To choose Socrates’ death as a subject might be regarded as a bit presumptuous, but the temptation was too great to let
this chance pass. Socrates’ death has been described in detail by Plato and is based on verbal accounts of the events of the
day of his death. For this article I made use of Phaedo, the last dialogue written by Plato, which was first published in 360
BC and republished in 2008 with a translation of Benjamin Jowett by Forgotten Books, Hong Kong.
Plato's Phaedo is one of the great dialogues of his middle period, along with the Republic and the Symposium. The
Phaedo, which depicts the death of Socrates, is also Plato's fourth and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days.
In the dialogue, Socrates discusses the nature of the afterlife on his last day before being executed by drinking hemlock.
Socrates has been imprisoned and sentenced to death by an Athenian jury for not believing in the gods of the state and for
corrupting the youth of the city. The dialogue is told from the perspective of one of Socrates' students, Phaedo of Elis.
Having been present at Socrates' death bed, Phaedo relates the dialogue from that day to Echecrates, a Pythagorean
philosopher. By engaging in dialectic with a group of Socrates' friends, including the Thebans: Cebes and Simmias,
Socrates explores various arguments for the soul's immortality in order to show that there is an afterlife in which the soul will
dwell following death. Phaedo tells the story that following the discussion he and the others were there to witness the death
of Socrates. 1)
My aim is to see if the definition of that time has much changed compared to what is presently generally accepted.
Was the “label” that stood for Socrates’ death then the same as it is now? Was it suicide, or would a term like: assisted
suicide, euthanasia, or an execution after a capital punishment, more appropriate. For this I will take the presently generally
accepted definitions for those four ways of dying.
The presently generally accepted definitions I choose are:
• Suicide: Suicide (Latin suicidium, from sui caedere, "to kill oneself") is the act of intentionally causing one's own
death. Suicide is often committed out of despair, the cause may be frequently attributed to a mental disorder such s
depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Stress factors such
as financial difficulties or troubles with interpersonal relationships often play a role. 2)
• Assisted Suicide is a general term for a suicide committed by someone with assistance from another person or
persons, typically in regard to people suffering from a severe physical illness. It is often confused with euthanasia
(sometimes called "mercy killing"), in that euthanasia refers to the killing of another in order to relieve dire suffering, and
physician aid in dying, which is a practice in which a physician provides a competent, terminally ill patient with a
prescription for a lethal dose of medication, upon the patient's request, which the patient intends to use to end his or her
own life. 3)
• Euthanasia refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering.
There are different euthanasia laws in each country. England defines euthanasia as "a deliberate intervention undertaken
with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering". In the Netherlands, defines it as "termination of life
by a doctor at the request of a patient. Euthanasia is categorized in different ways, which include voluntary, non-voluntary,
or involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is legal in some countries and U.S. states. Non-voluntary euthanasia is illegal in all
countries. Involuntary euthanasia is usually considered murder. 4)
• Execution after Capital Punishment: Capital punishment or the death penalty is a legal process whereby a person is
put to death by the state as a punishment for a crime. The judicial decree that someone be punished in this manner is a
death sentence, while the actual process of killing the person is an execution. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are
known as capital crimes or capital offences. 5)
I choose Wikipedia on purpose since it is the most commonly used encyclopaedia and in most countries these terms are
linked to litigation, discussions about terminology (like the difference in England and the Netherlands for the act of
euthanasia) and controversies between religious and non-religious populations.
Let us first have a look at the situation how Socrates came into a situation where he had to die.
At an early date in Socrates’ life the oracle at Delphi was asked if anyone were wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded
that no-one was wiser. Socrates believed the Oracle's response was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no
wisdom whatsoever.6) He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens-
statesmen, poets, and artisans-in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates
concluded: while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at
all. Socrates realized the Oracle was correct; while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he
himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of
his own ignorance. Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish,
turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended himself at his trial, when asked to
propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead,
to finance the time he spent as Athens' benefactor. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the
youth of Athens and of impiety ("not believing in the gods of the state"), and subsequently death by drinking a mixture
containing the poison hemlock. The customary offer to choose between life-long exile or death was denied to him since he
refused at every stage of the trial to compromise his principles, and rejected all efforts to escape or modify the
consequences of the verdict.
According to Xenophon's story, Socrates purposefully gave a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he
would be better off dead". Xenophon goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and
how Socrates would be glad to circumvent them by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates also
wished to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."
But what was Socrates his opinion about death and choosing one’s own death. It is difficult, to the point of
impossible to find proof or firsthand evidence of Socrates’ opinions and thoughts, since he didn’t write anything himself. All
knowledge about him is based on the writings of his pupil Plato as witnessed by himself of told to him by others.
“Then I must try to make a better impression upon you than I did when defending myself before the judges, for I am quite
ready to acknowledge, Simmias and Cebes, that I ought to be grieved at death, if I were not persuaded that I am going to
other gods who are wise and good and to men departed, who are better than those whom I leave behind; and therefore I
do not grieve as I might have done, for I have good hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead, and, as has
been said of old, some far better thing for the good that for the evil.” 7)
Phaedo pictures the philosophical discussion as Socrates remarks that a true philosopher ought to welcome death,
though suicide is not legitimate. Cebes is puzzled by what seems to be a contradiction-- that those for whom death would
be a blessing cannot take their own lives, but must wait for their lives to be taken from them--and asks Socrates to
articulate this view. Socrates explains that we are the possessions of the gods, and so have no right to harm ourselves.
Cebes replies that this is a satisfactory answer as to why we should not commit suicide, but he is still unclear as to why a
philosopher should welcome death. Cebes reasons that if our lives should be devoted to the service of the gods, the most
perfect of masters, we should also be grateful for this service and saddened by the prospect of being released. Socrates
answers that his light-heartedness in the face of death comes from the certainty that he will find even better gods and friends
in the afterlife. He accompanies this remark with the conviction that there is an afterlife, which is good for those who have
been good in this life and bad for those who have been wicked. According to Socrates, true philosophers spend their entire
lives preparing for death and dying, so it would be uniquely odd if they were to be sad when the moment of death finally
Death, Socrates explains, is the separation of the soul from the body. Socrates also has Simmias' agreement that
philosophers distance themselves as much as possible from bodily pleasures--food, drink, sex, fancy clothes, etc. Rather,
philosophers are only concerned with the well-being of their souls, and want to free the soul as much as possible from
associations with the body. Our senses are imprecise and may deceive us, Socrates asserts, so the best kind of wisdom
comes from reason alone, when distanced as far as possible from the distractions of the body. Socrates, with Simmias
agreeing, asserts that there exist such things as justice itself, goodness itself, beauty itself, and so on. These things cannot be
detected by the senses, but only through the efforts of the unaided intellect. Any inquiry into justice, goodness, or whatever
else will only be productive if we have a clear idea of what these things are in and of themselves. Our quest for the truth will
be much aided by death if at that point our soul is completely separated from the contamination of the body. Throughout
their lives, philosophers, in their search for truth, have attained a state as close to death as possible, trying to distance the
soul as much as they can from the needs of the body. Therefore, death should only be seen as a help to philosophers, giving
them even greater separation between soul and body. Socrates also points out that only a philosopher who does not fear
death can truly be said to possess courage and self-control. If everyone but philosophers fear death, the only reason a
"brave" non-philosopher would face death would be through a fear of something worse than death. Similarly, a non-
philosopher practicing self-control would only be doing so in order to indulge a greater pleasure that follows from the act of
self-control. These people would be exchanging pleasures for pleasures, pains for pains, fears for fears. The philosopher
exchanges all these things for wisdom, the only thing of true value. This pursuit of wisdom will cleanse the philosopher of all
the impurities of bodily life and its passions, preparing him for an exalted afterlife among the gods.” 8)
Just before he drinks the hemlock Socrates states: “I do not mean to affirm that the description which I have given
of the soul and her mansions is exactly true - a man of sense ought hardly to say that. But I do say that, inasmuch as the
soul is shown to be immortal, he may venture to think, not improperly or unworthy, that something of the kind is true. The
venture is a glorious one, and he ought to comfort himself with words like these, which is the reason why lengthen out the
Wherefore, I say, let the man be of good cheer about his soul, who has cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body
as alien to him, and rather hurtful in their effects; who has adorned the soul in her own proper jewels, which are
temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth-in these arrayed she is ready to go on her journey to the
world below, when her time comes. You, Simmias and Cebes, and all other men, will depart at some time or other. Me
already, as the tragic poet would say, the voice of fate calls. Soon I must drink the poison; and I think that I better prepare
the bath first, in order that the women may not have the trouble of washing my body after I am dead.” 9)
Socrates is prepared, ready and willing to die a death that he does not see as a suicide since his life is taken from
him, and it is not a death sought willingly and voluntarily. He merely seemed to have reasoned for himself, and others, that
the right time had come for him to die. As such his death does not fit the present day prerequisite of intentionally dying, as
well that Socrates didn’t fit the state of mind of the definition since there is no evidence of disorders or stress factors. Also
the absence of a physical illness excludes the assisted suicide. Socrates does not show an evidence of having a life with pain
and suffering, and as such that is not euthanasia. This leaves execution after capital punishment as the remaining option. If he
was offered a choice between exile and death, the choice for death could be regarded as an assisted suicide whereby
Socrates could have regarded the prospect of a life in exile as unbearable suffering. But this was not the case so Socrates
was executed, and he acted at the time as a cooperative convict to his executioner.
The Phaedo has made a great impression on me. Its simplicity, clarity, and logic, will help me to continue my work
with dying people. Socrates his approach to death, the separation between body and soul, and the continuation of the soul
does have great resemblance with Christianity and other more dogmatic religions. His philosophy makes the origin, and the
approach towards dying and death, of these religions more understandable and as such easier to integrate in my work.
Erik L.B. Slebos
1) Wikipedia.com subject: Phaedo
2) Wikipedia.com subject: Suicide
3) Wikipedia.com subject: Assisted Suicide
4) Wikipedia.com subject: Euthanasia
5) Wikipedia.com subject: Execution after Capital Punishment
6) The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas, 1991, pages 31-40, Ballantine Books
7) Phaedo, Plato, translated by B. Jowett, page 9, 2008, Forgotten Books.
8) Spark Notes, Philosophy Study Guides, Phaedo, 61c -69e
9) Phaedo, Plato, translated by B. Jowett, page 92, 2008, Forgotten Books.
Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W.H.D. Rouse, 1956, Mentor Book.