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.