Phaedo or Does Man Have an Immortal Soul?

Moses Mendelssohn, Phaedon oder über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele in drey Gesprächen.

Karlsruhe 1780.

We are back in 399 BC, someday in spring. The Athenian citizen Socrates is in prison. He will be executed the following day, clearly a judicial murder because the upright democrat wasn’t guilty of anything. Huddled around him are his grieving friends. They weep, curse the judges, wallow in self-pity. Socrates, on the other hand, is cheerful, and because he no longer wants to see his friends weep, he starts a discussion. This discussion – of course, we don’t know whether it actually took place in this way – was immortalised by Plato in a book that is still one of the most beautiful things one can read in the Greek language, the Phaedo.


A Friend’s Death

We change the scene and jump forward to 1766. We are in Bückeburg, where Thomas Abbt, a now almost unknown philosophy professor, dies at the age of not even 28 years on 3 November 1766.

The Death of Socrates. Painting by Jacques-Louis David from 1787.

Some of his friends are shaken to the core by his death: Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish prodigy who had risen to become a silk manufacturer in Berlin, weeps bitterly for his tolerant friend who did not care about his contemporaries’ prejudices against Judaism. Moses feels like many people do when they mourn. He would like to render his friend a last good turn. He remembers all the animated letters Abbt wrote him about a book written by the philosopher Plato, which was only known by scholars at the time: the Phaedo. Thus, Mendelssohn dedicated the book that would popularise Plato in Germany to his late friend. Mendelssohn’s three conversations on the immortality of the soul, first published in 1767, became a bestseller in the 18th century, earning him the nickname “Berlin Socrates” in Germany and that of “German Plato” abroad.

An Irresistible Topic: What Happens to Us When We Die?

Head of Socrates. Glyptothek, Munich. Photo: KW.

Why did the work of a hitherto rather unknown philosopher, who was of Jewish descent for that matter, became an international bestseller? The answer is simple: people were electrified by the topic. In 1767, the Enlightenment reached its peak. Only a few years earlier, Voltaire’s novel Candide had cast fundamental doubt on the existence of a good God. And Voltaire wasn’t an isolated critic of the various churches. On the contrary. In his famous satire, he articulated what many of his contemporaries thought but didn’t dare say. All educated people questioned traditional religious ceremonies at the time. Were they about nothing but superstition? What was the purpose of prayers and rituals? Wasn’t the human being a soulless automaton anyway? The entire cosmos was a machine that could be explained by laws of nature – and this cosmos could manage just fine without any creator, couldn’t it? In philosophical circles, people liked to appear progressive, which frightened all those who were afraid of the thought that everything might be over for them and their loved ones once they died. That no miracles would happen in this world, where infant mortality was well over 30%, where disease, war and environmental disasters made life unpredictable!

Moses Mendelssohn’s work thus became a bestseller because he was able to offer a consoling answer to this terrible fear. An answer that did not need the Church’s message of salvation: whoever had read Mendelssohn’s book did not fear death since it was nothing but the liberation of the immortal soul. Like Mendelssohn, his readers saw the body as a garment that wears out in the course of a lifetime and is discarded when we die. Regarding the debate on the immortal soul, Mendelssohn provided his readers with arguments to which even the most radical Enlightened thinkers could not object. Soon, people in all salons of Europe talked about what a philosophical life should look like that led to not fearing death.

But the topic is only one reason for the success of Moses Mendelssohn’s version of the ancient Phaedo written by Plato. His way of dealing with the material was just as important. Firstly: He wrote in German. In this way, businessmen and wives who had not learned French from a tutor – or who had forgotten it again due to the challenges of their daily lives – could understand it, too. Secondly: Mendelssohn preceded his Phaedo with a biography of Socrates that was rich in anecdotes and turned his work into a highly entertaining read, even for today’s readers. Thirdly: Mendelssohn did not simply produce a translation of the ancient original. He rearranged the proof of immortality “according to the taste of our time”. Although he published about a third of the original text in an unaltered way, he updated the other two thirds; he also softened and simplified the complicated passages that could only be understood by philosophy professors or classical philologists. Moreover, Mendelssohn included the debate of his time into the work, presenting a book that was a must read for anyone who wanted to have a say in the salons of Europe. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Mendelssohn’s Phaedo was translated into several European languages within a few years.

With Phaedo, the author made his breakthrough. Only a few years after it was published, his reputation was so widely-known that no person of high status that visited Berlin could refrain from presenting themselves at the home of the Jewish silk manufacturer Moses Mendelssohn. What a rise for the little Jewish Talmud student from the provinces! By the way, we told you about his life in a previous Bookophile article.

The Phaedo as an Indispensable Part of Europe’s Literary Canon

Medal commemorating Moses Mendelssohn. The reverse alludes to his most famous work, the Phaedo: on the skull there is a butterfly – an insect that has symbolised the immortality of the soul since ancient times. From CNG auction 103 (2016), No. 1125.

Have you ever considered what the list we refer to as “educational canon” actually is made up of? Why do we consider one thing to be worth knowing, while we dismiss other works as unimportant?

Well, a lot of it has to do with the coincidences of the media world. My favourite example is the Way of St. James, which was revived from the Catholic side in the 1980s. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, a total of 22,520 people set out on the pilgrimage. In 2019 alone, there were already 347,578 pilgrims, including a significant amount of Germans. Many of them had nothing to do with the Catholic Church, but had read and enjoyed Hape Kerkeling’s book “I’m off then”. The Camino has thus arrived in the middle of society.

Are you wondering how that’s related to the Phaedo? Well, Mendelssohn made a philosopher by the name of Socrates, who was quite well-known in the scholarly world, common knowledge for all educated citizens in Europe. To this day, Socrates is considered the best-known Greek philosopher of all. No high school student can get past him. His questioning technique, known as the “maieutic method”, had a lasting impact on European forms of teaching.

One may well wonder whether this would have been the case if Moses Mendelssohn hadn’t felt the need to set up a literary monument to his deceased philosopher friend with the Phaedo.

Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Moses Mendelssohn’s Phaedo was published as part of Projekt Gutenberg.

Of course, you can also find an English translation of Plato’s original Phaedo online.

By the way, we already published an article with more details about the life of Moses Mendelssohn. There you can also find several links providing additional information.

If you want to know a bit more about the spiritual background that moved people at the time, we recommend our article about the Lisbon earthquake.

In 2020, we dealt with death and the afterlife in our exhibition “Living Forever?”, using books from the MoneyMuseum’s library.