2. The Death of Socrates and the Birth of Reason

This is a statue of Socrates slumped in a chair, head down and eyes closed after he succumbed by drinking the poisoned hemlock.

On the appointed day of his death, Socrates, at 70 years old, is in a jail in Athens, Greece. His friends and family are allowed to see him. Socrates calmly discusses matters of the afterlife before drinking the hemlock. 

Socrates’ Parting Advice

“Such is the nature of things,” Socrates said. “When the dead arrive at the place to which each has been led by his guardian spirit, they are first judged as to whether they have led a good and pious life. Those who have led an average life make their way to the Acheron and embark upon such vessels as there are for them and proceed to the lake. There they are purified for any wrongdoings they may have committed. Those who are deemed incurable because of the enormity of their crimes – their fitting fate is to be hurled into Tartarus, never to emerge from it. Those who are deemed to have lived an extremely pious life are freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison. Those having purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which it is hard to describe clearly. Because of these things, one must make every effort to share in virtue and wisdom in one’s life, for the reward is beautiful and the hope is great.” 

“Now the rest of you,” Socrates continued, “will each take that journey at some other time, but my fated day calls me now, as a tragic character might say. And it is about time for me to have my bath, for I think it better to have it before I drink the poison and save the women the trouble of washing the corpse.”

When Socrates had said this, Crito spoke, “Very well, Socrates, what are your instructions to me and the others about your children or anything else?”

“Nothing new,” said Socrates, “but what I am always saying, that you will please me and mine and yourselves by taking good care of your own selves in whatever you do.”

“We shall be eager to follow your advice,” said Crito, “but how shall we bury you?”

“In any way you like if you can catch me and I do not escape you,” Socrates said, laughing quietly. Then, looking at us, he said, “After I have drunk the poison, I shall no longer be with you, but will leave you to go and enjoy some good fortune of the blessed. I will not stay after I die, but I shall go away. You must be of good cheer and say that you are burying only my body, and bury it any way you like and think most customary.”

Socrates Prepares for Death

After saying this, he got up and went to another room to take his bath and Crito followed him. The rest stayed and questioned what had been said and talked about the great misfortune that had befallen them. They talked about that the felt that they had lost a father and would be orphans the rest of their lives. When he had washed, his children were brought to him, two were small and one was older. The women of his household also came to him and asked him for departing instructions. Then he sent the women and children away. It was now close to sunset. 

He came and sat down after his bath when the officer of the state came and stood by him and said, “I shall not reproach you as I do the others. They get angry at me and curse me when, obeying my superiors, I tell them to drink the poison. During the time you have been here, I have come to know you in other ways as the noblest, the gentlest, and the best man who has ever come here. So now too I know that you will not make trouble for me. You know what message I bring. Farewell to you, and try to endure what you must as easily as possible.” The officer was weeping as he turned away and went out. 

Socrates looked up at him and said, “Farewell to you also; we shall do as you bid us.” And turning to his friends, he said, “How pleasant the man is! During the whole time I have been here, he has come in and conversed with me from time to time, a most agreeable man. And now he genuinely weeps for me. Come, Crito, let us obey him. Let someone bring the poison if it is ready; if not, let the man prepare it. 

“But Socrates,” said Crito, “I think the sun still shines upon the hills and has not yet set. I know that others drink the poison quite a long time after they have received the order, eating and drinking quite a bit. Do not hurry; there is still some time.”

“It is natural, Crito, for them to do so,” said Socrates, “for they think they derive some benefit from doing this, but it is not fitting for me. I do not expect any benefit from drinking the poison a little later, except to become ridiculous in my own eyes for clinging to life. So do as I ask and do not refuse me.”

Socrates Drinks the Poison Hemlock

Hearing this, Crito nodded to the slave who was standing near him. The slave went out and, after a time, came back with the man who was to administer the poison carrying it in a cup. When Socrates saw him he said, “Well my good man, you are an expert at this; what must I do?”

“Just drink it and walk around until your legs feel heavy, and then lie down and it will act of itself.” And he offered the cup to Socrates, who took it quite cheerfully without any nervousness. 

Socrates looked at the man from under his eyebrows as was his habit and asked, “Can I pour out a libation to the gods?”

“We only mix as much as we believe will suffice,” the man said.

“I understand,” Socrates said, “but one is allowed, indeed one must, utter a prayer to the gods that the journey from here to yonder may be fortunate. This is my prayer and may it be so.”

And while saying this, as he held the cup, he then drained it calmly and easily. Everyone started crying since they could no longer hold back their tears. Everyone broke down except Socrates. 

“What is this, you strange fellows,” Socrates said. It is mainly for this reason that I sent the women away, to avoid such unseemliness. For I am told one should die in good silence. So keep quiet and control yourselves.”

His words made everyone ashamed and they all tried to hold back their tears. He walked around, and when he said his legs were heavy, he lay on his back as he had been told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body, and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressing his hand  upon his foot. He asked Socrates if he felt that and Socrates said no. Then he pressed his calves and made his way up his body and showed everyone that it was cold and stiff. As his belly was getting cold, Socrates uncovered his head for he had covered it and said these last words, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius, make this offering to him and do not forget.” (A rooster was sacrificed  to Asclepius by sick people hoping for a cure. Socrates apparently saying that death is the cure for the ills of life.)

“It shall be done,” Crito said, “Is there anything else?”

But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards Socrates made a movement; the man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this, Crito closed his mouth and his eyes. Such was the death of the man that his friends considered the best, the wisest, and the most upright. 

“You are wrong sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or bad man.

 – Socrates at his trial

The source of the adaptation of this story is:

Plato, Five Dialogues, Apology, Second Edition, pp. 21-44, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Additional Sources:

Coppleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book, Doubleday, New York, 1985

Hughes, Bettany, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life Paperback – Illustrated, Vintage Publishers, 2012, New York City

Kraut, Richard. “Socrates”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 23 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Socrates.

Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo, Second Edition, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Revised by John M. Cooper, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Plato, The Last Days of Socrates, Revised Ed., Harold Tarrant (Editor, Translator, Introduction) and Hugh Tredennick (Translator), Penguin Classics, New York, 2003

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

Wilson, Emily, The Death of Socrates, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007

Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Waterfield, Robin H, Editor and Translator; Tedennick, Hugh, Translator, Penguin Classics, Ney York, Revised ed., 1990

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