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Socrates on why Death is a Blessing

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Plato’s Apology discusses the trial of a philosopher from Athens named Socrates. During the trial Socrates is accused of rejecting the gods of the city and creating his own, as well as corrupting the youth of Athens. He unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the jury of his innocence, and is bestowed a verdict of ‘guilty.’ In response to the jury’s decision, Socrates attempts to illustrate why death should be considered a blessing. I will argue that although Socrates presents possibilities that might await one after death, he does not exhaust all of these possibilities. Additionally, I will argue that the theories Socrates claims await after death cannot necessarily be considered blessings. To prove these points, I will explain the argument and go on to show counterexamples which demonstrate the flaws in Socrates’ argument. Last of all I will show that although the argument presented by Socrates may have its shortcomings, it is ultimately a crucial step for Socrates in preserving his reputation and validating his life goals.

Upon receiving his verdict of ‘guilty’ and being sentenced to death, Socrates presents a speech to show why one should not fear death. He explains to the jurors they have helped him become a martyr and shows them how death will be a positive thing. “What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken” (Apology 40b). Socrates then goes even farther and argues why death is a blessing, as death must consist of one of two things: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a chance and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.” He argues “if it is complete lack of perception, like a dreamless sleep, then death would be a great advantage” (Apology 40c). Else Socrates explores death as being a “change from here to another place” and upon relocating to this other place being able to question the great minds of Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer. If the latter is true, Socrates states this will bring him great happiness and he is “willing to die many times.”We can enhance our perspective on the argument by forming it into logical statements.

(1) Death is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or death is a relocation of the soul.

(2) If death is a complete lack of perception, then death is like a dreamless sleep.

(3) A night of dreamless sleep is better than most days and nights in one’s life.

(4) Thus, if death is a complete lack of perception, it is a blessing. (from 2 and 3)(5) If death is a relocation of the soul, then I (Socrates) will get to spend my time talking with and examining the great figures of history and all others who have died.

(6) Talking with and examining the great figures of history and others would an extraordinary happiness.

(7) Thus, if death is a relocation of the soul, it is a blessing. (from 5 and 6)(8) Therefore, death is a blessing. (from 1, 4, and 7)Upon reading this argument it seems absurd, but on further analysis it is logically correct. Socrates presents two theories that might await after death, and he claims that either case would be a blessing. A flaw in his reasoning which he failed to take into account is that his theory does not exhaust all the possibilities. Once other possibilities are considered, his argument is much less convincing.

Socrates might be right that either, the dead are nothing, or death is a kind of ‘relocation of the soul.’ However if we accept this premise, we should not necessarily accept the premise he uses to characterize the relocation of the soul (Premise 5). Many other possibilities exist such as a migration of the soul into a fish or spider, or the Christian view of an eternity of suffering in Hell. Premise 7 is therefore disproved as we would not consider these to be a blessing. All options are therefore not explored by Socrates.

There are several other flaws we can find in the argument presented by Socrates. As I’ve just said, many people would not necessarily agree that a relocation of the soul would be a blessing. Socrates believes this to be a blessing because he will be able to question the minds of great figures of the past. A philosophic mind might agree wholeheartedly with the point of view Socrates holds. However, his speech is directed toward the common folk of Athens, and his audience may not be receptive to these ideas given their views. The jury and audience’s perception of philosophy is a problem Socrates fails to take into account is in his speech.

Socrates discusses the second possibility of death being nothing, and he expresses this as a dreamless sleep. These are similar in the way of having a lack of consciousness, but most would not necessarily characterize a dreamless sleep as being better than most of the days and nights of our lives. Last of all, if a night of deep sleep is a good thing, the characteristic which makes it good is waking and feeling refreshed. If death is nothingness, one will never awake from it and therefore never feel the characteristic making a night of deep sleep a good thing. If no good thing is able to come from this, Socrates is not able to proclaim a dreamless sleep to be a blessing.

Even though one can find flaws in it, proving this argument is essential for the basis of Socrates’ trial. This argument will provide a means for Socrates to show his true devotion to philosophy by putting his own life on the line for his beliefs. Throughout the ordeal he has no motivation for pleading his case and attempting to receive sympathy from the jury, because of his stance on death. This is made evident multiple times during the trial. One such example is toward the beginning of his trial he expresses to the jury he will speak as he does in the marketplace. The focus of this argument serves the purpose of introducing the jury to the manner in which he will conduct himself in court. In addition, it will set the tone of his defense and display his feeling toward risking death. The general sentiment in Athens is displeasure at the way he conducts himself in public, and therefore it is risky for him to conduct himself in this way. He decides to take this risk and ultimately shows he does not fear death.

As the trial is concluding, Socrates presents a philosophical argument to let the jury know his stance on death before they make their decision. He blatantly admits to the jury it is silly to be afraid of death if no one knows the result of it. Even more daring, Socrates states it will do great harm to the city of Athens to kill a great philosopher, “for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me” (Apology 30e). His intent here is to capitalize on his last opportunity to defend his death before the jury makes their decision. Because of his feeling toward death, he has no trouble making statements which may feel threatening to the jury.

The jury then announces their verdict of guilt. Here he has the opportunity to provide a lesser punishment than what the plaintiffs propose. The jury then decides which punishment they see more fitting. In the most impressive backing of his beliefs yet, he proposes an outrageous counter punishment. He proposes being honored by feasting in the most highly regarded temple of Athens. Such a proposal will surely not be accepted nor will it be taken kindly. In committing such an act, he is in essence ensuring death to be his fate. This dialog brings out the true philosopher in Socrates and makes clear without doubt his dedication to philosophy. In this scene he is not only professing his adamant belief in being innocent, but he is showing he believes so strongly in what he is doing, he is willing to die for the cause. Such a bold action makes it very clear to his audience of his lacking fear of death.

In this paper I have shown that although Socrates attempts to illustrate why death should be considered a blessing, he does not exhaust all possibilities which should be considered. In addition, the theories he claims occur after death cannot necessarily be considered a blessing. Clearly problems exist in the proposal Socrates has made but his argument is ultimately important for him in preserving his reputation and validating his life goals.

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