R.G. EDMUNDS III: Word Play in Plato’s Phaedo

Radcliffe G. Edmonds III (Bryn Mawr College, USA)

The Song of the Nightingale:  Word Play on the Road to Hades in Plato’s Phaedo

Plato uses word plays to weave together a number of important ideas in the Phaedo and provide an illustration of the process of recollection.  The singing (ἄιδειν) of the nightingale (ἀηδών ) links together the realm of Hades (ἅιδου) with the unseen (ἀιδῆ) and eternal (ἀίδιον) realm of the Forms (εἴδη), which the soul can perceive by knowing (εἰδέναι) when it makes itself without the pleasures (ἀηδές) and pains of the body. Rather than a lament, the song of the nightingale is transformed into an incantation that permits the philosopher to face death without fear (ἀδεῶς).  All of these words, with their combination of a, i/e, and d sounds, resemble each other sufficiently to remind the reader of each other whenever they appear in the dialogue, in the same way that (as the interlocutors discuss) certain phenomena trigger the process of recollection through their resemblances and the chain of associations. A comparison of recollection in the Phaedo with the etymological investigations in the Cratylus reveals the similarities in the ways Plato negotiates the movement from sensible particulars like words to the ideas they represent, illuminating the multiple paths by which the mind can move by reasoning.  Plato uses the set of word plays in the Phaedo as a literary technique with a double purpose: to illustrate the process of recollection that moves from the sensible particulars to the intelligible ideas and to remind his readers of the ideas discussed in the dialogue, spurring their recollective associations of unseen Forms, absence of pleasure and pain, and the absence of fear, with the traditional name of Hades. The swan song of philosophy is therefore revealed to be not a nightingale’s lament but rather an incantation against fear of death, a reminder of the true reality of the unseen intelligible world.