Socrates, famous for his wise and inspiring quotes, died as he lived—hated by most Athenians but much beloved by his students. He was condemned to prison and death by poison in 399 BC for corrupting Athenian youth and rejecting the gods recognized by the state. The father of Western philosophy, however, took his sentence with the solemn, mocking attitude which had made him so infamous, for it was Socrates’ death that gave his philosophical theories life.
Plato could not attend his master’s death. Yet, he later described it through the character Phaedo of Elis, known in Ancient Greek as “On The Soul,” one of his most famous dialogues. The scene takes place during Socrates’ dying hours and addresses the philosophical question of immortality.
The suicide of Socrates
Socrates’ suicide was influential in more ways than one ways. First, it turned him into both a saint and a martyr at once. Second, it had an enormous impact on Plato, who honored his mentor in his noble description of his dying moments as follows:
When Crito heard, he signaled to the slave who was standing by. The boy went out, and returned after a few moments with the man who was to administer the poison which he brought ready mixed in a cup. When Socrates saw him, he said, “Now, good sir, you understand these things. What must I do?”
Just drink it and walk around until your legs begin to feel heavy, [and] then lie down. It will soon act. With that, he offered Socrates the cup.
The latter took it quite cheerfully without a tremor, with no change of color or expression. He just gave the man his stolid look, and asked, “How say you, is it permissible to pledge this drink to anyone? May I?”
The answer came, “We allow reasonable time in which to drink it.”
“I understand,” he said, “we can and must pray to the gods that our sojourn on earth will continue happy beyond the grave. This is my prayer, and may it come to pass.” With these words, he stoically drank the potion, quite readily and cheerfully. Up till this moment most of us were able with some decency to hold back our tears. But when we saw him drinking the poison to the last drop, we could restrain ourselves no longer. In spite of myself, the tears came in floods, so that I covered my face and wept—not for him, but at my own misfortune at losing such a man as my friend. Crito, even before me, rose and went out when he could check his tears no longer.
Socrates’ famous last words
He said, “You are strange fellows; what is wrong with you? I sent the women away for this very purpose, to stop their creating such a scene. I have heard that one should die in silence. So please be quiet and keep control of yourselves.” These words made us ashamed, and we stopped crying.
Socrates walked around until he said that his legs were becoming heavy, when he lay on his back, as the attendant instructed. This fellow felt him, and then a moment later examined his feet and legs again. Squeezing a foot hard, he asked him if he felt anything. Socrates said that he did not. He did the same to his calves and, going higher, showed us that he was becoming cold and stiff. Then he felt him a last time and said that when the poison reached the heart he would be gone.
As the chill sensation got to his waist, Socrates uncovered his head (he had put something over it) and said his last words: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don’t forget.”
“Of course,” said Crito. “Do you want to say anything else?”
There was no reply to this question, but after a while he gave a slight stir, and the attendant uncovered him and examined his eyes. Then Crito saw that he was dead, [and] he closed his mouth and eyelids. This was the end of our friend, the best, wisest and most upright man of any that I have ever known.
Socrates’ last words were to thank Asclepius, the god of healing. Some interpret it in an ironical sense as having saved him from the condemnation and sickness of life. Others interpret it in gratitude for having released his soul.
It may be impossible to be sure, but Crito’s last statement would prove prophetic. Socrates’ trial and subsequent death is the stuff of legend as too are his quotes that still resonate with us today. Though meant for Ancient Greek society, his views still touch us in modern times. Here are just a few of the pearls of wisdom Socrates left for his fellow man—in particular, now, in the time of protests, conflict, and the threat of nuclear war.
“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.”
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
“To find yourself, think for yourself.”
“Let him who would move the world first move himself.”
“Prefer knowledge to wealth, for the one is transitory, the other perpetual.”
“We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
“My friend…care for your psyche…know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves.”
“The really important thing is not to live, but to live well. And to live well meant, along with more enjoyable things in life, to live according to your principles.”
“Those who are hardest to love need it the most.”
“True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”