Socrates’ Thoughts on Death in The Apology
For my Honors English class, I wrote an essay (below) on what Socrates thought about death (based on The Apology written by Plato).
Throughout history, many people have devoted their lives to seeking truth, but few are as famous and well-respected as the Greek philosopher Socrates. Throughout his life, Socrates put immense value on truth, pursuing it through his practice of philosophy. As he sought truth, he shared the truth he found with the people of Athens. For his teachings, Socrates was eventually put on trial in Athens in 399 BC. The Apology, written by his student Plato, is a dialogue that claims to be a record of Socrates's speech for his defense in the trial. Whether it is, in fact, the natural speech or a dramatization of it, it still tells us a lot about Socrates and his beliefs. A topic that repeatedly appears in his defense is death, which is unsurprising considering death was a possible penalty for his alleged crime of impiety. In his discussion of death itself and his general behavior on trial, Socrates reveals a lot about his thoughts on death. In my reading, I concluded that Socrates does not fear death because he does not fear the unknown, he is willing to profess the truth even if it leads to his death, and Socrates did not ask for mercy or try to arouse pity.
The first reason I believe Socrates does not fear death is that Socrates does not fear the unknown. On page 33, Socrates says: "To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they know it is the greatest of all evils." (Plato 33). One of the things that made Socrates a great philosopher is how he was able to admit what he did not know and instead pursue truth on topics he wasn't knowledgeable about. To him, death is not scary because there is no guarantee that death is bad. He doesn't know what's in store for him when he dies, and that's why he doesn't fear it: dying is an opportunity to learn about what happens to those who die. At the end of the same page, Socrates says: "I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may be good rather than things that I know to be bad." (Plato 33-34). Socrates sees death as something completely unknown, and he states he is not afraid of what he doesn't know. In essence, that is what a philosopher does: a philosopher approaches things they don't know with a thirst for knowledge. So, knowing about Socrates's intense curiosity, it's no surprise that he is intrigued, not scared, by something as mysterious and unknown as death.
I also believe Socrates' lack of fear for death can be seen in his willingness to profess the truth even if it leads to death. On page 33, Socrates says: "This is the truth of the matter, men of Athens: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes is best, or has been placed there by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace." (Plato 33). This quote makes Socrates' position on his actions clear: he takes responsibility for what he has said and the truth he has shared, knowing that it may lead to his death. He believes it better to die for what he believes in than to cower and face the disgrace cowards deserve. This idea is expanded upon two pages later when Socrates says: "...but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy." (Plato 35). In this passage, he describes his response if someone were to offer to spare him on the condition that he ceases his practice of philosophy; he'd rather die than live without philosophy. As seen in the often-quoted adage, Socrates is famous for this idea, "The unexamined life is not worth living for men" (Plato 41). He believes life without the pursuit of truth is worse than death, which is a testament to his lack of fear for death. It is clear that Socrates believes strongly in the things he has said and that above all, he loves truth and philosophy. What Socrates fears far more than death is a life devoid of truth or meaning.
Another thing that testifies to Socrates's lack of fear for death is his behavior during the trial, specifically that he does not ask for mercy or beg to be spared. Death scares most people; therefore, it isn't difficult to imagine someone begging to be spared at a trial for death. On page 38, Socrates describes what someone would likely do in the scenario he is in: "...he begged and implored the jurymen with many tears, that he brought his children and many of his friends into the court to arouse as much pity as he could, but I do none of these things...Nevertheless, I will not beg you to acquit me by bringing them here." (Plato 38). Socrates describes a man who is desperate to live and does anything he can to arouse as much pity as possible so he can live. The image he creates contrasts starkly to his demeanor: calm, truth-seeking, and responsible. Socrates knows that he has a better chance of living by begging for mercy and forgiveness, but he refuses to do that. Instead, he opts to retain his dignity and accept responsibility for his actions, whether they be viewed as good or bad by those around him. This shows a profound lack of fear for death and a love for the truth, as discussed earlier in this essay. However, possibly the most memorable and revealing quote in this text is the last line of the entire dialogue: "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." (Plato 44). Socrates accepts his fate with grace and dignity at the end of the day, without any dread or fear. He reacts with a slight disappointment and a bit of curiosity about what is to come, knowing that he has no idea what's in store for him. He doesn't act distraught, and he doesn't become enraged at his unwarranted verdict; instead, he accepts it and moves forward.
When put through great adversity, the true character of a human being is shown, and the threat of being unjustly killed may be the worst adversity one can face. But even through hardship, Socrates clings to his beliefs and principles dearly, refusing to deny them in favor of vain self-preservation. As can be seen through a careful reading of the text, Socrates does not fear death but cares far more for truth and justice. One thing, amongst many others, that sets Socrates apart from most human beings was his incredible love for truth and his impeccable ability and desire to seek it in his own life. In our own lives, we should seek to love the truth as much as Socrates did, and we should value it more than any worldly possessions. We should also strive to have as good a relationship with death as Socrates did: acknowledging our lack of knowledge on it and controlling our fear of it accordingly so that it doesn't consume our lives. Death is inevitable for everyone, and the world would be a much freer place if we didn't let our fear of it hinder us from noble pursuits.
Plato. The Apology. Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett Publishing Company, 2002.