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Zoonen, D.H.C. van

Department of the History of Philosophy

Defusing the Threat of Bodily Pleasure: the Philosopher’s Way of Life in Plato’s Phaedo

In what is known as Socrates’ Second Defence (SSD), to be found at Phaedo 63b4—69e5, Socrates famously equates the life of philosophy or the philosophical way of life with ‘dying or being dead’ and even goes on to define philosophy as the cultivation or practice of death (hē melētē tou thanatou). In this paper I defend two lines of thought regarding SSD. First, I show that a purely evaluative reading of SSD—most elaborately and eloquently developed by Woolf (2004)—is untenable. Whereas proponents of the evaluative reading maintain that the Platonic philosopher of the Phaedo is merely characterised by a correct evaluative mental stance towards bodily pleasure, I show that such a reading breaks down on multiple interpretative problems and argue consequently that behavioural avoidance must be at the foundation of the philosophical way of life as espoused in the Phaedo. Second, I focus on the nature of this behavioural avoidance of bodily pleasures and try to elucidate it by examining Plato’s arguments or considerations for defending such a seemingly austere view. It turns out that the ideal philosopher avoids the pursuit of bodily pleasure for the reason that bodily pleasures instil a mistaken conception of reality—a conflation of the visible and intelligible—in us and rivet our souls to the material realm and our bodies. This materialisation of the soul, in its turn, leads to a faulty conception of reality and the pursuit of more bodily pleasures, thus sending the non-philosopher down a hopeless, addictive path of pursuing the pleasures of the senses rather than those of reason or philosophy. In sum, then, the philosophical way of life we find in the Phaedo is a mix of both evaluative and behavioural elements: the philosopher, whose sole goal is the contemplation of the Forms, combines the avoidance of bodily pleasures with having the right conception of what is visible and intelligible, illusory and true. As a consequence of this way of life, only the Platonic philosopher is blessed with true happiness and even post-mortem bliss.  

Last modified:12 September 2016 1.51 p.m.