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Socrates: Death in The Apology
Death of Socrates
Death in The Apology
In The Apology, by Plato, Socrates is found at trial for being an atheist and a sophist. He had allegedly been corrupting the youth with these beliefs and must now defend himself against his many accusers. While defending himself he makes note of the fact that being put to death for his purported crimes is possible, and later his expectation of this possibility continues to increase until eventually he receives his sentence and it turns out to actually be death. Throughout his defense, he brings up the subject of death and all that it entails in an attempt to construct a proper view of death. By the end of the trial, Socrates has examined his fate as calmly as he would go about inquiring after any other truth. It is clear that Socrates’s philosophical wisdom is demonstrated in his analysis of death. This is important because it shows that Socrates was not hypocritical, but rather stood fast in his beliefs and methods of seeking the truth even under the most extreme circumstances. Even with the threat of death above him, he remained a true philosopher. This can be proved through a closer look at his deliberation at the trial.
Before one can understand how his philosophical wisdom is exemplified in his exploration of death, one must understand what his philosophical wisdom is. It is, of course, impossible to give in one statement an all-encompassing statement of everything his wisdom entails, so instead a general definition must suffice. The philosophical wisdom of Socrates is that he lives the examined life. Socrates justifies every belief he has. He searches for and is lead to truth through reason and does not claim to know things he does not. Socrates himself describes a life such as this when he says “The greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, … the life which is unexamined is not worth living”. This shows the value which Socrates places on searching for the truth. As to his personal wisdom, he says this about himself: “This is the point in which … I might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men – that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know … “. In this way Socrates was receptive to the truth and thus wise. Instead of assuming that he knows things, Socrates assumes that he knows nothing and instead allows himself to be brought to the truth through reasoning. That is the philosophical wisdom of Socrates.
Socrates initially brings up the subject of death by stating that his destruction will be caused not by his accusers, but by “the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men” He goes on to say that he will not allow the chance of death to in any way shape his argument for his defense. He will not sacrifice his integrity for the sake of his life. He says “A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong.” In this way, Socrates makes death out to be the honorable course of action in a situation such as his, if it is necessary to avoid an evil. Socrates firmly believes that God has personally charged him with the task of seeking the truth and examining those thought to be wise. He thusly believes that giving up his ways would be a grave evil. This is exemplified when he says “If when … God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death … that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods”. He even compares himself to Achilles at the battle of Troy, who chose certain death in exchange for the honor of avenging his friend who had been slain. At this point, Socrates makes it clear that, hypothetically, he will be able and willing to die for the sake of the truth. He will not denounce the things he has done or said up to this point to only save his life.
A short while later in the trial, Socrates develops his thinking of death, saying that he does not presume to know what death entails and thus cannot fear it. He states that, because choosing to do an evil thing will necessarily result in an evil, it is better to chance death since that is a possible good and not necessarily an evil. In this way Socrates progresses his thinking of death to be a mysterious thing.
Socrates goes on to say that if he were to be condemned to death, it would injure the city and the prosecutors themselves even more than it would injure him. This, he claims, is because it is impossible for a lesser man to harm a better one. He mentions that those who are responsible for his unjust death are committing a great evil in going against the wishes of the God for the mission of Socrates. He says that this is the reason why he is arguing for his release in the first place, not because of selfish reasons but instead for the good of the state.
Further into his explanation, he returns to the subject of death when he gives an account of a time he readily risked death when he chose to do the right thing regardless of the outcome. He mentions how shameful it is when men do not act as if death is the greatest evil and avoid it at all cost to integrity, honor, etc. He recalls that it was only later that his actions were viewed favorably. In doing so he alludes to the fact that, although now his prosecutors believe he is in the wrong, they will once again eventually realize their certain mistake.
After he has received his sentence to death, Socrates relates to the court that through the entire proceeding, the oracle which has always monitored his speech and actions for the slightest error had not once bade him to cease. He says that in his mind there may only be one meaning for this. He says “I regard this as a proof that what has happened to me is a good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error … for the customary sign would have opposed me if I were going to evil and not to good.” Socrates goes on to explain that there are two possibilities for death. It must be either a conscious or an unconscious state. He develops this understanding by saying that if it is an unconscious state, it is a good. His proof for this is that a deep, undisturbed sleep is very pleasant indeed. For the possibility of a conscious state, Socrates says that if the consciousness of all the dead rest there, it would be a pilgrimage worth making. If he would be in the company of others who lived and died as he did then he would be overjoyed to be able to continue in death his search for wisdom which he began in life. He is overjoyed at the possibility of being in such good company of the truly wise and the true judges which the dead encounter. He even goes so far as to say that “I clearly see that to die and be released was better for me”.
It is surprising that ultimately his thinking leads him to believe that it is a wonderful thing. If his train of thought is properly followed, however, his analysis of death does come to parallel his method of examination of other aspects of truth and wisdom. At first, he only mentions that he would die for his beliefs if absolutely necessary. He then goes on to say that death is itself a mystery that should not be feared. His thinking then develops even further into saying that death is very likely a good and not an evil. Finally, after being sentenced to his fate, he recounts that death is most probably even an extreme good for him. This view of death corresponds perfectly with Socrates’ philosophic wisdom. Through examining death itself and what it may mean for him, Socrates is lead by reason to his belief about the true nature of death. He allowed the truth to take him through a series of truths to a larger understanding of death. Although he was forced into the situation by forces outside of his control, and although the situation was to have an enormous impact on him, he continued in his search of truth and wisdom until the very end. This strongly justifies his analysis of death.
 Jowett, Benjamin, trans. Plato. The Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988. Pg 40
 Ibid. Pg. 39
 Ibid. Pg. 39
 Ibid. Pg. 40
 Ibid. Pg. 51
 Ibid. Pg. 52