Socrates, who lived from 470–399 BC, the Greek thinker from Athens, is credited as a founder of Western philosophy; one of the greatest minds of all time, Socrates’ views on death made him go down in history for his cheerful taking of poison after being sentenced for his radical ideas.
As the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought, it is worthwhile to take a look at what made Socrates view death with such insouciance and courage, to the very end of his remarkable life.
It has been said of the man that he “brought philosophy down from the stars to the earth,” because, thanks to his own personality, philosophers ceased to deal with natural phenomena and began to deal with man and society.
An enigmatic figure, Socrates authored no texts and is known mainly through the posthumous accounts of classical writers, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon.
These accounts are written as dialogues, in which Socrates and his interlocutors examine a subject in the style of question and answer, usually with Socrates taking the lead, and gave rise to the Socratic dialogue literary genre. Contradictory accounts of Socrates make a reconstruction of the history of his life nearly impossible, a situation known as the Socratic problem. Socrates was a polarizing figure in Athenian society.
Socrates’ views on death partly product of long life spent facing fears
Socrates was born to Sophroniscus and Faenarete in Alopece, a deme of Athens. His father was a stone cutter and his mother was a well-known midwife.
Socrates continued to live with his family in Alopece, somewhere near the border of today’s Ano Nea Smyrni and Palaio Faliro, throughout his younger years. Very little is known about his childhood; however, he had a natural intelligence for all things without having received any formal education whatsoever.
Two things are always listed when Socrates’ childhood is described — that he lacked good manners and that he helped his father in the stonecutting business. According to the historian Porphyrius, he was disobedient to his father’s orders, however.
He surely lived in this world and was not locked away in a philosopher’s ivory tower, wrestling with ethereal ideas.
His physical courage was attested to when in 431 BC, as the Peloponnesian War was about to break out, Socrates fought at Potidaea – a city-state threatening to break away from Athens. The great philosopher fought in the battlefield and then later, in the subsequent siege of the city.
Socrates fought in the campaign for three full years, returning to Athens as part of a victorious army, after distinguishing himself on the battlefield.
With the first phase of the Peloponnesian War raging, Socrates then fought at the Battle of Delium.
Nevertheless, the great thinker seems to have maintained some order in his retreat, receiving kudos for his mien on the field of war.
The Athenian general Laches later praised the philosopher, saying: “If all the Athenians had fought as bravely as Socrates, the Boeotians would have erected no (victory) statues.”
Trials, home life helped shape Socrates as a man and a thinker
Then, later on, Socrates married a very difficult woman, whose horrendous personality was even remarked on by several well-known figures of the day.
In a dialogue between Socrates and Alcibiades, Alcibiades wonders how Socrates can withstand the nagging of Xanthippi, to which Socrates answers: “Just as you withstand the croaking of geese, because they give you eggs and goose chicks, so Xanthippi gives me children, too.”
Xanthippi’s extraordinarily hard-to-live-with behavior was even mentioned by Xenophon in the play “Symposium”, in which Antisthenes characterizes her as the most difficult to withstand of all women that had ever existed.
Socrates, when asked how he endured living with such a woman, evenly replied that just as those who wish to become the best horsemen choose the most wild of horses to tame, he chose Xanthippi so he could learn to deal with all people — even the most difficult.
Clearly the man was one of the most famously even-keeled of humans; having no fear of the battlefield, after years of combat, or the ongoing domestic battlefield of his home life, he seemingly simply had nothing left to fear.
Socrates was of course most interested in the deeper motivations of people; not concerned with the right way of living and action, either personally or socially, he sought the deeper principle of every moral concept, which is not influenced by historical and social conditions or by individual perception.
In other words, he sought the absolute and rejected the relative; he studied the essence of morality and disregarded what he saw as more superficial moral issues.
Aristotle attributed to Socrates the use of inductive logic, or inductive symbolism, which was aimed at discovering a universal and unchangeable definition. That is, the ability to achieve an accurate concept or definition of a subject.
Socrates seemed to consider important a universal definition that is mainly related to moral behavior and considered it useful to keep our discourse away from the vortex of the relativity of sophism, which has a strong presence in our time.
For example, if we have a universal definition of justice, we have a secure basis for not only judging the action of an individual but also for the solid construction of the moral rules of society.
By inductive reasoning, Socrates was not so much interested in solving problems of logic, but in discovering universal definitions.
Using the dialectical method (meaning dialogue) he started from a less precise definition and reached a more precise, valid and universal definition of concepts through intense dialogues with his interlocutors.
Socrates’ completely innovative ideas about morality, which had come about through living life in the real world and dealing with difficulties of all kinds, soon helped to bring him to the courts of ancient Greece, however, in the year 399 BC.
It was widely believed then — and still is today — that it was Socrates’ frequent ridicule of democracy that was really on trial, however.
The articulate stone cutter had long insisted that democracy was a morally corrupt voting system in which greedy demagogues hoodwinked the ignorant mob.
Unshaken belief in the human soul led to freedom, acceptance of physical death, according to Socrates
The charges cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities,” which were very serious. The philosopher was sentenced to death, a sentence he received without complaint.
The philosopher’s death sentence was the legal consequence of asking difficult politico-philosophic questions of his students as part of his dialectical method.
After a sham of a trial that lasted just one day, the great thinker was sentenced to death. He spent his last day in prison, steadfastly refusing to escape.
Plato’s “Apology of Socrates” is an early philosophic defense of the philosopher, presented in the form of a Socratic dialogue. Socrates asks the jury, as per his own method of reasoning, to judge him by the truth of his statements, not by his oratorical skill.
Although Aristotle later classified the dialogue as a work of fiction, it remains today as a useful historical source about the great philosopher.
Despite his dismantling of society’s moral principles down to their cores, he had always urged people to follow basic moral rules and to always be just. For Socrates, justice was what helps man to achieve true happiness and to have balance in his soul.
He believed that pleasure in life is good, but that true and lasting happiness could only be achieved by moral people. Socrates argued to the end that there is a higher eternal human nature, with universal moral values that serve and guide human behavior, and his behavior to the very end of his life exemplified that ideal.
The philosopher Phaedo had been present at the execution of the great man, and his friend Echecrates asked him to relate how Socrates had met his end. Phaedo’s reply, using Plato’s work as its source, was extremely revealing.
Phaedo stated that Socrates had met with a few of his friends when the appointed day came for him to drink the poisonous hemlock that would kill him. His wife Xanthippe, was inconsolable and had to be sent away, according to the story.
However, Socrates was in a buoyant mood because he had always thought that for a true philosopher dying was not something to be dreaded; because he had lived his life in a good and moral way, he simply had no fear of death.
His friends who had been present asked him why this would be true.
Socrates insisted that for a moral person, death was a good thing and should be welcomed. Suicide was wrong, he added, because men and women are the property of the immortal gods, and as such we should not harm outside intentionally since we are the property of others. However, when death did occur through no actions of our own, it was not something to be dreaded.
Socrates believed that because of the immortality of the soul, death could not be evil, because to free the soul by guiding it to the eternal truths was the entire point of life. When death does come, it is a liberation of the soul.
The soul was in direct opposition to the human body, which he believed was nothing but a source of unwieldy passions and crude desires. It was the soul that was capable of seeing truth, and therefore at death, the soul would be set free to find true virtue and happiness — the point of its existence.
Interestingly, this dichotomy between the body and the soul would go on to have a major and lasting influence on the writers of the New Testament and Christian thought.
When pressed by his friends as to why he believed that our souls were immortal, Socrates was ready with an answer — actually, four of them.
First of all, he stated, the soul must be immortal because life always emerges after physical death, as we see in nature, as life springs up from decaying organic matter.
Just as nature makes a way for new life coming out of decay, so too must the soul survive physical death.
Death, Socrates believed, must be like waking up from a sleep.
He also believed that how humans tend to remember things that they have had no experience of in their lifetimes — referred to as the principle of recollection — proves this hypothesis.
He stated that nobody “needs to be taught what a circle or a triangle is.” People know these concepts naturally, which suggests that they must have learned things like these in a former life.
Socrates then argued that the soul was immortal because of something he called “affinity.” His reasoning was thus: immortal beings, such as gods, are normally invisible by their very nature. Despite his belief in Zeus or Apollo or other gods, they were not ordinarily seen taking strolls along the streets of Athens, he noted. However, the human soul knows that they exist; how could the soul do so without having at least a bit of the divine in itself?
Socrates went on to describe the soul by saying that it is like a cloak made by a weaver; just as the cloak continues to exist after the weaver dies, so too must the human soul live after the body dies.
Socrates also introduced the concept of “pure forms,” or things that we all know that are eternal. Such concept, including beauty — or even just numbers — exist outside of our bodies, and they are eternal concepts.
The soul, he held — even on his deathbed, after being sentenced to death in a kangaroo court — must be like these things, both abstract and eternal. Socrates old his friends that when freed from the body, the human soul continues to exist, just like other pure concepts do, such as truth or beauty, which will live forever.
So now, when everything seems to be threatening us, from the injustices of the world to nature itself, as a pandemic continues to ravage the globe, the serenity of the great philosopher is surely a great comfort to us in our times.
Socrates’ greatest quotes
Some of the greatest quotes from Socrates include the following:
- When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser.
- The easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.
- Be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.
- The unexamined life is not worth living.
- We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
- I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.
- The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.