Socratic Philosophy as Preparation for Death

This essay argues that Socrates provides a clear and consistent attitude towards philosophy that is justified by and grounded in religious conviction. The core of Socrates philosophical beliefs concern his convictions regarding death, with him stating that “the primary aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.”(64a) His philosophy provides a method for ensuring that the soul will enter Hades in its purest form and attain the highest reward by being granted access into heaven. (113;114c). Socrates’ definition of philosophy is thus inextricably bound to his religious convictions. Although philosophy’s literal translation means “lover of wisdom,” it was not just an activity that one casually partook in, but a mode of living that pervaded every aspect of life as a way of transcending the physical world and possessing near-divine wisdom.(82c)

Socrates describes how in his youth he wanted to know the causes of everything and so studied the natural sciences. (96b) He reports that there were many conflicting and contradictory explanations of causes which caused him much confusion. All explanations and causes rooted in the physical world, he explained, were merely unsatisfactory opinions liable to change, and none allowed him to arrive at the true causes of things. (96e)  At that point he decided that he could not allow or persuade himself in believing the cause of anything. It wasn’t until he read the writings of Anaxagoras who said that the Mind directs and is the cause of all things was Socrates enlivened and reinspired.[1] (97c)

Here we find that Socrates arrives at the conclusion that in order to determine a cause, the Mind must investigate what is best, or what is the best way for the thing under investigation to be.(83a-b; 97c,d) In this way Socrates believed that by examining what is best, and likewise understanding its opposite, what is worst, one could uncover the true causes of everything. (97d; 98a-b) Socrates was soon disappointed to learn that Anaxagoras was not faithful to the idea of Mind as he made no use of Mind for directing and being responsible for the management of all things and their causes. Instead he learned that Anaxagoras fell into the same habit of attributing physical phenomenon to causes, rather than acknowledging the role of Mind.

Socrates felt that so long as we explored the external world and failed to look within ourselves in order to locate what is truly good in order to determine what is best, we would fail at achieving any truth or knowledge of true causation.[2](98b-d) He illustrates this point by explaining that men who stare too long at the sun while studying an eclipse would ruin their eyes unless they studied it indirectly through the reflection of a pool or something similar.(99d,e) In this way Socrates decides that investing truth should be done indirectly, with the Mind and words rather than with the eyes and senses, in order to discover truth. Maintaining a compelling conviction of truth, stating it as a hypothesis, and challenging it through dialogue and argumentation with interlocutors, then, is the best way to exercise proper reason, uncover truth or illusion, and render clarity to reality. (87d; 90e; 98e-100c)

Hence, this is why Socrates is so fervent for discourse: he assumes that virtues or Forms, such as Beauty and Goodness, exist in themselves for their own sake, and that their presence is self-evident and thus do not need additional or extraneous justification of causation or relation.(100d-e) This rendition elucidates the connection between Mind and its role in causation. One sees that Mind, as Socrates assumes, is responsible for determining what is best by striving to reach that which is Equal, the highest form which is the standard of all other forms.(65d; 75b; 97c,d) This propensity to reach the Equal is a method of pattern seeking—through philosophical dialog and argumentation—which allows the synthesis of ideas and the accumulation of experience, both of which clarify reason, yield wisdom, and purify the soul.(68b; 79d)

While this provides a preliminary explanation for Socrates’ definition of philosophy, one must examine the origin of reason itself to understand the connection between the practice of philosophy and death. With the origin of reason in mind, one discovers that the arguments Socrates posits for practicing philosophy rely on a few loaded premises, namely that there is an afterlife, there is soul, and the body is deceitful.

The afterlife described by Socrates is drawn directly from the pagan religion maintained by Greek culture at the time. Throughout the Phaedo Socrates continually refers to Hades in order to support his arguments for practicing philosophy, indicating that this enculturation is deeply embedded into his psyche, despite how radical he may appear.(68a; 108; 113) The posited existence of an afterlife grants the existence of forms, Equal and Good, as well as the idea of the recollection of these forms. In addition, his premise of an afterlife accommodates the idea of an immortal soul, arguing that as the soul is indestructible it is consequently deathless. (106; 107c)

According to Socrates the soul is immortal and indestructible, existing eternally, while the body is temporal and liable to disease and death. The body and soul are diametrically opposed to one another, existing as a duality that exemplifies the concept of opposites which Socrates holds to be the source where all change originates, consisting of a continual process of coming to be and dying away.(70b; 77d) From this duality he determines the existence of that which is visible and that which is invisible.(78c; 79c) The visible are particulars derived from bodily senses and therefore are changing, divisible and subject to mutation and therefore susceptible to deceive.(80b; 83a-b) Facts and opinions are derived from such things and are therefore not to be seen as true.(65a, 79c) The invisible, on the other hand, is indivisible, uniform, and changeless. Virtues, Forms, and Wisdom are derived by investigating the invisible, namely the soul.(79d)

In contrast, the body is the prison or cage that the soul incarnated.(83e; 62b) It consists of all that is visible, all that appeals to the physical senses, the primal desires and animal appetites and instincts in men.(66c; 82e) Because the body needs continual nurture and attendance it misleads the mind into thinking that the physical senses are real.(66c) This fuses them together, driving rivets that nail and bind them, causing the soul to become ‘corporeal’ and full of body and contributing to further self-incarceration. (83c-e) At death, when the Soul finds its way into Hades, it cannot find companionship nor can it finds its way into a proper place because it is not familiar with the surrounds and Form or, being pulled and drawn by the body, it falls into and incarnates another body. (83d, e; 106d; 107c,d; 113d, e; 114a,b)

The soul, existing prior to the body with other souls, where Forms reside, knows everything but, by inhabiting the body, forgets. The process of learning is a process of recollecting this forgotten knowledge.(72e; 73a-b)

Socrates believes that the Mind, as the author of reality and arbiter of what is best, should always maintain primacy over the body.(66a; 79d; 83b; 97c) The greatest evil one could commit is to yield to the senses, respond to the desires, or any physical reaction which would cause the Mind to connect pleasure and pain to some physical object and believe that this connection is very clear and very true, which Socrates says is not.(83c) The body obscures reason and obstructs knowledge. Every instance where man places faith in his senses, and not his reason, to determine what is true of things, he is further fusing his soul and body together. The consequence, as we mentioned before, is that when the body dies and the soul descends into the underworld, the soul, still ‘full of body’, finds no part in company of the divine, pure and uniform, and so it falls back into another body when it departs rather than residing with pure souls in the higher realms of the afterlife. (83e, 106d, 108)

For Socrates, philosophy was the art of acquiring understanding through dialog and argumentation as a means of reminding the soul what it had forgotten before birth when inhabited the realm of the Forms.(74e) In this way Mind—reason or soul—acts as  the sole mechanism for rendering clarity of true reality. It purifies the soul by examining things without the senses in order to ascertain the truth of things. (65a-d; 66a; 79d)  Socrates believed that philosophy gets a hold of a soul by pointing out the deceit of the senses and persuading it to trust only in itself, much in the same way one catches a fever, almost a sickness-unto-death in which one is continually practicing for dying.(64a; 82a; 83a-b)

The practice of philosophy allows one to overcome death by embracing the Mind, truth , and reason fully, thus distancing and separating the soul from the body. (64e; 66e) Pure knowledge and wisdom can only be attained through the application of philosophical reasoning acts to separate and free the soul from its corporeal prison. Thus: To fully embrace death is love wisdom and truth.(61e; 62; 63c,e; 64a; 68a;106; 113; 114) Whereas to resent or hate death is to love the body and its desires.(68b; 82e; 83e; 108)

In this light philosophy—as the practice and process of separating the soul from the body—is an art of death. Through the use of Mind, by employing reason to express and render true reality and pure knowledge of forms, one purifies the soul and guarantees a place in the highest realms of heaven among the most divine gods. (83e; 90e; 109e; 110a-e; 111a-c;114c,e)

While Socrates metaphysical commitments provide a consistent justification for his definition of philosophy, a hint of Socratic pragmatism appears when he considers the possibility that such an afterlife may not exist and all his metaphysical convictions are wrong. His move resembles that of Pascal’s Wager and James’ Will to Believe as he confesses that to believe such things are noble even if they are insensible.(114d) He prescribes that, since the Mind is evidently immortal, even if his metaphysical claims regarding the afterlife are inaccurate, there surely exists something similar, so one should will oneself to believe them to be true, at which point he recommends incantations are a method of self-affirming such things.(114d) Whatever the case, Socrates believes that man will have good cheer about his own soul when he has occupied his thoughts with virtues and disregarded the pleasures of the body.(63e; 114e)

To conclude, Socrates’ definition of philosophy as the ‘love of wisdom,’ ‘the preparation for death and dying,’ ‘the cleansing or purification of the soul,’ and ‘the separation of the soul from the body’ are apart of a coherent, consistent belief system rooted in his belief in Greek Paganism and the attainment of eternal heavenly rewards. Because truth and wisdom existed in the afterlife, where the soul originated, the holy and pure man trusts in his own soul and pursues intangible truths and wisdom with the hope of attaining entrance into the highest heavenly realm. Philosophy, then, was the only activity that properly developed the Mind, separated the body and purified the soul, in a way that allowed the one to embrace death as the cure for all of life’s ills.(118)

Works Cited

Plato, & Grube, G. M. A. (2002). Five dialogues. (2 ed.).Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

[1] The idea that the mind directs the causes of all things is very Humean. In Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding we find a similar argument that the internal relationship or connexion we attribute to cause and effect is actually a false illusion arising from the habituated exposure of simultaneously occurring phenomena which produces the conditioned response of attributing a falsely perceived internal connexion rather than acknowledging it as simply correlation.

[2] This explanation of Mind as fulfilling the role of causation appears to appeal to philosophical pragmatism or, more specifically, conceptualism.(85c-e) Seen in this light, the Socratic dialogs provide the reader a glimpse of Socrates methods of identifying causation or ‘reason’ through the deconstruction of the interlocutor’s Mind, that is, by delineating motivations and semantics in the context of common cultural knowledge. In the same way, Socrates often elicits fact-value distinctions in his dialogs; that is, bringing attention to what-is (descriptive) and what ought-to-be (prescriptive). (79d; 83c)

2 thoughts on “Socratic Philosophy as Preparation for Death”

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