The soul in Plato’s Phaedo and in the Quran

The Phaedo is the most famous curtain call in all of philosophy. It documents the final days of Socrates’ life, spent in rigorous dialogues with his friends and fellow thinkers. It is a testament to his own conviction that the contemplative life, dedicated to the pursuit of truth, is the highest good—even in the face of certain death.

What could this text, which celebrates one man’s journey to find the truth using his own intellect, possibly have in common with the Quran, a text which claims to be the ultimate authority on truth?

The Phaedo was known to ancient audiences as On The Soul. It deals heavily with the topic of the afterlife and one’s proper orientation towards death. It represents a culmination of Socrates’ thoughts on the soul, which were put into practice up until his very last minute on Earth.

The treatment of the soul is also a major theme in the Quran. We can find many portions which not only recapitulate ideas from Jewish and Christian sources, but elaborate on them to create an entirely new theological perspective.

In reading the two together, we will not only find homologies and overlaps between them. We will also come to understand Socrates’ life in a properly religious sense: to view his philosophy as founded on kinds of religious truths. And we may even come to understand philosophy itself as something of a spiritual discipline.

Part 1: philosophy as preparation

In the Quran we are frequently reminded that the afterlife is more important than our immediate lives. Muslims are encouraged to spend their time in the world (al-dunya) preparing for the hereafter (al-akhira, literally ‘the next one’), hoping that their good deeds and faith will be compensated by the bounties of divine justice.

So too we find, early in the Phaedo, that “the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death”. After all, for Socrates, it is only through death that the mind can be free of the limitations of the body and approach the most perfect truths. Our lives are therefore a time to perfect our intellects and become the best contemplative philosophers we can.

This suggests that for Socrates, seeking wisdom was something akin to a religious process. His value system positioned the activities of our worldly lives in the context of a final, transcendent purpose. It is only to this ‘cosmic plan’ that our adherence should be directed: nothing of this world should really hold any more importance than it.

This should be contrasted with other Greek philosophies, like Stoicism—which held a stiff-lipped attitude as the ultimate position of life—and utilitarian systems which defined some form of ‘happiness’ or well-being as the highest good. Because these philosophies did not address the afterlife, worldly pursuits were elevated to the highest good.

Elsewhere Plato even describes his philosophy as a kind of ‘purification ritual’, which has clear religious connotations. Here, we are reminded of a specific verse of the Quran:

Whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul

Quran 35:18

Like the Quran, which frames the development of piety as good for one’s soul, so too does Socrates present the argument that refining the intellect and conducting philosophical inquiry is the best course for the human life.

We get more indication that Socrates is speaking from a religious place later on in the text, when he cites inspiration from Apollo, the god of prophecy. It seems that, like Mohammad, Socrates enjoyed a sense of being among the divinely or ‘rightly-guided’ (ar-rāshidun).

Part 2: the immortality of souls

Socrates’ argument so far relies on the idea that the soul survives death. He presents several arguments to support this claim, the most relevant of which is the cyclical argument.

For Socrates, life and death are opposites in the same way that hot and cold are. Thus, in the same way that an ice cube must make its surroundings cooler in order to melt, so too does the process of death necessitate new life in order to ‘balance the scale’. This leads him to conclude that everything that dies must come back to life again: this ‘cyclical’ process keeps

We can already think of some obvious objections to this argument. For example, how do we account for the net increase of human souls? Regardless, the important thing here is the spirit of Socrates’ argument. In posing it, he appeals to our intuition that since the soul emerges from the dead (inert substance) in the first place, we cannot be certain that the destruction of the body will lead to the destruction of the soul.

The dialogue between Socrates and his interlocutors mirrors discussions which are documented in the Quran between Mohammad and his detractors. Mohammad is frequently putting forth arguments for the soul’s immortality in the face of those who doubt that the soul will survive death.

This is apparent from a number of verses:

And those who disbelieve say, “When we have become dust as well as our forefathers, will we indeed be brought out [of the graves]?”

Quran 27:67

And they used to say, “When we die and become dust and bones, are we indeed to be resurrected?

Quran 56:47

But those who disbelieve say, “Shall we direct you to a man who will inform you [that] when you have disintegrated in complete disintegration, you will be [recreated] in a new creation?

Quran 15:7

Mohammad is given the proper response to these objections in surah yasin:

And he [the non-believer] presents for Us an example and forgets his [own] creation. He says, “Who will give life to bones while they are disintegrated?”

Say, “He will give them [dead souls] life who produced them the first time; and He is, of all creation, Knowing.”

Quran 36:78-79

Like Socrates’ cyclical argument, which takes the emergence of the soul as evidence for its immortality, so too does the Quran present a homology between the initial creation of the soul and its eventual resurrection.

Part 3: wisdom as recollection

In defending his idea that the soul is immortal, Socrates also makes use of the argument from anamnesis. This is a Greek word which refers to forms of knowledge which are properly understood as a remembrance of past states.

Socrates gives the following example to illustrate this argument. When we happen across two objects which are nearly equal, we are immediately reminded of the idea of ‘pure equality’. This occurs despite the fact that we have not witnessed absolute equality at any time in our lives.

This relates to Plato’s theory of the Forms, which states that the physical world is a reflection of an eternal, incorporeal realm of abstract ideas. Our ability to understand pure equality is taken as evidence that this Form preceded our souls, and that our souls are ‘accessing’ this Form in order to understand the concept of equality.

Thus, reading Socrates through Plato’s idea of the Form, he argues that behind every visible instance of near-equality lies the Form of absolute equality, a pre-existent abstraction which we access through ‘memory’.

The process of anamnesis is reminiscent of another major theme of the Quran: that the ‘pure monotheism’ of the Abrahamic religion is nothing but a remembrance of a former knowledge or state. Additionally, Mohammad is described as someone who is simply ‘reminding his people, and the Quran itself is described as a ‘reminder’.

[This is] a Book revealed to you — so let there not be in your breast distress from it — that you may warn thereby and as a reminder to the believers.

Follow what has been revealed to you from your Lord and do not follow other than Him any allies. Little do you remember.

Quran 7

Or have they taken gods besides Him? Say, “Produce your proof. This [Quran] is the reminder for those with me and the reminder of those before me.” But most of them do not know the truth, so they are turning away.

Quran 21:24

And We had already given Moses and Aaron the criterion and a light and a reminder for the righteous

Quran 21:48

And this [Quran] is a blessed reminder which We have sent down. Then are you with it rejectors?

Quran 21:50

In this verse, the Quran even describes God making a primordial pact with all his creations:

And when your Lord took from the children of Adam from their loins — their descendants — and made them testify of themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” Lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware.”

Or [lest] you say, “It was only that our fathers associated [others in worship] with Allah before, and we were but descendants after them. Then would You destroy us for what the falsifiers have done?”

And thus do We [explain in] detail the verses, and perhaps they will return.

Quran 7:172-174

In the Quran, religious truths are a product of remembrance: they are eternal spiritual principles of reality and the human condition.

Mythos and the distinction between belief and practice

Is religion fundamentally a matter of belief or practice? There are those who value the former over the latter: we can never perfect our deeds to meet God’s standards, but we can at least understand God and his universe enough that we deserve his forgiveness. Others value the latter over the former: it isn’t so important what you believe, so long as your actions are in alignment with some basic moral principles.

The Arabic word for religion, dīn, encapsulates this duality: it also means conformity, custom, or habit. Thus, a person’s dīn are the practices they have engrained into their daily lives.

Socrates’ personal convictions led him to act in a specific way leading up to his death. He did not resist the judgement of the Athenian court which ruled for him to be executed. He did not spend his last days enjoying the pleasures of the world. This suggests that for him, acting out on a philosophical belief is just as crucial as mentally holding them.

Near the end of the Phaedo, Socrates explores some Greek mythology and provides some more insight on his thoughts about the distinction between belief and practice. Most significantly, he talks about the judgement of dead souls, which rewards pious philosophers and punishes the wicked.

This seems like a stark departure from his earlier statements, all of which he was careful to back up with rigorous logical arguments. Should we assume that Socrates is guilty of some religiosity, then — some unfounded beliefs that he holds through faith?

Not so. At the end of his mythological ventures, Socrates informs his audience that stories like these must be recited as “incantations” in order to encourage philosophical engagement and spiritual refinement. This reveals that for Socrates, there was a dimension of truth related more to the pragmatic dimension of our lives: something is true if it encourages good behavior. This has obvious religious undertones, and reflects the standard debate about the ‘metaphorical’ or ‘literal’ status of Old Testament stories (to use one example).

Next time

Socrates believes that truths are accessible by the intellect, while Islam teaches that some wisdom is conveyed through the process of divine inspiration. This would have important consequences for the early Muslims, who would seek to combine the philosophical system introduced by the Quran with the rationalism of the Greeks.

We will continue to elaborate on Greek philosophy and Islam when we introduce the faylasufs, some of the earliest religious scholars of the Muslim world.


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