Socrates’ Relationship With Death – The Phaedo

The Phaedo

Socrates’ Relationship With Death

In Phaedo we find the potential for a great truth, which the religions of the Western World have repeatedly refuted over the millennia: that death is not a thing to be feared. Socrates gives a profound discourse regarding the philosopher’s life being spent embracing - even preparing for – death. To Socrates, the intertwining of soul and body carries great meaning and a sense of purpose, which would be the pursuit of truth in all things. This is the core of philosophy and none said it more eloquently than Plato through Socrates. Being questioned about the process of facing death, Socrates orders away any hysterical grieving people, questioning why people should grieve for someone who has gone beyond one’s enemies to the next world, where no enemies exist except those carried within the soul. Those enemies would be a life wasted on the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of pain (pleasure withdrawn). This very duality of life, according to Socrates, is the bane of existence for all of mankind.

If one spends much time caught in the illusion of earthly pleasures then faces a fear of death due to inattention to the betterment of the mind and soul, then that life is sorely wasted. Yet to Socrates, lightly embracing pleasure allows one to enhance pleasure and not fear its removal, for such a person knows that pleasure is merely ephemeral and not a constant. In succeeding to do this, one overcomes the fear of death, for the loss of pleasure is a death in itself. Fear of losing pleasure is fear of death.

This is not to say that the form death may take is pleasurable, but Socrates explains that the true philosopher from early on chases death in life, seeks endings and depth, the essence of pleasure and pain and finds within this duality a richness that is exhilarating rather than frightening. To live with death every day, or in other words, living each day preparing to die, is the very stuff of the true philosopher. A life well lived should not be grieved; Socrates wonders why people who face death fear liberation from worldly burdens when life could be lived free of worldly burdens by recognizing them as symbols rather than literal things.

In discussing the pleasure/pain principle, Socrates explains that the fear of loss during life is an endless exchange of one pleasure for another. He demonstrates this by stating that, like coins, people abstain from one pleasure only to replace it with another in order to be “temperate.”  Like coins, the balance of pleasures is kept in check, yet there is always the fear of them being removed, lost or taken. The philosopher sees the idiocy of such thinking and allows pleasure to come and go as it pleases, seeing it for what it is. Pleasure is not worth sacrificing one’s worldly life to obtain and hold onto it, for it is evasive and fickle. The true coin, Socrates says, is Wisdom.

Interestingly, Socrates says flat out that we are born from the dead (in other words, we are dead until we are born); therefore, why should we fear death? We already have en existence before we enter this world and we will regain that existence upon leaving this world. As we find good people in this world, so we shall find them in the world from whence our souls came.

From this conversation springs the key to the duality in the world through the example of forms; in this world, forms are objects that help us remember; for life is simply an attempt to recall what has been forgotten rather than to know anything. True knowledge and the attainment of wisdom is the synthesis of the formed and the unformed, the born and the unborn, the resolution of all dualities.

As Socrates explains (and to put it in modern terms), forms are symbols of what we know and are ties to many memories, each evoking a feeling of pleasure or pain. There is no true learning, only remembering (which is another way of saying that the brain is limited to the mind, but the soul is independent of both). My brother’s sweater reminds me of him, it is his, it symbolizes him and evokes memories in me. Associated with those memories will be emotions, feelings of pleasure or pain, depending on my experiences with my brother. In this way, all things are tied to memories and feelings; the willow tree by the river may remind someone of family picnics or a longing to return to the feelings of safety and pleasure. The willow tree is the symbol.

Even if we know nothing of the instrument or the book or the machine, each is a symbol of a person or people in our minds, for our minds search for the familiar, a way of putting what we see or touch or smell or feel or taste into the context of our experience in this world. Yet even we are symbols of another world, our friendships, our ways of living, reflect the quality of our minds to the degree that we have pursued wisdom rather than tangible properties.

All that we have and hold dear are symbols of our feelings, our emotions, our attitude to pleasure and pain. Additionally, other people’s possessions are symbols, for us, of them. The value that possessions have is symbolic, yet the point is driven home that the only real and true thing to value is wisdom, for it cannot be taken or stolen. Once attained, it grows and frees us from the clutches of the fear of death.

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