Our third quote comes from PHAEDO, the “beloved disciple” of Socrates, and the dialogue is the last before Socrates is condemned to death for holding to TRUTH. We enter the discussion at the point where Socrates has been asking his disciples about the discernment of EQUALITY. His present conversation is with one by the name of SIMMIAS.
Soc. Then we must have had some previous knowledge of equality before the time when we first saw equal things and realised that they were striving after equality, but fell short of if?
Sim. That is so.
Soc. And at the same time we are agreed also upon this point, that we have not and could not have acquired this notion of equality except by sight or touch or one of the other senses. I am treating them as being all the same.
Sim. They are the same, Socrates, for the purpose of our argument.
Soc. So it must be through the senses that we obtained the notion that all sensible equals are striving after absolute equality but falling short of it. Is that correct?
Sim. Yes, if is.
Soc. So before we began to see and hear and use our other senses we must somewhere have acquired the knowledge that there is such a thing as absolute equality; otherwise we could never have realised, by using if as a standard for comparison, that all equal objects of sense are desirous of being like it, but are only imperfect copies.
Sim. That is the logical conclusion, Socrates.
Soc. Did we not begin to see and hear and possess our other senses from the moment of birth?
Soc. But we admitted that we must have obtained our knowledge of equality before we obtained them.
Soc. So we must have obtained it before birth?
Sirn. So it seems.
Soc. Then if we obtained if before our birth, and possessed it when we were born, we had knowledge, both before and at the moment of birth, not only of equality and relative magnitudes, but of all absolute standards. Our present argument applies no more to equality than it does to absolute beauty, goodness, uprightness, holiness, and I maintain, all those characteristics that we designate in our discussions by the term “absolute”. So we must have obtained knowledge of all these characteristics before our birth.
Sim. That is so.
Soc. And unless we invariably forget it after obtaining it, we must always be born KNOWING and continue to KNOW all through our lives; because “to know” means simply to retain the knowledge which one has acquired, and not to lose it. Is not what we call “forgetting” simply the loss of knowledge, Simmias?
Sim. Most certainly, Socrates.
Soc. And if it is true that we acquired our knowledge before our birth, and lost it at the moment of birth, but afterwards by the exercise of our senses upon sensible objects, recover the knowledge which we had once before, I suppose that what we call learning will bethe recovery of our own knowledge; and surely we should be right in calling this recollection?
Sim. Quite so.
Soc. Yes, because we saw that it is possible for the perception of an object by sight or hearing or any of the other senses to suggest to the percipient, through association (whether there is any similarity or not), another object which he has forgotten. So, as I maintain, there are TWO ALTERNATIVES; either we are all born with knowledge of these standards, and retain it throughout our lives; or else, when we speak of people learning, they are simply recollecting what they knew before; in other words learning is recollection.
Sim. Yes, that must be so, Socrates.
Soc. Which do you choose then, Simmias? that we are born with knowledge, or that we recollect after we are born the things of which we possessed knowledge before we were born?
Sim. I don’t know which to choose on the spur of the moment, Socrates.
Soc. Well, here is another choice for you to make. What do you think about this? Can a person who knows a subject thoroughly, explain what he knows?
Sim. Most certainly he can?
Soc. Do you think that everyone can explain these questions about which we have just been talking?
Sim. I should like to think so, but I am very much afraid that by this time tomorrow there will be no one on this earth who can do it properly. [He was here alluding to his master’s imminent demise.]
Soc. So you don’t think, Simmias, that everyone has knowledge about them?
Sim. Far from it.
Soc. Then they just recollect what they once learned?
Sim. That must be the right answer.
Soc. When do our souls acquire this knowledge? It cannot be AFTER the beginning of our mortal life.
Sim. No, of course not.
Soc. Then it must be before.
Soc. Then our souls had a previous existence, Simmias, before they took on this human shape; they were independent of our human bodies; and they were possessed of intelligence.
Notice in this dialogue how the important themes of absolute beauty, goodness, uprightness, and holiness are brought into the discussion. We wonder whether, if Socrates was alive today, he might have spoken about the possibility of the Lord implanting the sense of such things into our brains, in the same manner in which information is implanted on the hard disk of the computer I am now using. That would have been Socrates’ FIRST ALTERNATIVE, which he bypassed in favour of PRE-EXISTENCE.