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Plato's Phaedo is a literary gem that develops many of his most famous ideas. David Ebrey's careful reinterpretation argues that the many debates about the dialogue cannot be resolved so long as we consider its passages in relative isolation from one another, separated from their intellectual background. His book shows how Plato responds to his literary, religious, scientific, and philosophical context, and argues that we can only understand the dialogue's central ideas and arguments in light of its overall structure. This approach yields new interpretations of the dialogue's key ideas, including the nature and existence of 'Platonic' forms, the existence of the soul after death, the method of hypothesis, and the contemplative ethical ideal. Moreover, this comprehensive approach shows how the characters play an integral role in the Phaedo's development and how its literary structure complements Socrates' views while making its own distinctive contribution to the dialogue's drama and ideas.
In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates calls things like justice, piety, and largeness “forms.” In several of these dialogues, he makes clear that forms are very different from familiar objects like tables and trees. Why, exactly, does he think that they differ and how are they supposed to do so? This chapter argues that in the Phaedo Socrates does not assume that they are different, but rather, over five stages of the dialogue, provides an account of how and why they do so. To fully understand the claims made in the first stage, one must look to the next stage, and so on until the final stage. Socrates' ultimate reason for distinguishing forms from ordinary objects does not depend on our intuitions about things like justice and largeness, nor on the distinction between universals and particulars. Ultimately, forms cannot be ordinary objects because the form of f-ness must cause every f-thing to be f, but no ordinary object could serve as such a cause. They cannot do so because they have multiple parts and are receptive of opposites; by contrast, the form of f-ness must be simple and unchanging, since it causes every f-thing to be f.