Socrates opposed the Sophists, arguing that there are absolute, transcultural standards of right and wrong, good and bad. He argued (as in the first passage below) that once we recognize what is truly good, we will act in accord with that knowledge–hence his claim that “the virtues are a kind of knowledge.” He also firmly believed (as shown in the second passage) that the cosmos is grounded in goodness, hence that a good person cannot suffer unduly and that death is not something to be feared. Plato recounts the last hours of Socrates’ life in a moving dialogue. This is the end of his final speech, just after he had been condemned to death by the citizens of Athens, his home town. The method of execution was that the condemned should drink a cup of hemlock, a not uncommon mode of execution.
What reasons does Socrates give for not fearing death? Why is Socrates so little concerned with how his body is to be buried?
Now as you see there has come upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition . . . I regard this as a proof that what has happened to me is a good, and that those of use who think that death is an evil are in error . . . . Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things:–either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. . . . Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is a journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? . . . What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again. . . . Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not. . . . The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways–I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.
The Death of Socrates, from Plato’s Phaedo
Then he turned to us, and added with a smile: “I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who has been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body–and he asks, How shall he bury me? And though I have spoken many words in the endeavor to show that when I have drunk the poison I shall leave you and go to the joys of the blessed–these words of mine, with which I was comforting you and myself, have had, as I perceive, no effect upon Crito. And therefore I want you to be surety for me to him how, as at the trial he was surety to the judges for me: but let the promise be of another sort; for he was surety for me to the judges that I would remain, and you must be my surety to him that I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. Be of good cheer then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.”
When he had spoken these words, he arose and went into a chamber to bathe; Crito followed him and told us to wait. So we remained behind, talking and thinking of the subject of discourse, and also of the greatness of our sorrow; he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans. When he had taken the bath his children were brought to him (he had two young sons and an elder one); and the women of his family also came, and he talked to them and gave them a few directions in the presence of Crito; then he dismissed them and returned to us.
Now the hour of sunset was near, for a good deal of time had passed while he was within. When he came out, he sat down with us again after his bath, but not much was said. Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the eleven, entered and stood by him, saying: “To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me, when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison–indeed, I am sure that you will not be angry with me; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are to blame. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be–you know my errand.” Then bursting into tears he turned away and went out.
Socrates looked at him and said: “I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid.” Then turning to us, he said, “How charming the man is: since I have been in prison he has always been coming to see me, and at times he would talk to me, and was as good to me as could be, and now see how generously he sorrows on my account. We must do as he says, Crito; and therefore let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared; if not, let the attendant prepare some.”
“Yet,” said Crito, “the sun is still upon the hilltops, and I know that many a one has taken the draught late, and after the announcement has been made to him, he has eaten and drunk, and enjoyed the society of his beloved; do not hurry–there is time enough.”
Socrates said: “Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in so acting, for they think that they will be gainers by the delay; But I am right in not following their example, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.”
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: “You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.”
The man answered: “you have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.”
At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, . . . as his manner was, took the cup and said: “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?”
The man answered: “We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough.”
“I understand,” he said; “but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world–even so–and so be it according to my prayer.
Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could not longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all.
Socrates alone retained his calmness: “What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience.”
When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, “No;” and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: “When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.”
He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said–they were his last words–he said: “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; (1) will you remember to pay the debt?
“The debt shall be paid,” said Crito; “is there anything else?”
There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end . . . of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
Translated by Banjamin Jowett (1892)
(1) The god of health and medicine.
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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Michael Blair, Douglas Hughes, Paul Brians
Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.