one I fancied that one was taller than the other by a head; or one horse would appear to be greater than another horse: and still more clearly did I seem to perceive that ten is two more than eight, and that two cubits are more than one, because two is twice one.

And what is now your notion of such matters? said Cebes.

I should be far enough from imagining, he replied, that I knew the cause of any of them, indeed I should, for I cannot satisfy myself that when one is added to one, the one to which the addition is made becomes two, or that the two units added together make two by reason of the addition. For I cannot understand how, when separated from the other, each of them was one and not two, and now, when they are brought together, the mere juxtaposition of them can be the cause of their becoming two: nor can I understand how the division of one is the way to make two; for then a different cause would produce the same effect-as in the former instance the addition and juxtaposition of one to one was the cause of two, in this the separation and subtraction of one from the other would be the cause. Nor am I any longer satisfied that I understand the reason why one or anything else either is generated or destroyed or is at all, but I have in my mind some confused notion of another method, and can never admit this.
Then I heard someone who had a book of Anaxagoras, as he said, out of which he read that mind was the disposer and cause of all, and I was quite delighted at the notion of this, which appeared admirable, and I said to myself: If mind is the disposer, mind will dispose all for the best, and put each particular in the best place; and I argued that if anyone desired to find out the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of anything, he must find out what state of being or suffering or doing was best for that thing, and therefore a man had only to consider the best for himself and others, and then he would also know the worse, for that the same science comprised both. And I rejoiced to think that I had found in Anaxagoras a teacher of the causes of existence such as I desired, and I imagined that he would tell me first whether the earth is flat or round; and then he would further explain the cause and the necessity of this, and would teach me the nature of the best and show that this was best; and if he said that the earth was in the centre, he would explain that this position was the best, and I should be satisfied if this were shown to me, and not want any other sort of cause. And I thought that I would then go and ask him about the sun and moon and stars, and that he would explain to me their comparative swiftness, and their returnings and various states, and how their several affections, active and passive, were all for the best. For I could not imagine that when he spoke of mind as the disposer of them, he would give any other account of their being as they are, except that this was best; and I thought when he had explained to me in detail the cause of each and the cause of all, he would go on to explain to me what was best for each and what was best for all. I had hopes which I would not have sold for much, and I seized the books and read them as fast as I could in my eagerness to know the better and the worse.

What hopes I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavored to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have ligaments which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture: that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off to Megara or Boeotia-by the dog of Egypt they would, if they had been guided only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen as the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, to undergo any punishment which the State inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking. I wonder that they cannot distinguish the cause from the condition, which the many, feeling about in the dark, are always mistaking and misnaming. And thus one man makes a vortex all round and steadies the earth by the heaven; another gives the air as a support to the earth, which is a sort of broad trough. Any power which in disposing them as they are disposes them for the best never enters into their minds, nor do they imagine that there is any superhuman strength in that; they rather expect to find another Atlas of the world who is stronger and more everlasting and more containing than the good is, and are clearly of opinion that the obligatory and containing power of the good is as nothing; and yet this is the principle which I would fain learn if anyone would teach me. But as I have failed either to discover myself or to learn of anyone else, the nature of the best, I will exhibit to you, if you like, what I have found to be the second best mode of inquiring into the cause.

I should very much like to hear that, he replied.

Socrates proceeded: I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; as people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in the water, or in some similar medium. That occurred to me, and I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them. And I thought that I had better have recourse to ideas, and seek in them the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect-for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas, sees them only "through a glass darkly," any more than he who sees them in their working and effects. However, this was the method which I adopted: I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest, and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or to anything else; and that which disagreed I regarded as untrue. But I should like to explain my meaning clearly, as I do not think that you understand me.

No, indeed, replied Cebes, not very well.
There is nothing new, he said, in what I am about to tell you; but only what I have been always and everywhere repeating in the previous discussionand on other occasions: I want to show you the nature of that cause which has occupied my thoughts, and I shall have to go back to those familiar words which are in the mouth of everyone, and first of all assume that there is an absolute beauty and goodness and greatness, and the like; grant me this, and I hope to be able to show you the nature of the cause, and to prove the immortality of the soul.

Cebes said: You may proceed at once with the proof, as I readily grant you this.

Well, he said, then I should like to know whether you agree with me in the next step; for I cannot help thinking that if there be anything beautiful other than absolute beauty, that can only be beautiful in as far as it partakes of absolute beauty-and this I should say of everything. Do you agree in this notion of the cause?

Yes, he said, I agree.
He proceeded: I know nothing and can understand nothing of any other of those wise causes which are alleged; and if a person says to me that the bloom of color, or form, or anything else of that sort is a source of beauty, I leave all that, which is only confusing to me, and simply and singly, and perhaps foolishly, hold and am assured in my own mind that nothing makes a thing beautiful but the presence and participation of beauty in whatever way or manner obtained; for as to the manner I am uncertain, but I stoutly contend that by beauty all beautiful things become beautiful.That appears to me to be the only safe answer that I can give, either to myself or to any other, and to that I cling, in the persuasion that I shall never be overthrown, and that I may safely answer to myself or any other that by beauty beautiful things become beautiful. Do you not agree to that?

Yes, I agree.
And that by greatness only great things become great and greater greater, and by smallness the less becomes less.

Then if a person remarks that A is taller by a head than B, and B less by a head than A, you would refuse to admit this, and would stoutly contend that what you mean is only that the greater is greater by, and by reason of, greatness, and the less is less only by, or by reason of, smallness; and thus you would avoid the danger of saying that the greater is greater and the less by the measure of the head, which is the same in both, and would also avoid the monstrous absurdity of supposing that the greater man is greater by reason of the head, which is small. Would you not be afraid of that?

Indeed, I should, said Cebes, laughing.
In like manner you would be afraid to say that ten exceeded eight by, and by reason of, two; but would say by, and by reason of, number; or that two cubits exceed one cubit not by a half, but by magnitude X-that is what you would say, for there is the same danger in both cases.

Very true, he said.
Again, would you not be cautious of affirming that the addition of one to one, or the division of one, is the cause of two? And you would loudly asseverate that you know of no way in which anything comes into existence except by participation in its own proper essence, and consequently, as far as you know, the only cause of two is the participation in duality; that is the way to make two, and the participation in one is the way to make one. You would say: I will let alone puzzles of division and addition-wiser heads than mine may answer them; inexperienced as I am, and ready to start,as the proverb says, at my own shadow, I cannot afford to give up the sure ground of a principle. And if anyone assails you there, you would not mind him, or answer him until you had seen whether the consequences which follow agree with one another or not, and when you are further required to give an explanation of this principle, you would go on to assume a higher principle, and the best of the higher ones, until you found a resting-place; but you would not refuse the principle and the consequences in your reasoning like the Eristics-at least if you wanted to discover real existence. Not that this confusion signifies to them who never care or think about the matter at all, for they have the wit to be well pleased with themselves, however great may be the turmoil of their ideas. But you, if you are a philosopher, will, I believe, do as I say.

The dialogue continues. For those interested, here are the last parts,depicting the death of Socrates, who has been condemned by the Athenians for "corruption of youth."


Then he turned to us, and added with a smile: I cannot make Critobelieve that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conductingthe argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soonsee, a dead body-and he asks, How shall he bury me? And though I have spokenmany words in the endeavor to show that when I have drunk the poison Ishall leave you and go to the joys of the blessed-these words of mine,with which I comforted you and myself, have had, I perceive, no effectupon Crito. And therefore I want you to be surety for me now, as he wassurety for me at the trial: but let the promise be of another sort; forhe was my surety to the judges that I would remain, but you must be mysurety to him that I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and thenhe will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my bodybeing burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, orsay at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him tothe grave or bury him; for false words are not only evil in themselves,but they infect the soul with evil. Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito,and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that as is usual,and as you think best.

When he had spoken these words, he arose and went into the bath chamberwith Crito, who bade us wait; and we waited, talking and thinking of thesubject of discourse, and also of the greatness of our sorrow; he was likea father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were about to pass therest of our lives as orphans. When he had taken the bath his children werebrought to him-(he had two young sons and an elder one); and the womenof his family also came, and he talked to them and gave them a few directionsin the presence of Crito; and he then dismissed them and returned to us.

Now the hour of sunset was near, for a good deal of time had passed whilehe was within. When he came out, he sat down with us again after his bath,but not much was said. Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven,entered and stood by him, saying: To you, Socrates, whom I know to be thenoblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I willnot impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when,in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison-indeed, Iam sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware,and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bearlightly what must needs be; you know my errand. Then bursting into tearshe turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: I return your good wishes, and will doas you bid. Then, turning to us, he said, How charming the man is: sinceI have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at timeshe would talk to me, and was as good as could be to me, and now see howgenerously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let thecup be brought, if the poison is prepared: if not, let the attendant preparesome.

Yet, said Crito, the sun is still upon the hilltops, and many a one hastaken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him,he has eaten and drunk, and indulged in sensual delights; do not hastenthen, there is still time.

Socrates said: Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doingthus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right innot doing thus, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinkingthe poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life whichis already gone: I could only laugh at myself for this. Please then todo as I say, and not to refuse me.

Crito, when he heard this, made a sign to the servant, and the servantwent in, and remained for some time, and then returned with the jailercarrying a cup of poison. Socrates said: You, my good friend, who are experiencedin these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The mananswered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and thento lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cupto Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the leastfear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes,Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say aboutmaking a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered:We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand,he said: yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey fromthis to that other world-may this, then, which is my prayer, be grantedto me. Then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully hedrank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to controlour sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finishedthe draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my owntears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself,for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my owncalamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito,when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and movedaway, and I followed; and at that moment. Apollodorus, who had been weepingall the time, broke out in a loud cry which made cowards of us all. Socratesalone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sentaway the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way,for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and havepatience.

When we heard that, we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walkedabout until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on hisback, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poisonnow and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressedhis foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said, no; and thenhis leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold andstiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches theheart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin,when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said (theywere his last words)-he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will youremember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is thereanything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute ortwo a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes wereset, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, whom I may truly call thewisest, and justest, and best of all the men whom I have ever known.