Socrates & the Human Soul

"I have a firm hope that there is something in store for those who have died, and, as we have been told for many years, something much better for the good than for the wicked." - Socrates in Phaedo 1

On the final day of Socrates' trial, the Athenians sent their annual voyage off to Delos. The reason for the ship's departure was that Theseus had previously sailed away to Crete with seven youths and seven maidens, and they returned safely. In honor of their safe return, the Athenians vowed to Apollo to send a solemn mission to Delos every year afterwards. While this annual voyage was taking place, no public executions were allowed. Hence, Socrates' execution was postponed until the sacred voyage returned. While awaiting his eminent death, Socrates and his friends pondered the nature of the soul and its immortality. The following presents some of Socrates' musings.

Socrates believed that the human soul was invisible, immortal, and directs the physical body.

Well, now, said Socrates, are we not part body, part soul?
Then to which class do we say that the body would have the closer resemblance and relation?
Quite obviously to the visible.
And the soul, is it visible or invisible?
Invisible to men, at any rate, Socrates, he said.
But surely we have been speaking of things visible or invisible to our human nature. Do you think that we had some other nature in view?
No, human nature.
What do we say about the soul, then? Is it visible or invisible?
Not visible.
Invisible, then?
So soul is more like the invisible, and the body more like the visible?
That follows inevitably, Socrates. ....

I think Socrates, said Cebes, that even the dullest person would agree, from this line of reasoning, that the soul is in every possible way more like the invariable than the variable.
And the body?
To the other.
Look at it in this way too. When soul and body are both in the same place, nature teaches the one to serve and be subject, the other to rule and govern. In this relation which do you think resembles the divine and which the mortal part? Don't you think that it is the nature of the divine to rule and direct, and that of the mortal to be subject and serve?
I do.
Then which does the soul resemble?
Obviously, Socrates, soul resembles the divine, and body the mortal....2

Socrates argued that the soul is what makes a body alive. Death occurs when the soul ceases to animate the body.

Then tell me, what must be present in a body to make it alive?
Is this always so?
Of course.
So whenever soul takes possession of a body, it always brings life with it?
Yes, it does.
Is there an opposite to life, or not?
Yes, there is.

Scripture defines death as the separation of the body from the spirit.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. James 2:26 (NIV)

Finally, the day arrived when the ship returned from Delos and was safely anchored in the harbor. Socrates, Phaedo, and some of their other friends gathered together one last time before he drank the deadly hemlock.

Then, the moment arrived. The hemlock was in the cup.

The servant went out and after spending a considerable amount of time returned with the man who was to administer the poison. He was carrying it ready-made in a cup.
When Socrates saw him he said, Well, my good fellow, you understand these things. What ought I to do?
Just drink it, he said, and then walk about until you feel a weight in your legs, and then lie down. Then it will act of its own accord. [117b] ... With these words, quite calmly and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath. [117c]...
The coldness was spreading about as far as his waist when Socrates uncovered his face, for he had covered it up, and said — they were his last words — Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don't forget. 4

With these final words, Socrates requested his friends to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, for his recovery to health. Symbolically, his request showed that he was thankful to escape the tomb of the human body and leave the cavern of human earthly existence to enter a blissful life with the good gods.


He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV)

Eternity has been set in the hearts of men. Our soul begs to live forever and ever. So, it was natural that Socrates pondered the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, his sense of justice urged that those who did good would eventually be blessed and those who did evil would somehow suffer harm. Justice is often avoided in this life, so there seems to be a need for ultimate justice. Finally, we see that Socrates believed that the material body needs an invisible self to rule it. This ruler of the body is the soul.

1 Plato, Phaedo, In: The Collected Dialogues Of Plato Including The Letters, Editors: E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1961, p. 46 [63c].

2 ibid. [79b-e]

3 ibid. [105d]

4 ibid. [118a]