The Dream Motif in Phaedo

Sheldon Nahmod [1]

University of Chicago


There are, in Plato's Phaedo ,[2] two frames for the entire dialogue. The outer frame is Phaedo's narrative about the death of Socrates. This frame begins with Phaedo's conversation with his friends[3] and ends with Phaedo's observation that Socrates was "the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man."[4] The inner frame is that surrounding the discussion between Socrates and his students regarding the immortality of the soul. This inner frame begins with the arrival of the students and ends with the death of Socrates. The discussion itself only starts in earnest at the beginning of this inner frame, after Cebes relays Evenus's questions to Socrates about the lyrics Socrates has reportedly been composing. This prompts Socrates to discuss his recurring dream and why he has acted on it, which then leads to consideration of life, death and the immortality of the soul.

It is surely no accident that the discussion begins with Socrates's dream. The dream motif plays a major role in Phaedo at the narrative, philosophic and aesthetic levels. I attempt to show this by first considering the dream and how Socrates responds to it. Next, I identify several important characteristics of dreams and suggest that they pertain to myths as well. I then point out those portions of Phaedo that pick up on the dream motif and demonstrate how this motif both supports Socrates's philosophical arguments and aesthetically heightens the charge of the entire dialogue, especially our reaction to the death of Socrates.

The Dream and Its Characteristics

Socrates explains that he has been composing lyrics because of a recurring dream in which the dream itself speaks to him and says: "Socrates, practice and cultivate the arts."[5] This is not a new dream triggered by the harrowing events surrounding his trial and sentence but one that has occurred "often" in the course of his life. Socrates has clearly spent a great deal of time considering the meaning of this dream but until now he has thought that the "arts" referred to philosophy. Now, though, he is not so sure, so he begins writing lyrics in order to "discover the meaning" of this dream and to "clear" his "conscience." Socrates takes the dream seriously because he states that he is "obeying" it, and his conduct bears this out.[6] Dreams can be analysed in different ways[7] and possess various characteristics, but I particularly want to identify several dream characteristics that appear in Phaedo . First, dreams take place when a person is asleep, as did Socrates's. Second, when a person awakens and knows he has had a dream, he attempts to recollect that dream, again like Socrates. Third, such recollections are often indistinct, lacking clarity; the person frequently cannot recall or relate many of the details.[8] And fourth, it is only when the dream is recollected that the search for meaning, or interpretation, can begin. Thus, in Phaedo Socrates tries to make sense of his recurring dream.

These four characteristics of dreams--sleep, recollection, lack of clarity and the search for meaning--are embodied in Phaedo at the narrative level and at more subtle philosophical and aesthetic levels. Significantly, recollection, lack of clarity and the search for meaning are characteristic of myths as well. Myths must be recollected in order to be told, they are often vague in important respects and they demand interpretation. And, as we shall see, Socrates's Phaedo myth[9] is closely connected to sleep as well.


When Socrates's dream effectively begins the discussion of the soul's immortality, it is clear that Socrates has been sleeping. It is also evident that at the end of the dialogue Socrates will again be sleeping, this time permanently. The reader of the dialogue knows it, Phaedo knows it, those listening to him and visiting with Socrates know it and Socrates knows it. Indeed, Socrates's death by means of the spreading poison parallels the way in which sleep gradually descends upon a person. And his lying down when he dies is comparable physically to one's normal position when sleeping. This is foreshadowed not only by the dream motif but also in Socrates's discussion of opposites where he contrasts being asleep with being awake.[10]

At the narrative core of Phaedo are discussions of the care and immortality of the soul, of the soul's connection with the body and of what it means to live and die. Socrates maintains that the soul is immortal, that the body is a hindrance to the best life for the soul and that it is only after what is called death (which is purely physical) does true life in the next world really begin for those "who have lived a life of surpassing holiness."[11]

The dream motif in Phaedo grounds these positions at a philosophical level. Dreaming represents ordinary life, the physical life of the body which, for Socrates, is a kind of sleep. And just as when we dream we often do not know we are dreaming, so, too, when we live the physical life of the body alone most of us are unaware that we are not living fully. It is only when a person awakens from dreaming and sleeping that he is aware that he has been dreaming and sleeping. Being awake is for Socrates the philosophical equivalent of the life that is not of the body but rather of the soul, the holy life of the philosopher who has lived properly.

This contrast between dreaming and ordinary life on the one hand, and being awake and the philosophical life on the other, appears later in The Republic . In a discussion of the differences between opinion and knowledge, Socrates asks:[12] He, then, who believes in beautiful things, but neither believes in beauty itself nor is able to follow when someone tries to guide him to the knowledge of it - do you think that his life is a dream or a waking? Just consider. Is not the dream state, whether the man is asleep or awake, just this - the mistaking of resemblance for identity?
I should certainly call that dreaming, he said.
Well, then, take the opposite case, the man whose thought recognises a beauty in itself, and is able to distinguish that self-beautiful and the things that participate in it ... - is his life, in your opinion, a waking or a dream state?
He is very much awake.
Could we not rightly, then, call the mental state of the one as knowing, knowledge, and that of the other as opining, opinion?
Assuredly. Thus, what Plato does explicitly in The Republic to make his philosophical point he accomplishes more subtly in Phaedo .

However, the dream motif in Phaedo accomplishes even more philosophically. It suggests that as awake as a philosopher may be during this life, he becomes truly awake in the next world where souls live without hindrance from bodies.[13] This supports Socrates's position that one should not be afraid of death but should rather welcome it, as he himself does. The life of the body is for Socrates extremely limiting and is itself a kind of death for everyone but philosophers. Under these circumstances the body gets in the way of true living. It is only when what we call death occurs that true life really begins in the next world.

For Socrates, then, dreaming and sleeping are like death, while awakening is comparable to the departure of the soul from the physical body toward true life. Who would not prefer being awake and truly alive to dreaming and being asleep, and thus effectively dead? By means of his argument, the dream motif and the example of his own conduct, Socrates inverts the conventional meanings of life and death.

The dream motif functions importantly at an aesthetic level as well. Admittedly, it is the impending death of Socrates that generates the most powerful charge in Phaedo because it reminds us of something that most of us prefer to forget: our mortality. But the dream motif resonates in several ways and thereby enhances this emotional charge.

The dream motif and its connection in Phaedo to life and death call to mind how many elderly people respond when you ask them about their impressions of life. Often they will say that their lives seem unreal and dreamlike. When they attempt to describe their lives in some detail, the images run together and blur, and specific events are recollected in non-chronological order. Frequently a deep sadness accompanies this response because these images and events can not be brought into the present and somehow relived. It has all gone much too quickly.

Similarly, the death of Socrates as it is related in Phaedo seems dream-like and unreal, though we know it happened historically.[14] All of Socrates's life is behind him, time is running out, he is facing death and yet we and his students see (and read) that he is serene. He asserts that he is looking forward to death because it brings life; yet his students are breaking out in tears around him and the reader is emotionally affected as well. Socrates knows and feels deeply that his life is a dream from which he will soon awaken. For his students, though, what is happening to Socrates is a nightmare that they still cannot believe even as they see it happening. The reader, the listeners and observers in Phaedo and Plato himself all view Socrates with a kind of religious awe generated by the sense that none of them (and us) could deal with death in the way that he does.[15]

That Socrates's death is immediately preceded by his narration of an afterlife myth only reinforces this feeling of religious awe. Socrates's myth reveals "what it is really like upon the earth which lies beneath the heavens."[16] Humanity lives in the hollows of the earth which contains various underground channels and cavities through which rivers of water and fire flow. After people die, they are transported to different places on the earth. Those who have been guilty of sins spend considerable time (forever, for some) being cast into subterranean waters and seeking forgiveness from those they have wronged.[17] In contrast, those who have lived "lives of surpassing holiness" are quickly released from confinement within the earth and pass to the "pure abode" on the earth's surface where "these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful, which it is not easy to portray...."[18] Socrates surely feels (and wants us to feel as well) that he has attempted to live a life of "surpassing holiness" and that he will, as a result, pass to the "pure abode" after his death.

Significantly, the Phaedo afterlife myth can be compared to a dream[19] since both a myth and a dream are products of the imagination.[20] Socrates believes his myth[21] and concretises it in a much more significant manner than he does his dream: through the manner in which he both faces death and refuses to delay it. Socrates has staked his entire life on this myth. He maintains that his position on the immortality of the soul and its location after death "is both a reasonable contention and a belief worth risking, for the risk is a noble one. We should use such accounts to inspire ourselves with confidence ...."[22]

Phaedo ends with Socrates's death. If, however, Socrates is right and his myth is true, he is not dying and going to sleep but is instead about to live and awaken. We have waited through the Phaedo dialogue to see how Socrates will react, and we are not disappointed. We believe in him and perhaps even in his myth, since it obviously inspired him and is intended to inspire us as well.

Recollection, Lack of Clarity and the Search for Meaning

Recollection is a characteristic of both dreams and myths because they all have to be recalled, to be retrieved, in order to be retold and given meaning. It is present in Phaedo in several forms. Socrates recollects his dream and tells it to his students. He similarly recollects and tells his myth. Moreover, a Platonic dialogue itself is a recollection and a telling. Like Socrates's dream which has a voice that speaks, Phaedo similarly gives Socrates a voice.

Consider, though, that in the case of Phaedo , Plato himself is not narrating the story of the death of Socrates and was not even present when it happened (incredibly, he was "ill"!). When Plato writes the dialogue he is himself recalling (through Phaedo) what Phaedo narrates. The recollection process is thus made doubly difficult because of Plato's removal from the actual event and even from its narration by Phaedo. It is Phaedo as narrator who is trying his best to recall everything that happened. In this connection Phaedo comments that he gets much pleasure from "recalling the memory of Socrates, either by talking myself or by listening to someone else."[23]

Recollection explicitly plays a major philosophical role in Phaedo 's discussion of the care and immortality of the soul and in the Socratic view of learning as a process of recollection. As Socrates declares in Phaedo: Unless we invariably forget it after obtaining it we must always be born knowing and continue to know throughout our lives, because "to know" means simply to retain the knowledge which one has acquired, and not to lose it. ... In other words, learning is recollection.[24]Recollection thus reminds us (pun intended) of its own importance to Socrates.

Closely related to the difficulty of recollecting accurately is lack of clarity. This characteristic, often present in both dreams and myths, reflects the inability of language to communicate or to represent certain truths effectively.[25] Indeed, one of the crucial functions of myths in general, and those in Plato's Phaedo and other dialogues in particular, is to communicate truths that cannot otherwise--say, through dialectic or argument--be communicated.[26] Although some portions of the Phaedo myth are described in considerable detail--the course of the four "mighty streams" is an example[27]--a lack of clarity is evident at other points in Phaedo. Thus, at the very beginning of Phaedo's narrative, he admits that he cannot even describe his emotions during the discussion with Socrates. He says: "I felt an absolutely incomprehensible emotion, a sort of curious blend of pleasure and pain combined."[28]

The inherent limitation of language to communicate or represent certain truths is also implicated when Socrates attempts to describe the true earth in physical terms. He compares the difference between our seeing what we believe is the earth and seeing the real earth, to fish who are ordinarily in the water but then "see our world when they put their heads out of the sea."[29] According to Socrates, we who live on the earth have never seen the real earth.

Even as to those aspects of the earth and the next world that Socrates purports to describe in considerable detail, he eventually concedes that even he is incapable of describing them adequately: "Of course, no reasonable man ought to insist that the facts are exactly as I have described them."[30] And when he is asked to describe the next world for those who have "lived a life of surpassing holiness,"[31] he excuses himself from doing so on the twin grounds that "it is not easy to portray" (this is certainly correct) and "there [is not] enough time to do so now" (this is rather lame).[32] Despite this lack of descriptive clarity, Socrates insists that his beliefs in the real earth, in the immortality of the soul and in the next world are beliefs "worth risking, for the risk is a noble one."[33]

This ultimate lack of clarity extends beyond the physical to include the temporal. Many dreams, including that of Socrates in Phaedo , are timeless in the sense that they seem not to proceed by the clock. Past, present and future often merge and blur. That is true of the Phaedo myth as well because souls that are "released and set free from confinement" live "thereafter altogether without bodies."[34] Where there are no bodies, time cannot really mean anything.

Lack of clarity and timelessness are also deeply imbedded in the very structure of the Phaedo dialogue by virtue of the complex temporal relationship among Phaedo 's various narrators and audiences. Plato, through his writing and our reading, is telling a story, written by him in the past, to us in the present. His narrator, Phaedo, is telling a story to his audience consisting of: (1) the students and friends of Socrates (who are in both the past, from our perspective, and in the present, from Phaedo's) and: (2) us (who are in both the present, from our own perspective, and the future, from Plato's). Moreover, the story is about the death of Socrates which all of us know has already occurred in historical time but which is about to happen at the beginning of Phaedo. Through Phaedo's narrative and Plato's dialogue we see the death, the event that closes Phaedo, as it occurs, as if we were there. In this sense, a Platonic dialogue like Phaedo is timeless.

The search for meaning, or interpretation, brings us full circle in our discussion of the dream motif in Phaedo . It is yet another characteristic shared by dreams and myths. Recall that shortly after the start of the inner frame in Phaedo ,[35] Socrates seeks to discover the "meaning of certain dreams" and indeed acts on what he thinks may be their meaning by writing lyrics. This leads him and us into a discussion of the immortality of the soul and the related myth of the next world. Socrates then goes on to act on the belief in the meaning of his myth in the way he approaches his death. Indeed, he has acted on this belief throughout his life. Similarly, we engage in the process of searching for meaning when we read Phaedo and contemplate the meaning of Socrates's death (and life) for his students and for us.


Even though Phaedo describes Socrates's death, at a deep level this dialogue is not about death but about life. Socrates insists to his students and us that he is not dying but is really about to live. He uses the myth "to inspire ourselves with confidence"[36] so that we act in such a way that we are not afraid to face what is called death by most people. Socrates relates the myth in order to give true and holy[37] life to himself and others. Similarly, Phaedo's narration of what happened to Socrates on his last day and how he conducted himself may inspire and give true and holy life to the students of Socrates. Indeed, Plato, by writing Phaedo , similarly hopes to inspire us and give us such true and holy life as well.

But Phaedo can be understood to embody true and holy life at an even deeper level. Socrates himself is alive for Phaedo and his audience when Phaedo remembers and talks about him,[38] and he is alive for Plato and his readers when Plato writes about him in Phaedo. Paradoxically, then, a dialogue that appears to describe the death of Socrates instead gives him and his voice life[39] and makes his soul truly immortal. Like a myth (or a dream) that lives and may save us when it is told and retold, Socrates and his ideas live whenever we engage the text of Phaedo.


1. Distinguished Professor of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology. A.B., University of Chicago; J.D., LL.M., Harvard Law School. This paper was written for a course on Plato's myths taught by David Tracy, Wendy Doniger and David Grene at the University of Chicago Divinity School when I was a Graduate Student-at-Large there in spring, 1993. I bear the sole responsibility for any errors or omissions.
2. All references to Phaedo and other dialogues are in Plato, Collected Dialogues (E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, eds., 1989).
3. Phaedo 57-59c.
4. Id at 118.
5. Id at 60e Socrates provides no other details. See the discussion infra on recollection and lack of clarity.
6. That Socrates takes dreams seriously is not only borne out by this dialogue. Crito, too, contains a dream of Socrates dealing with the day of his death, and Socrates tells Crito he believes it. Crito 44a-b.
7. One of Freud's insights is that "a dream is an attempt at the fulfilment of a wish." S. Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (J. Strachey, trans. and ed.; New York, 1965), p. 29 (emphasis in original). While I do not apply this or any other Freudian insight in this paper, I suspect that Socrates would not necessarily disagree with such an assessment, at least as applied to his dream in Phaedo.
8. Even the dream of Socrates, as simple and recurring as it was, is described tersely. But what does it mean to say that the "dream spoke"? Are the quoted words exactly what was said in the dream? What else happened in the dream?
9. This myth is described later.
10. "For example, if `falling asleep' existed, and `waking up' did not balance it by making something come out of sleep, you must realise that in the end ... the whole world would be in the same state--asleep." Phaedo 72c. This is ironic, as it turns out, because for Socrates the whole world is truly asleep but the next world is the world of being awake.
11.Id at 114b.
12. Republic 5:476c-d.
13. "And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful." Phaedo 114c.
14. Even if it did not happen in exactly the way portrayed by Plato in Phaedo.
15. In the case of Socrates, the feeling he generates in others by example may be compared to the emotional impact of the sacred. See generally R. Otto, The Idea of the Sacred (Eng. trans. 1928). Eliade describes Otto's work as an examination of the "characteristics of this frightening and irrational experience" of the sacred. M. Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1957), p. 9.
16. Phaedo 110b.
17.Id at 114a.
18. Id at 114c.
19. Could Socrates's myth be a kind of vision, a dream that he has while he is awake? He does seem to lose himself in it occasionally.
20. Myths are specifically the creation of the mythpoetic imagination.
I recognise that myths may have their genesis in some early historical event of the community. However, a dream may similarly have its genesis in a prior event in the life of the individual dreamer. This is surely Freud's view of dreams. See note 6, supra.
21. Thus, after conceding that he cannot prove it is true, Socrates begins his description of the appearance of the earth by informing us that it is what he believes. Phaedo 109a. Similarly, at the end of the myth, when the life of the holy soul in the next world has been described, he again declares that he believes that his account or something like it is true. Id at 114d.
22. Id at 114d.
23.Id at 58d.
24. Id at 75d-76a.
25. Compare the Kantian concept of the sublime which, according to Kant, doe not exist in nature but only in the mind, and involves an experience of boundlessness and of formlessness. I. Kant, Critique of Judgment (Bernard trans. 1951), pp. 82-121 (analysis of the sublime). Kant's definition of the sublime assumes an unbridgeable gulf between an idea and its representation. Id at 88-89.
26. Dreams also may express truths that cannot be communicated consciously through language. This is Freud's position, although for him this communicative difficulty may be attributable to unconscious repression. See note 6, supra . However, it is interesting that Socrates's dream does in fact communicate through language.
27. Phaedo 113a.
28. Phaedo 59a. This pleasure/pain theme reappears almost immediately thereafter when Socrates analyses the relation between pleasure and pain in connection with the feeling in his leg. Id at 60b.
29. Phaedo 110. Wendy Doniger called this to my attention when I first proposed a dream motif for Phaedo.
30. Id at 114d.
31. Id at 114c.
32. Id.
33. Id at 114d.
34. Id at 114c.
35. See text accompanying notes 1-3, supra.
36. Id at 114d.
37. Socrates refers to those "judged to have lived a life of surpassing holiness" in connection with the next world. Id at 114c.
38. As Phaedo says at the beginning of the dialogue: "Nothing gives me more pleasure than recalling the memory of Socrates, either by talking myself or by listening to someone else." Id at 58d.
39. In writing the dialogue of Phaedo , Plato thus makes Socrates's voice live just as Socrates makes his dream's voice live when he recounts it and acts on it.
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