How can we die with the calm dignity of Socrates?

The conventional view about death and dying is that it is a great misfortune and a great suffering. The Buddha mentions death as being a great suffering that no one can avoid and he exhorts us to seek Nirvana so that we can be free of the continued cycle of birth, death, rebirth and suffering.

This conventional viewpoint is described by Shakespeare in his play – Julius Caesar. In the play Cassius speaks of death and dying in these terms

Why, the man who shortens his life by twenty years cuts off twenty years of worrying about death. Grant that, and then is death a benefit. Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords. … So, then, death is a gift, and we are Caesar’s friends, for we’ve done him a service by shortening his time spent fearing death.

Caesar himself though has a different viewpoint about death (stated below):

Cowards die many times before their deaths.

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.

It would be terrific if we were all able to have and maintain the above viewpoint. But Caesar was a great man and common people like us will need to work very hard on our attitude before we can approach his (Caesar’s) calm acceptance.

There is another sage of western civilization, Socrates, whose attitude towards death marks him out as a saint. His death scene is described by Plato in one of the great passages in world literature. It is reproduced at the end of this article.

But the point I want to make is: “How can we – common ordinary people – approach the calm acceptance of Socrates and Julius Caesar regarding death?”

There are many ways to do it but I cannot speak with authority on any one of those ways as I have not reached the goal as yet. That being the case I can only refer you to traditional religious practices. The traditional religious beliefs may not have been proved to be true – through logic and reasoning – by their practitioners but they have not been proved to be false by the rationalists either. And I think that if a person asks whether the religious beliefs of any faith is true then he is asking the wrong question. The question to be asked is – Will these practices help us attain the Divine?

All traditional religious practices can be looked upon as skilful means to attain God. The Buddhists have a Pali term – “ehipassiko”. This term can be loosely translated as meaning, “come and see for yourself.” If you sincerely practice the teachings of the religious faith of your choice you be able to experience God and thus be able to gain experiential understanding and see for yourself. This will free you of the fear of death.

And when you have reached that attainment you will be free of the fear of death. Until then have faith that God will be with you when your time comes. There is no guarantee that you will be enlightened in this lifetime according to Buddhist and Hindu teachings. We need to have faith in God to strengthen us to meet the trials of life until such time as we attain enlightenment.

This attitude may not be rational or scientific but it is reasonable. The ultimate master Socrates himself – who started the tradition of rational enquiry in Western civilization – believed in God. Osho, Bertrand Russell and the Buddha might tell us otherwise but if faith in God was practiced by Socrates then it is good enough for me.

I’ll end this article with one of the great passages of world literature written by Plato which describes the death of Socrates.

The Death of Socrates

he arose and went into the bath-chamber with Crito, who bade us wait; and we waited, talking and thinking of . . .the greatness of our sorrow ; he was like a father of whom we were being bereaved, and we were about to pass the rest of our lives as orphans. . . . Now the hour of sunset was near, for a good deal of time had passed while he was within. When he came out, he sat down with us again.  but not much was said. Soon the jailer . . . entered and stood by him, saying: “To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the angry feelings of other men, who rage and swear at me when, in obedience to the authorities, I bid them drink the poison—indeed I am sure that you will not be angry with me ; for others, as you are aware, and not I, are the guilty cause. And so fare you well, and try to bear lightly what must needs be; you know my errand.” Then bursting into tears, he turned away and went out.

Socrates looked at him and said: “I return your good wishes, and will do as you bid.” Then turning to us, he said, “How charming the man is; since I have been in prison, he has always been coming to see me, and now see how generously he sorrows for me. But we must do as he says, Crito; let the cup be brought, if the poison is prepared; if not, let the attendant prepare some.”

“Yet,” said Crito, “the sun is still upon the hill-tops, and many a one has taken the draught late; and after the announcement has been made to him he has eaten and drunk, and indulged in sensual delights; do not hasten then, there is still time.”

Socrates said : “Yes, Crito, and they of whom you speak are right in doing thus, for they think that they will gain by the delay; but I am right in not doing thus, for I do not think that I should gain anything by drinking the poison a little later; I should be sparing and saving a life which is already gone ; I could only laugh at myself for this. Please then to do as I say, and not to refuse me.”

Crito, when he heard this, made a sign to the servant; and the servant went in, and remained for some time, and then returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: “You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.”

The man answered: “You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.” At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, as his manner was, took the cup and said: “What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?” The man answered: “We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough.” “I understand,” he said; “yet I may and must pray to the gods to prosper my journey from this to that other world—may this then, which is my prayer, be granted to me.” Then, holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank the poison.

And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself; for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed ; and at that moment Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out into a loud cry which made cowards of us all.

Socrates alone retained his calmness: “What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience.” When we heard that, we were ashamed, and restrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on bis 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 then Socrates felt them himself, and said, “When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.” He was beginning to grow 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; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.

Such was the end of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, the justest and best of all the men whom I have ever known.

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2 Comments

  1. Very nice to read but heavy and hard to accept. Sant Dnyaneshwar took Jivant Samadhi .He was just 21 years old .He said his karmic duty was over after writing Dnyaneshwari. He went to cave and departed with a smile on his face.

    1. Thanks for your comment.
      Sant Dnyaneshwar must have been a fully realized mystic. Most of us are not in a position to act like him.
      We can – as we are – only aspire to such heights. It is possible that my article will help inspire ordinary people like you and me and show them what is possible

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