A reflection on Plato’s Phaedo
The destruction of one of grandest minds to ever inhabit human form should force us to pause and think. The death of Socrates, condemned by the city he served his entire life, makes us face the act of dying and consider its significance in our lives. Should we think of our own deaths as an act of evil? Or as something that is neither good nor evil – an inevitability that we must all bear but does not prevent us from living a good life? To answer this question in full, I will need to examine the metaphysical properties of the soul and animation – something I do not yet feel I have the understanding to unpack. If we instead lay aside the issue of what happens after death, and focus on the smaller question of whether we should fear the act of dying, we can make some progress by examining the possible outcomes of corporeal destruction.
If death results in the transcendence of the soul, or whatever animates the human body, to another place, then we should not fear the moment of death. In this situation, obliteration of the body is merely the act of transportation, the destruction of the corporeal and the ascension of the immortal. The question of whether the ascent the soul presupposes the ability of the animating force to live external to a supporting body, something beyond the scope of this reflection, but I remain convinced that the even in this case death is not an object of terror.
If the soul is unable to transcend corporeality, but must shift from body to body in the form of reincarnation – whether in the manner of the Indian religions (Hindu, Jain or Buddhist) or the beliefs of the Platonic or Pythagorean sects – then death is once again not a source of horror. Our demise, in this case, is merely another point in the cycle of a potentially infinite cyclic pattern. However, both this and the above answer once again suppose the fact that the animative force can overcome the act of destruction itself.
So, we finally come to the reductionist position, denying the plausibility of life separate from our bodily form. In this case, we must consider that even if we were to extend our lifespan out for millennia through the use of technology that the probability of our bodies survival – avoiding accident, decay or the malevolence of others – will eventually reach zero. Even if we avoid the natural annihilation which has already overtaken our forbearers the continued existence of our planet and universe are not assured. As such death is an inevitability, and with this in mind, we should accept that there is no moral weight in our continued existence or lack thereof. There was an almost incomprehensible stretch of time before your life where the world existed without you, and there is an equally infinitesimal span following your departure, do not assume your destruction has weight in the vast expanse of the universe.
So if death is either a transition, a point in the cycle or an inevitable obliteration, then it is not something to be feared, for it is something beyond the realms of our control. We should instead attempt to focus that small section of our own agency in the pursuit of living a good life – and learn to accept the inevitability of its termination. If there is anything of value to be gained in these reflections, I hope it is to answer the question this conclusion begs: what does it mean to live well?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562