Thursday, September 14, 2006

On Socrates' death

I read the story of the last hours of Socrates' life.

One cannot help be deeply impressed by the somber, measured, and stately words. The scene could not be more dramatic, with the terrible grief of his friends barely held in check whilst Socrates himself is cheerful and serene.

Why would Socrates ask the servant of all people if he thought it was a good idea to offer a libation with the poisin he was about to drink? The servant defers to Socrates' judgment; was his request a courtesy, or was it something else?

The sense of physicality of the final words is palpable. One hears no more words of comfort, only the sounds of Socrates' footsteps as he walks around waiting for the poisin to numb his legs. It is all absolutely real; one is as present there is if alive in that moment.

I choose to take his last words on their face value. He feels himself having been lifted of a great burden, an illness, a heaviness whose weight we can only suppose, as he dies. And so he asks Crito to sacrifice a cock to the god of health, as thanks for what is about to unfold. The gesture is not symbolic, but simply the concrete, direct experience of Socrates in his last moment, shared freely with his friends.

A peaceful death, certainly, but in the wordly context he left behind all this complexity and conflict. Socrates voluntarily sees his death as an opportunity for growth and transformation instead of decay and decrepitude. The death itself vanishes in significance; the life becomes an emblem of cheerful serenity that can inspire later generations. All of which is why these last moments are a wonderful gift to future generations.
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