Week 202: The Death of Socrates, by Plato

I think it is possible to respond to philosophy in general and Plato in particular with that usefully indolent modernism ‘Whatever!’, but still to be moved by this account of the death of Plato’s mentor, which has a particularity and humanity that mark it out from the somewhat tedious discussions about the afterlife and immortality of the soul that form the bulk of the accompanying dialogue. 

And it is hard not to wonder about the Shakespearean echo here. Though Shakespeare had, according to Ben Jonson, ‘small Latin and less Greek’, there were certainly Latin translations available to him, from which he might have got enough to inspire the following lines from the account of the death of Falstaff in ‘Henry V’.

‘So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.’

The Death of Socrates

Socrates alone retained his calmness: ‘What is this strange outcry?’ he said. ‘I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience’.

When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.

He was beginning to feel cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said – they were his last words – ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’

‘The debt shall be paid’, said Crito. ‘Is there anything else?’. There was no answer to this question.

From Plato’s ‘Phaedo’, translated by Benjamin Jowett

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