Plato's Immortality of the Soul

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Plato’s Immortality of the Soul


After putting forward his tripartite model of the soul, Plato turns his attention to the soul’s immortality. It is important to remember the following points which will be developed in this handout:

  • Much of Plato’s views on the soul’s immortality can be found in his Republic.
  • He starts with the concept of reward and punishment, developing it into his concept of specific evils.
  • Plato was a thinker of his time and therefore understands immortality in terms of reincarnation (literally to be made flesh again).
  • The ancient Greeks believed that the soul about to be reincarnated drank from the river Lethe (forgetfulness) which explained why people have no recollection of their previous life.
  • Much of Plato’s teaching is put across through his account of his teacher Socrates. It is therefore difficult to say where Plato’s own teaching starts and Socrates ends.

Rewards Now and Hereafter

Towards the end of his Republic Plato turned his attention towards the immorality of the soul. For Plato goodness needs to be understood without considering its consequences. Goodness is its own reward – an end in itself and not a means to an end. Nevertheless, Plato argues that the just man is rewarded not only in his lifetime (i.e. by his society) but to an even greater extent after death. Plato believed that the soul was fundamentally pure but becomes deformed through association with the body. Despite this it retains something of its true nature – and shows this through longing for wisdom.

Specific Evils

Plato argues that each individual thing has its own particular evil which will cause it to deteriorate and eventually to be destroyed. Just as the body is prone to disease so to is the soul open to injustice and ignorance. Plato’s point is that if anything is destroyed it can be only through its own specific evil. We must conclude that it is only through its own inner weaknesses that the soul can be destroyed. We have no proof that the soul is made worse morally by death of the body. The soul’s specific affliction is immorality which can harm but not destroy it. Plato concludes that the soul must be indestructible and therefore immortal.


Plato’s main argument for the immortality of the soul is found in his Phaedo. Following contemporary Greek religious belief and Socrates assumption that everything is involved in an eternal cyclical process, Plato naturally understands immortality (and pre-existence) of the soul in terms of reincarnation. Plato draws an analogy with sleep. Sleep comes after being awake and being awake comes after sleep. Likewise just as death comes from life so must death return to life again.

Knowledge of Comparisons

Elsewhere in his Meno, Plato through the mouth of Socrates argues that our knowledge of comparisions (e.g. equality) is innate and not learnt – evidence of a pre-existent soul. However, knowledge of particulars is forgotten at birth and has to be recollected with the help of a teacher.

Two Worlds

Socrates distinguishes between the world of change and the world of forms. He sees the soul as belonging to the world of forms arguing that it is invisible, reflective and naturally rules the body. Ideas are not physical things, so they must belong to a spiritual realm which is more real than the material realm. The soul is that which can grasp these ideas and so it too must belong to that realm. Since Forms are immutable; so too must the soul be.

Argument from incompatibility

Opposite Forms cannot exist in the same object (e.g. big and small). The soul derives its life through its association with the life Form. This association means it cannot admit death. The soul must therefore be immortal.

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