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Death and Limits of Truth in the Phaedo. Apeiron - Philosophy philosophy/sites/default/files/...Death and the Limits of Truth in the Phaedo Abstract: This paper raises a new interpretive

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  • Nicholas R. Baima

    Death and the Limits of Truthin the Phaedo

    Abstract: This paper raises a new interpretive puzzle concerning Socrates atti-tude towards truth in the Phaedo. At one point Socrates seems to advocate thathe is justified in trying to convince himself that the soul is immortal and des-tined for a better place regardless of whether or not these claims are true, butthat Cebes and Simmias should relentlessly pursue the truth about the verysame matter. This raises the question: Why might Socrates believe that he willbenefit from believing things about death irrespective of the truth, but thatCebes and Simmias will not? Why should they continue pursuing the truth?This paper argues that the relevant difference between Socrates and his friendsis that Socrates is a fully accomplished philosopher, while his friends are not.This, I argue, makes Socrates an epistemic authority, and it is in virtue of beingan epistemic authority that he is justified in not pursuing the truth about death.The upshot of this paper is that sometimes the demands of living well requirethat we abandon the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

    Keywords: Plato, Phaedo, Truth, Virtue, Knowledge

    DOI 10.1515/apeiron-2014-0047

    1 Introduction

    Socrates attitude towards pursuing truth is somewhat paradoxical in the Phae-do.1 At one point Socrates seems to say that he is going to try to convince him-self that his soul is immortal and destined for a better place regardless ofwhether or not these claims are true, apparently because believing these thingshas some sort of practical value (91ab). However, he also appears to tell Cebes

    Nicholas Baima: Washington University in St. Louis Philosophy, One Brookings Drive, SaintLouis, Missouri 63130-4899, United States, E-Mail: NichBaima@gmail.com

    1 The translations are my own; however, I have relied upon Grube (1997) and Rowe (1993) intranslating the Phaedo and Grube/Reeve (1997) in translating the Republic. The Greek texts arefrom Burnet (1900-1907).

    apeiron 2015; 48(3): 263284

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  • and Simmias to relentlessly pursue the truth about the very same matter (91c).This raises the question: Why might Socrates believe that he will benefit frombelieving things about death irrespective of the truth, but that Cebes and Sim-mias will not? Why should they continue pursuing the truth? This is especiallypuzzling since, presumably, these beliefs about death will have the same practi-cal benefits for Cebes and Simmias as they do for Socrates. Additionally, onemight worry that Socrates strategy undermines his general commitment to pur-suing truth. Hence, I call this interpretive problem the verity puzzle.

    In this paper, I first show how the verity puzzle arises in the text and then Ioffer a novel solution to it. I argue that the relevant difference between Socratesand his friends is that Socrates is a fully accomplished philosopher, while hisfriends are not. This, I argue, makes Socrates an epistemic authority, and it is invirtue of being an epistemic authority that he is justified in not pursuing the truthabout death. Moreover, it is in virtue of his friends not being epistemic authoritiesthat they must pursue the truth about death. The upshot of this paper, however,is not that the life spent pursuing truth is unimportant. Rather, it is that some-times the demands of living well require that we abandon the pursuit of truth andknowledge. For Socrates, the value of pursuing truth is limited in certain circum-stances, and facing death is one of these circumstances.

    2 A Puzzle about the Pursuit of Truth

    Throughout the Phaedo, Socrates maintains that he has striven in every way tobecome a philosopher (69b3-4, cf. 66b-c), which involves a commitment to truth,knowledge, and wisdom (66a-e, 84a, 91a). Nevertheless, at 91a-b, Socrates sayssome curious things which raise questions about his dedication to truth.

    Socrates has just offered three arguments in defense of the immortality ofthe soul: the argument from opposites (70c-72e), the argument from recollection(72e-77b), and the simplicity argument (77b-80c). Following this, Socrates offersa mythical description of the afterlife, in which the quality of afterlife that oneexperiences is in proportion to the ethical quality of life that one has lived. Forexample, those who have lived wickedly will experience the worst afterlife,while those who have lived philosophically will experience the best afterlife(80d-82b, cf. 107c-115a). Call this idea the proportionality thesis.2

    2 The proportionality thesis is not unique to the Phaedo, but is scattered throughout thecorpus of Plato; see especially, the Gorgias 523a527a, the Phaedrus 246d249b, the RepublicX.614b621d, the Timaeus 90a92b, and the Laws IX.870de, IX.872d873a, and X.903de.

    264 Nicholas R. Baima

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  • Cebes and Simmias are unconvinced by Socrates defense of the souls im-mortality; nevertheless they are reluctant to object because they worry aboutdistressing Socrates (84d). Socrates, however, encourages them to offer their ob-jections (85ab). After hearing their criticisms, Socrates warns them about thedangers of misology,3 or hating rational discourse and thought.4 According toSocrates, misology arises in a similar way to misanthropy. Misanthropy devel-ops from a lack of skill in dealing with humans. It arises when one trusts hu-mans when one shouldnt. Eventually such a trusting person will be deceived inhurtful ways and will conclude from this that all humans are wretched. This isregrettable because most people are decent and very few are actually deplorable(89de).

    Misology arises in a similar way. Without skill in reasoning, one will unjus-tifiably trust arguments and such trust will lead one to waver between contra-dictory positions. Eventually, one will become frustrated and fall into absoluteskepticism, thinking that there is no sound position whatsoever. Hating rationalinquiry is a pity because it deprives one of truth and knowledge of reality( ) (90d67, 90bd). To overcome the dangers of misology, Socratesadvises his friends that rather than thinking there is something generally un-sound about arguments or theories, they should believe that it is themselveswho are unsound, and that they must take courage and be eager to attainsoundness (90e34).

    Immediately following this, Socrates says some curious things about hispresent state of mind:

    I am in danger at this moment ( )5 of not being philosophical towards thisvery thing [viz. death], and of being like those who are quite uneducated ( -), as a lover of winning (). For whenever they [viz. the uneducated] dis-

    3 Misology is not a common word for Plato. For examples of other uses see Laches 188c6and Republic III.411d7. Also, it is interesting to note that at 89d14 Socrates asserts that onecould suffer no greater evil than misology, but at 83c29 he maintains that the greatest of allevils is taking the sensible realm to be real.4 Gallop (1975, p. 154) and Woolf (2007, p. 3) point out that the problem with using the wordargument to translate is that at 90b68 and 90c9, Socrates says that arguments canbe true and false. This makes for an awkward translation to the extent that arguments are notstandardly understood as being true or false. However, this worry might be anachronistic; So-crates often seems perfectly happy to speak loosely, according to which speech is true or false,see Republic II.382e8. Additionally, Socrates infamously speaks of pleasures as being true andfalse, see Republic X.582d586e and Philebus, esp. 40c41a.5 Rowe (1993, p. 215) suggests that Socrates assertion that he is in danger of being unphiloso-phical is a reflection of his earlier performance (cf. 84b), which contains more persuasive de-scription than hard reasoning. I am quite sympathetic to this reading.

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  • pute about something, they give no thought to the truth about the subject of discussion,6

    but are only eager that those present will accept the position they have set forth. And itseems to me that in this present moment ( ) I shall differ ()7 fromthem only to this extent: I shall not be eager that what I say seems true to those who arepresent, except incidentally, but rather I shall be very eager that it seems so to myself(91a1b1, my emphasis).8

    In a few lines, Socrates has identified four ways of being unphilosophical. Thefirst is dealing with arguments without skill (i.e. the cause of misology). Thesecond is hating rational inquiry altogether (i.e. misology). The third is trying toconvince others of claims without caring about whether or not they are actuallytrue (i.e. being a lover of winning or an eristic).9 The fourth is trying to convinceoneself of certain claims without caring for whether or not they are actually true(i.e. being a modified eristic).10

    Notice that the first two ways of being unphilosophical develop from a lackof skill with arguments but do not necessarily develop from not caring aboutthe truth. For instance, someone might care greatly about the truth but lack theskills needed to understand arguments, and his lack of skill might lead him toget so frustrated that he abandons rational inquiry altogether. In contrast, thelatter two ways of being unphilosophical do not necessarily develop from a lackof skill with rational inquiry but instead from not valuing the truth. This seemsto be why in Book VII of the Republic, Socrates is concerned about teachingyoung guardians dialectic; the worry is that they will develop skills in ar