How to Not Fear Death, According to Socrates

How to Not Fear Death, According to Socrates
Photo: vangelis aragiannis, Shutterstock

Socrates didn’t fear death. Even though he met a gruesome demise (he was executed by the state for the alleged crime of corrupting Athenian youth), Socrates didn’t flee or plead before his executioner. If we are to take his beliefs and teachings — that death is an inevitability that might be good, actually — to heart, we may also find a greater acceptance in the unknown.

How did Socrates view death?

Socrates lived during a period of untold barbarism, where death, war, and disease defined the experiences of the living. But his familiarity with death was strong, even for the brutish standards of the era. He was a solider — and even something of a war hero; he rescued the future Athenian leader Alcibiades during a siege on the city of Potidaea in 432 B.C. — so he was far more accustomed to the inevitability of mortality than most people living in the 21st century.

Ancient Greek society thought of death as a spiritual transition to a netherworld of ghosts, crystallised by the spirit leaving the body in the form of a culminating exhale. Socrates was less mystical in his interpretation of death, and wrote about it in distinctly realist, if not sceptical, terms. When the philosopher was on trial at the Athenian court in 399 B.C., Socrates spoke before a jury of 500 male citizens, and delivered a speech that enshrined his musings on death on the most appropriate stage imaginable.

He said, according to the University of Cambridge:

Let us consider also in the following way that there is much hope that being dead is something good. For to be dead is one of two things: either it is like being nothing and the dead person does not have any perception of anything, or, as they say, it is some kind of change, namely relocation, of the soul from here to another place. And if it is indeed a complete absence of perception, like the sleep of someone who does not even dream at all, death would be a remarkable gain.

Socrates had a devoted follower in a young Plato, who was in attendance that day at the trial. Speaking of his mentor’s demeanour prior to his execution, Plato noted that Socrates “appeared both happy in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear.” It’s an attitude that buoyed Socrates’ spirits as he drank from the executioner’s cup filled with poisonous hemlock.

How Socrates can teach you to tame your anxiety about death

Socrates was, in many ways, a precursor to the stoic school of ancient Greek philosophy, which sought to eschew negative emotions and replace them with an unwavering inner-resolve. It isn’t necessarily a good thing to deny one’s emotions about death, but accepting its eventuality can do much to tame your anxiety about meeting the unknown.

It’s a scary concept to be sure, but science hasn’t really discovered what it feels like to die, beyond the experiences detailed by people who have been pronounced dead and later resuscitated. As far as research has determined, there are the harrowing moments of mental and physical decline, but also hallucinatory reunions with deceased loved ones, cinematic moments of your life that flash before your eyes, a rapt state of contentedness, and other blissful sensations.

The takeaway from the meditations of Socrates, is that there’s nothing to fear in the unknown. Moreover, the possibility of leading a virtuous life, combined with the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, should open the doors to fulfillment while you’re alive. Standing before the jury, prior to his execution, Socrates delivered what may stand as his most prescient and enduring statement: “The unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.” What one should do to clamp down on any fear of death, is to examine themselves in the present, the philosopher suggested.

Using the philosopher’s outlook as a guidepost — that humans should seek out beauty, strength, and health, tempered with a pursuit of knowledge — will help ground you in the present. Hopefully, it will imbue you with a state of contentedness, so that death isn’t so much a morbid specter that haunts you, but an inconsequential aspect of the life you’re living.

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