THE MYTH OF SOCRATES’ DEATH
These last words of Polymnis have caused Simmias to lose all sense of time and place. The faces upon which he gazed seemed to him to be the faces of others, and their voices seemed to reach him from far away, bringing to his ears words from twenty years earlier.
Yes, it happened twenty years ago. The small, damp room was also full of young men. And on the bed there also sat an old man. He rubbed his ankles because only a moment ago chains had been removed from them by the government commissioners who also informed him at the same time that his sentence would be carried out that day. Xanthippe was still there, by his side, crying and whining. Socrates, while continuing to rub his ankles, spoke to those gathered somewhat brusquely: “Take her home, will you?” Someone indeed got up and took her and the children away. Only when the men were left alone in the Athenian prison cell could they begin serious conversation.
Simmias thought to himself, full of admiration, what a faithful friend Plato was. In one of his earlier dialogues he had written that it was Simmias and Cebes, also a Theban, who’d offered a great sum of money to save Socrates from execution. But just a few months ago Plato sent Simmias his new dialogue, Phaedo, representing the Athenian wise man’s last moments. Simmias noted that in this dialogue Plato assigned him a very noble role: he has him, immediately upon Xanthippe’s departure, go right to the heart of the matter and ask why Socrates was so eager to depart from this world. This question then begins a great discussion of the final things: what is death; is there such a thing as the soul; what happens to us when it parts from the body? Only sporadically is this conversation interrupted by the shy requests from the guard: would Socrates please try not to get too excited, or his body will warm and he will have to take the bitter poison two or three times more. But the old man has but one response to all these pleas: he waves his hand and orders that a great deal of poison should be prepared in advance. And then, with great interest, he launches upon the philosophical discussion, his last. He defends the view that death is a liberation, a passing into a better world. And who is his main opponent in this great debate? Who is trying to deprive the dying man of hope? Why, Simmias and his friend Cebes.
Simmias admired the subtlety of this idea very greatly, because he understood perfectly Plato’s intentions. After all – this is mentioned right in the first pages of the dialogue – both Simmias and Cebes had once been students of Philolaus, and Philolaus had played a leading role in the Pythagorean brotherhood. The existence of the soul, and her transmigration from one body to another following death, were among the brotherhood’s central tenets, which set out to link up various trends of mysticism with advances in mathematics.
But Philolaus was not an orthodox Pythagorean; he claimed that the soul was a kind of harmony. But the harmony of what? Of the various parts of the body? If so, then the soul would cease to exist the moment the body’s various elements were destroyed. A well tuned lyre is the necessary condition for the existence of an invisible, disembodied, beautiful, divine harmony of music. But if one breaks the lyre, and rips or cuts her strings, then this harmony dies, even though she is not herself material. It would be pure nonsense to claim that the harmony still exists into eternity, all of its own powers, only because she is so beautiful. Our body is like the lyre: it is made of various parts, and they remain in a state of certain mutual tension, or tuning, just like the lyre’s strings. When this tension changes, or weakens, such as, for example, when we are ill, its effect is immediately reflected in the state of the soul; and, though she be so very beautiful, and so different from tangible matter, she is irretrievably lost when the body’s constituting parts come apart.
Simmias read an argument like this in Phaedo – and it was supposedly his own! He smiled when he first read it; and he smiled now as he remembered it because Plato was being wittily contrary: everything he wrote was of course god’s own truth, everything that is except one detail: for Philolaus had never claimed that the soul was a harmony of the various parts of the body. So what was it a harmony of? This Philolaus revealed only to the select few, and Plato knew this well; and now, by compelling Simmias to make the argument, supposedly the argument of Philolaus, while in fact not at all, he paid homage to their shared secret.
It was in any case an excellent thought to take as Socrates’ opponents these two young men who’d become famous in their day for their own mystical inclinations.
Socrates died in May 399 B.C. It was then that this great debate about the immortality of the soul took place. Their teacher’s death scattered his friends and students. Their lives took different paths and they developed different kinds of philosophical views because their teacher had not presented them with ready-made solutions, but inculcated in them that which is most important in one’s intellectual life: how to search, how to ask questions, how to doubt.
During the twenty years which have passed since his death, Simmias traveled a great deal, saw many lands, learned many things, met many people. He also wrote a great deal. As if competing with Plato, he, too, composed philosophical dialogues. There were twenty three of them, but they were all short, each took up only one slim volume. (And all are now lost). You will recall that Simmias returned home to Thebes at the time when the plot against the tyrants and the foreign garrison, was ripening. The old man hosted the plotters in his house; they awaited the arrival of the plotters from Athens, but he -- the arrival of a guest from far away. Could that Pythagorean, who had sacrificed at the tomb of Lysis, be that man? he now asked himself.
But for the moment, Simmias did not occupy himself with thoughts of the mysterious foreigner. The Plato’s dialogue which he had just remembered would not let him rest. The wise man thought:
That meeting in Socrates’ cell has become a myth. It was no longer important what really happened. All future generations will see Socrates’ last hours with the eyes of Plato. Even I myself begin to believe that I said then what I am made to say in Phaedo. But, in fact, it was me who was the true eye-witness of the event because I was there while Plato – was not because he was sick! It was me who cried when Socrates lifted to his lips and drained the cup of poison. Apollodorus wailed then out-loud, but Socrates strode back and forth across the cell (so as to distribute the poison through the body more quickly) and spoke with a note of criticism:
“What sort of men are you? Did I not order the woman sent away so that we would not have to see such scenes? Besides, does not the moment of death deserve the dignity of respectful silence? Come on, then, calm down! Control yourselves a little!”
"So writes Plato, who only knows the story second-hand. Yet, I, thought Simmias to himself, seem ready to swear that this is how things happened and that such were indeed Socrates’ last words! But then what is truth – and what fantasy and poetry? And, in any case, what is needed more: faithful recording of facts? Or their presentation in a manner which makes them most memorable and which thereby gives them their own immortal life? I would dearly wish for such a fate for these meetings at my own bedside! Well, I may not measure up to Socrates, I suppose; nor am I yet awaiting my death. Yet, the fate of a large city, and of thousands of its citizens is being decided here, so perhaps these conversations of ours will rise one day to the stature of legend?
"Are there perhaps distinct degrees by which reality transforms itself into poetry and rises to immortality? Here is Plato who presented the last hours of Socrates somewhat faithfully, and yet – more beautifully. Then, long after all of Socrates’ students have died, someone else will take up the subject again and give it yet more color and more drama. Eventually, dramatists and poets will sing it – how much of the original events will be left by then? Perhaps no more than our names? Perhaps a thousand years from now Socrates will be worshiped as a demigod? One thing seems certain: scholars will argue as to the sort of person Socrates really was; what his true teaching was; and what were our actual arguments on the last day of his life. And no one will ever know for sure.
"In just this manner we worship the heroes of the Heroic Age; and yet, I am certain, they were once ordinary men; their only virtue may have been agility, or strength of arm; they became heroes only because of the passage of time – and the work of poets. For let us see it the other way around: just as the figure and death of Socrates seem to be gaining by degrees a certain strange glow right in front of our eyes, so it must have happened in the past, many centuries ago, when legends began to accrue around the works of some mortal men, until, in time, both they and their times became what they are to most of us today: part of a great epoch of superhuman beings.
"Someone whispered in my ear a moment ago that seven of our friends are already waiting in the wilds of Kithaiorn. We know that they are men no different from many of us: brave, yes, but subject to all the same laws of nature, and their success or failure depend entirely on the vagaries of fate, on accident. But the participants of the first expedition of seven against Thebes seem in our imagination god-like. And all of this merely because we are separated from them by the gulf of time, dozens and dozens of generations, of which each reverently received the stories from the one before, added a little more color to them, and passed them on to the one after. After all, that first expedition against Thebes predated even that against Troy! How many heroes of the Trojan War are praised as sons of the heroes of that earlier war!"
Simmias was right. The first expedition of seven against Thebes is mentioned several times in the Illiad as a great and important war in which the most important princes of their time participated. If one accepts that Troy was destroyed somewhat before the year 1200 B.C., then the first expedition would have had to take place around the year 1300 B.C. or even earlier, since it often happens in myths that distant events are pushed close together. And this is understandable: all those years in which nothing memorable happened seem to dissolve into thin air.
Simmias was also right in assuming that those distant times were not different from his: the same sort of ordinary men, ordinary concerns, ordinary works. Our decipherment of Linear B script showed this very plainly.
In the 18th century the French have painted a great number of paintings representing Socrates' death. They are all uniformly awful, including the famous Davide: pompous, rhetorical, and stiff. Too much reverence for a subject can be very bad for the art.