The Greek philosopher Plato describes the remarkable story of the death of his teacher the famed philosopher Socrates. Socrates explained to his students why he was unafraid of dying. His view will give many people comfort.
The death of Socrates
The philosopher Plato, born in 427 BCE narrates the trial and death of his 70-year-old teacher Socrates in 399 BCE in Athens, Greece in four of his dialogues. Socrates was accused of impiety and of corrupting the youth. The consensus among today’s historians and scholars is that Socrates was innocent of the charges against him. However, the citizens of Athens felt differently during his time. Socrates was found guilty, was imprisoned, was able to meet with and talk with his friends before his death. He died by drinking hemlock given to him by his executioner.
Plato presents Socrates’ defense of himself, which is quite persuasive. We will focus on one item: Socrates’ reactions to his impending death. It is one of several early discussions about death.
The Apology reports Socrates thought about life after death and Phaedo quotes his last words. Both show his courage and fine character.
In The Apology, Socrates’ friends are surprised that he is taking his impending death so calmly. One friend asks him what he thinks happens to people after their death. Socrates admits that he does not know but sees two possibilities: either there is no afterworld or there is one. If there is no afterworld, there is nothing to worry about. Death will be like a dreamless sleep. Even the riches people on earth, who have all kinds of possessions and enjoy all kinds of activities and pleasures, delight in an undisturbed sleep. If, on the other hand, there is an afterlife, there is again no concern. The dead will enjoy meeting acquaintances and heroes of old; it will be a truly enjoyable and learning experience. Understanding this, he explained, he had no need to fear death; on the contrary, either way, there will be nothing bad after death.
Phaedo shows that Socrates did not change his mood or mind. He drinks the hemlock and dies slowly, very calm, very accepting. He feels that he has lived a good life and is satisfied. As Socrates is about to die, this man who had been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and of being impious, turns to his friend Crito and says, “Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” These were his last words.
Phaedo end with a lamenting, but congratulatory comment by the person narrating the story, “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.”