The Death of Socrates: living not dying

In 399 BC the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, drank hemlock and died.  He was 70 years old.  There is a full account of his death by his pupil Plato, apparently based on the eye-witness testimony of close friends, as Plato himself was not there.  Socrates had been condemned to death, and according to Plato, died serenely after a long discussion with his faithful male friends and students on the immortality of the soul.  This account can be found at the end of Plato’s Phaedo.

Is the account literally true?  Well, Plato almost certainly created the dialogue on immortality.  Socrates wrote nothing in his life.  Plato spent his life recreating discussions with Socrates – imagining discussions with Socrates was Plato’s way of doing philosophy.  So we can’t always be sure he is recording things Socrates actually said.  But the final section is different.  It is an eye-witness account of how Socrates actually died.

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The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David 1787

The picture above is a famous representation of the death of Socrates.  You can find an excellent article on it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it now hangs: just click here.   I’m not going to discuss this painting, especially as someone else has done it so well.  I’m more interested in why death-bed paintings were a popular genre up until the twentieth century.  The idea was not to take a ghoulish pleasure in death but to draw inspiration from people who ‘died well.’   Subjects tended to be people who sacrificed their life in a noble cause, or people who set an example of how to live so as to die without fear or regret.  Socrates ticks both boxes.

Death-bed scenes moved completely out of fashion in the twentieth century, as the so-called ‘first world’ moved death out of homes and into hospitals.  The care of the dying and the clothing of their bodies for burial became a professional job.  Far from families and whole communities gathering at the death bed, it became increasingly hard for them to be present.  In a society where most people can spend years without coming into contact with a significant death, and will perhaps never see a dead body, many people are uncomfortable with the topic of death.  Social approval has moved towards ‘remembering how they were when they were alive.’  Remembering how they died can be seen as unhealthy and even disrespectful; at the very least it is something private and personal.  Medical attendants have replaced family at the bedside, protecting the dying person from being disturbed by grieving relatives.

People in the ancient world rarely got a chance to die privately.  In Ancient Greece the women of the household usually cared for the sick and prepared the body for the tomb – along with any other local women who came to help.  No-one could be unfamiliar with death, especially as life expectancy was fairly low, and a death-bed was somewhere for friends and family to gather.  It was essential for loved ones to be there to kiss and embrace the dying person in farewell, even catching the last breath in their mouths.  And a member of the family was needed to close the eyes and place a coin in his mouth to pay for his passage across the river Styx into the land of the dead.  There was noise too, as pans were shaken to ward off evil spirits.  Death was a  big event.

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Prothesis – the lamentation over the body – shown on a 6th Century BC votive tablet by the Gela Painter

Deaths in battle were also frequent and obviously public.  Thinking about the soldier will help us understand the ancient way of thinking.  A solider had to live bravely and die bravely – a man’s whole moral character was in question if he faltered at the end.  Such a man was a risk to his comrades  In the ancient Greek world, there were no professional national armies.  All  free men were expected to fight from their late teens.   The idea of living so that you can die well, without fear or regret, was an obvious concern for everybody.  It was bad enough for a man to fall in battle – what could be done with someone who deserted his friends and neighbours, or was too terrified to fight?

Socrates thought the Athenians should take seriously the idea of living so that you can die well, whether you died in battle or not.  On the battlefield, it is easy to know what to do – stand your ground and fight.  The question is, what is it you have to do off the battlefield?  This was Socrates’ area of expertise.  For him, the key was knowing what was truly good.  People mess up their lives by fearing the wrong things, like death and poverty, and wasting their efforts chasing things they imagine are good.  This is why people need to examine their beliefs and test them.  As long as people believe a hotch-potch of things which don’t connect to reality, it is not surprising that they are going to make terrible decisions.

So the first thing is to make people question their beliefs to see whether they make any sense.  The aim is not to keep questioning for ever.  The questioning has two purposes.  First of all, you need to clear out all the wrong ideas which clutter up your head and make you incompetent at running your life.  Secondly, you need to ask questions which will help you discover what the universe is really like, and how you fit into it.  This includes discovering what is good, and worth wanting, and bad, and worth fearing.

Knowing what is good isn’t easy.  But if you find out, the battle is won.  Because Socrates, or at least Socrates according to Plato, believes that virtue is knowledge.  ‘Virtue’ to Socrates means something like ‘excellence at being a person’.  We have the idea that you could be virtuous but unhappy.  Socrates doesn’t.  Being excellent at being a person is the happiest thing you can do; the alternative is being rubbish at being a person, and obviously if you are rubbish at being a person you will be unhappy.  Once you understand you real nature, you can be excellent at being a person and then of course you will be happy.  When you are dysfunctional, and fighting your true nature, of course you are unhappy.

The key is that the perishable universe is mostly a distraction.  You are essentially your soul, an immortal being.  You will flourish once you direct your being towards immortal things, like Beauty, Truth and Goodness; these are real, and give the physical world what stability it has.  The physical world allows you glimpses of reality.  Wherever you perceive pattern, regularity and beauty, you have an opportunity to move your mind away from the physical clutter of the world of sensation, and begin the journey of pure thought into the real world of things which are eternal, which Plato calls the Forms.  Basically, you should do maths, and hang out with mathematicians in your free time.

But because you have a body, you may have some hardware problems.  Your soul is immortal, but it is wearing a perishable body.  It’s possible your soul has got a bit battered through descending into a perishable body.  One problem is that getting born takes away the soul’s memory about its life outside the body.  In addition, the body places constraints on the soul.  The body has to be nourished and protected, and the part of the soul programmed to look after it is glitchy.  Unless you really nurture the highest part of your soul, the bit that is most really you, then your physical desires, which are only intended to keep your body functional, will start taking over.  You will become obsessed with the things the body craves, like food and drink, and lose track of the things that your true self needs.  This causes unvirtuous – non-excellent – behaviour and unhappiness.

So the cure is to nurture the highest part of your soul.  Bring it into contact with the order of the universe by studying maths.  And discuss goodness and truth.  Question what you thought you knew.  Throw out the rubbish ideas and your soul can start remembering Truth and Goodness and Beauty.  Once you remember those things, the material things you once desired will seem unimportant to you.  You only desired them because you were confused.  Your soul was longing for beauty, so you collected beautiful things which reminded you a bit of Beauty itself.  Your soul was longing for goodness, and it got distracted by things which are ‘good’ for the body, like food.  Once you rediscover Goodness itself, you will never crave those trivial things again.  And you won’t fear losing them either, because your soul will possess them all the time.

Death, it turns out, is a fairly irrelevant part in the soul’s journey, where it sheds a body it has been wearing for not very long.  The upside is that the soul will be free from all the ways in which the body limits the soul and keeps it away from Goodness, Truth and Beauty.  There isn’t really a downside.  This is what the characters in the Phaedo discuss.  The conversation leads up to the moment where Socrates proves that it is possible for a human being to live in the way he has described, by going unafraid into death.  His companions grieve, and he tells them off – he has sent the women away, because he knows they will do all the grieving behaviour that women always do.   He has chosen to spend his last moments in his body, as he had lived, contemplating the goodness of the universe with his friends before he leaves for a fuller life, where they will eventually join him.  Why would they spoil this beautiful event with weeping and wailing?

This is why, in the picture by David, Socrates is vigorously teaching on his bed.  He looks strong and active, because his soul is strong and active.  The cup contains the hemlock, which he will drain without fear, regretting only that he isn’t allowed to make a drink offering from it to the gods.  The jailer weeps, as Plato says he did.  According to Plato, Socrates died peacefully.  Some commentators object that death from hemlock is not pleasant or peaceful, but Plato does not say that Socrates suffered no physical pain.  In fact he records that Socrates suffered slow paralysis, and that he covered his face as he waited, only uncovering for a moment to remind his friends to make an offering to Aesclepius, god of healing, in thanks for an easy death.

Many people have found Socrates’ death inspiring.  The important thing isn’t that he was a martyr for his beliefs – although he was condemned for refusing to renounce his teachings.  It isn’t even that he was brave, although heroic death scenes often do celebrate military values, such as the painting of the death of Epaminondas, painted also in the French  neo-Classical style, just seven years after David’s painting.

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Death of Epaminondas, Laurent Pecheux, 1795

Epaminondas is definitely dead.  the viewer gets to share in the wonder and the sorrow, but where he has gone, and whether it was all worth it is up to the viewer.  This is a secular painting and celebrates patriotism, fame and glory as noble life goals.

Many death-bed scenes involve famous last words.  The tradition was that the dying person would make a last act of guidance to the people left behind, even just a few consoling words to the family.  Epaminondas said, ‘I have lived long enough, for I have died unconquered.’  Socrates actual last words, about the sacrifice to Asclepius are relatively trivial.  But for Plato, they show how little the prospect of death occupied Socrates mind.  Socrates ‘real’ last words are the whole of the dialogue, the Phaedo, which culminates in and explains his complete indifference to death.

Nobody ever painted pictures of Socrates dead body.  He says in the Phaedo, when asked about his funeral

 “I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that the Socrates who is now conversing and arranging the details of his argument is really I; he thinks I am the one whom he will presently see as a corpse.”

After this, anyone painting Socrates dead would look a bit silly.  Socrates doesn’t really have a death-bed, since he refuses to accept death as change to anything important.  It is only his companions who have the uncomfortable illusion that he has died, because the body he used to wear becomes empty.  Socrates is teaching them that we are not our bodies and nothing of what they love about their friend is changing.  Plato was not there at the time Socrates died.  Apparently he was ill, but in Socrates’ case, there wasn’t anything exceptional for him to be there for, although it was a shame he missed the party.  Socrates’ death was particularly unreal for Plato, who would continue to converse with him in dialogues for the rest of his life.

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