Victor Nuovo: Death and immortality


5th in a series

Plato’s dialogues “Crito” and “Phaedo” are sequels to the “Apology.” The scene of both is Socrates’ prison cell, where he was confined following his trial before the Athenian Council, which found him guilty of impiety and sentenced him to death.

Socrates received the sentence philosophically. He would make no appeal. He was old and would soon die in any case. He did not fear death.

He imagined that death is one of two things: Either it is extinction, or the release of the soul from the body and its migration to another place. He compared the former to dreamless sleep, which is the most restful sleep of all; the latter would be like joining the community of the dead, there would be opportunity for conversation and much to talk about. There was nothing to fear.

Crito was a wealthy Athenian, an old friend, of the same age as Socrates. In “Crito,” he proposes that Socrates escape from prison and go into exile. He scolded Socrates; he had a responsibility to his wife and two sons. Also, he worried that Athenian public opinion would blame him and Socrates’ other friends for not helping him escape. Escape would not be difficult. Crito had already bribed the jailor, who allowed Socrates’ friends to visit him in prison.

Socrates refused. He would not leave Athens, indeed he must not. If he were to escape from prison he would become an outlaw. He loved Athens and respected its constitution and laws. He could never act against them.

Besides, escape would be an act of retaliation against those who condemned him, returning evil for evil, and retaliation is wrong, as wrong as the act that provoked it.

Finally, his conscience forbid it, and he could not betray his conscience.

“Crito” is the shortest of the Socratic dialogues; it is a paean to the rule of law, the dictates of conscience, and the moral self: such things from which Socrates derived the meaning of his existence.

The “Phaedo” comes last in this trinity of dialogues. Socrates’ friends have gathered in his cell on the day of execution. The narrator is Phaedo, a follower of Socrates and himself a philosopher. He describes the mood of the friends; some of them are so overcome by emotion that they cannot restrain their sobbing.

In contrast to his friends, Socrates is composed, serene, even cheerful. To comfort them, he explains that the philosopher has no reason to fear death, for, if death is the separation of the soul from the body, then philosophy is a preparation for death. This is not to suggest that Socrates had a death wish; rather he was persuaded that the life of the mind does not end with the death of the body, for the mind is seated in the soul, and there is reason to believe that the soul is immortal.

Socrates proceeds to make the case for immortality. To begin with, there is evidence that body and soul are separate entities, for although it is evident that after death the body decomposes, there is reason to believe that the soul lives on. Consider human knowledge. It consists of ideas, which only the mind perceives. Likewise, rational thought, which involves putting ideas together, is an activity that proceeds independent of the body. Indeed, more often than not, the body, and its cognitive power, sensation, is often a hindrance to cognition. We clarify our ideas by abstracting them from their sensible qualities, which is to say, we think abstractly, and abstract thinking is a pure activity of the mind. Which leads Socrates to conclude that philosophical thinking, whose goal is truth, whose possession is knowledge, is just that: the separation of the soul from the body. So the philosophers should not fear death. And if death is not to be feared, that is because it promises something more, the liberation of the mind to be free to think pure thoughts, which are by nature timeless.

Socrates offers other evidence to support this conclusion, for example, that the coming to be of things are from their opposite state: for example, sound from silence, presence from absence, existence from nonexistence, so why not life from death?

Yet on examination, the evidence seems inconclusive. Socrates’ friends are doubtful, and Socrates admits that their doubts are creditable. And this may have been Plato’s intention, when he wrote the dialogue. Philosophy, after all consists of searches after truth, not the dogmatic assertion of facsimiles of truth. The love of truth and the desire to possess it may not be proof of immortality. Still he gives reason to hope for it, for the life of the mind leads us into a timeless realm whose scope is infinite. This, I believe, is the best that we can hope for after reading Plato’s “Phaedo” and pondering its message.

And there is Socrates’ example to us: He teaches us how to die, serenely, for if death is not the door to immortality, then it is like dreamless sleep. There is nothing to fear if one’s conscience is clear.

“Phaedo” concludes: The jailor brings him a goblet with the deadly potion, he drinks it down and dies. The death scene evokes deep emotion.

Postscript: Plato provides the best introduction to Socrates in his dialogues. The three I’ve written about, “Apology,” “Crito” and “Phaedo” are available in English translation in “The Last Days of Socrates,” published by Penguin in an inexpensive paperback. The volume also includes Plato’s “Euthyphro,” which is a prelude to Socrates’ trial, and which provides an easy to follow example of Socrates’ method of philosophizing. Study of these works will prove the relevance of the life and teaching of Socrates to our current crises: a pandemic, and the moral and political crisis this nation faces. Death, gross immorality, and the denial of truth threaten our life, and our civilization. Becoming Socratic may be our remedy.

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