Socrates' Last Words. (Religion & Philosophy)

Article excerpt

"Have We Been Careless with Socrates' Last Words? A Rereading of the Phaedo" by Laurel A. Madison, in Journal of the History of Philosophy (Oct. 2002), Department of Philosophy, Hunter College, 695 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021.

If all of Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, then Socrates' best lines are the epigraphs: "The unexamined life is not worth living." "He is wise who knows he knows not." "All of philosophy is training for death." What to make, then, of his not-so-quoteworthy final words: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget"?

This apparent "trivial concern with Crito's unreliable memory," as Madison, a doctoral student at Loyola University, Chicago, puts it, concludes the Phaedo, the last of the trial and execution dialogues, rather oddly. In this beautiful--and frustrating--dialogue, Socrates speaks hopefully about the afterlife, admonishing his friends not to worry about death and explaining why they should even look forward to it. And so, Madison writes, "the sheer banality of Socrates' last words pleads for the reader to search for their deeper significance."

In the standard view, Socrates is deep--deeply gloomy. Asclepius is the god of healing; Friedrich Nietzsche thus imagines Socrates moaning, "O Crito, life is a disease," the cock serving as remittance for the cure by death. Most philosophers concur. Socrates always talks up the life of the ascetic. The body hampers the mind and soul with its petty wants, needs, debilities, and imperfections.

That the founder of Western philosophy "denigrates our earthly existence and urges us to deny and repress our passions, instincts, desires, and drives" gives many an excuse to write him off. …