Wednesday, April 19, 2023

What has happened to me may well be a good thing - the death of Socrates

Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, the extended version of the death of Socrates.  These texts, especially the last three, are a large part of the fame of Socrates, the reason he is an exemplar of the wise man to this day.  He asked annoying questions, he rejected material goods, but most importantly he died well, in the name of justice.  Almost no one, really, will read Plato’s or Xenophon’s writings in his name, but we have a sense, picked up from who knows where, of Socrates as a man.  He is a Western culture hero.

Euthyphro is a typical early dialogue, a friendly investigation of the definition of piety.  As usual,  no answer is satisfactory.  But in the frame of the dialogue, Socrates is on his way to defend himself in court, where he is accused of, among other things, impiety.  So there is a horrible irony this time.  The discussion is not just for the pleasure of philosophizing but is a matter of life and death for Socrates.

The non-apologetic Apology is some kind of masterpiece.  Who knows, it may well be close to Socrates’s actual defense, transcribed by Plato, who was in attendance.  Or maybe not.  Whether fiction or truth, Apology is the strongest presentation of Socrates as a personality, spikey and arrogant but then modest and generous.  Now that I am reading the more dogmatic The Republic, I miss this Socrates.

I suppose he should not have insulted the jury at that one point.  Much of the discussion in Xenophon’s Apology is about just this issue.  But Socrates appears to truly believe that his death does not matter much.

What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken.  (40b)

Crito and Phaedo both continue this strain.  Crito is the attempt by Socrates’s friends to convince him to flee Athens, which turns into a discussion of justice, while the more complex Phaedo attempts to demonstrate the immortality of the soul.  The latter involves a long discussion of the Forms.  My edition of these texts is the one I used in Western Civilization I over thirty years ago, and I see that I recorded which pages were actually assigned: all of Apology and Crito (fundamental Western works) and Phaedo except for the discussion of the Forms.

But we rejoined Phaedo for the magnificent last four pages:

Those who are deemed to have lived and extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison; they make their way up to a pure dwelling place and live on the surface of the earth.  Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body; they make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which it is hard to describe clearly, nor do we have time to do so.  Because of the things we have enunciated, Simmias, one must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great. (114c)

Then Socrates make his preparations, drinks the hemlock, and dies surrounded by his friends.

I do not expect much pathos from philosophy, but these are unusual texts.

Finally, I have caught up with my supposed readalong.  In April I shifted from Socrates as himself to Socrates as a mouthpiece for Plato, especially as seen in the aggravating masterpiece The Republic, which I hope to write about in a couple of weeks.


  1. I read Plato's "The Republic" last year, so since I agree with your description of "aggravating" I will give it a miss, but will, of course be interested in your comment. I will rejoin you in May for your read of Aristotle -'s "The Nicomachean Ethics". I'm away until Tuesday, but must hunt up my copy next week.

  2. Now that you have some French in your bloodstream, may I suggest Satie's incomparable "Socrate"? His setting of the death scene in Phaedo is particularly memorable.

    (Doug Skinner)

  3. As it happens I am just reading those texts at this moment. You will probably be aware of the revisionist account of Socrates’s trial on the charge of impiety. He was not a democrat and during the time of the oligarchs he may have assisted them or been ambivalent. He was thought to have been so but due to the general amnesty for crimes committed during that time the citizens could not touch him for that so they got up the charge of impiety which on the face of it is ridiculous. In the Crito the reasons for his refusal to flee seem to me to have quite a stateist absolutist tone. As usual his dichotomies are forced and false. Aristotle when he decided to flee Athens said that the city had sinned quite enough against philosophy.

  4. Yes, Clare, see you in early June with Aristotle!

    Doug, thanks for the Satie recommendation. I had no idea.

    Yes, ombhurbhuva, whatever is behind the charges is clearly political and old, revenge for some old slight. I take Socrates's reasoning as psychology more than philosophy, which is, as you say, forced. It would be okay to flee. Xenophon fled, Aristotle fled. The jury seemed to expect Socrates to ask for exile and may well have granted it.

    1. Oh, it's June, thanks, I'd misremembered. That gives me time to read some Adamson.

    2. I found the third of the book on Aristotle hugely helpful.

      His intro class must be something else.

    3. Thanks Tom that is useful. The two volumes arrive today, and the annotated -The Nicomachean Ethics comes tomorrow. I found my old copy, a tiny hardback, but it is fragile an tiny print. At 76 my eyes are good for my age, but small print, less than 12 point, is trying unless very well lit. I can't wait for the delivery man to arrive.

    4. Yes, a decent sized typeface, essential!

  5. The two first volumes of Adamson arrived yesterday and I started reading in the evening. I enjoy his clarity and the books are decently produced by Oxford, although not to the standard of the oldStandard Authors, which lasted lifetimes. My new Nicomachean Ethics arrives today. So I may have a browse to ensure the typeface is OK.