The character in Plato's Phaedo contends that a true philosopher strives for wisdom above all else and welcomes death as a means of separating the soul from the encumbrance of the body. Yet even in his constant pursuit of knowledge, even on the eve of his death, Socrates falls short of this aim. Though he provides four arguments to support the immortality of the soul, each one provides refutable, unconvincing evidence, culminating in a logos that egregiously defies our everyday experience.
Argument: (Cyclical Argument or Opposites Argument) The theory of Opposites
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Cebes voices his fear of death to Socrates:"...they fear that when she [the soul] has left the body her place may be nowhere and that on the very day of death she may perish and come to an end immediately on her release from the body...dispersing and vanishing away into nothingness in her flight."
In order to alleviate Cebes' worry that the soul might perish at death, Socrates introduces his first argument for the immortality of the soul. This argument is often called the Cyclical Argument. It supposes that the soul must be immortal since the living come from the dead. Socrates says: "Now if it be true that the living come from the dead, then our souls must exist in the other world, for if not, how could they have been born again?". He goes on to show, using examples of relationships, such as asleep-awake and hot-cold, that things that have opposites come to be from their opposite. One falls asleep after having been awake. And after being asleep, he awakens. Things that are hot can become cold and vice versa. Socrates then gets Cebes to conclude that the dead are generated from the living, through death, and that the living are generated from the dead, through birth. The souls of the dead must exist in some place for them to be able to return to life.
This argument explains that forms are eternal and unchanging, and as the soul always brings life, then it must not die, and is necessarily "imperishable". Plato then suggests the analogy of fire and cold. If the form of cold is imperishable, and fire, its opposite, was within close proximity, it would have to withdraw intact as does the soul during death. The argument supposes that the soul must be immortal since the living come from the dead.
Socrates begins the argument by discussing the nature of the opposites. "if something smaller comes to be it will come from something larger before, which became smaller" Socrates says to his friend, Cebes (71a). In simple terms, to say something is "smaller" requires that the thing must have been "larger" in the past. To connect the two requires a process, Socrates argues, which we might call decreasing. Thus, the overall pattern can be depicted as: larger-decreasing-smaller. Of course, "smaller" and "larger" are opposite arguments. So too are "better" and "worse" and by association "sleep" and "awake". Socrates ultimately makes the leap to life and death, relying on the same argument for larger and smaller. Socrates forces Cebes to admit that because "living" and "dying" are opposites they have a necessary relationship like "larger" and "smaller". So when he concludes that living is the opposite of dying, the overall scheme appears like this: life-dying-death. However, when Socrates attempts to reverse the scheme it becomes irrational:death-living-life. Cebes nonchalantly accepts this reasoning and allows Socrates to finish the argument with the conclusion that if there is this link between life and death, death and life, the soul must persist from one to another.
The souls of the dead must exist in some places for them to be able to return to life.
Objection to the argument
The problem with this reasoning lies in this step: death-living-life. Unlike decreasing-increasing, living-dying is not a reversible process. It is easy to imagine how "smaller" can become larger through increasing. A snowball becomes larger after I roll it on the ground and it picks up more snow. And the reverse: the snowball becomes smaller when it melts and the snowball shrinks. Implicit in Socrates' assessment of opposites is an element of reversibility. Therefore, anything which increases can also decrease. So too can something worse become better, something sleeping become awake and fall back asleep again. Yet living and dying are not clearly reversible processes. When my dog dies it ceases to be. It loses its existence. Its corpse exists for a limited time, but soon barely a carcass will remain. Death is a final process. Unlike a snowball, I cannot simply resurrect a dead dog to reverse the process. Thus, because life and death have not been shown to be reversible, it does not stand that it is necessary for the soul to persist. Upon dying, the soul can dissipate, as Cebes originally suggested.
Comparison with Apology
As Socrates "Apology" progresses, irony is more pronounced. Realizing that he is likely to be facing a physical death as a penalty for his offences to the established order, he makes the assertion that killing him won't solve any worldly problems, nor will it answer the eternal question of good versus evil (Opposites Argument), nor will it help men to attain the wisdom that they in fact know nothing. In Socrates own words, these arguments are made such:
"and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed...but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more, there is no danger of my being the last of them"
"a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chances of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether doing anything he is doing is right or wrong".