05 February 2009

Dear Crito

In the fifth installment of my Prager series, I wrote that there is no “fate after death,” as Dennis Prager termed it.  When a person dies, he is gone.  His soul - that is, the non-material aspects that characterize the man - dies along with his body.  The mind is a manifestation of the brain; when the brain perishes, so does the mind.  

A necessary condition of a consciousness is that it resides in a living body that is conscious.  It makes no sense to speak of any sort of consciousness (i.e. any kind of supernatural soul) apart from a living being.  A consciousness is a property of a living, conscious organism.

However comforting it may be to think that some part of us is eternal - a wish that is older than history itself and informs numberless poems, stories, and songs - the fact is that such a notion is mere invention.  It is a great metaphor, for surely minds that leave their mark on the world are immortal in the sense that their works and ideas can be grasped by those that live on, but human minds themselves are not immortal.

I bring this up again because I happen to be reading Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, and in it a passage perfectly captures the idea.  Hamilton quotes a section of Plato’s Phaedo, and putting aside that Plato himself - the arch-deductive rationalist and inventor of an other-worldly dimension of “forms” - surely believed in the immortality of the soul, he nonetheless put into the mouth of Socrates an admirable illustration of the point I am making.

Condemned to death for the crime of agitating young minds, Socrates prepares himself to die honorably.  Crito entreats Socrates to let him help him escape, but the latter refuses.  Resigned to this, Crito promises to assist him by any means remaining.  “We will do our best,” says Crito, “But in what way would you have us bury you?”

“Anyway you like,” was the amused answer.  “Only be sure you get hold of me and see that I do not run away.”  And turning to the rest of the company: “I cannot make this fellow believe that the dead body will not be me.  Don’t let him talk about burying Socrates, for false words infect the soul.  Dear Crito, say only that you are burying my body.”  [Note 1, emphasis mine.]

I take this to mean that Socrates understood the reality of his situation.  Once dead, Socrates the man would be gone; only his body would remain (and of course, his legacy).  It’s an eloquent, witty, and decidedly non-superstitious illustration of an important point.


1.  Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way, Time Incorporated, 1963, p. 281.

2.  B. Jowett, The Republic and Other Works by Plato, First Anchor Books Edition, 1973, p. 549.

An interesting post script:  After I had written everything above, I dug out my Jowett translation of Plato’s works because I was curious to see the wider context of the passage.  To my dismay, I discovered that his interpretation did not support my point at all.  Instead of the words Hamilton translated, Jowett’s Socrates says, “I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who has been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates who he will soon see, a dead body...”  [Note 2.]  This changes everything, for it implies that there are two Socrates - one is the mortal body and one is the eternal soul.  This is harmonious with the Christian viewpoint, and for that matter, with Plato’s as I understand him; it is exactly opposite my point. Nevertheless, I am publishing the post anyway because my purpose was solely to relate Edith Hamilton’s presentation of that scene, not to show that Plato was on the right track.  (He wasn’t.)


Amy said...

The mind-body dichotomy. I'm sure even in the Hamilton translation, Socrates would have been saying that his body was not him, because his soul would have gone out of it, so he was elsewhere.

Interesting post. I just found your blog and I might have to go back and read your Prager series. I actually love Dennis Prager because he's about as much of a thinker as one can be while still having faith.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks for the comment, Amy. You're right about Socrates. I definitely took that isolated passage out of Plato's larger context.

I'm glad you found my blog!