Socrates on Death
Socrates on Death
Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god. (42a)
Fear of the unknown is a phobia inherent to the human psyche; we are often dually terrified and fascinated with that which we cannot explain or understand. Accordingly, death is the ultimate fear; a subject of which cannot be studied or observed first hand without lethal consequences, a topic on which no one can rightly claim to be an expert. Yet human beings, in our attempt to explain the inexplicable, have created innumerable belief systems, or religions, each with its own opinion on death and the proverbial afterlife. And furthermore, philosophy, a field built upon hypothesizing and questioning the human condition, does not broach the subject of death. Perhaps this disparity of standpoints, between religion and philosophy, may be used to examine the reasons behind contemporary fears of death?
In The Apology, Socrates refuses to adhere to the idea of death as an evil or punishment; for Socrates, death is less to be feared than committing an injustice. Though Socrates claims to be ignorant of life after death, he does know that it is pernicious to corrupt ones soul by committing an injustice, and this, he pronounces, is the error of the Athenians. Gods alone hold the knowledge of justice, knowledge of what constitutes social and personal excellence; by sentencing Socrates to death for philosophizing, the citizens have taken justice, of which they actually know nothing, into their own hands. This of course, is the very pretext upon which Socrates criticizes his fellow citizens; their simulated wisdom and preoccupation with knowledge of information versus human wisdom.
Moreover, Socrates declares that “a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death”; this correlates with Socrates’ view of the virtuous and immortal human soul (41d). And while Socrates accepts his death as a reward from the Gods, I submit that modern religions such as Christianity and Judaism are at the root of our fears of death today. For hundreds of years, theologies such as these have created god fearing communities of people afraid of sinning, afraid of being sent to Hell for even thinking mischievous thoughts. This mindset has created a people afraid to die, and in consequence, afraid to live. However, I am not sure which is worse, fearing death, or denying its existence and finitude, as many people do today. As one creates a people frightened into obedience, the other produces a people lacking incentive for leading a virtuous life, and moreover, lacking an appreciation for the breadth and scale of the universe beyond the capacities of humanity.