There are commonly accepted folk behaviors, decorums of death, both for deceased and for loved ones gathered at last moments. These conventions allow a range of behaviors, but they hardly include mockery. Voltaire's supposed last minute repentance is sanctioned, as is any last reconciliation with rejected friends or family, such as in The Four Things That Matter Most, where Ira Byock says the last words need to be, "Please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you and I love you." Of course these aphorisms obtain only for those whose lives have been unjust in their own eyes, like Sir Walter Raleigh, about to be hung. Although Socrates, being executed, is not infirm, he acts as if death were insignificant. His last words are joking, ironic and playful. He keeps the loved ones at arm's length.
It's going to be hard to be believed no matter what we say. Socrates said that his internal oracle did not oppose his strategy of defense ("hemlock is not such a bad way to die"), therefore he has been suspected of "suicide." The critics don't know when he's kidding and when he's serious. Latter-day melancholics like I. F. Stone (The Trial of Socrates) should instead accuse Socrates of clowning. His death scene is a put-on to mock the self-righteous judges and serious-minded friends. His dying breaks their decorum of death.
The Apology in general is a silo of fodder for those sad cows who think Socrates deliberately antagonized his jury because he "wanted to die" (Stone, 183). Freud and his minions convinced everyone that they secretly wanted to die and big words proved it. As there is no end to the turning of traditional interpretations and motives upon their heads, shouldn't we contrarily say that Socrates' death is burlesque and slapstick?
Good comedy is mordant, so first out of the sage's mouth comes the bite: "me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser and not to give an account of your lives" (Jowett). For this outburst Stone charges Socrates with premeditated aggravation of the jury of 500. Socrates wants a man to do nothing common or mean when in danger, nor to use any cowardly way of escaping death, even in war. Stone takes such rigors as evidence of haughtiness, blustering and hubris, indeed Socrates' megalegoria!
But Socrates says, "I had not the. . . inclination to address you. . . weeping and wailing and lamenting" as his friends and the life-at-all-costs school would urge.
The whole and each part of Socrates' death should be taken as a jest, a joke upon his too serious, too proud, too fearful audiences. Even better, the jest is ambiguous. It also has a serious side, "the difficulty, my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death." The whole Apology can be read to good purpose in this light, but we intend to show that the execution itself is a seven pointÊcomedy upon the expectation of every common deathbed scene.
How difficult this attitude is to accept we see from the sage Lao-tzu, who says, "Take trouble as seriously as your own body," seemingly giving aid and comfort to those clumps of moralists whose first goal is their own survival; either that or they will take one man's death as pretext to annihilate a race. The really irksome thing is not Socrates' crime but his failure to repudiate his sentence, his submission to it. As he says, "In another world they do not put a man to death for asking questions." He refuses escape, forfeits his life. No "rage, rage against the dying of the light," no "throw down your mattock!" "Seize the day!" Sophomorics. Has reason become Prozac to induce this tranquility in Socrates?
Plato relates the opposite of our expectations, but we don't infer that the wit, truth and courage displayed in the Phaedo are his. It is Socrates who turns his execution into a series of pranks upon followers and executioners. Is the prankster less passionate in his renunciation of death than Donne -- "Death, thou shalt die" (Holy Sonnet X)? Socrates holds the soul immortal, as Donne, but he dramatizes the hypocrisy of thinking death a final effect. He smiles and jokes, not shouts and weeps.
"Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives." The account of their lives is more like the reckoning his questions would lead to. The Chinese sages sought recognition of themselves in artistic landscapes, they saw mountains coiled up like snakes, stones heaped in forms like a face, talon-like branches of bare trees that ripped toward clouds. Likewise, critics and readers have found a false recognition of themselves in the piety of Socrates' execution, taken facetiousness for high platonized seriousness. Jesus they demythologized; who not? Well, not Socrates, and not themselves. This stripping away of myth is exactly what Socrates does to Crito's sentimental beliefs, his followers and the whole execution process, smiling the while. It was just as if Blake would have turned the whole text of Milton on its head.
There are seven occasions of this folly.
First, Socrates' solicitude for the women who will wash the body after his death. Shall we see in this his simple intent to do a last good deed or as a joke upon his too serious witnesses? He says, "I had better repair to the bath first, in order that the women may not have the trouble of washing my body after I am dead." We should realize that in this first of references to "after I am dead," (which climaxes when he tells Crito "you are burying my body only") no matter what Socrates does, the women will still have to wash his body. It's their job and it must be done after death. Would Socrates deny these women their means of livelihood? Is he a right-to-work fanatic? No, the point is that "I" as he puts it, will not be dead, whether washed or unwashed. If the women are viewed as acting voluntarily to thus care for him, is Socrates so small-minded that he seeks to deny them this honor? No, again. Remember also, without reviewing each detail, that there are other preparations the body must undergo after death. While hemlock causes death by paralysis, as the medical examiner decrees, the glands, organs, what not, will have functioned in the interim between the bath and body's end. The joke is that, unlike the soul, which is all its life preparing, the body cannot be prepared before its time. Contrast the body with his previous preparation of the spirit: "Let a man be of good cheer about his soul who having cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him. . . has arrayed the soul. . . in her own proper jewels. . . . [I]n these adorned she is ready to go on her journey to the world below." All this and more he plays upon when he says that he will bathe.
Secondly, Socrates' "last command" in response to his disciples' plea for such is facetious: "Have you any commands for us, Socrates -- anything to say about your children or any other matter in which we can serve you?" Crito's question seems to imply that Socrates' life is tragically unfinished. But Socrates views his death as a grand summary. He rejects these weak pleas upholding the shibboleths of children and work. As to the children, who can live for themselves, don't we see in them Crito's concern for himself and the camp followers sharing the last moments? But indulgently, to those who have gathered, Socrates addresses his last "command," a burlesque equally upon their false fears and sentiments as upon their wrong concerns in implying his work to have been left in any part undone. There must be an unrequited journalist in the mind of such witnesses who want a statement in prose after any overwhelming demonstration of poetry.
Trelawney: "Here I hold in my hand the heart of Shelley!" Journalist: "And how do you feel about that?" Socrates' last command is, "Have a good day," or, if you like, the joke is, as they say it in the Greek, "Take care of yourselves."
Yet a third time Socrates is pestered, "In what way shall we bury you?" The reply continues what we saw regarding the women: "I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body." How shall we bury you? Socrates has constantly taught that the soul is immortal. But the question errs in its address to the second person, you. Socrates says "he" cannot be buried for "he" will be with "the blessed." Submissive to his death sentence but a little belligerent with his friends, we don't think that the condemned should be so puissant, but all along Socrates has been breaking the decorum of death. He says further, "I shall not remain," and asks that the others present stand "surety to him (Crito) that I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death." Crito symbolizes the body pounding its insistent shoe upon the material cause, "We will bury you!" Socrates: "Not really." Crito's Khrushchev misconstrues the nature of death. The "false words" -- Shall we say the "you" instead of the "it"? -- incorporate all that the judges and keepers of public sentiment, that vast populus mundi, extend as their own. Socrates rejects such piety with his facetious literalness.
A fourth humorous prod against death is worked in Socrates' compliment to the executioner-pharmacist, as such, the hangman. He says, "How charming the man is." While it has already been reported that the executioner had burst into tears after apologizing to Socrates for his task, this in no way prepares Socrates' audience for his solicitude to accommodate the undone pharmacist by dying early! To spare the man's tears and feelings from being further exercised Socrates says, "We must do as he says Crito. . . . [T]herefore let the cup be brought."
This is too sudden for his followers. No matter how much the executioner "generously sorrows" on Socrates' account, Crito urges him to wait. Socrates is a contrarian. It is a little as if Salmon Rushdie, condemned by the jihad for his Satanic Verses, were to come running to the end of his driveway to invite the bullet instead of hiding in the house. Socrates mocks the power of the state in his insistent solicitation of its agent. He mocks the whole Darwinian code in his submission. It is not however a suicide that he contemplates. He undertakes a larger than death truth, unassailable and free of fear. He is death to their expectation, and ours, of life at all costs. Shall not one say that he has gotten over into satire?
Sundown was the appointed time, but "the sun is still upon the hill tops" when Crito says that "many a one has taken the draught late" and urges this course on Socrates. A last kiss, draught, word, the condemned prisoner's proverbial banquet, all such rituals, we seem to hear Socrates say, are denials that there is an after life and properly belong to hedonistic peoples who have no knowledge of it or themselves. Whether to assert his choice, to alleviate the general distress or some other, Socrates takes it early: "I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should only be ridiculous in my own eyes for sparing and saving a life which is already forfeit."
We have seen how much Socrates enjoyed ribbing the women, his followers and the executioner, but now he adds, a fifth jest, ribbing the gods: "What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god?" "May I or not?" he deadpans, testing the generosity of the weakened pharmacist. Does he want to reduce the dose, or what? The literal reply, that there is not enough poison for both Socrates and the gods highlights the irony prepared for the witnesses. Taken literally, pouring out a drink-offering is meant as an honor, taken ironically, we see in it more of Socrates' reputed atheism than his devotion. While one wonders which god he would most like to so "honor," (we later see that it must be Asclepius) the tongue in cheek proposal tests the executioner and the onlookers' piety, and jibes the convention itself. Were there enough for both, can we fail to observe that the ritual, along with the suggestion, would be tantamount to symbolic death for that god? This risks pushing his ambiguity over into sacrilege so he quickly adds, "I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world -- even so -- and so be it according to my prayer." His irony combined here with traditional piety suggests both facetiousness and piety as possible understandings, hence ideal for his simultaneous purpose of holding up to ridicule the false standard of piety while urging upon his hearers consciousness of the truth.
A sixth time Socrates has the last word. After taking the poison he lies down and covers his face with a sheet, besetting his audience one more time. He berates them for interfering with his peace of mind: "I have been told that a man should die in peace," he says, equivocating for his own purpose the word peace as the absence of racket, for they are weeping, Apollodorus and Crito especially. Phaedo says these two "made cowards of us all."
Socrates complains he has sent the women away just to avoid such a display, but as always, if we look for the deeper sense of comedy, we see him plotting another ruse. Phaedo says that when "he was beginning to grow cold about the groin," he uncovered his face, "for he had covered himself up." Having accused them of disturbing his peace so as to add to their guilt, thus the further to amaze them at what he is about to do, he lies down and covers his face (to get some peace). It is all theatre, for he is not irked at all. He's just going to get the last laugh and last word. He takes their tears as a pretext to cover his face so they won't suspect his ulterior purpose in his last and best joke.
This drama can be appreciated as a kind of still life. The executioner, honking and sniffling, had been tracking the progress of the drug upward from the feet: "He pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and said, no; and then his leg and so upwards and showed us that he was cold and stiff." There is only the sound now, the "no," a disembodied syllable. They expect imminent silence. Phaedo stipulates that when the poison reaches the heart he will be dead. But in the midst of the racket, which may not have ceased but grown louder, Socrates raises up the sheet. He raises up the sheet literally to deliver his next, or his last "last" message. But in the raising of the sheet, after all that has transpired, the good-byes and their acceptance of the final moment, certainly the sheet is symbolic of all that he has said in declaring that "he" is not to die.
For the seventh and final blast, his last, last, last. . . message, Socrates says to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?" The meaning is many-fold. First, the message is given to encourage Crito, who is desperate for something to do for Socrates, but the joke is multiplied many times. The "corpse" ghost rises up when it was expected that he was all but gone. The message of this apparition, this creature from beyond, read literally suggests l) a pious deed honoring the god of medicine for a "peaceful" death and journey to the other world. Read ironically, it 2) suggests that Socrates is himself the sacrifice for the health of the state, now offered to the gods, another scapegoat, he would be saying, except it is a scapecock! Further, 3) the killing of the cock suggests an impiety itself. That is, the cock justice is killed when Socrates will not escape to save Athens from its own admitted injustice. The established order of justice is thus sacrificed by itself, is its own injustice. That the cock is killed shows 4) the inefficacy of Asclepius and the gods who have failed to rescue Socrates. Asclepius however, having failed him is 5) yet to be thanked, in the sacrifice, for any failure of the god of healing has permitted Socrates' successful sacrifice of himself and his affront of ourselves and all pious remainders.
After these potent rapid-fire associations and reverberations, imperfectly understood, Socrates lays the sheet back down, presumably to expire. His previous words echo through their heads: "You must get hold of me and take care that I do not run away from you." Of course by this time nobody is quite sure but that he might not pop up one more time. They hold their breaths; thus he has effectively created the expectation in them of his life. The suspense is awful. "How shall he bury me?" How shall he get hold of me?
How a man (why callest thou me good?) should die is thus answered by Socrates not with words, but humorously, in action. We realize, don't we, that such an event is sure for ourselves too, thus universal, and since we can't be taught how to be born, that being before the fact, at least after living, after the fact, we can learn how to die, can't we? Let us appreciate his ending for what it is, since always the ambiguity allows a serious with a comic interpretation.
Stone's amicus brief for the prosecution argues that Socrates provoked the jury. A politician would have adopted "a more conciliatory demeanor" (Stone, l87), an accommodating rhetoric. Stone says truly that Socrates "treats the charges, the court, and the city with scornful amusement" (l88). Exaggeration is the hallmark of the prosecutor and of the court. Arguing that Socrates' uncompromising qualities constitute a "determination to die" (l86) or a "death wish" (l89) only confirms that such trials are of rhetoric, not of truth. We knew that. Stone's arguments say a lot more about our time than about ancient Athens. In the age of hyperbole, exaggeration is the rule.
Socrates' "scornful amusement" is hard to pin down exactly. It is not irony or sarcasm or wit entirely, but a sub-species of "antic disposition," to borrow a phrase from Hamlet. But Socrates is comfortable in his holding up a mirror to contradiction. What is the contradiction? That to live as though life is the ultimate good, and not truth, is to be dead while you live, but to live life in the midst of death, living in the act of dying, exuberantly, playfully, is to live while you die.
He jokes about this death-in-life business in the Phaedo when he invites Evenus "to come after me as quickly as he can," adding, and "so will every man who has any worthy interest in philosophy." It's another joke. Now he is mocking philosophy. Let all the philosophers seek death, but then he springs the counterpoint, "They say that is not permitted," that is, except in his case! He is full of two-edged words: "Those who persue philosophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead." But finally, out of all his audience, Simmias gets it. "It would be absurd," Socrates declares, "to be troubled when that came for which they had all along been eagerly practicing." Simmian laughs and says:
Socrates, I didn't feel much like laughing just now, but you made me laugh, For I think the multitude, if they heard what you just said about the philosophers, would say you were quite right and our people at home would agree entirely with you the philosophers desire death, and they would add that they know very well that the philosophers deserve it.
Simmias returns a joke for a joke. A high compliment, but then he is from Thebes!
Socrates' pungent demeanor is never serious without mocking, never mocking without being serious. Which is worse, when the condemned laughs in your face or when he pierces to the quick the dread conscience? But we know also the corollary truth, never joke with a businessman, he'll never get it, but if he does, look out.
Socrates has walked a fine edge in all this play, preserving at all costs his inner balance, for the soul "thinks best when. . . neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor any pleasure" trouble it, when it is "alone by itself, and takes leave of the body, and avoiding, so far as it can, all association with the body." Socrates felt like something was more important than death, but it wasn't life. What was it?
1996 © 2005Between the Bath and the Body's End:
Socrates Breaks the Decorum of Death
A. E. Reiff