death. week 3.
city. new york city
What were Socrates’s thoughts on his dying day? What did he think of death?
There are very few people in history who I would be as interested in discussing my ‘death project’ with as Socrates. The father of philosophy. My journey begins with him.
Somewhat amazingly, Plato records a lengthy discussion that took place at Socrates’ deathbed, as he lay waiting for the hemlock to be administered.
[Socrates had been sentenced to death by the city of Athens for ‘corrupting the youth’. Although he had been given the chance to escape, he preferred to stay and accept ‘justice’. In his defense, he compares the world to a prison, and the gods to our guards. We men are in a kind of prison, and one must not free oneself or run away.]
The dialogue is called Phaedo (after its narrator), and while it’s somewhat lengthy and puzzling, I’d like to work through it here, and see if there’s anything I can discover.
To simplify things, I’ve divided the dialogue into four parts.
Part 1: Introduction
Phaedo begins his story by pointing out that Socrates was meant to have been executed some time earlier, but due to a Greek law that forbids executions on certain holidays, he’d spent the last few months in jail, where his students continued to meet with him daily.
It is during the final such meeting, the morning of his execution, that the dialogue concerning death and the afterlife takes place.
While this may simply be a coincidence, I think that the fact that it is being pointed out by Phaedo (particularly at the very start of the dialogue) is meant to convey some sort of intention to the reader. A kind of framing of what is to follow. But what could this be?
Well, there are two other components (of what I consider to be Part 1) which I believe lend a clue.
Firstly, Plato was sick that day and was therefore not present at either the execution or the discussion that preceded it. As Phaedo phrases it, “Plato, I believe was ill.”
Secondly, Socrates prefaces his talk by informing those gathered around him that he has recently begun dabbling in poetry. This is rather out of character for Socrates (he writes elsewhere that “poetry corrupts even the best souls”), but he defends himself by mentioning a recurring dream he’d been having.
The dreams were something like this: the same dream often came to me in the past, now in one shape now in another, but saying the same thing: “Socrates,” it said, “practice and cultivate the arts.” In the past I imagined that it was instructing and advising me to do what I was doing, namely, to practice the art of philosophy, this being the highest kind of art, and I was doing that.
But now, after my trial took place, and the festival of the god was preventing my execution, I thought that, in case my dream was bidding me to practice this popular art, I should not disobey it but compose poetry. I thought it safer not to leave here until I had satisfied my conscience by writing poems in obedience to the dream.
Taken together, I think that Phaedo is hinting to the reader that the following discussion will not be strictly philosophical. Rather, with Plato (i.e. ‘philosophy’) being absent and Socrates living ‘on borrowed time’, here is an opportunity to step into the world of poetry, beyond the dictates of strict Reason to which Socrates had devoted his life. Like the dreams themselves, here is a moment between life and death.
In the final lines of ‘the introduction’, Socrates confirms this by saying:
Indeed, I too speak about this from hearsay, but I do not mind telling you what I have heard, for it is perhaps most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder to tell and examine tales about what we believe that journey to be like. What else could one do in the time we have until sunset?
And so, for the first and last time, Socrates the Poet gets to his feet to explain why he has not only accepted his own death, but looks forward to it joyfully.
Part 2: The Goal of Philosophy
I want to make my argument before you, my judges, as to why I think that a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder. I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death. Now if this is true, it would be strange indeed if they were eager for this all their lives and then resent it when what they have wanted and practiced for a long time comes upon them.
The goal of one who practices philosophy is to prepare for death. Lol. When I read that, I felt like Socrates had just reached out from the beyond, and was poking fun at my obsession with philosophy. More than anything else, philosophy has become my raison d’être, and has provided me with something that nothing, nothing else ever has: a path to live by. Or, as Socrates is now pointing out, a path to die by. Philosophy is an ever growing web of trail markers via which I’ve been weaving my way toward death.
While I’ve always believed that life is confusing, Socrates is pointing out that it is death that lends life its form, and thereby its challenge.
But, if I’m being honest, this is not at all what Socrates really means when he says that philosophy prepares one for death. Actually, as he goes on to describe, philosophy makes one “like death” even while alive.
This is because the philosopher seeks knowledge by avoiding the suggestions of the subjective body and focusing only on what is rationally and objectively true. In other words, the philosopher (like the scientist) must separate his ‘soul’ from his body in order to perceive reality itself, and thereby arrive at truth and knowledge. And since death is the final separation of the body from the soul, well then, that is indeed the goal of the philosopher.
If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom; for it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body. Then one of two things is true: either we can never attain knowledge or we can do so after death.
The word philosophy literally means ‘lover of wisdom’, and it is the pursuit of wisdom which the philosopher most cherishes. However, a crucial part of this process is to free their minds from the worries, desires, and fears of their particular body, since it serves only as a distraction from and manipulation of reality.
For Socrates, the truth is synonymous with reality. And reality is never what we perceive. Perceptions are flimsy, passing experiences. They cannot and do not endure. What truly exists, what is truly real, are what he refers to as the Forms. To give an example, say that you see a beautiful apple. Is the apple itself beautiful? No, says Socrates, since there are other apples which are even more beautiful. Therefore the apple itself cannot be said to ‘contain’ beauty. Rather, Beauty itself exists independently as a Form (or an Idea) which can be applied to the apple. An apple can look beautiful, because it shares in the reality of the one true Beauty. The same can be said of the Forms of the Just, or the True, or Good. Nothing in the world is purely good, or just, or true. But they can be described as such insofar as they share certain similarities to actual Goodness, Justice, or Truth.
All of this is to say that bodies (whether that of a human, a sunset, or a heartbreak) are always removed from reality. We can perceive the truth only be disconnecting from our bodily perceptions and referring to our mind’s ideas (or our Forms) which are attuned toward Reality.
The body deceives us; only the soul can point the way to reality.
Needless to say, death is the ultimate disconnect from our bodies. In that sense it is the goal and desire of all philosophers. Conversely, one who fears death must, by definition, love the body.
In the closing lines of Part 2, Socrates underscores this by explaining that philosophers are not in search of a better life, but rather no life at all:
I fear that [temperance] is not the right exchange to attain virtue, to exchange pleasures for pleasures, pains for pains, and fears for fears, the greater for the less like coins, but that the only valid currency for which all these things should be exchanged is wisdom. With this we have real courage and temperance and justice and, in a word, true virtue, with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and all such things be present or absent.
This is how the soul of a philosopher would reason: It would not think that while philosophy must free it, it should while being freed surrender itself to pleasures and pains and imprison itself again. The soul of the philosopher achieves a calm from such emotions; it follows reason and ever stays with it contemplating what is real, divine, and not an object of belief.
A state, I might add, which bears a striking resemblance to death.
Part 3: The Immortal Soul
The question is obvious, but let us allow Phaedo to spell it out:
Socrates, he said, everything else you said is excellent, I think, but men find it very hard to believe what you said about the soul. They think that after it has left the body it no longer exists anywhere, but that it is destroyed and dissolved on the day the man dies, as soon as it leaves the body; and that, on leaving it, it is dispersed like breath or smoke, has flown away and gone and is no longer anything anywhere.
Bravo. The elephant in the room.
Even a philosopher who has spent a lifetime seeking wisdom would be afraid of separating from the body, since this does not lead to ultimate wisdom, but rather to nothing much at all. Kinda boring.
Socrates responds by pointing out that all opposites must feed into each other. Someone can only become more beautiful by the fact that they were once more ugly. A tree can only grow taller insofar that it had earlier been shorter. And, finally, a person can only die if they’d been alive until that very moment.
But if it’s true that opposites must always ‘come out’ of each other, then it must also be true that life too comes out of death. The soul must have been dead before it was alive. Indeed, all life, taking “all animals and all plants into account, and, in short, all things which come to be,” must first have been dead.
As with many of Socrates’s conclusions, this sounds rather strange at first. But after taking some time to think about it, it’s not all that implausible. Consider the lifecycle of a tree. The way in which it grows, lives, dies, and returns its nutrients back into the soil that conceived it. This is then recycled back into the dead soil until it’s ready to bear yet another life.
Or think of a baby. How is a baby created? At some point in the process, ‘dead molecules’ are transformed into living cells.
Life and death are two parts of the same process. Life is always created by what was formally dead. And death, by what was once alive.
I think, said he, that this is very definitely the case: Coming to life again in truth exists, the living come from the dead, and the souls of the dead exist.
At this point, Socrates offers a slightly more technical proof for the above (known as the Proof from Recollection), but I’d rather not get into it. The main takeaway, I think, is that if the soul (as opposed to the body) has knowledge of reality, then it must in some way be a part of reality. In which case, as long as reality exists, the soul must exist alongside (or within) it.
If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, then, just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. If the former [realities] exist, so do the latter [souls].
In other words, our souls are the part of ourselves which are Real. And so, as long as Reality exists, so must our souls.
I kind of love that. (We’ll come back to this point later on.)
Socrates now circles back to his earlier claims about how the body drags the soul away from the infinite and eternal, back down toward the mortal and temporary:
We said some time ago that when the soul makes use of the body to investigate something, be it through hearing or seeing or some other sense—for to investigate something through the body is to do it through the senses—it is dragged by the body to the things that are never the same, and the soul itself strays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk.
But when the soul investigates by itself, it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging, and being akin to this, it always stays with it whenever it is by itself and can do so; and its experience then is what is called wisdom.
In this case, then, if one has practiced philosophy throughout life (i.e. has disconnected the soul as much as possible from the body), then the process of dying shouldn’t be all that difficult at all. After all, it is merely our mortal and temporary existence which is dying; our true, divine self should stay more or less the same.
If [the soul] is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, as it had no willing association with the body in life, but avoided it and gathered itself together by itself and always practiced this, which is no other than practicing philosophy in the right way, in fact, training to die easily.
A soul in this state makes its way to the invisible, which is like itself, the divine and immortal and wise, and arriving there it can be happy, having rid itself of confusion, ignorance, fear, violent desires, and the other human ills.
Socrates then goes on to say that entering the body is actually the beginning of death, and that since the soul is the Form of life itself, it remains unaffected by death (but simply retreats safely, until it is called upon to live once again).
All would agree, said Socrates, that the Form of life itself, and anything that is deathless, is never destroyed. If the deathless is indestructible, then the soul, if it is deathless, would also be indestructible. Then when death comes to man, the mortal part of him dies, it seems, but his deathless part goes away safe and indestructible, yielding the place to death.
Turning toward Greek mythology, Socrates concludes Part 3 by pointing out that just as the legends say, there is no single path through the underworld. Rather, “it is likely to have many forks and crossroads” which will confuse and terrify those who are unprepared and continue to cling to the body. However, for those (such as the philosophers) who have spent a lifetime discovering the ways of the soul, traversing these paths will come as a relief.
At this point, he feels that he has sufficiently defended his original view that the philosopher should not fear death, but rather welcome it with open arms.
Part 4: The Death of Socrates
The hemlock is now ready. The day is drawing to a close. Socrates asks to drink the poison early.
Just before he lifts the cup to his lips, he reminds his students that “no man would insist” on knowing what happens after death, but it’s better to maintain “good hope” that death is neither an evil nor an ending.
How should we bury you, asked Crito?
In any way you’d like, said Socrates, if you can catch me and I do not escape you. And laughing quietly, looking at us, he said: I can’t convince Crito that I am this Socrates [i.e. this soul] talking to you here. He thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse, and so he asks how he shall bury me.
Socrates spent his life identifying not with his body, but with his soul. Do what you wish with my body, says Socrates, after I die my soul will have traveled far far away.
He then makes a blessing over the cup of poison, and drains the glass.
Now that we’ve reviewed the heart of the dialogue, I’d like to go back and draw attention to several ideas.
1. The soul is the Form of life.
Are we convinced by Socrates that the soul is immortal? It certainly seems hard to believe. It’s hard to believe that souls even exist, let alone that they’re immortal.
Let’s start by figuring out what the word ‘soul’ even means.
For Socrates, the soul is not the mind. After all, the mind (or the ego) develops during early childhood and undergoes significant changes throughout our life. It seems incredibly implausible to suggest that the mind (or ego) continues on after death. But Socrates distinguishes between the embodied mind (or what the Buddhists call namarupa, or body-mind) which is our everyday companion, and the soul which is the seat of rationality, truth, and reality.
Again, Socrates defines the soul as the Form of life. That universal and immortal thing that allows individual lives to take place. The Form is not contained in my life, my life is contained in the Form.
I know this sounds very abstract so let’s use our example of the beautiful apple. If I eat the apple, it seems obvious that whatever beauty that the apple contained no longer exists. But at the same time, it’s equally obvious that Beauty itself has not been affected. It has, in the words of Socrates, simply retreated safely. So too, even when my particular life is no longer around, Life itself (i.e. the soul) remains unaffected.
To take it one step further, we could say (along with the Jewish mystic Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi) that after death the soul returns to an even purer, more real state. (Since it is no longer embodied in a false / mortal container.)
I think that Socrates is more than happy to say goodbye to his ego (or embodied self), since this is not the kind of life he’s interested in. The ego exists on the terms of the body, which for Socrates, are the terms of falsehood (non-wisdom) and sin (non-virtue). And this is essentially what he means when he says that the philosopher spends his life preparing for death: that is, detaching himself from his particular life (that Greek man who lived around 400 BC) and instead identifying with the universal Life and Reality of which he is partaking.
It would be inappropriate for a philosopher to worry about whatever death his body and ego might go through, for this life and this body and this mind were never valuable to him in the first place. As long as Life, Reality, and Truth continue to exist, the philosopher (the lover of wisdom) continues to exist along with them.
2. Phaedo as Poetry
However, it can be helpful to refer back to the suggestion that this Dialogue was never intended as proper philosophy, but is more of an ode to Socrates’s last day.
How does that affect the reading?
I’m not sure. What do you think?
Here’s an idea though. One of the main tools of poetry is metaphor. Something which is false on the surface, but contains a deeper truth. Perhaps in framing his philosophy as a poem, Socrates is reminding us that philosophy itself was never intended to be taken at face value. That, as with everything in the world, the surface never tells the truth.
Before he departs from life, his only worry is that his students will begin to take his words literally and create yet another religion centered around him. He worries that his students will be so focused on ‘the map’ that their feet will soon veer from the path. He therefore spends his last day talking about things of which man cannot know anything, reminding his students that his words are merely a playful dance, and never a purposeful march.
To be a philosopher, one must allow one’s mind to let go of the safety of teachings, words, and arguments and abandon oneself to the “highest art,” Life itself.
Those who care for their own soul and do not live for the service of the body dismiss all these things. They do not travel the same road as others, since they are aware that they do not know where they are going. Rather, they turn to [philosophy] and follow wherever it leads.
Perhaps the only thing that the philosopher does know is that he knows nothing at all.
3. Socrates’s Final Words
I think that this reading is strengthened by Socrates’s last words. What does the man who’s said it all say with his last breath?
Something super deep? Cryptic? Enlightening? Spiritual? Funny?
No, Socrates chooses the most mundane, simple, and superficial topic: the peace offering that every sick Athenian makes to the god of healing.
As his belly was getting cold Socrates uncovered his head—he had covered it—and said—these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a chicken to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.”—“It shall be done,” said Crito, “tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer.
Socrates, the great philosopher, never confuses the metaphor with reality, least of all his own metaphors. Everything is false. Nothing is sacred. Philosophy — like every other system, religion, thought, and emotion — merely hints at the truth.
Reality lurks beneath the surface.
Life is but a dream. And death is our awakening.
“Crito, we owe a chicken to Asclepius.”