Minimalism in Plato’s Phaedo

This week, I reread Plato’s Phaedo for the first time since embarking on reading the Late Platonists.

It was an entirely different reading experience from before to the point that I may have excitedly messaged my partner in an enormous paragraph or several about how delightful it was, and at one point, I got up and paced just feeling overjoyed that my understanding of the material is better — and this despite still being a bit lost about what’s going on when Socrates and his interlocutors get into numbers towards the end. Reading the dialogue over the week also felt like an ever-partial answer to the prayers that I give Apollon every day about finding truth — that heightened awareness of it led me to realize that the entire dialogue is framed in an Apollonian way, and it made me breathlessly excited about the number of times truth is referred to along the way.

The Phaedo (as someone may have said in a blog comment that I now can’t find?) also has many passages hammering home the idea of moderation, and I think that these apply to minimalism as well. It’s important to note just how intertwined the importance of moderation and control of the pleasures are with religious concerns about the soul and the blessed Gods to whom one is flying, I think. Also, these are Thomas Taylor’s translations, except I modified them to introduce the speaker in all-caps and remove the parenthetical “and a said” bits.

My comments on each passage are also … minimal. 🙃

SOCRATES: Consider then, excellent man, whether the same things appear to you as to me; for from hence I think we shall understand better the subjects of our investigation. Does it appear to you that the philosopher is a man who is anxiously concerned about things which are called pleasures, such as meats and drinks?

SIMMIAS: In the smallest degree, Socrates.

SOCRATES: But what, is he sedulously employed in venereal concerns?

SIMMIAS: By no means.

SOCRATES: Or does such a man appear to you to esteem other particulars which regard the observance of the body, such as the acquisition of excellent garments and sandals, and other ornaments of the body? Whether does he appear to you to esteem or despise such particulars, employing them only so far as an abundant necessity requires?

SIMMIAS: A true philosopher appears to me to be one who will despise everything of this kind.

SOCRATES: Does it, therefore, appear to you, that the whole employment of such a one will not consist in things which regard the body, but in separating himself from the body as much as possible, and in converting himself to his soul?

SIMMIAS: It does appear so to me.

Plato, Phaedo, 64d-e

While this is discussing philosophers and philosophy, it also makes sense in the context of minimalists discussing “getting down to the essentials” and “essentializing” things — not in the sense of creating a four-hour work week or becoming better consumers, but in the sense of figuring out what a human being needs for necessities and cherished comforts without losing track of the things that matter, like loved ones (and one’s community), the Gods, and the cultivation of virtue within the psyche.

SOCRATES: But I think that if the soul departs polluted and impure from the body, as having always been its associate, attending upon and loving the body, and becoming enchanted by it, through its desires and pleasures, in such a manner as to think that nothing really is, except what is corporeal, which can be touched and seen, eaten and drunk, and employed for the purposes of venereal occupations, and at the same time is accustomed to hate, dread and avoid, that which is dark and invisible to the eye of sense, which is intelligible and apprehended by philosophy; do you think that a soul thus affected can be liberated from the body, so as to subsist sincerely by itself?

CEBES: By no means.

SOCRATES: But I think that it will be contaminated by a corporeal nature, to which its converse and familiarity with the body, through perpetual association and abundant meditation, have rendered it similar and allied.

Plato, Phaedo, 81b-c

Beyond the fact that this section of the dialogue is about the soul, it reminds me of the way that clutter and “too much” — on our calendars and just around us — can be a source of anxiety and stress.

SOCRATES: But it is just, my friends, to think that if the soul is immortal, it requires our care and attention, not only for the present time, in which we say it lives, but likewise with a view to the whole of time: and it will now appear, that he who neglects it must subject himself to a most dreadful danger. For, if death were the liberation of the whole man, it would be an unexpected gain to the wicked to be liberated at the same time from the body, and from their vices together with their soul: but now, since the soul appears to be immortal, no other flight from evils, and no other safety remains for it, than in becoming the best and most prudent possible.

For when the soul arrives at Hades, it will possess nothing but discipline and education, which are said to be of the greatest advantage or detriment to the dead, in the very beginning of their progression thither.

Plato, Phaedo, 107c-d

The last bit — discipline and education — makes me think of “experiences > things,” which is another thing that minimalists discuss a lot. In addition, the “challenges” that a lot of minimalists do after they’ve decluttered (at least, speaking of what I have encountered on the blogosphere) are often attempts to exercise their muscles handling places where they have challenges with moderation, often behaviors like television-watching or phone use.


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