Philosophy and Death: Socrates as a Tragic Figure
Before reading this essay, please take into consideration that the views expressed here are necessarily understood by a reading of Aristotle, Plato, and Nietzsche, in combination with lectures attended in the History of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Oregon. Academic merit and critique is always welcome.
When one imagines Socrates, the man, the most common characteristic, or at least the most notable attribute contemporary philosophers speak about, is his Socratic method: a devotion to inquiry and pursuit of wisdom; commonly revealed in Plato’s dialogues. What is often overlooked, however, is his fierce commitment to death. While most of the dialogues we have on record speak about justice, education, wisdom, virtue, or truth, there is always a relationship to death humming along in the background. This commitment to death is a legacy that Socrates, in his last few months of life, forces us to confront in the most aporetic of moments: our own death.
In the ancient Greek world, tragedy affected and influenced nearly all of philosophers, playwrights, poets, politicians, craftsmen (or artists for the socially sensitive), and most importantly, influenced Socrates. In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche recounts to us the mythic tale of King Midas and the wisdom of Silenus (a daemon satyr and close companion to Dionysus). In this tale, Midas searches for Silenus day after day, hoping to grasp at his wisdom. When the king finally does catch him, he asks what is best for mankind. Of course, with Midas being cursed to receive everything that he has wished, Silenus replies:
Miserable, ephemeral race, children of hazard and hardship, why do you force me to say what it would be much more fruitful for you not to hear? The best of all things is something entirely outside of your grasp: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second-best thing for you - is to die soon. ( BT Sec.3, Pg. 22)
This wisdom, exposited to us by Silenus, was the defining myth that not only inspired the famous Greek tragedians, but philosophers alike, especially that of Socrates.
It may appear to be nihilistic, the wisdom of Silenus, and many might approach with such a response that renders life not worth living, especially in the face of the overwhelming suffering we find in our harsh, indifferent world; Socrates responds differently to this tragedy. In an Apollonian move, Socrates faces death with the best tools at his disposal: reason and inquiry. In classical terms, undertaking Apollonian values means upholding reason, rationalism, the ordered human life, logic, self-control, and appearance above values like passion, music, irrationality, instincts, and chaos. The Apollonian traits will shine through in Socrates as I move through the last few months of his life.
In Plato’s The Apology, Socrates is accused of not believing in the local gods and corrupting the Athenian youth. Throughout his trial, Socrates exhibits the type of bravery and courage that he condones later while his sentencing is being executed. In 17c, he claims to put his justice in the words that he says, and to warn his accusers to expect nothing less. Saying that “it would not be fitting at my age, as it might be for a young man, to toy with words when I appear before you.” (Apology 17c-d.) Socrates is well aware of the consequences of his actions. Later on in the Phaedo, it helps to understand the Athenian jury as fearful. Socrates’ well knowing of this fact, proves that in fact his actions lead to dire consequences.
Moreover, Socrates preempts this fear by equating the jury with children. At the end of 18c, he states that they were convinced of these charges when they were mere children and adolescents. Of course, Socrates is speaking metaphorically here; to be charmed by the sophists that Socrates so unconsciously loathes, one must necessarily be childlike in the psū́khō (or soul), being more susceptible to emotions like fear. This is also a key defining moment for Socrates. While I do not think that Socrates ever claimed to be explicitly anti-emotion, he certainly praised reason over it, adhering himself to a more Apollonian status.
He further demonstrates his devotion to Apollo in 21b-e. And specifically in 22a., where he explains his “investigation in the service of the god.” When Socrates approached the oracle at Delphi, she uttered that “no one is wiser than Socrates.” He took this fortune to heart. If he did not, then 1) he would not be taking his investigations into the wisdom of his peers seriously, and 2) he would not engage with the Athenian jury in the way that he does. He never claims to be the wisest of men, but certainly claims to have a better interest in the polis. This is exhibited clearly when he accuses Meletus of this very charge.
In an attempt to defend himself against the charge of corrupting the youth, Socrates invokes Meletus’ ire by demonstrating that the claims that he cares for his own sons, are in fact counter to what he believes the people of Athens care for one another. He claims that Meletus professes “to be seriously concerned with things about none of which he has ever cared.” (Apology 24c-d.) Socrates further claims to Meletus that:
you have made it sufficiently obvious, Meletus, that you have never had any concern for our youth; you show your indifference clearly; that you have given no thought to the subjects about which you bring me to trial. (Apology 25c.)
This appears to be the final nail in Socrates’ coffin. While the trial goes on, these words appear to be enough to convict Socrates to his eventual sentence. I speculate that Socrates knew in advance that he was going to be sentenced to death. While I do not think that he prepared his defense to this kind of monologue, he certainly went in knowing to exhibit the kind of rhetoric similar to that of Thrasymachus; wolf-like, yet wholeheartedly committed to seeking his own death, seemingly to spite his Athenian peers, if one could attribute they status to the jury.
Before the end of the dialogue, Socrates gives one final piece of evidence to his commitment to death. He exclaims to the Athenian jury: “... whether you acquit me or not, do so on the understanding that this is my course of action, even if I am to face death many times.” (Apology 30c.) The dialogue goes on for several more pages, but his commitment remains clear; at this point, he has accepted his fate.
In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates is dead. This dialogue is merely a recounting of the events from Phaedo (friend of Socrates) to Echecrates. With this in mind, there can already be a kind of mythic status attributed to Socrates. In fact, this can go for most of the Socratic dialogues within this context. In lecture, but most importantly, in mythological history, Socrates can be equated to the mythical figure of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and freer of the people of Minos. In classic Greek myth, Theseus sailed to Crete in order to save the people from the city of Knossos and the mad king. To do this, he must slay the Minotaur and then proceeds to ‘rescue’ the princess from her father.
The Minotaur here plays as an important metaphor. Theseus was sent to Crete by the god Apollo on this quest, slaying the Minotaur then saves the people from ruthless oppression; which of course happens to be that of endless ritual sacrifice, instinctual lust, and drunken misery. The Minotaur can be representative of the city of Athens. Socrates claims himself, that he hath been sent by Apollo to save Athens from itself, from its fear death. In the Athenian prison jail cell Socrates has been confined to, his final hours are meant to be the final act in which he saves the city. During the recounting from Phaedo, Socrates enacts in a project to show how the Athenians have corrupted the Dionysian spirit. He firmly plants his feet on the ground, and engages in poetry.
Through this engagement, his peers are baffled. How could he attribute this characteristic to himself when he has historically been opposed to it? However, it proves to be effective when inciting the meanderings of the jail guard. The guard questions Socrates’ motives as to why he would prolong his pain and eventual death. If we are in fact, to view Socrates as a tragic figure, should not he be willing to die soon? Socrates his doing two things: 1) he again, like countless times before, shows his commitment to philosophíā, his love for wisdom; as well as the examined life. And 2) his commitment to death; he embraces it. This is symbolized not only in his continued inquiry illustrated in this dialogue, but specifically in the planting of his feet to the ground.
His bare feet, firmly planted, show his ultimate connection to the earth. This is one of the more important symbols in the dialogue. If a man like Socrates, be dedicated to death as he exhibits as he so clearly manifests, then one must view the body and soul separate, but intimately entwined. For Socrates, the soul is eternal and everlasting, but not undying; this is an important distinction. As described by not only Socrates, but also Aristotle, where there is life, there also exists a soul; souls only inhabit living bodies. When the body dies, it does not just leave, but continues into infinity. Perhaps the soul returns to the unmoved mover, as Aristotle might suggest, but it most certainly does not stay with the body. Life hinges on this definitional claim. Because of this belief, held by Socrates, he affirms his relationship with death and the ever after.
This connection, not only shows his commitment, but it also reveals his last Dionysian grasp to the body and bodily pleasure. It's a kind of a last ditch effort. While at the ripe old age of nearly 70 years, even Socrates fosters a marriage and young child within his life. As truly an Apollonian figure that he was, he still understood the importance of the Dionysian lifestyle. Any examined life, if understood in the context of the Socratic method, will come to the realization that a balance must be struck between the two.
At the end of his life, when Socrates finally drinks the poison, he fulfills the culmination of all of these ideas. The best lenses to view this from is that of tragedy. As important as tragedy was to the ancient Greeks, it was none more important than that of Socrates. When he view him in historical context, the mythic must accompany him, in order for us to understand the whole image. There are many things that we have learned from his dialogues, but why I think we must take away, is that his death signaled not only the emergence of true, western philosophy, but also the death of tragedy. As much as philosophers attempt to exhibit the Socratic standard, none of us have truly lived the same life that Socrates did.