Hemlock, Bad for the Body, but is it Good for the Soul?

Hemlock, Bad for the Body, but is it Good for the Soul?


When Socrates was found guilty of refusing to recognize the gods and corrupting the youth and condemned to death, he was guarded but loosely, and his judges had hoped that he’d escape and flee Athens forever. His friends wondered that he seemed resolved to die when he might yet live by slipping away quietly. Socrates knew that his flight would make it seem that the charges against him were just, and in the Phaedo he explains why he was prepared to die. He begins by asking whether a philosopher should concern himself with the pleasures of the body: food, drink, fine clothes, or sex. His interlocutors almost invariably share his premises and supply him with the answers he’s seeking, and in this case, they don’t disappoint. They agree that he should gratify the body only as far as it’s unavoidable. Socrates then asks if the body is a help or a hindrance in the acquisition of wisdom, reminding his listeners of the fallibility of the senses and the distraction of the appetites. In chorus, it’s agreed that the body is a hindrance to the acquisition of wisdom. In the end, it’s borne out that the soul comes to wisdom when it is freed from the body, and it apprehends truth clearly and fully only when discarnate.

In the supposition that the highest endeavor of the human soul is intellectual and in the denigration of matter, this is the epitome of Plato’s thought. The one point that’s curious and seems out of place is the qualification that the philosopher should gratify the body only when, out of necessity, he must concern himself with the corporeal. Why should the philosopher bother with the corporeal at all? Imagine a scholar who works in a dingy chamber, studying all day long in the search for wisdom. This sage wishes to study deep into the night, snatching only such sleep as he cannot do without. Yet he is given only one hour of illumination. He has very powerful electric light at his disposal, and he may read in perfect ease, but for only one hour every evening before he’s plunged into darkness. When will he turn on this light? Since he wants to study without interruption, he’ll wait to avail himself of this short period of illumination for as long as possible. As the afternoon wears into night, the light dims as the sun sets, he’ll pick up his books from off the table and carry them over to the window, and here he’ll stand on tiptoe, holding his nose right up to the pages, angling the volume this way and that to catch the last rays. Yet the sun will sink below the horizon and all sunlight will be lost to him. Then and only then will he carry his books back to his table, flick the switch, and bathe his chamber in the short brilliance allotted to him. Once this precious allowance is used up, he’s swallowed up in darkness, and no more study is possible, will he resign himself to sleep.

What will happen if the restriction is lifted, and he’s given as much electricity as he wants? The bulbs will never burn out, and he may keep his chamber continuously flooded with the brightest light. Will he bother to huddle at the window and try to peer at the pages under a dim crepuscular glow? No, of course not. He’ll stay at the table, overhead lights blazing, and he’ll study until he’s so tired that he falls asleep and his forehead lands on the pages. In his all-consuming, unquenchable thirst for truth, this scholar is much like Plato’s philosopher. As he tries to make out the truth under the dying orange rays of dusk, he’s like the sage in his prison of flesh. Fooled by illusion and perspective, torn by lust, hunger, and thirst, he’s hampered in his search. As he flicks the switch and turns the dusk to noon, he’s like the soul freed of the body and bathing under the radiance of the forms in themselves.

The philosopher will want to leave the body as quickly as possible, and released he may apprehend the truth in all its purity. What will stop him? Why will he stay alive? Why will he feed, clothe, and look after the body which is an affliction, a bondage, a durance? Hamlet furnishes a reason:

To be, or not to be,-that is the question:-whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?-To die,-to sleep,-no more; and by a sleep say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,-‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die,-to sleep;-to sleep! Perchance to dream;-ay there’s the rub; for in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause: there’s the respect that makes calamity of so long life; for who would bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin? Who would pains and fardels bear to grunt and seat under an weary life, but that the dread of something after death,-the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns,-puzzles the will and makes us bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

We all dread death. Plato may lecture on the soul, and wring an agreement that it is invariable and indissoluble, yet these eristics do nothing to allay our dread. Montaigne recommends a study of death, its causes and circumstances. We may familiarize ourselves with death, yet the viewing of corpses, an inquest into mortal accidents, the study of the physiology of the body and its innumerable frailties, will seem to confirm and redouble our terror rather than dispel it. When we look into that gray, ashen, unmoving face, we’d ask of it mysteries it can never tell. Those lips will never part again and their secrets will be carried into the beyond. Socrates may quiz and tease Simmias and Cebes until the hemlock carries him off, but in our heart of hearts we remain unconvinced. To study philosophy is to learn to live. This seems poor stuff; an obvious antithesis. How very trite; a platitude fit for a greeting card or bumper sticker.

We cling to life no matter how miserable it may be. A few, in the grip of a terrible depression, afflicted with a mortal, incurable, and agonizing disease, engulfed in scandal, shame, and ruin, do end their own lives but those left behind feel somehow abandoned. They should not have borne their misery silently and alone. They should have taken counsel, and almost all may have been swayed from such an awful and final step. Those hopelessly and mortally ill may do well to die on their own terms, and save themselves these last pains, losses, and degradations. Yet even in these cases we are deeply torn. Why are we so tenacious of life? Few of us seriously fear the torments of an afterlife. We may regret our sins and petty cruelties but we don’t anticipate being sunk in some malebolge. Only those of us in the worst extremity will seek death to flee the fears and pains of life. Hamlet listed many pains and fardels, and from our own bitter history we may supply thousands more, yet we bear them. We don’t balance our pains against our pleasures, like numbers in red and black, written down and added up in a ledger. Our hearts don’t beat, our lungs don’t draw in breath, simply because our joys in this life outbalance our miseries. There is no list of pros and cons and we carry on because we’re stubborn in our habit of living.

We all know that we’re all going to die. Writers may describe the young as thinking they’ll live forever, but even in our youth we don’t really believe that. Young or old, we’re aware of our mortality but knowledge comes in many weights and shades. We all know that we won’t live forever, but we live like we will all the same.

Some philosophers grow very cross with this careless frivolity. Men and women feast, and drink, and laugh, and fuck like they have not a care in the world. They do this to distract them from their own death. Their end is coming. They will soon be no more. They cannot bear up under this horrible certainty and so they try to lose themselves in heedless mirth and debauchery. This is wrong. Men and women don’t make merry to hide their own oncoming death. They know they’re doomed and nothing could ever hide this from their gaze or distract them from their terror if they couldn’t master themselves by their own strength. They know full well but they live with the knowledge. They can gaze into the darkness but they summon their will and they look away. They don’t forget. They know and the knowledge never leaves them, but they are the knower, they are the holders and the masters of this truth. They eat and drink and make merry because it’s fun, and though their joy is short, it is yet theirs, and nothing, not even death, will take it from them.

Some of these indignant philosophers aren’t content to scorn these buoyant souls as fools but will also attaint them as cowards. Anybody who loves his own life makes himself a hostage to fortune. Only somebody who can quit this world without regret can be considered truly free. Most of us cling to this life and when we are dragged from this world, our nails will dig furrows in the ground. Yet for the sake of children, loved ones, friends, family or country, some of us are still perfectly willing to lay down all their joys in this life. It isn’t a sacrifice to throw off what is sordid and worthless, especially when we gain something of inestimable value in return. It is a sacrifice, the greatest of sacrifices, to give up all that is precious, every hope and bliss, so that those we love may continue in their enjoyment.

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