The Philosopher Practices for Death - Plato's Phaedo - Paragraph 63 -70

The Philosopher Practices for Death and Dying

The Phaedo is the Socratic dialogue which describes the final lead up to Socrates' accepting his fate, drinking the hemlock, and dying. This situation occasions a discussion on death. In this excerpt, Socrates expresses that he is not afraid of death. Death is actually what the philosopher practices for his whole life. What could this possibly mean? Well, to seek wisdom, to live rightly, is to seek to transcend the limitations of the body. The physical world is always changing, besought with all types of passions, desires, instincts, and temporary goods, while the intellectual realm is always the same, universal, perfect, enlightening, and everlasting. Therefore, the philosopher seeks this realm which can only be fully attained when one is no longer dragged down by the physicality of the body. Therefore, the philosopher practices for death. He longs for the revelation that will show him the fullness of wisdom, that will place him with the gods, with the virtuous men, and with knowledge of the forms themselves. It is only in death that the truth of reality is revealed. 

Philosophers Live Close to Death

Beginning this section of the Phaedo, Socrates says that he is not afraid of death because he believes in life after death and that there will be virtuous men there, not wicked. "I want to make my argument before you, my judges, as to why I think that a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder. ... I am afraid that other people do not realize that the one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death. Now if this is true, it would be strange indeed if they were eager for this all their lives and then resent it when what they have wanted and practiced for a long time comes upon them." 

Simmias, Socrates' interlocutor, brings up a comical point that the average folk view philosophers as nearly dead anyway because of the way in which they reject the pleasures and things of the body. The philosopher rejects pleasures such as food, drink, sex, fine clothes and ornaments. Rather, the philosopher turns away from the body to focus on the soul. 1 In turning away from the body, true knowledge is made known to the philosopher, as the senses and body only present a confused and unclear knowledge of the world. "And indeed the soul reasons best when none of these senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain nor pleasure, but when it is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its search for reality." 

The True Reality of the Forms

The most real aspects of reality are those which cannot be sensed, but only known with the mind, for example, Justice, Goodness, Beauty, an all other conceptual ideas. Ideas are essential, most true, and unchanging. Thus the one who more perfectly attains them is the one who is not dragged down by the body. "Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears, and in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom when ever it is associated with it." The body gets sick, needs physical nourishment, has stubborn desires, seeks wealth and comfort, is filled with many illusions and fears, and all around enslaves most people. The body is a hinderance to truth. 2

Embracing Death and the Revelation of Wisdom

All this to say that if death is the separation of the body and the soul, then it is only in death that we can truly attain what we seek, pure knowledge of the nature of reality, of the forms. In life we are always hindered by the body in this, so the philosopher is the one who seeks to tame the body and prepare himself for the ultimate revelation of truth in death. "While we live, we shall be closet to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with its nature but purify ourselves from it until the god himself frees us." Thus, Socrates is happy and ready to receive, finally, what he has been training for his whole life, the unveiling of reality in its fullest form through death. Clearly, now, it seems ridiculous for Socrates to fear death, or to turn his back on that which he has been training for at the last minute. Like a lover who seeks their beloved among the land of the dead to be with them once again, the philosopher (lover wisdom) should seek the only place in which he will have true access to those truths, unfettered by the body. 

"Then you have sufficient indication, he said, that any man whom you see resenting death was not a lover of wisdom but a lover of the body, and also a lover of wealth or honors, either or both." 3 Now Socrates moves to another part of the argument, saying that when people face death with bravery because they don't want greater evils to befall them, or are moderation in their intake of pleasure in one way so that they can continue to indulge in another way, are simply making false exchanges. The only true worthy exchange is for wisdom because with true wisdom we perfect and live all the other virtues authentically, not just by a façade. Not only that, but it is wisdom that perfects our experience of the afterlife, dwelling with the gods, virtuous men, and the forms ... not "wallowing in the mire," unsanctified in the underworld. 4

Thus, Socrates is not afraid to die. 


1 - Reeve, C.D.C. and Patrick Miller. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Plato. The Phaedo. Hackett Publishing Company (Indianapolis, 2006). Pg. 110.

2 - 111

3 - 112

4 - 113