Why would a person choose to die? We are made not to be in favor of the death, but with the living. All living creatures, animals and plants alike are craving for life, for passing the genetics to next generation and expanding their family as much as they can. They can die, but they will never be prepared and willing to die if not for these purposes. Being ready to die not for those reasons is against nature’s will. Furthermore, due to our superior intellectual ability, we can have much more pleasure both in quality and variety than a mere animal could ever dream of. Being born as a human is clearly a blessing from God. Among the human race, those who can attain the title of philosopher are considered to possess the highest intellectual ability, and among them, Socrates is considered to be the wisest. So, why did he say such stupid thing that both go against nature’s will and the blessing that God has given us? Why should the wisest of all men be willing to die, when they have all the capabilities of fulfilling their lives to its extent? Why should they waste their only chance to find enjoyment and pleasure? To fully understand the reasons of Socrates’s statement, we must go deeper into his perspectives about what is death, body, soul, and the meaning of human lives.
Socrates stated that ” death a freeing and separation of soul from body” (Plato, 8). The body will decease but the soul will live on. We’re much familiar with the “body” concept, but what is the soul? Socrates then stated that the body is the visible side of ourselves. The body approaches the world by its senses. The body always seeks for pleasure, but is not always accurate. Due to its mortality and desires, the body is an obstacle which continuously interrupts, distracts, and prevents us in our pursuit of the reality, the truth. On the other hand, soul is the invisible side of ourselves. The soul approaches the world from afar, “with the unaided intellect, without taking account of any sense of sight in his thinking, or dragging any other sense into his reckoning”(Plato, 7). The goal of the soul is wisdom, and wisdom alone. By living in this world, the soul has to go along with the body, which drags the soul down and pushes it away from true perception. The soul is perfect; the body is not. If one is not careful enough, one’s soul could be contaminated by one body’s imperfection. The soul and the body are like a man and a kid, who are assigned to find the hidden treasure in an unknown land while being chained together. As the man is trying to make progress searching for the location of the treasure, the kids keep screaming, complaining, asking for food, for water, for fun. The kid wants to run, he wants to go to interesting place, he wants to see the circus, he wants to eat ice-cream. He doesn’t care whether the two of them will find the treasure or not, all he cares is his satisfaction. If the man is weak, he would be seduced, and follow the kid. Eventually, he will forget their mission and current state. However, if the man is strong, he will discipline the kid and force the kid to be in his command. Death, therefore, is the break of the chain, when the man is free from what is holding him behind, and get true freedom to reach his goal. By releasing what contaminates the soul, death, therefore, is the purification of the soul.
Death, therefore, is the purification of the soul.
In here, some of you may ask “I now know what the death, body and soul is, but does the soul really exist? I am just one entity of myself, am I not? Why are there two different entities living in myself but I can only feel one?”. Socrates continued to prove the existence of the soul by proving that we all have knowledge about abstract concepts that we can never get from our body’s senses. For example, I have lived with Fluffy (my dog) for 10 years, and he has a really nice home for his own. One day, Fluffy passed away. After Fluffy’s death, every time I saw his house, I remembered him. There was an image of Fluffy appeared in my head without I actually look at Fluffy. Socrates called it “the recollection” of knowledge. I had recollected Fluffy’s image from seeing the house, which is not Fluffy. The illusion in my head is never the real Fluffy. It is just a blurred image, with much imperfections, and mistakes compared to my real Fluffy. It is just “the recollection” of Fluffy.
By seeing this picture, my mind created a “recollection” of Fluffy.
It is the same when we come to think about abstract concepts. Let’s take a look of the concept of “absolute equality”. When we’re are asked whether two stones are equal or not, we can easily say either “Ohm, it’s quite similar” or “No, it’s different”. Or say, you have never seen neither horse nor a donkey in your life. But if somebody brings a horse and a donkey in front of you and ask whether these two are equal, you can still have an answer. If we know a horse is not equal to a donkey, even though it is our first time to see them, we must have some ideas about what “absolute equality” is. However, none of us can define exactly what is “absolute equality”. Thus, we must had known the concept before, then we lost it on the way, and now we’re recollecting this knowledge by examples. Just like how I had Fluffy, lost it, and then recollecting its image by looking at his house.
How do you know these 2 are “unequal” without not knowing “absolute equality”?
But how do we know what “absolute equality” is? Since we have no means to understand what is “absolute equality” after birth, we must have obtained this knowledge before birth. Thus, there must be something that acquires this knowledge before we have our real body. Socrates calls this thing “soul”. Based on his reasons, the “soul” can live independently without the needs of the body, it is invisible, and is possessed with intelligence. Since it has existed before we were born, it will continue to live after we die. Without the existence of something called “soul”, which has the attributes I have described above, we cannot explain why we can have perception of equality, beauty, goodness, holiness… without having any means to know about them before. Thus, the soul did exist. And death, is the separation of the body and soul.
There must be something that acquires this knowledge before we have our real body. Socrates calls this thing “soul”.
After defining what death, body and soul is, let’s see how Socrates think about the meaning of lives. Socrates argued that as a human being, we must have attachment to something. Say in another way, we must love something, so that our lives are used for attainment of this. A man can love one thing or many things at a time, as loving food doesn’t prevent him from loving water. True philosophers, as Socrates’s understanding about this title, must only be in love with knowledge, and distance himself from other type of love. As we can see before, knowledge is the love of the soul and the other types of love belongs to the body. If he is a true philosopher, true lover of knowledge, he would follow his love loyally, without question to anywhere, even though it could lead him to their death. If he is not willing to die, or even worse, feared of the prospect of dying, his love for knowledge is not big as the love for his body’s desires. As we say a servant is a traitor when he does not sacrifice his life for his king, we can say the same for those philosophers who do not dare to sacrifice their life for the attainment of knowledge. True philosophers, put knowledge as the meaning of their lives, and risk all for it.
As we clearly defined Socrates’s understanding about the concept of death, body, soul, and meaning of lives, we can see that he’s not unreasonable in his statement. As a superior species, we have the ability to control ourselves, our body’s craving to reach more precious things. An animal could use all its energy trying to prolong its life, since it’s a slave of its body, but we humans can value things such as honor, family, love over our lives. To true philosophers, as Socrates’s understanding, knowledge is the only valuable thing. Thus, getting rid of the body, the kid, the distraction, the love for materials, should not be a terror of anyone who claimed to be a philosopher. Only by the death, the separation of the body and soul, the kid and the man, the distraction and the goal, the love for materials and the love for knowledge, a philosopher would attain his ultimate goal of his life. He shouldn’t look for death himself, but when the time come, he should easily put a smile on his face and welcome it with all his heart. Death, to Socrates, is not suffering. It’s the final ritual, the final transformation. If he does it right, he will become a true philosopher.
1st picture: The Death of Socrates, David, 1787.
Plato. Phaedo in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick. Harmondsworth,
Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1954.