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Socrates on death

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

“What all of us deeply want is not to do something, but to be something.”
A.E. Taylor, Plato – The man and his work

When Socrates’ execution was certain and impending, and after he bid his family farewell, his friends visited him once more expressing their admiration for his calm demeanor during his trial and imprisonment. Their teacher explains to them how a philosopher ought to think about death and why he should not fear it, but consider it an opportunity to finish his work. The incidence is described in Phaedo.

For Socrates, suicide was impermissible. Man belongs to god, and only god has the right to end one’s life or ask one to die. Like when a slave commits suicide without his master’s permission or expressed desire, his master has the right to be irate and, if it was possible, to punish him, “perhaps in this sense it is not irrational that none should kill themselves before god expresses a need for it, like in my case”[1]62c.

So, even though Socrates does not desire death, he welcomes it when the gods send it. Because he is their property, because they will take care of him after dying and because through his soul’s withdrawal from his body it will escape its carnal imprisonment, something not only one shouldn’t disdain or perceive to be undesirable, but is a great accomplishment for the philosopher, and a crowning of his efforts. “The others might not realize that for those who engage with philosophy in the right manner, their only care is to die and being dead”[1]64a.[1] The philosopher’s goal, says Socrates, is the soul’s ridding of the body.

Ο Σωκράτης (ίσως) στο Αρχαιολογικό Μουσείο Δελφών
Socrates (perhaps) in the Delphi Archeological Museum (photo)

To bother with desires, like food, drinking, sex and other cares of the body, are not features of the philosopher. He must unbind the soul from communicating with the body, as much as possible. The body is a hindrance if someone includes it in his search for prudence. When the soul attempts to examine something through the body, it deceives the soul. “Doesn’t the philosopher’s soul neglect the body completely, doesn’t it avoid it, doesn’t it desire to be left alone with itself?”[1]65c-d. Only in reasoning does it see clearly, “when none of these things distract it, neither hearing nor sight nor pleasure nor desire, but on the contrary when it is left alone with itself, without taking the body into account and, to the degree that is possible, without communicating and coming in contact with the body”[1]65c.

Only he who will be prepared to the highest degree and with the greatest precision to reflect on whatever it is he wants to examine, will be able to get closer to really knowing it. But how will he achieve this when the needs of the body distract and deter him? “Our body creates thousands of annoying pursuits with the need for food. Moreover, if some sickness finds us, it raises barriers in our pursuit of being. We are flooded with romances, desires, fears, illusions of all sorts and foolish babbling, that indeed, and this is really true, because of it not a single right thought comes to us. Because even wars, revolutions and battles are not created but for the body and its desires”[1]66b-c. This detachment of the soul from the body, familiarizing the soul to rise from it and live alone with itself after slipping its leash, is the catharsis[2], the final goal of the philosopher. This catharsis, in its absolute form, coincides with (the body’s) death. So, the culmination of the philosophical life, which comes through death, is not a catastrophe but an achievement. The philosopher’s goal is for death to be an apogee, not merely life’s end.

So, it would be ridiculous for someone who throughout his life tried to simulate death, to fret and fear it when the actual death approached him. And it would be unreasonable to not go happily where his hopes of reaching what he desired would be realized, and where he would purge himself, once and for all, of that which chained him and which he detested, the body. A.E. Taylor observes that later, Christian mystics too, like Socrates, considered the life of inner stare, rather than that of action, to be excellent. However, this catharsis of Socrates’ does not only involve passive self-restraint, but looks to the embellishment of practical life, since through the catharsis the intellect becomes more focused and intense, and perceives reality more clearly[3].

Από έκδοση του «World's Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan
Από έκδοση του «World’s Famous Orations Vol. 1» του William Jennings Bryan (photo)

Moderation (or sophrosyne), to not be taken away by desires, fits those who have the highest neglect for the body and live in philosophy. The sophrosyne of others, those who live the unexamined life, looks irrational. Because they are moderate only out of fear of being denied a future pleasure; only for this reason do they abstain from a pleasure in the present. “They have become self-restrained because of another kind of self-indulgence”[1]68e. Most of those we call courageous consider death to be one of the greater evils. Those who defy death, when they defy it, they do it out of fear for other, greater, evils. So they are courageous out of fear. But that is also irrational. So these self-restraint men and these courageous men exchange pleasure with pleasure and fears with other fears, like coins are exchanged with one another. But the correct coin is one, prudence (a virtue). It is with this coin that everything must be exchanged; and it is with this coin that courage, moderation and justice must be bought and sold. When these virtues are separated from prudence and substitute one another, virtue becomes a delusion, and something slavish without anything healthy and true. It is catharsis that’s truthfully virtuous.

But here, it is Socrates that is being irrational, as his thinking reaches a paradox. Because the only thing that seems to give him the courage to face death, is the hope that man continues to live even after the body’s demise. Socrates seems to believe that after he dies, he will depart to “another place”, where all the other dead men are, and where he’ll find Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus. There, he will continue to do what he did in Athens; talk to others and examine who is truly wise and who only think he is (“what would be better than this, Athenian judges?…For my part, I would like to die many times if all this is true”[2]41a). “If I did not imagine going to meet other gods, wise and good, and also men who have died and are better than those here, I would be wrong to not grieve death”[1]63b.[4]

Socrates exchanges death with death. He exchanges the final and unknown death –the one that all of us are faced with and called to confront- with the death of only the body, from which the soul escapes. But the soul, for Socrates, is the self. So when he talks about his soul travelling in “another place” he means surviving his own death. And when he goes to that place, all he wants to do is what he was doing while alive, with the same mind, the same memories and the same habits (“wouldn’t all this be untold happiness?”[2]41c). So he expects to remain alive, but instead of being here, be there.

Σωκράτης, στους Εθνικούς Βοτανικούς Κήπους, Glasnevin, Δουβλίνο, Ιρλανδία
Socrates at the Glasnevin National Botanical Gardens of Dyblin, Ireland (photo)

How could we say for someone that he doesn’t fear death, when he doesn’t believe he’s going to die? How can we talk about death if we take it as a given that the soul lives on after death? What is virtuous or courageous about him waiting for his execution calmly, only because he believes he won’t die? If there’s anything particularly wrong with death, it is neither the detachment from fortunes and bodily pleasures (these are fleeting anyway) nor the loss of vitality (that one leaves us with the passing of age) nor the loss of love (love can wither on its own). What is bad, and fearful, is its permanent nature, the fact that it cannot be undone. If it was not permanent and final, if we could be resurrected in our living form and return to our earthly ways or even as pure thought without the annoyances of the body and the needs it brings us, and even more so if we were transferred to an ideal “other place”, what would be there to fear or be courageous against? The only thing left would be to convince ourselves that indeed this is the case, which is what Socrates tries to prove for the remainder of the dialogue. So, he doesn’t exchange fear with virtue (as he should according to him), but, instead, he refuses to accept he’s actually going to die. This is not courage against death; this is a denial that death will even come.

In the Apology he says that he who fears death does what he considers to be the worst (intellectual) crime. To think he knows what he doesn’t know. What he can’t know. Fear of death, he says, stems from the belief that death is the worst evil, something no one can know for sure. “And isn’t it shameful illiteracy to think one knows what one doesn’t know?”[2]29b.  For Socrates, death is one of two things: Either there happens some kind of “change and migration of the soul from this place to another”[2]40c (as we saw just now), or it is nothingness, and the dead simply doesn’t have any experience of the fact. In this way, death looks like a dreamless sleep, and eternity itself looks like a calm night. Socrates seems satisfied with this eventuality, since even the “greatest king” would have great difficulty deeming the best days of his life happier than one dreamless night. “If death is such a thing, I, at least, think of it as a great benefit”[2]40e.

Antonio Canova (1757-1822) - Socrates and Philosophy
Antonio Canova (1757-1822) – Socrates and Philosophy (photo)

But in Phaedo, he goes on with a third contingency (this inconsistency must be viewed as Plato’s ideas forcing themselves in Socrates’ mouth, since Phaedo is one the intermediate dialogues). The third one is reincarnation[5]. If someone, says Socrates, tends to his body’s needs throughout his life, with little consideration for the soul, his soul will desire unison with the body even after death. This desire might be strong enough to pull it back in the “birthing circle”, and the strength of the desire defines the place where the reborn soul will settle. Gluttons and debauchees will come back as donkeys and beasts, while those who have the common virtue, meaning those who, while having fear or pleasure as a motive, acted as courageous and moderate agents according to the dominant morality, will come back as social beings, such as bees, ants or even humans. Conclusively, the goal is the complete detachment from the birthing circle, which will be achieved only by having lived the philosophical life, and will lead to the deification of the soul, its complete removal from the body and the migration to the “other place”.

Socrates himself doesn’t seem convinced by his own convictions, and at the end of the dialogue, after the soul is shown through a series of axioms and arguments to be immortal, he continues to say that the soul is also incorruptible, without further explanations. There is no need, he says, for any more arguments, as “the gods, I guess, and everything else that is immortal, they all must agree that the soul cannot be lost”[1]106d. And when Simmias, one of the interlocutors, expresses doubt on what was just said, Socrates not only agrees with his objections, “but the original hypotheses, even though they are believable, must be examined more thoroughly”[1]107b. But these original hypotheses (these axioms) were those that led to his conclusions. Later still, thinking that Crito believes what Socrates said to be “hollow words, some kind of solace for you and for myself”[1]115d, guarantees he believes them to be true. But we saw how Socrates thought that beliefs (or opinions) and knowledge are not the same thing.

One could say of Socrates that by rejecting the hypotheses, he negates what they implied, but it is not so. In reality he stays consistent to what he always said, up to his trial. That one must not pretend to know things he can’t know. He can think about death and its nature, in fact he has to if he wants to be a philosopher. But as no man has the right to fear death on the grounds that this fear would mean he thinks he knows death to be fearful or evil, so he cannot pretend to be sure of what will follow death without evidence or conclusive reasoning; moreover that death is the greatest gift from the gods.

Jean-François Pierre Peyron - The Death of Socrates (1787)
Jean-François Pierre Peyron – The Death of Socrates (1787) (photo)

But he can hope, and he can justify the life he lived which led him to drink the hemlock, ascribing to the unknown of death what he believed about life (and we will see how this helped him deal with his execution). Perhaps the first concession he makes, the dualism of body and soul, is what necessarily leads him to his conclusion or his hope of the afterlife (for what other reason would we invent the soul if not to credit it with the ability to survive death?). But we, in contrast to Socrates, can maybe imagine even more than two (or three) contingencies (if we use that same axiom of dualism). We can imagine, with a little prompting from Hitchens, an afterlife without gods and/or no heaven and hell, or an eternal rebirth in endless human bodies without reward or punishment according to the way we lived, we can imagine the existence of god(s) without an afterlife or a sadist god who rewards evil and punishes the just, and we can think about all this as if it mattered. Even Socrates, just before the hemlock was delivered, laughs (for the first and only time in the entire Platonic work), dispersing any traces of pomposity in the effort to study death, though not its seriousness. He leaves with the wish for his friends to continue trying to make peace with their own deaths, as he did.

What does matter though, is that Socrates recognized the limits of his knowledge till the end. He doubted himself, he denied considering his hypotheses as known things and, by recognizing the utility of his beliefs, illustrated the subjectivity of his thoughts. It is indicative after all, when he said that, if he did not believe in his postmortem migration, he would grieve death, that developing a system of thought which defends this migration theory is in his interest (and he knew it).

For non-dualists on the other hand (meaning, for materialists) maybe the unavoidable conclusion is the one to which Epicurus reached. That death is final, that it means the person seizes to exist, and that therefore there is nothing to be afraid of since, when death comes we will not be here to experience it, and before it comes we cannot know it so, again, we cannot experience it. Therefore, death concerns neither us, the living, nor the dead. And when Epicurus says death is final, he does not pretend to know what he can’t know, he simply doesn’t make the opposite hypothesis (let alone the concession), since there is no evidence to support it.


[1] Plato – Phaedo (or on the soul)
[2] Plato – Apology of Scocrates


[1] “Life is a constant preparation for dying” (Sykoutris).

[2] Aristotle informs us that for Socrates the soulless bodies were useless and could therefore even be thrown away (Nicomachean Ethics1235a39).

[3] “To know how to die means to know how to live” says Sykoutris on Socrates. You have to know where you’re going to learn how to get there. Meanwhile, a Christian would rather have to say “to know how to live means to know how to die”. When faced with the certainty of the eternal afterlife, this life is but a means to the other, and therefore inferior. We don’t see this in Socrates, whose aim is to benefit in the present life, not the afterlife which might never come. He doesn’t enjoy the same certainty, and is quite satisfied with death as an eternal sleep.

[4] In the ancient world there were several scattered pessimistic teachings on death. Prodicus once gave a lecture to show that life is not worth living at all, because it is filled with worries and pains from the first moment. Many said that the best thing is to not have been born at all, and the second best to leave life as soon as possible. Alcidamas, a sophist after Prodicus, wrote the Encomium on Death (Gigon).

[5] The mystical tradition of the Pythagoreans taught about the after-life and that death is but the road to another life. Followers of Pythagoras believed in the reincarnation of the soul. The Stoics believed that every man had a spark of life within him as part of the life-giving force of the universe. They named it pneuma, or breath. At death, the pneuma ascended to the heavens and united with the cosmic totality. Democritus believed that the most possible thing to happen after death was that everything that man consisted of disintegrates, making death final. There was nothing after death for him. Thus, he gave rise to Epicurus’ thoughts (see end of chapter).

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