Mark Matveyevich Antokolski, The Dying Socrates, 1875.
Socrates died 2,412 years ago by drinking hemlock. The account of the trial that lead to his death sentence is famously documented by Plato in the Apology and also by Xenophon in his Apology. In the introduction to Xenophon’s two works, Raymond Larson tells us that Plato’s account of the trial was probably first hand, whereas Xenophon’s account was through the secondary source of a mutual friend of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, a man named Hermogenes (17). Although the two accounts differ in certain respects, when combined, they offer the only historical records of the trial. For this paper we’ll focus on the relevance of death and how mortality relates to the philosophy of Socrates.
The way we understand Socrates is by knowing that he died doing philosophy. He was officially charged with impiety (asebeia/ἀσέβεια) and for corrupting the youth of Athens. But, it was also because he was making himself known by calling into question the widely held beliefs of those who would be offended when shown their opinions were wrong. The emphasis here will not be to focus on the charges or the trial outright, instead we will look at the attitude Socrates takes toward death itself in the two Apologies and how his unique way of contending and discussing death philosophically expands our own concepts surrounding end-of-life matters. It is in the extraordinary way in which Socrates eloquently speaks of death (thanatos/θάνατος) that inspires readers with his courage, fortitude and wisdom. He was willing to die for his cause, rather then to live into old age with compromise.
As we all know Plato’s Apology is replete with references to death, probably because Socrates knew that he’d be given the death sentence. Not only does he seem to know that his death was immanent, but he extends the meaning of it to demonstrate that the fear of death is comparable to ignorance.
For the fear of death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem wise, but to not be so. For it is to seem to know what one does not know: no one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils (29a-b).
C.D.C. Reeve in his book on the Apology rightly compares this statement to what he calls “the Digression” (180). This alignment is made with the celebrated ‘digressive’ statement made earlier in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates claims to not be wise and that to be wiser one has to know what one doesn’t know (21b-d). All this is essentially and slyly positioned by Socrates to demonstrate a vital component of Socratic wisdom: know what you don’t know, or at least be cognizant of the fact that there are things that one can be ignorant of. This extends to the ultimate awareness about what we do know, in the sense that sometimes what we think we know more than we do and this might actually be a way to conceal a fundamental ignorance. So how, according to Socrates, can we know that death is something to be feared since we don’t know what happens after death? As we can see, this illustrates a typical problem and habit we have with fearing most of what we cannot understand, in this mindset, things that we don’t understand are things to fear, at least if we are ignorant of the fact that we need not always fear the unknowable, as with the benign things that are unfamiliar or even death itself. Not only do we fear death, but we also fear ignorance itself. It is for this reason that we often wish to conceal ignorance and death at all costs. So, the underlying lesson in the dual example of death and not being wise is manifold. To be wise, is to embrace your own ignorance, at least to the extent that you’re aware of it enough to know when you’re hiding behind knowing something when you really don’t. And it also shows that the fear of death is not something to avoid, but is something to face with fresh eyes, since it’s ultimately inevitable. Socrates cleverly demonstrates that the unknowability of death can disclose these things.
Xenophon’s Apology, as mentioned, does differ from Plato’s, it’s considerably shorter and it also depicts Socrates as having a slightly more down-to-earth attitude toward the issue of his impending death. For Xenophon’s Socrates, death is a welcome avoidance of the infirmities one would possibly have to endure with as old age advances.
But now, if my life continues, I know I’ll have to pay the price of old age […] What pleasure will I get out of life if I see myself deteriorating and reproach myself for it? […] A person is bound to be missed if he passes away with a healthy body and a soul capable of amiability. […] I’ll offend the jury and choose death like a free man rather than slavishly beg for the worthless gain of continued life (6-9).
Here, in Xenophon’s account, as it was conveyed to him by Hermogenes, Socrates almost suggests that to beg for life would be cowardly. It should be evident why death would appear to be the better option, because he would be dying for his cause. As Socrates attested near the end of Xenophon’s account, “I never harmed anyone or made anyone bad […] I helped those I conversed with by freely teaching them every good I was able” (26). It is for these seemingly simple reasons that we are still remembering Socrates—he was a great teacher. In our contemporary era this example seems too quick, it is as if he’s too eager to die. Nowadays we do not hesitate to think in terms of clinging to life at all costs. No matter what, death is always to be avoided. Socrates presents us with an alternatively extreme view that sometimes death is better than life. We must advocate such a view with caution and without any haste, but we do know that the untimely death of a wise man can serve to emphasize his altruistic and noble cause to do philosophy. We still think of Socrates as wise and that he died for his cause.
To continue on this thantic theme, we should include a few more things that shouldn’t be left out. We’ll be sure to recall the oft-repeated quote given by Socrates toward the end of Plato’s Apology after the jury has found him guilty and he is asked to give a ‘counterproposal’ to a possible death sentence. As Socrates speaks, he mildly suggests a possible exile where he would continue his work and the young would listen to his teachings and his way of doing philosophy (37d). He continues with the conviction that even in exile he wouldn’t stop “…conversing and examining both myself and others—and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being…” (38a). Although he is not explicitly speaking of death in this quote, the implication is too strong to ignore. Again, to paraphrase, Socrates is positioning the claim that if one doesn’t actively examine, interrogate and inquire about life and how to live it, he is better off dead. This idea demonstrates his predicament as much as it shows his wisdom. If he is (and, as we know he will be) presented with the death sentence, he can no longer practice his work of doing philosophy, therefore, he can no longer examine life, since he might be asked to keep silent in exile. The lesson is not lost on us either, if we are to truly live an examined life we much inquire, question and examine life as much as we can. Curiosity is at the base of this suggestion. All we have to do is act with a similar conviction to know more about life.
As the trial unfolds in Plato’s Apology, he is in fact, given the death sentence to drink the poisonous hemlock and then he gives his pensive closing remarks. Now that he knows his fate, he has no regrets about the way he defended himself “I prefer to die having made my defense speech in this way than to live in that way” (38e). When he says that he didn’t want ‘to live in that way’ he must have meant that he is proud that he didn’t have to grovel nor beg for his life. This connects with Xenophon’s record to show that Socrates was not willing to compromise his values at any expense, thereby setting a laudable example for the people of Athens and for posterity.
There is another strangely appropriate quote in Plato’s retelling where Socrates is continuing to talk after the death penalty is read, this is where he is sorting through the notion that escape from death could have been a possibility for him had he made a stronger more eloquent plea and defense. “But I suspect it is not hard, men, to escape death, but it is much harder to escape villainy. For it runs faster than death” (39a-b). This is easily directed at his accusers and the percentage of the jury who condemned him to die. The villainy of deciding that someone should die for showing people the truth is not as far-fetched as it sounds on the surface. We already know that sometimes people don’t like to be told the truth of things, namely if the truth is made to expose their ignorance, since we don’t like to be shown to not know something. Villainy is typically characterized as evil, crafty and deceitful, among other things. If we think just for a second about these qualities in comparison to what Socrates is saying, we see his point. People are quick to judge others, it’s easy to find flaw with someone else and it is easy to misinterpret things if we’re not thinking carefully. But villainy calls for darker motives, it’s faster than death because it can’t stay anywhere for too long. A villain doesn’t want to be figured out so he will move with speed, yet the speed belies his deeper problem of plain old ignorance. This kind of ignorance resides in all of us and usually we’re too afraid to see it—to know it. Socrates teaches us these things and then some. His way demonstrates that we must not be afraid to say we don’t know everything, something and nothing.
To be sure, this leaves us with four more pressing questions that have already been implied. How do I contend with my own ignorance? How do I contend with my own death? Then, how does this help me contend with the ignorance of others? And what wisdom is to be had when we witness and contemplate the death of others?
Larson, Raymond. The Apology and Crito of Plato and the Apology and Syposium of Xenophon. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1980. Print.
Plato and Aristophanes. Four Texts on Socrates. Trans. Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.
Reeve, C.D.C. Socrates in the Apology. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1989. Print.
 The plant from which the hemlock Socrates is made to drink is formally known as Conium. It is a large flowering weed which resembles parsley and grows in many parts of the world, including here in Colorado.