Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 here)
Socrates’s Flight to the Logoi
Socrates literally calls his second-best method his “second sailing,” which is an allusion to a comment made earlier by Simmias:
I believe, as perhaps you do, that precise knowledge on that subject [the immortality of the soul] is impossible or extremely difficult in our present life, but that it surely shows a very poor spirit not to examine thoroughly what is said about it, and to desist before one is exhausted by an all-round investigation. One should achieve one of these things: learn the truth about these things or find it for oneself, or, if that is impossible, adopt the best and most irrefutable of men’s theories [anthropinon logon, human logos] and, borne upon this, sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine [logou theiou, divine logos]. (85c–d)
For Simmias, the best thing is to know the truth. The truth is a safe and firm vessel, a divine logos. But some truths — for instance whether or not the soul is immortal — are hard to know because they fall outside the realm of experience.
Shouldn’t one just dismiss questions about things that lie outside ones’ experience? One can’t, because some of these things are of vital importance to how we lead our lives in this world — as in, for example, the question of the nature and immortality of the soul. While we are alive, we can’t know what lies on the other side of death. Yet, what we think about that has enormous implications for how we lead our lives here. As Socrates says after offering his final argument for immortality:
It is right to think then, gentlemen, that if the soul is immortal it requires our care not only for the time we call our life but for the sake of all time and that one is in terrible danger if one does not give it that care. If death were an escape for everything, it would be a great boon for the wicked to get rid of the body and their wickedness together with their soul, but now that the soul appears to be immortal there is no escape from evil or salvation for it except for becoming as good and wise as possible, for the soul goes to the underworld possessing nothing but its education and upbringing which are said to bring the greatest benefit or harm to the dead right at the beginning of the journey yonder. (107c–d)
If we think that the soul is mortal, then death is the end, and we should plan only for one life. If we think the soul is immortal, then we have to plan for the afterlife as well. Thus human immortality is not just an academic question. We need to answer it, and if we can’t answer it with a divine logos (which presupposes experience we don’t have in this world), we need a second-best answer, a human logos, based on the human condition. Simmias likens human logos to a risky, makeshift raft to help us “sail through the dangers of life.”
What is this “second-best” method? Simmias says that it is to “adopt the best and most irrefutable of men’s logoi,” knowing that these fall short of divine knowledge. Socrates says something similar:
. . . when I had wearied of investigating things, I thought that I must be careful to avoid the experience of those who watch an eclipse of the sun, for some of them ruin their eyes unless they watch its reflection in water or some such material. A similar thought crossed my mind, and I feared that my soul would be altogether blinded if I looked at things with my eyes and tried to grasp them with each of my senses. So I thought I must take refuge in discussions [logous] and investigate the truth of things by means of them. (99d–e)
This passage is known in the literature as Socrates’ “flight to the logoi,” the plural of “logos.” Logos can be translated very broadly as discussion or speech. It can also be more narrowly construed as argument, theory, or account.
When Socrates refers to “investigating things,” he is talking about his phase as a natural philosopher. He identifies natural philosophy as trying to “look” at things with one’s eyes and “grasp” them with each of the senses. This seems like a sound method. The trouble with natural philosophy, however, is not what it learns from the senses, but what it unlearns before learning from the senses.
The early Greek natural philosophers began by stepping outside of society into nature. They had a very specific idea of the truth they were seeking. They conceived the truth about nature as objective, thus they tried to shake off anything subjective — anything connected with the human point of view. For instance, myths project human categories onto the universe to understand it. The truth about nature would also be one principle that could explain many phenomena. Beyond that, the truth they sought was an unchanging principle that could explain the ceaseless change of nature. Finally, the truth about nature was theoretical. It did not need to justify itself by practical applications.
From this point of view, the human realm seemed contemptible: rife with subjectivism; rotted with plurality, contingency, and change; enthralled and stultified by the merely practical.
Ordinary people tread on the earth. The natural philosophers sought to “tread on the air,” as Aristophanes put it, in order to “contemplate the sun.” This is why Socrates is floating in a basket when he is first introduced in the Clouds.
This is the “blindness” of the “soul” that follows from relying exclusively on the eyes. Recall that earlier, Socrates said that natural philosophy “made me quite blind even to those things which I and others thought that I clearly knew before, so that I unlearned what I thought I knew before, about many other things and specifically about how men grew.”
Again, the problem with natural philosophy is not that it appeals to the evidence of the senses. The problem is that it discards all other forms of knowledge that came before it: myth, opinion, custom, convention, practical skills — in short: the common sense that reflects the human condition.
This is important to grasp, because it implies that the way to correct the shortcomings of natural philosophy is not to close one’s eyes to the world of nature, but instead to reopen one’s eyes to the human condition.
It is also important to note that both Simmias and Socrates are willing to reject strong knowledge claims about the nature of the soul and universal teleology precisely because these claims go far beyond the evidence of the senses. If Simmias and Socrates were natural philosophers, who discard the resources of the human condition, they would have to stop there. But Simmias and Socrates have powerful practical reasons not to give up. Thus they avail themselves of a second-best method, which involves “logoi.”
Let’s see what this entails. Socrates continues:
. . . I started in this manner: taking as my hypothesis [hypothemenos] in each case the theory [logon] that seemed to me the most compelling, I would consider as true, about cause and everything else, whatever agreed with this, and as untrue whatever did not so agree. . . . It is nothing new, but what I have never stopped talking about, both elsewhere and in the earlier part of our conversation. I am going to try to show you the kind of cause with which I have concerned myself. I turn back to those oft-mentioned things and proceed from them. I assume the existence of a Beautiful, itself by itself, of a Good and a Great and all the rest. If you grant me these and agree that they exist, I hope to show you the cause as a result, and to find the soul to be immortal. (100b)
Socrates begins with different theories (logoi). A theory is true if it corresponds with reality. But we can’t know if a theory corresponds with reality if we can’t experience what the theory is about, for example life after death or universal teleology. Thus, Socrates ranks the different theories not in terms of truth, but in terms of how “compelling” they are. Then he treats the most compelling theory as if it is true, as well as whatever agrees with it. In this case, Socrates takes the forms as true, then uses them to argue for the immortality of the soul.
It is very tempting to see this as the first formulation of what has become known as the “hypothetico-deductive” method in the sciences. One observes puzzling phenomena whose causes are hidden. One uses one’s imagination to hypothesize a hidden cause. One then deduces other phenomena that could be observed if the hypothetical cause actually exists. Finally, one looks for empirical verification.
In Socrates’ case, however, he does not deduce testable phenomena. Instead, he argues for the immortality of the soul, which is no more empirically verifiable than the forms.
The Turn to Myth
If we look at the Phaedo as a whole, Socrates’ flight to the logoi is more than just a method of arguing from hypothetical first principles. Logoi can be anything and everything that is said, including received opinions and myths. Recall that at the beginning of the Phaedo, Socrates treats “hearsay” and “myths” about the soul and the afterlife with utmost seriousness.
At the end of the Phaedo, he returns to such myths, weaving both established myths and natural philosophy together into his own comprehensive myth about the afterlife. After summarizing these myths, Socrates says:
No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to venture it, for the venture is a noble one, that this or something like this is true about our souls and their dwelling places since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation, which is why I’ve been prolonging my tale [mython]. That is the reason that a man should be of good cheer about his own soul if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body and its ornamentation as of no concern to him and doing him more harm than good but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning and adorned his soul not with alien but with its own ornaments, namely moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom, and truth and in that state awaits his journey to the underworld. (114d–115a)
Myths are at best likely stories. Thus it would be foolish to insist on their literal truth. Believing in myths is a gamble, because you might be wrong. Socrates also speaks of the immortality of the soul as a magic spell that must be repeated again and again. It is a form of beguilement, quite possibly a form of self-deception. But these too are logoi.
Socrates says that venturing such beliefs is a worthy gamble, a salutary beguilement, because of the consequences. If you believe in an afterlife, particularly one in which you are rewarded for your virtues and punished for your vices, you will lead a better life in this world. And you will have lived well even if death turns out to be a full stop.
The Phaedo is the beginning of a philosophical tradition of using practical rather than theoretical reason to argue for metaphysical convictions. If one wishes to argue that the universe is divinely ordered for the good, that the soul is immortal, and that our deeds in this life will be rewarded or punished in the next world, one must first take stock of one’s resources. If mystical intuition or theoretical reason cannot establish these truths, then maybe there is a second-best method.
This method takes its ideas about the afterlife from many sources, including myth and tradition. It argues that such beliefs have beneficial moral (and political) consequences, and disbelief negative ones. On this basis, it argues that it is reasonable to embrace such beliefs even if they are not strictly justifiable.
Elements of this sort of argument can be found in Pascal’s Pensées, but it is most fully worked out in Rousseau’s Emile, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and William James’ essay “The Will to Believe.” But Socrates inaugurates this tradition in the Phaedo.
This concludes the theoretical portion of the Phaedo. The rest is devoted to action: the death of Socrates.
The Death of Socrates
Every death is today described as a tragedy, no matter how trivial the person or farcical his end may be. Thus we find it quite unsettling that Plato presents the death of Socrates as more comic than tragic. Not every drama can be categorized as either comedy or tragedy. Even the ancient Greeks had a third category: the satyr play. It should therefore be no surprise that the Phaedo contains a mixture of tragic and comic elements: tears and laughter. But the amount of levity is surprising. Socrates’ friends expected his death to be a bitter experience. But thanks to Socrates, it was bittersweet.
The bittersweet quality of Socrates’ death is made clear by our narrator, Phaedo, near the dialogue’s start:
I certainly found being there a wondrous [thaumásia] experience. Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity [eleos], for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and fearlessly [adeos] . . . so that it struck me that even in going down to the underworld, he was going with the gods’ blessing and that he would fare well when he got there, if anyone ever does. That is why I had no feeling of pity, such as would seem natural in my sorrow, nor indeed of pleasure [hedone], as we engaged in philosophical discussion as we were accustomed to do — for our arguments were of that sort — but I had a strange feeling [pathos], an unaccustomed mixture of pleasure and pain at the same time as I reflected that he was just about to die. All of us present were affected in much the same way, sometimes laughing, then weeping . . . (58d–59a)
Phaedo found the death of Socrates a “wondrous” (thaumasia) experience. According to Socrates, philosophy begins with “wonder” (thaumazein) (Theaetetus 155d). Socrates’ death is thus a spur to philosophical reflection.
Aristotle famously observed that tragedy causes spectators to feel both pity and fear. Phaedo’s lack of pity signifies a lack of tragedy. So does Socrates’ fearlessness.
Phaedo is sad, of course, but he is primarily sad for himself. He is losing Socrates. But Socrates does not feel fear or pain, so neither does Phaedo by empathy.
Phaedo usually felt unalloyed pleasure when talking about philosophy, but now his pleasure was mixed with pain. A bit later, Socrates remarks on the connection between pleasure and pain after he is released from his chains (60b).
Let’s return to the end of the dialogue. After completing his discussion of the afterlife, Socrates says, “. . . my fated day calls me now, as a tragic character might say.” This nod to tragedy, however, is immediately canceled by a sardonic and detached remark: “. . . it is about time for me to have my bath, for I think it better to have it before I drink the poison and save the women the trouble of washing the corpse” (115a).
Then Crito asks Socrates for his instructions to his children and friends. Here Socrates makes a rather striking distinction between theory and practice, asserting the primacy of practice over theory. Socrates says it does not matter whether his friends agree with what he has just said about the soul and the afterlife, as long as “you take care of your own selves in whatever you do.” Then he adds that even if they agree with him intellectually, it will not matter if they do not practice care of the soul (115b–c).
When Crito asked Socrates how he wanted his body to be disposed of, Socrates “laughed quietly” and told Crito to “be of good cheer,” because Socrates is not his corpse, so his friends can dispose of it however they please.
After his bath, Socrates bid farewell to his wife and children. His mistress Myrto, with whom he had his last two children, was probably among the women present as well. It was close to sunset when he returned to his friends. After speaking kind words to his jailer, Socrates said, “Let someone bring the poison [pharmakon] if it is ready . . .” (116d). The Greek word pharmakon is more neutrally translated, “drug.” Most drugs can cure or kill, for the poison is in the dose.
Crito, however, urges delay. The Sun has not yet set, and other prisoners delay well after sundown with meals and farewells. Socrates, however, refuses:
It is natural, Crito, for them to do so . . . for they think they derive some benefit from doing this. But it is not fitting for me. I do not expect any benefit from drinking the poison a little later, except to become ridiculous in my own eyes for clinging to life and being sparing of it when none is left. (116e–117a)
I think one reason modern people are so frustrated and perplexed by Socrates’ choice to remain and suffer execution is that we tend to think that life is unconditionally good. If life is always good, there’s never a good time to die. We cling to life as long as possible, whereas the ancient Greeks accepted the inevitability of death and thus were more concerned to have a good death, a noble death. Socrates in particular did not think that life is unconditionally good. Only a good life is good.
For Socrates, the good life hinges on wisdom. The unexamined life is not worth living. Well, you can’t pursue wisdom if you are dead. So why did Socrates not draw out his life for the sake of philosophy? There is a sense in which philosophy is an “infinite task,” to use the words of Edmund Husserl. But it cannot be an infinite task for each individual philosopher. There is a Latin epigram that ultimately derives from Hippocrates: “ars longa, vita brevis” (“Art takes time; life is short.”) Philosophy is only an infinite task for the philosophical tradition, which passes the torch from generation to generation. Beyond that, wisdom is not endlessly deferred. One picks it up along the way. And human beings learned a long time ago that death is inevitable; thus, our only choice is to die in a dignified or an undignified manner. Obviously, the wise man chooses to die with dignity.
Socrates was 70, which was a good lifespan in his time. Chances are that he did not have much time ahead of him, no matter what happened. So just as he was not going to make himself look silly by grasping for a few extra minutes, he was not willing to abandon home, friends, and family for a few extra months or years.
Philosophy is a transpolitical activity, hence Plato carefully names the number of foreigners who were present at Socrates’ death. He could have prolonged the activity of philosophy in their company in many other cities in Greece. But Socrates as a whole was not a transpolitical being. He had roots. He had thumotic connections with particular persons and places. These roots were very much connected to his body, which as long as he lived, was very much part of him.
I have no doubt, however, that if Socrates had been a much younger man facing the same charges, he first would have taken pains to prevent the case from coming to trial. Barring that, he would have spoken more persuasively in court, hoping for an acquittal. And barring that, he would have left Athens readily if condemned to die.
In short, I accept Xenophon’s claim in his own Apology of Socrates that we cannot understand Socrates’ behavior before, during, and after the trial without knowing that Socrates had decided it was time for him to die. Then why not just slink off and commit suicide? Obviously, Socrates relished the drama. He wanted to go out in style, in a way that could secure his place in history. In that, he succeeded wildly well.
And now we come to the end:
. . . Crito nodded to the slave who was standing near him. The slave went out and after a time came back with the man who was to administer the poison, carrying it made ready in a cup. When Socrates saw him, he said, “Well, my good man, you are an expert in this. What must one do?” “Just drink it and walk around until your legs feel heavy and then lie down, and it will act of itself.” And he offered the cup to Socrates, who took it quite cheerfully without a tremor or any change of feature or color but looked at the man from under his eyebrows as was his wont and asked, “What do you say about pouring a libation from this drink? Is it allowed?” (117a–b)
A libation is a sacrifice. One pours out a portion of one’s drink as an offering to the gods. This is genuinely funny, because pouring out one’s wine is a sacrifice for oneself and an honor to the gods, but pouring out poison is no sacrifice to Socrates and no honor to the gods. It looks like a pious gesture, but in substance it is just the opposite. Of course, impiety is why Socrates is there in the first place. We know this is meant jokingly, though, because Socrates has pointedly rejected prolonging the inevitable.
“We only mix as much as we believe will suffice,” said the man [who apparently didn’t think there was anything funny there].
“I understand,” Socrates said, “but one is allowed, indeed one must, utter a prayer to the gods that the journey from here to yonder may be fortunate. This is my prayer and may it be so.”
And while he was saying this, he was holding the cup and then drained it calmly and easily. Most of us had been holding back our tears reasonably well up until then, but when we saw him drinking it and after he drank it, we could not hold them back any longer. My own tears came in floods against my will, so I covered my face. I was weeping for myself, not for him, for my misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade. Even before me, Crito was unable to restrain his tears and got up. Apollodorus had not ceased from weeping before, and at this moment his noisy tears and anger made everybody present break down except Socrates. (117b–d)
It is important to note that Phaedo says he is crying for himself, not for Socrates. He is crying for himself because he is losing Socrates. But he is not crying for Socrates, out of empathy, because Socrates is not in emotional distress.
“What is this,” [Socrates] said, “you wondrous fellows [thaumasioi]? It is mainly for this reason that I sent the women away to avoid such unseemliness, for I am told one should die in good-omened silence, so keep quiet and control yourselves!”
His words made us ashamed, and we checked our tears. (117d–e)
There are two very important ideas in this passage.
First, when Socrates refers to his friends as “wondrous fellows,” the word for wondrous is a version of the word for the wonder (thaumazein) that Socrates says is the beginning of philosophy. Socrates, at the very end, has not lost his capacity for wonder. Beyond that, although his philosophical career began with wonder at the cosmos, at the end, he is experiencing wonder at his fellow men.
Second, in accordance with his earlier definition of philosophy as preparation for death, Socrates is teaching his friends how to die: “in good-omened silence,” not tears. First and foremost, he is teaching by example. But when they do not follow his example, he shames them into controlling themselves. And it works. “His words made us ashamed, and we checked our tears.” This is said about Socrates in the Symposium, too. Alcibiades said, “The only person in the world who ever made me feel ashamed was Socrates.” The capacity to evoke feelings of shame is a very important dimension of moral education. If you can’t feel shame for anything, then you’re morally dead.
[Socrates] walked around, and when he said his legs were heavy, he lay on his back as he was told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressing hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said, “No.” Then he pressed his calves and he made his way up his body and showed us that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself, and he said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone. As his belly was getting cold, Socrates then covered his head. He had covered it and said these were his last words, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Make this offering to him and do not forget it.” “It shall be done,” said Crito. “Tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards, Socrates made a movement. The man uncovered him, and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes.
Such was the end of our comrade Socrates, a man who we would say was of all those we had known the best and also the wisest and the most upright. (117e–118a)
To give a cock to Asclepius is to sacrifice a rooster to the god of healing in order to recover. Nietzsche says this is just an expression of Socrates’ poisonous pessimism and hatred of life. Life is a disease, and now he’s being cured of it, and so he wants to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius for the cure to life, which is death.
I think Nietzsche’s interpretation is a lot of nonsense. Socrates is about to die, and he says what is equivalent to, “Quick, call an ambulance!” It’s a little bit of lightheartedness, some gallows humor. His last words were a joke.
It reminds me of St. Lawrence, who was being grilled alive by the Romans, and at one point he called out, “Turn me over! I’m done on this side!” Such bravado is quite impressive and bucks up the morale of those left behind.
How did Socrates face death with such aplomb? Death is fearsome. Courage helps us overcome fear and retain self-control, emotional detachment, and dignity in the face of death. Good humor is a sign that one’s courage has held and that one has mastered the situation.
Was Socrates courageous because he believed in the immortality of the soul and the moral order of the universe? I think Socrates did indeed believe in these things, and they certainly didn’t hurt him. But he also emphasizes that one can cultivate virtues like courage even if one disagrees with him about metaphysical matters. Beyond that, Socrates was renowned for courage in battle and self-control throughout his life, perhaps long before he developed the ideas in the Phaedo.
Ultimately, I think Socrates’ secret is simply that he did not value life as such, but only a good life. Part of a good life is dignity in the face of the inevitable, like death.
But we don’t really need to understand Socrates’ reasons in order to follow his example. In the Apology, Socrates mentions the Homeric heroes who faced death bravely. Socrates may have learned courage simply by imitating examples of heroism, and he can teach by example as well.
This is the genius of the Platonic dialogues, which do not merely rehearse abstract arguments but also memorably depict individual characters and concrete deeds. Socrates does not teach us how to die simply with arguments. He also teaches by example.
We will all face death someday, and when we do, I doubt any of us will recall a single one of Socrates’ arguments. But maybe his example will see us through.
* * *
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