BMCR 2024.05.09

From death to life: key themes in Plato’s Phaedo

, From death to life: key themes in Plato's Phaedo. Brill's Plato studies series, 14. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. vi, 190. ISBN 9789004538221.



Trabattoni’s excellent book contains nine essays covering the main parts of Plato’s Phaedo’s argumentation (without a comprehensive commentary), proceeding from the theme of death and ending with the last argument establishing that life essentially belongs to soul. It was not designed for an extensive study; the chapters are rewritten versions of articles originally published in Italian between 1985 and 2019. Still, it covers crucial questions: fundamental problems of Plato’s epistemology and metaphysics and debated interpretation issues of the Phaedo. The author’s apology for re-publication highlights important features of contemporary research, especially the linguistic barrier for non-English scholarship (Introduction). Thanks to this book, the merits of the proposed interpretations are now assessable for a broader range of readers, some of whom may also realise the importance of considering studies in more than one language.

Chapter 1 lays the foundation of the discussion by establishing the borders of knowledge for living human beings. Trabattoni argues that Socrates’ claim that true and certain knowledge (of the intelligible Forms) is only possible for disembodied souls after death (66E4–6) should be taken at face value. Otherwise, he contends, the arguments for soul’s immortality remain unintelligible. This implies that humans can only have fallible knowledge, even of Forms. However, according to Trabattoni, this fallible knowledge is quite important for Plato, rendering philosophy possible insofar as it approaches the ideal, immediate knowledge of Forms available for separated souls. Thus, Trabattoni aims to sail between the Scylla of a sceptical and the Charybdis of a dogmatic Plato while avoiding treating his works as educative only. Although his overall interpretation of Plato’s epistemology is beyond this review, an important element is the intermediacy of logos (understood as language) for human knowledge and the lack of a capacity to grasp Forms directly. Yet the reason for fallibility in the Phaedo is contamination by the body rather than the mediacy of language. Indeed, Trabattoni’s case would be stronger if Plato appealed to the indirectness of human knowledge. Let me illustrate this with Plotinus. It seems possible that a human temporarily separates her soul from her body (say by meditation) during her life so that her soul grasps the Forms directly (e.g., Enneads IV.8.1). However, it seems impossible that the human soul thinks non-linguistically (Enneads IV.3.30). Nonetheless, Trabattoni’s chapter raises fundamental interpretive questions about Platonic epistemology and provides plausible reconstructions, even if some details may remain controversial.

The same is true of chapter 5 about the role of recollection as the metaphysical basis of the possibility of (fallible) knowledge of Forms in human life instead of being a method of attaining infallible knowledge of them. For Plato introduces recollection to show the separate nature of Forms and the soul in demonstrating the latter’s immortality. Moreover, there is no hint of how recollection should be done, which would be crucial for a method. But, as Trabattoni argues, such a method would be impossible without subjective experience of previous knowing (as in ordinary recalling of the past), an experience not attested by Plato. So much is persuasive. However, a crucial step in Trabattoni’s argument is problematic. He claims that to show that the soul must have acquired knowledge of a Form, say Equal, while disembodied before birth (i.e., to use the argument to support the soul’s immortality), the soul cannot have full knowledge of Equal while embodied (thesis of chapter 1). But this is not required for Plato’s argument. As indicated by the italics, Trabattoni confuses acquiring and having knowledge. The argument only needs that embodied souls cannot have acquired the knowledge of Equal, but it is noncommittal whether humans fully know the Forms in recollection. It is true that in perceiving equal things, there remains some inequality. But this is because perception depends on the body (cf. 79C), and it is not due to our incomplete knowledge of Forms. Plato’s argument allows that we know the Equal through rational capacities, even with a full grasp (with the capability of giving account (logos) of it, 76B, cf. 79A), while in perceiving equal things, they appear incompletely equal. Plato indeed writes, “»Do we also know what the Equal is?« »Certainly«, he said.” (74B2–3; cf. 74C1–3). Nevertheless, we find the relationship with language (logos) as a fundamental feature of human knowledge, although this need not imply indeterminacy or incompleteness, contrary to what Trabattoni believes (cf. 90C–D). Plato means that one who knows X must be able to give an account of X rather than that one’s knowledge of X depends on (or is bounded by) giving an account of X.

Knowing and giving an account of Forms also comes up in chapter 8 about Socrates’ “second voyage” (99C–D). Trabattoni shows that it appeals to arguments (logos) and that it is second-best (since “second voyage” is a proverb, meaning a fall-back option when the first voyage is unavailable). Moreover, he adduces the dependence on language (cf. 99E) as explaining its secondariness and not the type of causes that each voyage promulgates (as others interpret it). To support this reading, he cites Simmias’ claim that one should resort to human argument (logos) when one cannot succeed by discovering or learning (85C). While Trabattoni mentions the continuation of this passage, he does not take due account of it. Socrates identifies the first voyage here as getting divine logos (85D). Considering this, Trabattoni’s argument remains unpersuasive in showing that the first voyage would be direct acquaintance with Forms while the second is through the veil of language (logos), even if other passages cited (e.g., Republic’s Divided Line) support the latter.

Consider the ethical issues more closely . Starting with suicide, Trabattoni, doing a thorough textual analysis of a highly debated passage (62A2–7), persuasively sorts out the reasons for Cebes’ surprise at the prohibition of suicide (for philosophers) (chapter 2). In chapter 3, he discusses the distinction between real purificatory virtues and lower demotic ones (68B–69E), which allegedly contradicts Plato’s other discussions of virtue as relevant for mundane action and politics, notably in Republic. However, as Trabattoni shows, Plato maintains throughout the dialogues that true virtue requires knowledge and involves turning away from material desires. Thus, far from contradicting virtues’ political and practical relevance in Phaedo, Plato only emphasises their ascetic character. While it becomes clear that the later Republic does not contradict the earlier Phaedo, the political aspect of virtue in Republic still appears as an addition. Chapter 4 pursues Plato’s relationship with Antisthenes, another disciple of Socrates. Trabattoni argues that Plato’s repeated dissatisfaction with Antisthenes’ hedonistic tendencies can be identified in Phaedo 68E–69B, 82E–84B. Moreover, he construes Plato’s critique as aimed at establishing both the correct understanding of philosophy in general and Socrates’ in particular—by making explicit Socrates’ implicit metaphysical principles, which Antisthenes failed to recognise. Most importantly, goods of the soul for Antisthenes do not constitute a different, more valuable sphere than material goods but only amount to a judicious hedonism. But without recognising the higher sphere of psychical-metaphysical good (knowledge of Forms), there is a danger, according to Plato, that people are misled about the nature and value of philosophy. Based on parallel testimonies of Antisthenes, it seems plausible to see, with Trabattoni, a critique of him in Phaedo. But it remains to be explained why Antisthenes remained silent in the dialogue when hearing a refutation of his philosophy.

Concerning the metaphysical background, chapter 6 discusses Simmias’ Pythagorean objection against the soul’s afterlife, namely, the harmonia theory of soul. Accordingly, the soul is the harmonic arrangement of bodily components. Socrates refutes this account on three fronts: (i) it excludes soul’s pre-existence—so the recollection argument—for harmony requires the existence of things harmonised; (ii) it renders soul as epiphenomenal; (iii) the logic of harmony does not fit that of soul. Trabattoni focuses on the third argument, dismissing a widespread and relatively simple interpretation, according to which the point is that whereas being a harmony comes with degrees, being a soul does not. Analysing another passage with grammatical difficulties (93A11–B2; cf. 93D), he points to an added logical complexity that subtly corrects Pythagorean views. Different degrees of harmonisation define different harmonies since harmonisation is the essence of harmony. Thus, since the hypothesis is that soul is harmony, different harmonisation of soul (i.e., different levels of moral quality) amounts to different kinds of soul. But all human souls are essentially the same.

Concerning causes (aitiai), chapter 7 contests the usual interpretive approach—that identifies Socrates’ talk (96A–99D) as a small treatise on generation and corruption—and considers it in its proper context of proving the soul’s indestructibility in reply to Cebes’ objection. Accordingly, by examining the causes of generation, corruption, and being, Socrates can infer the soul’s incorruptibility by connecting it to the incorruptible reality of Forms as proper causes in the Phaedo’s last argument (105C–107B). For Forms as immaterial causes can explain why certain things are large or two. As Trabattoni shows, the material causes of Presocratics are inadequate to explain changes in forms like largeness or numerosity—for these seem to appear from nothing, contrary to the requirements of Parmenidean being—whereas Anaxagorean seeds in the mixture could explain these. However, Trabattoni’s inference that this is Plato’s reason to treat Anaxagoras separately is unpersuasive. Socrates does not mention Anaxagoras’ mixture (DK B1) and that everything is present in everything (DK B5, B6, B11). Instead, he emphasises Intellect (Nous) and his expectation of a cause that appeals to the good. True, Trabattoni acknowledges this emphasis, too, and the problem generated by bringing in final causality (related to the good). At any rate, this chapter neatly illustrates the strengths of Trabattoni’s method of interpretation, which gives due attention to the text’s argumentative context and the historical-philosophical context of the time.

Finally, we get to life and its necessary relationship to soul, which secures the latter’s indestructibility in the last argument (chapter 9). Trabattoni clarifies two theses: (i) the relationship between things and Forms and (ii) the relationship between immortality and indestructibility. First (i), he argues that Plato aims to clarify certain features of essential properties, namely, how can we explain within the theory of Forms that things like sensible fire have properties like hot essentially besides being fire essentially. Trabattoni argues that Plato invokes participation in essential Forms (fire participates in Fire) and essential entailment relationships between Forms (Fire entails Hot). For the soul, this amounts to the analyticity of the claim that anything having soul is living and deathless, i.e., immortal. Since the interlocutors already accepted this, (ii) Plato and Trabattoni connect immortality to indestructibility. The problem is Cebes’ apparent acceptance of the entailment without further argument (106E–107A), and thus Socrates’ apparent question-begging. As Trabattoni emphasises, it is crucial to see that Socrates’ aim is to persuade his particular interlocutors, so he appeals to their beliefs in indestructible gods and Forms (106D), providing support for the hypothesis that the form Immortality entails Indestructibility. Thus, together with the fact that soul is immortal, it does follow that soul is indestructible.

Overall, the book is a valuable contribution to better understanding Plato’s Phaedo.[1] While giving due attention to the arguments, it does not have much to say about literary aspects and the myth at the end. However, this should not be considered a shortcoming but a strength.[2] For, as Trabattoni concludes (p. 178), Plato’s philosophy should be understood mainly as argumentative (rational) embedded in its own context (pp. 125–126).[3]



[1] While the book is nicely produced, more careful proofreading would have been desirable to avoid frequent grammatical errors, misspellings, or the inconsistent format and ordering of bibliographical entries.

[2] Contrary to Giasoumi, Athanasia. Review of From Death to Life: Key Themes in Plato’s Phaedo, by Franco Trabattoni. The Review of Metaphysics 77,1 (2023): 163–164.

[3] The review received financial support from the Hungarian National Research, Development and Innovation Office (NKFIH: project OTKA-138275).