“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live. ” Martin Luther King said these words urging the importance of living with a cause. Socrates was a man who strictly lived his life with a purpose, and according to Plato’s Apology, died for the right to practice philosophy. What perhaps is most interesting about Socrates’s view is his outlook on death. Death, to many, is a frightful end; something to be avoided for as long as one possibly can. Socrates disagrees, as seen most clearly in his very last speech prior to the conviction of his death. But was this acceptance of death with open arms Socrates’s view throughout the Apology?
I believe yes, and it can be seen clearly first in Socrates’s defense speech, then the response to the question of what verdict Socrates himself sees fit, otherwise known as the epitimesis, and lastly in the speech immediately following the ruling of death. Since the beginning of the Apology, Socrates has proclaimed that he, in fact, knows “nothing” and because he understand this about himself, it makes Socrates wiser than most. I believe that this fundamental understanding of himself is the foundation for all of Socrates’s views, including his interesting take on death and the end.
Throughout the defense speech as well as after, Socrates uses tactics that one convicted of a serious crime would do his best to avoid. Resorting to sarcasm, suggesting the overwhelming ignorance of the jurors, as well as very subtly over-exemplifying his own superior wisdom are all examples of his interesting behavior at court, that, many claim, resulted in Socrates condemning himself to death. During the defense speech, Socrates rhetorically asks himself why he would continue to partake in an activity that puts him in danger of the death penalty.
He answers, “You are mistaken…if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to append his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider…whether he is acting justly or unjustly. (28a-b, p. 54). Socrates clearly believes in the importance of being a good man and an asset to society. His duty, he feels is to lead a just philosophic life, as God ordered him to do, and Socrates feels that to abandon his responsibility for fear of death would not only be humiliating, but shameful and dishonorable as well.
In fact, Socrates states that if he did act cowardly and leave his post for fear of death, it would then be just to convict him for disobeying the oracle and failing to adhere to his duties. Socrates believes that whether or not he is acquitted or not, he will never stop philosophizing or change his ways, not even if he has to “die a hundred deaths” (p. 56). It is not his fear of appearing cowardly, but Socrates’s lack of fear of death that can be directly connected to his core belief that the greatest injustice of all is thinking one knows what he does not know.
Socrates explains that fearing death is dreading what one does not know, therefore is a form of the greatest injustice. “I shall never feel more fear or aversion for something which, for all I know, may really be blessing than for those evils which I know to be evils” (p. 55). Socrates goes beyond what many men fail to see, the fact that fearing the unknown is futile, and because of this very understanding he remains so steadfast in his beliefs and welcomes death when it comes calling. Closer to the end of the defense speech, Socrates brings up the idea that if executed, another practicing philosophy just as he did will come to the city.
Socrates seems to enjoy subtly tormenting the jurors and almost threatening them with the appearance of another “Socrates”, as if to suggest the nuisance caused with his actions is immortal. Socrates’s defense speech, hardly served any sort of “defense” at all. Instead it seems that the preconceptions and slander that the jurors had about the convicted were actually proved, as Socrates continued to dispel any remorse towards his actions and fear towards forthcoming death. The second part of the Apology is when Socrates is asked to present his epitimesis, or an alternate punishment after the death penalty is issued.
The alternate punishment Socrates offers, full of sarcasm and pure ridicule towards the jurors, is a free dinner. Socrates sees his will to philosophize as betterment to the city and its people, so therefore a reward, rather than a punishment, seems appropriate. “I set myself to do you …what I hold to be the greatest possible service: I tried to persuade each one of you not to think more of practical advantages than of his mental and moral being” (p. 65). His actions, Socrates believes, are free of wrongdoing and only benefit the jurors be attempting to convince them of caring for a morally just life.
His clear derision of the jurors does anything but help Socrates’s case, and as wise man, though he does continue to refute that fact, he understands this. Any other man convicted of a serious crime, and endangered by the possibility of the death penalty would never dream of ridiculing the jurors in the manner in which Socrates continues to do so. As Socrates believes he has done nothing wrong, he also mentions in an almost apathetic way that he has already done as much as he can to convince the jurors of his just innocence.
He then goes to mention that as he believes in his innocence, that proposing an alternate penalty proves to be unnecessary. Socrates also states that as he has no knowledge of death, whether it is to be feared or welcomed, he cannot possibly choose another punishment for himself. Furthermore, Socrates continues to say that if he is able to avoid the death penalty, he will never flee from his duties to society and stop philosophizing. “…to let no day pass without discussing goodness and…examining both myself and others is really the very best thing a man can do…life without this sort of examination is not worth living…” (p. 6). It is made clear in the epitimesis, that Socrates is wholly committed to leading a good, just life, and practicing philosophy, whether or not his life is depended on it. Socrates truly believes in his innocence well as his cause, and therefore cannot succumb himself to pleading for another verdict. After the penalty of death has been announced, Socrates seems relatively calm. He mentions that he is so far along in life as it is, death seems timely, and claims that the jurors would have escaped the irksome task of a hearing had they had a little patience and let Socrates die of natural causes.
After hearing that one is to be put to death, most would try whatever is left in his or her power to save themselves. Socrates, however, staying true to his beliefs of truth and justice refuses to “weep and wail” because he feels that doing so would not only dishonor himself, but result him in acting unjustly. “I would much rather die as the result of this defense… in a court of law, just as in warfare, neither I nor any other ought to use his wits to escape death by any means” (p. 67).
Socrates feels that attempting to run from death would result in admitting himself to evil, which he also suggests the jurors are condemning themselves to by prosecuting an innocent man. Socrates believes to die as a just man, rather than live his life any other way, and attempting to escape the finalized verdict would not only be catering to injustice, but would be seen as an insult to everything Socrates has practiced in his life thus. Therefore, Socrates accepts death as a blessing, and also characterizes it as two possible things; a dreamless sleep, or a migration to another place.
For the first, Socrates welcomes this possibility, calling it a “marvelous gain”, considering it calming. If death is a truly a migration to another place, Socrates sees it has a chance to meet and converse with the brilliant minds of the past, and would love to experience such an opportunity. “I am willing to die ten times over if this account is true…at least it would be an wonderful personal experience to join them there…heroes of the old days who met their death through an unjust trial…” (p. 70).
Not only does Socrates mention how interesting it would be to meet wise men, but he also states that he would want to philosophize with them and try and determine who amongst them is truly wise, exactly the actions for which he is in court for. This shows his avid determination for his cause, and fearless attitude towards death, that even after his end he will continue to practice his duties and adhere by his just beliefs. Socrates’s core belief is understanding that he knows what he does not know, and thinking otherwise is a tremendous injustice.
And because of this sole belief, he is able to form his fearless views on death and the afterlife. Socrates argues that since we cannot fathom any understanding of the afterlife, there is no use in fearing or running from it, and doing so would be unjust. Socrates does hold this view throughout the entire Apology. The only difference between the speeches may be that Socrates seems more welcoming of death in the final speech, after the verdict is finalized. However, this is not a proof of any sort of altering views.
Instead, I believe that Socrates always talked about welcoming death when the time for it arrives, using it as an example of a probable end rather than a confirmed one. After Socrates feels that he has exhausted his own defense and preached the importance of justice and truth, and the verdict to death is the final conclusion, he is able to easily accept the end, and welcome it, since he would much rather see to dying as just man, instead of living in any other manner.
In conclusion, Socrates’s principle beliefs allowed him to keep his views on death and the afterlife consistent throughout his trial as noted in Plato’s Apology. Socrates unswervingly remains true to this values of justice, refusing to succumb to the mercy of the jurors, and continuing to try to convince the court of his innocence through what was morally correct, as well as deity-approved duties. His vow to never give up on his morals and obligations to the city and its people enabled Socrates to die a noble, honorable, and just man, who instead of fleeing from death, embraced it.