socratesI am grateful for the opportunity to have reflected on the life of Socrates as I wrote this evening’s lecture. Of course, it’s not every life that is told through the story of its death, but I think this is particularly appropriate in the case of Socrates. I am speaking now only of the Socrates we come to know through the dialogues of Plato, and particularly through the three dialogues concerning the trial and final days of Socrates, the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo.

Plato’s Socrates is a local hero to many of us at St. John’s College, a model of radical inquiry, the embodiment of the liberally educated person, and a man who faced his own death well, even beautifully. But ‘hero’ is a strong word, and I mean it to conjure up images of the great trials a hero must face in life, including the final trial we all must face when we see the end approaching. I mean it to remind us of the monsters our hero must vanquish, his monsters and ours. Plato is fond of likening Socrates to the great heroes at the dawn of Greek and Athenian civilization. Socrates too compares himself to some of the greatest: Hercules, Achilles, and Theseus, all of whom faced great trials without fear and slew many enemies, though they died most unhappy deaths.

So, I’d like to open my talk with a walk back to the age of heroes, some 600 years or so before the time of Socrates, and tell you a story about Theseus, the consolidator of Athens and founder of its democracy. It is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and it is referenced by Socrates at the opening of the Phaedo, the dialogue that captures the conversation in Socrates’s jail cell on the day of his death.

Plutarch opened his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans with the Life of Theseus, and I shall use this source for most of what I say about Theseus. It came to pass that Aegeus, the king of Athens, was having difficulty producing a child and this caused him some grief among his closest enemies, neighboring governors and kings, who despised Aegeus for his want of children, they themselves being 50 brothers. While visiting the governor of a small city to the South, Aegeus was persuaded to lie with the governor’s daughter, Aethra. Suspecting her to be with child by him, Aegeus left a sword and a pair of shoes and hid them under a great stone. He commanded Aethra, should she give birth to a son, to send the son to his father only after he had grown to manhood with the strength to lift the great stone and secure the sword and shoes. The son was to show Aegeus these things as proof of his parentage. Sure enough, a son was born, Theseus it was, and he grew to manhood with great strength, bravery, quickness, and force of understanding. We imagine he was 16 or 17 years of age when his mother told him of his true father and showed him to the stone, which Theseus easily lifted and took with him the tokens left by his father, Aegeus.

Instead of traveling the safe route by sea, Theseus undertook the perilous path by land, and defeated and killed many infamous robbers and murderers along the way, fired by a desire to achieve the glory of Hercules, a few years his senior, and by the wish to inflict justice upon the evil men; each wrongdoer underwent the same violence from Theseus that they had inflicted upon others, justly suffering after the manner of their own injustice. He who killed others by tossing them into the sea was himself tossed off a great cliff. He who killed by butting his head against others had his own head broken in pieces. (These early stories have the advantage over even our modern movie producers in their graphic details.)

Theseus, his fame for acts of great bravery preceding him, at last arrived in Athens, which was in great confusion, divided into factions, and threatening the family of King Aegeus. Medea, who had just fled from Corinth after killing her own children and her husband’s new bride as punishment for her husband’s infidelity, was now living with Aegeus, promising through her arts to make him capable at last of having children. So seeing this stranger, Theseus, as a potential threat, Medea persuaded Aegeus to poison him at a banquet to which Theseus was invited. Just as Aegeus was about to pass Theseus the cup of poison, Theseus withdrew the sword as if to cut his meat. Aegeus recognized the sword at once, embraced his son, and owned him publicly before all the citizens.

Aegeus, now with an heir, insured the enmity of his enemies who had expected to recover the kingdom after Aegeus’s death. They plotted to ambush Theseus, who instead fell upon them, cut them off, and dispersed them all. Theseus had made quite a name for himself. Soon, thereafter, he capped this achievement with the slaying of the great Bull at Marathon, and followed it with a generous offer of self-sacrifice to the King of Crete.

It happened like this. Some 27 years earlier, before Theseus was born, King Aegeus had played host to one Androgeus, the only son of Minos, the powerful king of Crete. Androgeus was treacherously murdered during his stay in Attica, and Aegeus declared war on Attica, the region that included Athens. The gods also laid waste to the country with famine, pestilence, and drought. Told by an oracle that if they appeased King Minos, the gods too would cease their punishment of Aegeus’s people, the Athenians entered into negotiations with Minos. The agreement they reached was that once every nine years, a sacrificial tribute of seven young men and seven young women would be sent to Crete without weapons to wander in a great labyrinth from which there was no escape from a great monster, the Minotaur, who resided there. The Minotaur was half man and half bull, the offspring of a beautiful, great white bull and Minos’s own wife. The Bull had been a gift to Minos from the god, Poseidon, for the purpose of making a sacrifice to the god. Minos thought the bull too beautiful to sacrifice. And so it turned out that Minos’s wife found it too beautiful to resist. (Beware the justice of the gods!)

Roll forward 27 years. It turns out that the Great Bull at Marathon, slain by Theseus when he arrived in Athens, was none other than the father of the Minotaur, and Theseus brought this Bull back to his father Aegeus to sacrifice to Theseus’s favorite god, Apollo. This will turn out to have been a most unfortunate sacrifice, a misplaced sacrifice to Apollo instead of Poseidon, and several people will pay the price for this dishonor to Poseidon.

Soon after Theseus had killed the Bull at Marathon, the third expedition of sacrificial youths to Crete was ready to set forth, and Theseus now volunteered to go with those others who were chosen by lot, telling his father he would return after killing the Minotaur. Theseus was admired and loved by the citizens for offering to share in their sufferings; after prayers and entreaties, Aegeus finally let his new-found son go. Theseus promised his father that as a sign of his victory over the Minotaur he would change the returning ship’s black sails to white.

When the young sacrificial victims arrived in Crete, they were led to the labyrinth. Along the way, Minos’s daughter Ariadne saw Theseus and fell instantly in love with him. She gave him the solution to the labyrinth by giving him a ball of thread, which Theseus attached to the back of the door to the labyrinth and unwound as he went in pursuit of the Minotaur, whom he slew with his bare hands. Retracing his steps to find his way out of the labyrinth, Theseus escaped with the other Athenian youths and fled to their ship with his savior, Ariadne. The stories differ about Ariadne, but along the way she was deserted or was separated from the party, and Theseus and the youths found their way safely back to Athens without her.

Unfortunately, Theseus failed to remember to change the color of the sails of the returning fleet, and Aegeus, despairing over what he took for a sign that Theseus had died in Crete, threw himself off a high rock and perished in the sea. Theseus returned to a mourning city, but now as the new King of Athens. He proceeded by persuasion and force to gather all the inhabitants of Attica into one city to make them a single people, and he promised them a democracy, or peoples’ government, as Plutarch called it. Hence, Theseus is to this day said to be the father of Athens, the founder of the world’s first democracy.

For centuries, the Athenians continued to honor the voyage of Theseus and the slaying of the Minotaur by sending to Crete an embassy of seven plus seven youths every year for hundreds of years. It was a holy celebration, giving thanks to Apollo for saving Theseus, and it required the city of Athens to remain pure and to execute no one publicly during the duration of the entire trip to Crete and back.

And now I am finding my way back to Plato’s Phaedo and Socrates’s final days. It was the day before Socrates’s trial that the embassy of young men and women set out for Crete, and some long time elapsed before the embassy returned, delaying the execution of Socrates after he was sentenced to death. It is during this period of purification that the action of the three Platonic dialogues takes place. These dialogues record the final trials of Socrates; I will speak about three of these trials and how Socrates faced them. I wish to explore why Socrates is compared to Theseus, the monster slayer and founder of Athens, and will ask who Socrates’s Minotaur was, who his Ariadne was, whether he slew his Minotaur, and whether and how he may be said to have returned to Athens and embarked on a re-founding of that great city. How did Socrates die? Was his death glorious or not? These are the questions I will try to address in my talk this evening.

Let me start with Plato’s dialogue, the Apology, for an account of the first of the three trials I wish to discuss.

The setting: the year is 399 BC; the city is Athens, troubled again by the political instability that saw the collapse of its maritime empire after nearly 30 years of war with Sparta; the form of government has changed twice in the last 4 years from democracy to an oligarchy of thirty tyrants and back again to an uneasy democracy. On trial is a 70 year old citizen, loved by many and hated by just as many, a man who lived in poverty but spent his life in conversation with others, most often with the city’s youth, seeking with them the truth and trying to help his interlocutors, students and disciples, to find what a life worth living might look like. The formal charges against Socrates: impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens—impiety because he is alleged not to believe in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other new spiritual things—corruption of the youth because he’s alleged to have encouraged them to challenge or disparage the things the city fathers hold dear. The judge and jury: 501 citizens of Athens, a majority of whom must vote for or against conviction, before they then vote on the penalty to be assessed. The record of the trial: for our purposes tonight, Plato’s Apology, a work of art rather than a transcription of the proceedings, written shortly after the trial by one who was present at it. (Plato, by the way, age 30 at the time of Socrates’s death, went on to write some 30 or so dramatic dialogues which have largely served to define the man, Socrates, and to justify his long life of philosophy in pursuit of the life worth living—a fully examined life.)

Plato’s Apology is not an excuse for Socrates, a way of apologizing for his life; it is rather his defense against the charges, and a very curious defense it is! Instead of denying the charges, or offering to amend his behavior, or arguing that he means no harm, Socrates speaks like the star witness for the prosecution. Take this example:

“I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.”

It is typical of Socrates that he makes it hard for us to determine just when he intends to deny the charges brought against him and when he would positively embrace them. Socrates is a defense attorney’s worst nightmare and a grave digger’s delight; when in a hole, he will take up the shovel and dig himself deeper.

Presented with one bill of particulars, Socrates adds new charges to the list against him. Prosecuted for threatening the city’s good order, for challenging its authority figures and questioning their wisdom, he claims to be a gift to the city—and not just any old gift, but a gift of the god. Threatened with death for his behavior, he gives no thought to himself, but instead begs to argue the case for the city. He asks the jury, for its own sake and the sake of the city, to avoid mistreating god’s gift to them by condemning Socrates, the city’s greatest blessing—a blessing in the form of a gadfly, attached to the city, to stir it and rouse each of its citizens, to persuade and reproach them, all day long and everywhere. On trial at age 70, Socrates will not go quietly into retirement. His jury was sufficiently impressed with his defense that it sentenced him to death. It does not take much imagination to picture what a pain in that noble horse’s rear this gadfly, Socrates, must have been. I confess that I am also drawn to the dialogue as a former trial lawyer. While I cringe when Socrates mocks both his accusers and his citizen jury, I cheer at his courage and willingness to embrace the claim that he may be both a threat to the established power structure and a gift to the city. Armed only with questions and the will to question relentlessly, he threatens the status quo and the peace of mind of the city’s public opinion shapers, and challenges the citizens’ thoughtless acceptance of whatever they are told. Socrates is a destabilizing influence, no doubt. So, is he really the blessing to the city that he claims to be?

Let us first look at our city. Socrates claims that Athens is great and noble, made sluggish by its size. What can he have meant by this? Not every city is great and noble. Indeed, we learn in the Crito that Socrates would rather be put to death in Athens than be released to live anywhere else. I can imagine a number of ways to think about the problem of this great city, but I’d like to offer one for now. Athens is a democracy, or a kind of democracy of free male citizens; it is built upon a respect for the individual and a trust that its citizens are capable of self-government. Surely, the protection of a democracy and the freedom of its citizens require that those citizens have an education both in the traditions of the city and in the arts of freedom. Yet, the traditions of a city, its customs, its idols, and even its laws, will frequently be at odds with the very things that encourage the autonomy of the individual citizen—those arts that allow us to think for ourselves and to question the city fathers, popular opinion, and social custom.

One might say that a democracy of any size can only work well if its citizens agree on the need to hold on to this tension between the needs of an ordered society and the needs of a free people. I imagine that only in such societies can a Socrates have a home. Athens may be the best hope of a home for the free individual. So it may be that Socrates is really the champion of Athens, as much as he is its critic.

Socrates would prod the sluggish citizens of Athens to wakefulness, to keep them from the smug self-satisfaction that comes from sleeping through life without examining who they are and what they ought to become. How does he do it? By asking questions which would open them up to the world! They are questions that help us understand how much we still need to learn, and how little we really understand what we think we know or are told by others. They are questions that reduce us to a state of perplexity so that we may wonder at our ignorance and search hard for a better understanding. [These questions and this state of perplexity, by the way, are the conditions for a liberal education.]

For Socrates, it is human to want to know, and the prod to encourage the human desire to know something is the prod to be human. Socrates seems to say that the best preparation for life, for becoming more fully human, is less the acquisition of knowledge than the understanding of our ignorance. This in turn will help us find the questions we need to ask to bring us to a better understanding. For a question to help, something must be at stake for us; it must make a real difference to us how we answer the question. When Socrates tells the reader toward the end of the Apology that the unexamined life is not worth living, he is telling us that we might as well be dead (or never born) as live a life that is unexamined—a life without questions, the answers to which really matter to us.

For Socrates, what is at stake in his trial is literally greater than life or death. He is not just willing to risk death for something he believes in; he is without thought of death, as he faces danger rather than the disgrace of withdrawing from the search for self-knowledge, the pursuit of which is his only reason for living. The disgrace for Socrates would be all the greater for backing away out of fear of the unknown. “To fear death, gentlemen,” he says “is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man …” True to his search for self knowledge, mere death is no barrier.

I will not take the time here to make Socrates’s full case before his jurors. But I’d like to argue here that the question that underlies Plato’s Apology is not the guilt or innocence of Socrates. It is something closer to this: “Who is this man, Socrates? Is he living a life worth living—the life that truly belongs to him? Does it matter to me and to the City that this man’s life should continue or come to an end? Is it perhaps, even, a life worth imitating or undertaking as my own?” We cannot judge Socrates until we know him better. And in judging him, we reveal ourselves. We had better understand what is at stake for us before we decide the fate of Socrates and either keep him with us or consign him to Hades and take up another would-be model. This is the prod to wakefulness that Socrates represents. And these persistent questions can be as annoying or inspiriting to the sleeping soul within each of us as the gadfly is to the noble horse.

Well, I’ve found a way to tell you what the Apology means to me probably better than I’ve told you what actually happens in the dialogue. So let me conclude my discussion of Socrates’s first trial by saying that he won me over but lost his jury. Asked to name the punishment, the prosecution asked for death; Socrates asked for free meals at the town hall for all the good he was doing for his fellow Athenians in prodding them so. (Is it a wonder that he annoys people?) His friends instead offered to pay a heavy fine on his behalf, but the jury pronounced the death sentence. Socrates closes the dialogue by asking his friends to look after his sons once he is gone, and to cause them as much grief as Socrates did in prodding his friends.

End of the first trial!

The second of these three trials of Socrates is recorded in Plato’s Crito, the shortest of the three dialogues; it takes place in Socrates’s jail cell. This trial is a test of Socrates’s convictions and his strength of will. His friend, Crito, has offered him the opportunity of an easy escape from his cell. Crito’s arguments are several: Socrates was unjustly convicted; the guards can be bribed; Socrates’s friends all support the idea; the way out is easy and safe; and he can be whisked out of town to continue his teaching in another city and among friends. The authorities won’t even mind, Crito suggests. Hurry, Crito urges Socrates, for the embassy to Crete is returning any time now, and you will soon be executed. Finally, Socrates, you are wrong to give up your life when you can save it. Wrong to your friends, to your children, and to those who could still learn from you. This coming death is rather a source of shame to you and to your friends, lacking in honor and courage.

Socrates will have nothing of it. He responds that the most important thing is not life, but the good life. He argues, as he has before (The Republic) that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, and that returning wrong for wrong is never right, no matter how tempting that might be on occasion. Socrates takes up the case of the City, as if he was its prosecutor, and argues that the laws are necessary to the City’s safety and social harmony, and that to run away from them is an attempt to destroy both the laws and the city for whose good the laws were established. The city gave birth to Socrates, nurtured him, and protected his freedom to engage in his philosophical pursuits for decades. We citizens should be bound to honor this city more than our parents and our friends. Besides, the law argues, what a laughing stock Socrates would be if, after 70 years of enjoying the gifts of the city and never leaving it when free to do so, he should now take flight. “And wouldn’t it strengthen the conviction of the jury that they were right after all to convict me, if I now were to flee?” says Socrates. “We should not value our children or our lives or anything else more than goodness.” Socrates challenges Crito to prove these arguments wrong, and Crito responds, “I have nothing to say, Socrates.”

Socrates concludes the dialogue: “Let it be then, Crito, and let us act in this way, since this is the way god is leading us.”

Socrates has staked his life on a proposition that claims to be a truth: that it is better to suffer wrong than to do injustice. If one might have doubted that Socrates was teaching by example in the Apology where he makes his philosophical claims before the court of his peers, no one can now doubt that he is willing to live his life (and give it up too) according to that principle. He will not indulge his friends by escaping, only to live a lie.

End of Trial number two.

The last of these three trials of Socrates was undoubtedly the one of greatest importance to him, the trial he underwent on his last day in prison, awaiting the cup of hemlock that he would take to end his life. The ship with the embassy of 14 youths has returned from Crete. By custom, the city may now carry out its sentence of Socrates, and he is enjoying a final conversation with 14 of his friends, the “seven plus seven” we are told by the story’s narrator, young Phaedo, who is the 15th person present with Socrates. The trial here is to see whether Socrates can give a winning defense against the charge made by his friends that the wise man should not be so willing to die as Socrates seems to be, as displayed in his easy manner, good humor, and comforting words as he approaches his end. Once again, as in his defense at court, Socrates must give an account of himself to persuade his friends that his calm acceptance of death does not do an injustice to himself or to those who love him. Gone is the attempt to persuade Socrates to flee; his friends know he is about to die. Something else is at stake in this last dialogue. I think the question for Socrates is something like this: how do I, who am about to die, help my dearest friends accept this and prove to them that I am prepared and rightly happy about the unknown journey I’m about to take? How do I help them to avoid becoming cynics and haters of the laws that I have lived my life by?

Socrates begins his argument by getting his friends to acknowledge that the proper business of the philosopher is the care of the soul, that too much attention to the needs of the body distracts one from the care of the soul and the deathless objects the soul is concerned with like truth, wisdom, and justice. Philosophy, properly understood, is always an effort to escape the limitations of the body to give oneself up to inquiry into things that truly are. The true philosopher is actually practicing the ‘care of death’, as the death of the body allows for the final separation of the soul from the body, allowing the soul the ultimate freedom to pursue its desire, the truth of things. He concludes his first argument saying his soul will soon dwell with the gods and good comrades.

But one friend claims that this argument is not worth much unless Socrates can prove that the soul will survive the death of the body. And so Socrates turns to a series of very difficult arguments for the survival and immortality of the soul. As we approach the heart of this labyrinthine argument, we hear objections to it from his friends. Cebes, one of the young men present, makes an extended argument casting into doubt all that had gone before. If this doubt cannot be set up aside, he says, “the confidence that characterizes anybody who’s confident in the face of death is a mindless confidence” and it is therefore “necessary that a man about to die always should fear for his soul …” And so a silence fell on the young men, now cast back into distrust.

What then did Socrates do? Here is Phaedo’s account of it:

“I’d often wondered at Socrates, I never admired him more than when I was present with him then. That he should have something to say was perhaps not out of the ordinary. No, what I really wondered at him for was this: first, how pleasantly and kindly and admiringly he received the young men’s argument, then how keenly he perceived how we’d suffered under their arguments, then how well he healed us and, as if we were men who’d fled and been laid low, rallied us and turned us about to follow him and consider the argument with him…I happened to be sitting to his right on a sort of low stool next to the couch, and he was on a seat a lot more elevated than mine. And he caressed my head and gathered up the hair on my neck—for he was in the habit, on occasion, of teasing me about my hair—and said, “Tomorrow, Phaedo, perhaps you’ll cut off these beautiful locks of yours.” [for this was the custom in Athens when one’s friend died.]

“That’s likely, Socrates,” said I.

“Not if you’re persuaded by me.”

“Then what?” said I.

“This very day,” he said, “I’ll cut mine, and you’ll cut these locks of yours, if our argument meets its end and we can’t bring it back to life. And as for me, if I were you and the argument were to get away from me, I’d make an oath … not to cut my hair before I should be victorious in the renewed battle [with your friends here in the room.] … But first let’s be on our guard so we don’t undergo a certain experience.”

“What sort of experience?” said I.

“So that we don’t become,” said he, “haters of argument, as some become haters of human beings; for it’s not possible,” he said, “for anybody to experience a greater evil than hating arguments. Hatred of arguments and hatred of human beings come about the same way. For hatred of human beings arises from artlessly trusting somebody to excess, and believing that human being to be in every way true and sound and trustworthy, and then a little later discovering that this person is wicked and untrustworthy — and then having this experience again with another. And whenever somebody experiences this many times, and especially at the hands of just those he might regard as his most intimate friends and comrades, he then ends up taking offense all the time and hates all human beings and believes there’s nothing at all sound in anybody.”

And so it is also with untrustworthy arguments.

This exchange comes at the dead center of the dialogue, and one wonders whether the Minotaur that Socrates must conquer in the heart of this labyrinth of an argument is not the fear of death, but the hatred of argument. Socrates began the dialogue wanting to conquer his young friends’ fear of death, but now he sees something worse than that – that they may come to hate argument, distrusting it by being drawn in too easily and put out too easily – and this hatred of argument would be a disease of the soul, a far greater evil than the death of the body.

Socrates now plunges back into the argument about the soul with vigor, and addresses the objections of his principle interlocutors. Time does not permit me to describe these arguments, but they end with his friends casting aside their distrust of the earlier arguments. In its place, one young interlocutor instead expresses some doubt about the new arguments because of the sheer magnitude of them. He needs time to sort through them. Here, Socrates agrees and says that the hypotheses on these questions “must be looked into more clearly.” So, here we have the task of the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, to weave the argument to its completion and then to unweave it, to separate the various strands of argument and reweave each argument as to each. Philosophical discourse will always be incomplete. It never seems to meet its end, but this does not make that end unworthy of pursuit, Socrates seems to say.

In the event that a few of his young friends are not moved by argument, Socrates then paints a picture of the whole of earth and the place of the soul in the context of the whole. He tells a myth designed to remind us all of the importance of the proper care of the soul, which at the end of each incarnation must submit itself to justice. The bad will suffer; the good will be rewarded. It is worth the “noble risk” to believe in the deathless soul and the need to have that soul properly adorned with “moderation and justice and courage and freedom and truth” when it prepares to take its journey to Hades.

And now we come to the end. Crito asks Socrates for final instructions. Socrates says simply that by caring for themselves, his friends will be doing Socrates a favor.

But how shall we bury you? asks Crito. And Socrates gives a serene laugh, and chides Crito for believing that the Socrates who is here conversing with them is the Socrates that will soon be a corpse. He seeks a pledge from Crito that Socrates shall not remain here when he dies, but shall be off and gone. Instead, Crito should be confident that he is only burying the body of Socrates, and thus should do this “just as seems agreeable” to Crito and “most in accordance with custom.”

Socrates then goes to bathe, saving the women of this burden later; he visits with his sons, his wife, and the women of his household, and bids them then leave him to his final task. A servant from the jail then comes to explain the procedure of taking of the potion that will end his life, but before doing so, says to Socrates:

“Socrates, I certainly won’t pass the same judgment on you that I pass on others: They get angry with me and curse me when I order them to drink the potion under the compulsion of the officials. But as for you, during this time, I’ve come to recognize you as the noblest and gentlest and best man among those who’ve arrived here; what’s more, I know well that you’re angry not with me but with those others—for you recognize who’s responsible. So now—for you know what I came to report—farewell and try to bear these necessities as easily as possible.”

And bursting into tears, the servant leaves him.

Socrates is ready to take the potion and follow the servant’s instructions for the best, quickest, and least painful way out. Crito tries once again to hold onto Socrates just a bit longer: can’t you wait until the sun has finally set? Please do not hurry!

Socrates begs Crito not to make Socrates a laughing stock in his own eyes, to be clinging to life when there’s nothing more left. And Crito now accepts this, allowing the servant to give Socrates the cup he must drink from. Socrates takes the cup and then composes his expression into that of a bull, an expression familiar to those who knew Socrates well, and a face familiar to our old hero, Theseus. Socrates asks whether he might pour a portion of it as a libation. Hearing that there is insufficient poison for that purpose, he prays to the gods that his “emigration from here to there may turn out to be a fortunate one.” With that, he drinks. His friends burst into tears; indeed the whole dialogue is filled with “friends now weeping, now laughing.” Phaedo himself says he was weeping more at his own misfortune at losing Socrates than at Socrates’s misfortune in leaving this world.

Socrates commands them gently to be still and to control themselves, and his friends feel shame and hold back their weeping. He walks around until his legs become heavy, and he then lies down on his back and waits as the stiffness and cold travels up his body to his chest. The final words he utters are these: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. So pay the debt and don’t be careless.”

Crito responds: “it shall be done.” After a short relapse, the servant uncovers the dead body of Socrates, who has, before passing on, recomposed his countenance. His eyes and mouth are both wide open. Crito then closes them and covers the body once more.

Colleagues of mine, whose translation I have relied on for my text suggest that “in the open eyes and mouth”, we have the very image of a man who has devoted himself to vision and speech. If we put together the open eyes and mouth, we also have the gesture of wonder. The gesture seems to say, “So this is Death!” without, however, saying what Death Itself is.” Socrates dies happily, and with welcoming wonder.

We are still left with several questions. Has Socrates conquered the Minotaur and what was the monster? At the end, we seem almost to have left the Fear of Death and the Hatred of Argument behind in our absorption with the man, Socrates, a figure that one cannot help but love at the end. By taking on the countenance of a Bull, just before drinking the potion, Socrates seems to be saying that he would also slay his friends’ attachment to the body of Socrates. But then we remember that Theseus slew three great bulls in his early life, and we wonder whether Socrates hasn’t slain all three in the Phaedo: the Fear of Death, the Hatred of Argument, and the Attachment to the Body of Socrates.

Will the spirit of inquiry, the love of wisdom, remain with his friends and with us readers? If so, then the real Socrates may be said to have returned in triumph to Athens with the seven-plus-seven. In Socrates’s triumph over death and submission to the laws of the city, we also see Socrates, like Theseus, as a re-founder of Athens, a great city, once the birthplace of democracy, now the birthplace of philosophy, the first home for the political and intellectual freedom that would one day find root in our modern democracies that have respect for the importance of the individual in its relation to the state.

I want to return once more to Theseus. How did he die and how did his death compare with Socrates’s? We are told by some that Theseus was exiled from Athens; Plutarch says he left Athens in disgust, cursing its citizens for their falling to demagoguery and factionalism. Either way, separated from the great city he had built, he went to visit a neighboring King whom he believed was a friend. This friend and host betrayed him on a mountaintop and threw Theseus to his death. (This story alone sounds like a sufficient object lesson for Socrates not to flee Athens for a barbaric alternative.)

Here, I am reminded of another old story, oft repeated, of another great Athenian, Solon the law giver, who when brought before Croesus, the great, rich, tyrannical king of Lydia, (of “Rich as Croesus” fame) was asked who was the happiest man alive. Solon responded by telling the stories of a few men of modest means whom he had know who had died happily with their loved ones about them. This response infuriated Croesus who thought he should be judged happiest for all his riches and power. But Solon responded that to salute as happy one who was yet in the midst of life and hazard is to crown the wrestler who is still in the ring. Solon would have us look to the end to answer the question of the happiness of one’s life, to judge whether it was well lived or not. By that standard, Socrates far surpasses Theseus as a hero to be emulated, having both lived and died a happy man.

Now let us recall the misplaced sacrifice of Theseus, the Bull at Marathon sacrificed to Apollo rather than Poseidon, the intended recipient. How important must it be at the end to make the appropriate sacrifice! (Theseus had paid a price with the unhappy, miserable deaths of his father, his son, and not least of all, himself.) But in the Phaedo, Socrates closes with this demand of Crito: “We owe a cock to Asclepius. So pay the debt and don’t be careless.” Now, Asclepius is the god of medicine. We must come to see this final sacrifice as somehow fitting and proper if we are to reckon Socrates happy in death, and happier than Theseus.

There are those, Friedrich Nietzsche among them, who say that this sacrifice is a thank-offering for being released from the disease of life. “Socrates suffered life,” Nietzsche tells us, “And then he revenged himself with this veiled, gruesome, pious and blasphemous saying,” as if to say that Socrates was a failure as a living, breathing human being, for failing to find a life worth living. I don’t accept this reading. Socrates loved life; he loved the sensual (consider his stroking of Phaedo’s beautiful hair, or his younger wife with children still not of age). And two other things about Socrates’s final request appear to me to be important: that it is WE who owe the cock, and that we owe it AFTER Socrates has already died. No, Socrates doesn’t owe the cock to Asclepius; WE do – Crito and all of us present at the end of the Phaedo. Perhaps we owe it as a thank-offering for the life of Socrates, a fitting offering. But what if we see the sacrifice as a medicinal offering to cure our grief over the loss of a man who does not want our grief, but only our willingness to continue the search for truth? Perhaps Socrates is asking us to make our own sacrifices, and for our own good, to continue asking those damnably difficult questions that caused Socrates to be thought of as a gadfly to the conscience of Athens, a sting-ray to the pride of his interlocutors, and a hero undertaking labors appropriate to the strong and well-balanced human soul—asking questions that would help us find a way to make a life worth living, a life in which we are examining and re-examining who we are and what our proper place is in the world.

Socrates replaces Theseus as the great hero of Athens and the model to all who would follow. To those still imprisoned in their own caves of certainty about the world around them and their place within it, Socrates was a pest at best, and a great danger to the status quo at worst. To those, however, who would be freed of their ignorance and the tyranny of the opinion of others, Socrates is the paradigm of the free individual, one who wonders, or marvels, at the world he has yet to understand. Such a man will not become a cynic, merely challenging the existing totems of society; he will instead be open to learning what is best and true. I think this is why Socrates is a model for learning at our nation’s liberal arts colleges—because he starts with wonder, a humble response to the world he has yet to understand, rather than with doubt, a deliberate posture toward a world view he would root out.

And Socrates’s Ariadne, his savior who provides the clue for a way through the labyrinth and back to the light of day, who is this? None other than Phaedo, our narrator, who inspires in Socrates the desire to finish the argument for the sake of his young friends, saving them from cynicism, hatred, and fear! Socrates’s affection for Phaedo teaches us that it is human friendship and the care for our loved ones that keep the argument going, that make life worth living, that give us a reason to live a life worth passing on to the generations that follow—so that the heirs to this story, they too, might find their way to a life well-examined and therefore worth living. Socrates not only dies happily, but he has done so without deserting Phaedo (as Theseus did Ariadne) the body of Socrates may be gone, but the Real Socrates has stayed with Phaedo, his friends and with all of us who will take up a life devoted to philosophy.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Dedicated to Bill Johnston. Great Lives: Biographical Approach to History Series Lecture given at University of Mary Washington, 2009 by Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD. Appears here by the gracious permission of the author.

Acknowledgments and Sources

I am deeply indebted to Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage and Eric Salem for their beautiful translation of the Phaedo and their very fine interpretive essay which weaves together many strands common to those remarks, and which offers a far deeper understanding of both the argument of dialogue and its protagonist, Socrates.

Original Sources

  • Plato, Phaedo (Brann, Kalkavage and Salem translation; Focus Classical Library, 1998)
  • Plato, Apology and Crito (G.M.A. Grube translation from Five Dialogues, Hackett Publishing Co., 1981)
  • Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (Lives of Theseus and Solon) (Dryden translation, Modern Library, 1992)

Secondary Sources

  • Brann, Kalkavage, and Salem, Introduction to the Phaedo (see above)
  • Bremer, The Logos in the Apology, unpublished lecture delivered at St. John’s College
  • Calasso, Robert. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (A. Knopf, 1993)
  • Hamilton, Edith. Mythology, (Little Brown and Co., 1942)
  • Kalkavage, Who is Socrates? – Thoughts on Plato’s Apology, unpublished lecture delivered at Southeastern Louisiana State University; August 24, 1998
  • Grenke, Why Did Socrates Die?, unpublished lecture delivered at St. John’s College; June 26, 2002
  • Klein, Platos Phaedo, lecture delivered at St. John’s College; May 3, 1974; published in The Essays of Jacob Klein, St. John’s College Press

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