How Socrates can teach us to die

This article appears in the May/June 2020 edition of the Idler magazine. Order a copy or subscribe here.

I’m going to talk about death. There are two reasons why you shouldn’t stop reading. First, death is the ultimate idling. “Rest in peace” we say. It’s one moment in life when we actually mean it. Second, all the great wisdom traditions insist that, in spite of appearances, death is the pathway to life. It offers liberation, transformation, regeneration.

Death has come a lot nearer in recent months, so I want to ask: what can this conviction possibly mean?

A good way into the question is with Plato. One of his dialogues, the Phaedo, doesn’t just talk about death. It features a death, that of Socrates. It’s a short work of genius. It’s had a massive impact upon how people in the West have approached death. It aims to offer not just consolation but a radical conversion of sight.

Plato begins by stressing that he really is talking about death. He’s not trying to go over it, or under it, or around it. He’s going to take us through it. That’s crucial. The dialogue opens with the eponymous Phaedo being asked by a friend whether he was there when Socrates “drank the potion in the prison”. You’ll recall that Socrates had been sentenced to death. This is now the day, in 399BC, when he is going to imbibe the fatal hemlock.

It sets up a tension. We know that by the end of the discourse, the poison will have done its work. Socrates will no longer be talking, breathing, blinking. A cold, waxy body will dominate the final scene.

I stress the fact because feeling into the presence of death is a crucial dynamic. When we feel death drawing close, all sorts of novel feelings and thoughts become possible. Plato wants us to sense this energy because he knows, by some alchemy, that it can change us.

He is not alone in this recognition. The Death of Ivan llyich, by Leo Tolstoy, tells of an antihero who had lived an empty, bourgeois life. Now, as his mortality becomes real, his vanity burns way. It leaves exposed a radically different, entirely unexpected perception of life. “He searched for his old habitual fear of death and didn’t find it,” Tolstoy writes.

What Ilyich found instead is the subject of the Phaedo. Plato wrote his dialogue in order that we might find it, too.

It moves through a series of arguments. Each of them is offered as evidence that there’s more to life than its termination at death. However, each of them fails to do so.

An early suggestion is that the soul is separate from the body and so capable of floating off at death. Not if a soul is to the body as the music is to a lyre, Socrates says. No lyre, no music.

Isn’t life cyclical, another person asks? The sun sets and rises. The seasons pass and return. Why would life be any different? Not if our individuality disintegrates, Socrates says, and lives on as an echo or memory for others.

A third possibility they consider is how we experience eternity in the here and now. To quote the famous lines of William Blake: on occasion, we see heaven in a wild flower and hold infinity in the palm of our hand. Doesn’t that mean we have something of the deathless in us? If we didn’t share in divine life, how could we possibly know about it?

There is much in what you say, Socrates affirms. But maybe we need a body to experience it, unlike the gods.

By this point in the dialogue, his friends are starting to panic. Remember, Socrates is going to die. That much is certain. What if the last utterance of the greatest philosopher is an admission that he couldn’t answer the biggest question?

Socrates goes quiet. In deep thought, he tousles Phaedo’s hair. And then he has a new thought. The deaths of all their arguments is precisely what they needed, he says. The failures clear the way for a new truth to shine through, which is what death itself does.

The point is that we don’t possess life, any more than we possess evidence that life survives death. Giving up that delusion makes way for something else. Life is bigger than death in the same way that life is bigger than us.

Put it like this, Socrates continues. Ask yourself, why is he in prison awaiting the hemlock?

A strict materialist would say it’s because his legs moved in a certain way and his brain fired in a certain way. That’s part of what’s happened but it’s not the cause. A cause might be that the Athenian judiciary found him guilty, which is to say that justice and morality are the reason he’s there. They are bigger than his life. That’s true. But there’s something bigger than them as well.

Socrates could have gone into exile. It was standard practice to pay a bribe and self-isolate. He didn’t because his life as a philosopher had led him to see that his soul received its vitality from what holds us in life: the good, beautiful and true. That’s why he is in prison now. He trusts what is true.

Put it like this. He knew that his intelligence is part of cosmic intelligence. His consciousness shares in the consciousness of the gods. His being springs from Being itself. We don’t own life, it owns us. Much as the sun can only admit light, so life can only admit existence. With death now moments away, he sees it.

The same realisation came to Ivan Ilyich. “Where was death?” Tolstoy has Ilyich ask with his final breath. “What death? There was no fear, because there was no death. Instead of death there was light.”

Phaedo reports that Socrates died beautifully, calmly. He stopped wrestling with arguments about life and death because he realised something profound. By facing death, we can find more. Life is not a moment in death. Death is a moment in life.