On the Significance of the Death of Socrates

The Phaedo is the final Platonic dialogue focused on the life Socrates. It details the last hours of Socrates before he pays the ultimate price. Socrates is freed from his chains while remaining confined to his cell. His friends rise early to visit to his prison cell one last time and converse with him before his death.

First, consider the title of the dialogue. Why Phaedo? The dialogue is recalled and narrated by Phaedo, a follower of Socrates. He is asked to recall the last hours of Socrates by a group of Pythagoreans, including one by the name of Echecrates. The Pythagoreans are in exile on Phlius, an island in the northwest of the Peloponnese. Phaedo was on his way home to Elis. Therefore, the dialogue is a framed narrative. Phaedo tells his story far away from the city of Athens. We rely on the truth of Phaedo’s oral recollections, just like the Pythagoreans in Phlius. He describes it as a joy to call Socrates to memory, and the room is brought to pity with the belief that Socrates dies “nobly and without fear” (58e). The link between Pythagoras, or more specifically the Pythagoreans (i.e. the followers of a great philosopher) and Socrates should be fully considered. Pythagoras is long dead by this point, yet his followers remain to perpetuate his school of thought. To what extent can we judge a philosopher based on the activity of his followers? Some of Socrates’s followers carry out terrible acts during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, yet others are simple-minded men, while others are treasonous like Alcibiades.

At any rate, Phaedo recalls the scene of Socrates’s death. A large group of locals were there, all called out by name, including an emotionally overcome Apollodorus. Plato was ill and was said not to be present. The chief portion of the Phaedo dialogue concerns a discussion between Socrates and Cebes and Simmias, both foreigners to Athens.

Notably, the death of Socrates is not a tragedy. Those present describe an unusual mixed feeling of pain and joy; sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping. Upon arrival at the prison, they notice that earlier, Socrates had been composing poetry with his lyre, such as a hymn to Apollo and putting the fables of Aesop to musical verse. This is unusual for Socrates, as he is known to criticize the poets, as seen in the Republic and elsewhere. The Phaedo reveals a side of Socrates we do not see anywhere else in the dialogues. He is with a group of his followers, and his wife, Xanthippe, as well as his children who make a brief appearance.

Those present in his cell, express sadness and fear of death, but Socrates, instead, demonstrates courage and fearlessness in the face of death. He reiterates some of his prominent theories: knowledge as recollection, the immortality of the soul, and the rejection of the body. Early traces of ascetic and Christian doctrines can be found in the Phaedo. These Socratic ideas will later be adopted and reformed under Christian doctrine via Saint Augustine in the 5th century.

At the end of his life, Socrates makes some cryptic comments and begins to drink the hemlock. What is to be made of Socrates’s seemingly insignificant final words? As the poison starts to take effect, Socrates begins losing feeling in his legs and chest. While lying on his prison bed, he says to Crito: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Crito responds in the affirmative, but when he asks if there is anything else, Socrates lies still. Perhaps there may have been something else for Socrates to say to Crito.

There are two pieces of information worth considering in Socrates’s last words. The first is: piety. Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine. Socrates indicates that he has been healed of his earthly ills, namely his body, which is the seat of wayward passions and diseases. To Nietzsche, in writing The Gay Science, this is a rejection of life itself. Nevertheless, Socrates embraces the gods in his final moments, contrary to his accusation of impiety by the Athenian jury, Second to his piety, Socrates is also concerned with paying his debts, a key part of the definition of justice in the Republic. Socrates concludes his life, minding his own business, respecting the laws of the city, while dying courageously for the principles he has stood for – the innate goodness of philosophy for its own sake.

Some further thoughts on the death of Socrates can be found here.

For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

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