Can anybody tell me in simple words the major objections to the Cyclical Argument in Plato's Phaedo ?

  • Is this homework? – Not_Here Mar 3 at 18:57
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    @Not_Here. It might be but I'm not sure and am giving the OP the benefit of the doubt. This is a difficult bit of the Phaedo, which anyone might have problems with. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 3 at 20:06
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    @GeoffreyThomas That's fine, but is immaterial to whether or not we should ask. It is a rule of the site that homework questions need to be explicit, not that they are banned. – Not_Here Mar 3 at 20:59
  • Birth and death balance out since we see neither explosion of life nor everything dying out. Therefore, everything that dies must be reborn. That is the cyclical argument. Why something else can not be born to replace what died is unclear. Socrates tries to address this with his further recollection argument about the knowledge of ideas that the soul must have acquired before the birth. Alas, that does not work either - even if the soul pre-existed in the ideal realm it does not follow that it must have gotten there after a death in the sensible world. – Conifold Mar 4 at 5:37
  • @Not_Here. Point taken but if the question is not homework there's no need to say that it is not. And unless one has good grounds for thinking it is homework, why ask? Some questions are pretty clearly homework. I couldn't see grounds for thinking the question was or might be. Best - Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 4 at 8:44

The following extract from Michael Pakaluk might help though it will probably need more than one reading (just speaking from experience) :

The Cyclical Argument (CA) is not unfairly presented as follows:

  1. Anything that comes to take on an attribute which has an opposite, previously had that opposite attribute.

  2. Being dead and being alive are opposite attributes.

  3. When something comes to be alive, it comes to take on the attribute of being alive.

  4. Therefore, anything that comes to be alive previously had the attribute of being dead.

  5. But everything that is dead was previously alive.

  6. Therefore, anything that comes to be alive was previously alive.

  7. Therefore, living things come from previously living things.

  8. Therefore, living things will once again become living things.

  9. Nothing comes to take on again, at a later time, an attribute that it now has, if it perishes in the process.

  10. Thus, living things do not perish when they come to be dead, and in this sense they are immortal.

Plato's strategy is to connect this present life of a living thing with a previous life; that done, he draws the general conclusion that living things were previously alive; yet, he reasons, they could not have come alive again, if they did not endure in the interval between their previous life and their current one; and thus, as regards any living thing, we can have some confidence that it will continue to endure, in the interval after this current life and before its next life.

Thus stated, the argument is clearly unsound, because the first premise is in need of two familiar qualifications. That 'opposites come from opposites' is true only if: (i) we presume that we are not dealing with a case of simple generation, where something comes to be F only in coming to be simpliciter; and (ii) the opposites are 'contradictory', rather than mere 'contrary' opposites. But if premise 1. is qualified accordingly, premise 2. needs to be revised: being dead and being alive are not contradictory opposites, since there are things that are neither dead nor afive. Yet if we rewrite premise 2., so that it involves opposites that are properly contradictory, e.g. 'Being not alive and being alive are opposite attributes', then premise 5. needs to be changed accordingly, becoming: 'Everything that is not alive was previously alive' - which is evidently false.

It would be good to have a diagnosis of why the argument goes wrong, and for this purpose Gallop's commentary is particularly useful. Gallop correctly notes, for instance, that Plato in CA tends to speak as though it is the soul which comes to be alive, rather than the animal, but - Gallop objects - this "insinuates a view of 'birth' in which the soul's discarnate existence is already covertly assumed. And since that is precisely what the argument purports to prove, the very conception of incarnation can be seen to beg the essential question" (105). Again, Gallop wonders why we shouldn't understand 'being dead' (in our premise 2. above) to mean, simply, 'ceasing to exist', in which case, clearly, 'being alive' and 'being dead' could not be treated as opposing predicates, as CA requires, since one would, in that case, be treating existence as though it were a predicate. Speculating on why Plato might have resisted this identification, Gallop remarks that "a wedge might be driven between 'being dead' and 'ceasing to exist' by treating Socrates' soul as a separate subject, distinct from Socrates himself, and alternating between incarnate and discarmate states. But this would be, once again, to assume what has to be proved" (106). Again, objecting to (our) premise 3. above, Gallop remarks that "The sense of 'coming to be alive' required for the argument is not that in which a living thing comes into being, but that in which a soul 'becomes incarnate' in a living body. Yet it cannot do this unless it already exists before birth or conception. And whether it does so or not is just what is at issue" (110).

So Gallop maintains that CA goes awry because Plato begs the question, surreptitiously supposing that the soul is a distinct subject, independent of the body.


Michael Pakaluk, 'Degrees of Separation in the "Phaedo"', Phronesis, Vol. 48, No. 2 (2003), pp. 89-115: 90-2.

D. Gallop, Plato: Phaedo, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

C.J.F. Williams, 'On Dying', Philosophy 1969 (44) 217-30.

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