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Meg Piorko’s Weekly Pick: the Phaedo

Welcome to the second post in my new blog series where I will highlight materials in Falvey’s Distinctive Collections. For the month of October I will be showcasing spooky texts from our stacks. This and other “creepy” objects from the collections will be on display at our Halloween Event. Stop by our table and trick or treat with some of the Distinctive Collections and Digital Engagement staff.

Meg Piorko’s Weekly Pick

PHÄDON : ODER, ÜBER DIE UNSTERBLICHKEIT DER SEELE, IN DREY GESPRÄCHEN

Phaedon: or, On the Immortality of the Soul, in Three Talks

German edition published by Friedrich Nicolai (Berlin: 1768)

by Moses Mendelssohn, German Jewish Enlightenment philosopher (b. 1729—d. 1786)

Title page

The title of this text refers to the Phaedo, one of the most widely read dialogs written in ancient times. Attributed to Greek philosopher Plato (d. 348/47 BCE), the Phaedo gives an account from the prison cell of Plato’s mentor Socrates (b. 469—d. 399 BCE) on the day of his execution by drinking a poisonous plant called ‘Hemlock’ by order of the state of Athens.

Drawing on the metaphysical, psychological, and epistemological views on death presented by Plato in his Phaedo, Mendelssohn rewrites the dialog as if Socrates was living in a post-Leibniz 18th century Germany. In the preface to his text Mendelssohn writes,

“[Phaedo] has recourse solely to the lights of the moderns, and makes Socrates speak as a philosopher of the eighteenth century.”

Engraving adjacent the title page

Picturing Death

The engraved frontispiece image adjacent from the title page depicts a defeated version of Socrates who has accepted his fate and is contemplating the meaning of life by meditating on memento mori allegories such as the skull with a butterfly to symbolize life and death. In this copy of the book a previous owner has hand drawn a burning candlestick onto the printed image; another allegory for the passage of time.

Poison green leafing on the edges of the pages

Poison Green?

Another unique aspect of the copy in our collections is that the edges of the pages are painted a specific shade of bright green. Ironically fitting with the theme of the text contained within, this codex may have had toxic materials applied to it to create the vibrant green color visible on the paper when the book is closed.


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Last Modified: October 19, 2022