If all of Western philosophy is footnotes to Plato, then Socrates’ best lines are the epigraphs: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “He is wise who knows he knows not.” “All of philosophy is training for death.” What to make, then, of his not-so-quoteworthy final words: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget”?
This apparent “trivial concern with Crito’s unreliable memory,” as Madison, a doctoral student at Loyola University, Chicago, puts it, concludes the Phaedo, the last of the trial and execution dialogues, rather oddly. In this beautiful—and frustrating—dialogue, Socrates speaks hopefully about the afterlife, admonishing his friends not to worry about death and explaining why they should even look forward to it. And so, Madison writes, “the sheer banality of Socrates’ last words pleads for the reader to search for their deeper significance.”
In the standard view, Socrates is deep—deeply gloomy. Asclepius is the god of healing; Friedrich Nietzsche thus imagines Socrates moaning, “O Crito, life is a disease,” the cock serving as remittance for the cure by death. Most philosophers concur. Socrates always talks up the life of the ascetic. The body hampers the mind and soul with its petty wants, needs, debilities, and imperfections.
That the founder of Western philosophy “denigrates our earthly existence and urges us to deny and repress our passions, instincts, desires, and drives” gives many an excuse to write him off. It doesn’t help that Socrates’ bathetic turn—seemingly pro-suicide—follows a spate of disturbingly unconvincing arguments. Had the barefoot philosopher OD’ed on hemlock sooner than we thought?
Madison thinks Socrates deserves more credit and suggests two ways to redeem the passage. First, don’t read it literally. Socrates uses “death as a metaphor for conversion to philosophy.” The soul and the body are “metonyms for higher and lower ways of life.” Socrates calls for rejection not of the flesh but of what the flesh stands for. Instead of yearning for death and knowledge of the afterlife, he yearns for “a life characterized by justice, purity, and understanding”—a philosophical life. The appeal to Asclepius is to heal us of the bodily distractions from philosophy, so that we may attend to Socrates’ prized “care of the soul.”
Second, instead of translating the last words as “and do not forget,” Madison suggests “and do not be careless.” This makes sense: Socrates had worried most not about his friends’ memory but about “the lack of concern people showed for the state of their soul, and the careless way in which they allowed themselves to be consumed and corrupted by their baser desires and interests.”
So Socrates was no morbid, otherworldly type. He loved his family, his friends, the little pleasures of daily life, says Madison: “The life he calls us to is not a diminished life of denial and denigration, but an enriched and enhanced life—a noble life that is its own reward . . . for which we should give thanks.” A fitting start to any good philosophy.