Facing Death Calmly: Drawing Inspiration from Socrates
The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates held a spiritual view of life that resounds strongly with the teachings of saints and masters down the ages. His wisdom has been passed down in the form of conversations he had with his disciples, which were written down (perhaps many years later) by one among them, Plato. One such dialogue, the Phaedo, occurred on the day that Socrates died.
Socrates had been condemned to death by the authorities for corrupting the youth of Athens and causing them to disbelieve in the gods. From the point of view of many Athenians, having just lost a disastrous war, Socrates’ behaviour was tantamount to treason; he had displeased the gods and so lost the city their protection. Socrates vehemently defended himself against the charge but was convicted and condemned to die by drinking hemlock.
The following extracts are from the discussion with his friends and disciples in his prison cell, hours before his death. The most intensely spiritual of all his dialogues, it naturally focuses on the meaning of death and immortality. Phaedo, who was among those present in the cell, tells us that Socrates remained a model of calm throughout:
He struck me as happy, in both his manner and his words, so fearlessly and nobly did he meet his end.
After his chains are removed Socrates sits up on his bed and begins to massage his leg, remarking on the close connection between pleasure and pain: even now he experiences the pleasure of the removal of the chains after all the pain they had caused him. He is eager for discussion even though the warder has warned him that overheating himself with discussion will mean he will need a bigger draught of hemlock. Socrates talks with friends and disciples, but the text becomes more a monologue than a dialogue, with his friends only occasionally saying a few words in agreement (shown in brackets).
Socrates reflects on the nature of death
“Is death nothing more or less than this, the body being all by itself, separated from the soul, and the soul being all by itself, separated from the body? Surely death can’t be anything other than this, can it?
“It will be when we die – so the argument goes – and not while we are alive, that we shall attain what we desire and claim to be in love with – wisdom. After all, if it is impossible to gain pure knowledge of anything with the body, then we are left with two alternatives: either it is impossible to acquire knowledge anywhere, or it is possible only for the dead. Then, and only then, will the soul be by itself, apart from the body. And while we are alive we shall be closest to knowledge, it seems, if as far as possible we refuse to associate with the body or have anything to do with it beyond what is absolutely unavoidable. We must not infect ourselves with the body’s nature, but keep ourselves in a state of purity from it, until God himself sets us free. That is the way we can be pure and freed from the body’s foolishness.…
“And purification, as we saw some time ago in our discussion, consists in separating the soul as much as possible from the body and growing accustomed to withdrawing from all contact with the body and concentrating itself by itself; and to live on its own, as far as it can, both in this life and the next, freed from the shackles of the body. Does not that follow?”
(“Yes, it does.”)
“And the desire to free the soul is found chiefly, or rather only, in the true philosopher. Isn’t the practice of philosophy just this, the release and separation of soul from body?”
(“It seems so.”)
“So, as I said in the beginning, wouldn’t it be absurd for a man to be preparing himself in his lifetime to live in a state as close as possible to death, but then to become distressed when death came to him?”
(“It would be absurd.”)
“Then it is the case that true lovers of wisdom (philosophers) practise dying and to them of all men death is least terrifying.”
Socrates considers the soul
“Well then, did we also say a little while back that when the soul makes use of the body for any inquiry, whether through sight or hearing or any other sense – after all examining something using the body means examining it using the senses – it is dragged by the body into the realm of change? That it becomes erratic, confused and dizzy, as if it had drunk too much, through contact with things of a similar nature?”
(“We certainly did.”)
“When it looks at things by itself, on the other hand, the soul departs from here to what is pure, everlasting, immortal and unchanging; and being of a similar nature, when it is once independent and free from interference, then its wanderings are over, and it remains in that realm of the absolute, constant and unchanging because it is in contact with things constant and unchanging. Isn’t wisdom the name given to this state of the soul?
“If at its release the soul is pure and carries with it no contamination of the body, because it has never willingly associated with it in life, but has shunned it and kept itself separate as its regular practice – in other words if it has pursued philosophy in the right way and really practised how to face death easily, then this is what practising death means, isn’t it?”
“A soul in this condition departs to a place which is like itself, invisible, divine, immortal and wise; where on arrival happiness awaits it and release from its wandering and folly, its fears and wild desires and other human evils; and where, as those who have been initiated into the Great Mysteries say, it really spends the rest of time with the gods.”
The true philosopher enjoys true freedom
“But to join the company of the gods is not permitted to the man who has not practised philosophy and departed this life in a state of perfect purity. It is permitted only to the lover of wisdom.
“That is why true philosophers abstain from all bodily desires. They stand firm and do not give into them.… Every seeker after wisdom knows that up to the time when philosophy takes it over, his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot to the body, compelled to view reality not directly but through prison bars, and wallowing in complete ignorance. And philosophy can see that the imprisonment is ingeniously brought about by the prisoner’s own desires, which make him the chief accessory to his own imprisonment.
Well, philosophy takes over the soul in this condition and by gentle persuasion tries to set it free. She points out that enquiry by means of the eyes and ears and all the other senses is entirely deceptive, and she urges the soul to refrain from using them unless it is necessary, and encourages it to collect and concentrate itself by itself, trusting nothing but its own contemplation on itself and by itself; to attribute no truth to anything which it views indirectly as being subject to change because such objects are visible and of the senses, but what the soul itself sees is invisible and seen directly. The soul of the true philosopher feels that it must not reject this opportunity for release, and so abstains as far as possible from pleasures and griefs and desires because it realizes that the result of giving way to pleasure or fear or desire is not the trivial misfortune of becoming ill or wasting money through self-indulgence, but it is the greatest and worse of disasters.
“Every pleasure or pain has a sort of rivet with which it fastens the soul to the body and pins it down and makes it of the body, accepting as true whatever the body does. The result of agreeing with the body and finding pleasure in the same things is, I imagine, that it cannot help becoming like it in character and its way of life so that it can never reach the other world in a pure state, but is always saturated with the body when it sets out and so falls back into another body, where it takes root and grows. And so it is excluded from all communion with the pure, the divine and absolute.”
(“Yes, that is perfectly true.”)
“That is the reason why true lovers of knowledge are self-controlled and brave. It is not for the reasons that most people give.”
(“No, certainly not.”)
“No, indeed. The philosopher’s soul will take the view I have described. It will not expect first to be set free by philosophy and then allow pleasure and pain to reduce it once more to bondage, so taking upon itself an endless task…. No, this soul secures a retreat from its desires by following meditation and staying always in its effects, and by contemplating the true and divine and drawing inspiration from it; because such a soul believes that this is how it should live for as long as it does live, and that when it dies it will come to a place similar to its own nature, and there it is rid for ever of human evils.”
Socrates drinks the hemlock
“But at least one may pray to the gods that my removal from this world to the next will be a happy one; that is my own prayer; so may it be.”
With these words he pressed the cup to his lips and drank it off with good humour. Up until this time most of us had been fairly successful in keeping back our tears; but when we saw that he was drinking, that he had actually drunk it, we could do so no longer; in spite of myself the tears came pouring out, so that I covered my face and wept broken-heartedly – not for him, but for my own calamity in losing such a friend. Crito had given up even before me, and had gone out when he could not restrain his tears. But Apollodorus, who had never stopped crying even before, now broke out into such a storm of passionate weeping that he made everyone in the room break down, except Socrates himself, who said: “Really, my friends, what a way to behave! Why, that was my main reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of disturbance, because I am told that one should make one’s end in a calm frame of mind. Calm yourselves and try to be brave.”
This made us feel ashamed, and we controlled our tears. Socrates walked about, and presently, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down.… The coldness was spreading about as far as his waist when Socrates uncovered his face – for he had covered it up – and said (they were his last words): “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. See to it and don’t forget.”
“No, it shall be done,” said Crito. “Are you sure there is nothing else?” Socrates made no reply.
Such was the end of our companion, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most just man.