Phaedo Discussion Topic (DMH)

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    I have always found it interesting how, through the selection of characters and the selection of spaces, Plato foreshadows the content of a dialogue. This is especially the case with the Phaedo. The selection of Phlius as the location where the conversation takes place (57a6), and the selection of Simmias and Cebes as interlocutors (59c1) who studied with Philolaus (61d5-7) all suggest the presence of Pythagoreanism. Even Simmas’ and Cebes’ challenge against Socrates that the soul is the harmony of the body has its roots in Pythagoreanism (84c-88b).

    Pythagoras is a legendary figure in Greek philosophy. We have no genuine fragments of Pythagoras and our knowledge of his actual doctrines is speculative. However, the earliest Pythagoreans for whom there are genuine fragments are Philolaus (late 5th to early 4th century) and his pupil Archytas (early 4th to mid 4th century) both of whom were influential on Plato. In fact, two of Plato’s dialogues that we are reading in the Verbal Art of Plato seminar show the influence of two features of Pythagorean thought. The Phaedo is concerned with the immortality and transmigration of the soul, and the Timaeus is concerned with the mathematical structure of the cosmos. With respect to the former, Pythagoras taught that the soul is immortal, that after death it reincarnates into other bodies ranging from humans to plants (directly or after time in Hades), that some incarnations are preferable to others, and one can secure a better incarnation through practicing rituals, living well, and understanding the cosmos. Socrates draws on these Pythagorean themes in his arguments for the immortality of the soul (69c-106e), and in his closing myth on the fate of souls in the afterlife (107a-114c).

    There are less clues early on in the Timaeus, beyond Critias’ claim that Timaeus knows more about the heavenly bodies than anyone present and specializes in natural science (27a1-5), but there can be no doubt that the account he gives regarding the mathematical structure of the cosmos reflects Pythagorean cosmogonies based on number, such as we find in Archytas and Philolaus.

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