Having often wondered about the idea of death, I went shopping recently looking for books about death (authored preferably by eminent thinkers). Suffice to say that I found no book that was prepared to focus all its discussions on ‘death’: either it was a novel whose characters prompted the reader to contemplate on the consequences of death or a set of essays that dealt with death on a perfunctory basis, at most including the phenomenon as a contributing factor toward some other fears.

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that there had been no thinker, author or editor who gave death the importance I thought it deserved – until I chanced upon Plato’s ‘The Republic‘. The book actually came together with ‘The Dialogues of Plato‘, and that is where I found my answers in the form of the dialogues between Socrates and his disciple.

At the first glance, they seemed intensely profound to the point of being abstruse. I am reading it right now, and let me tell you, once you go through it from beginning along with the right amount of concentration given to understand Plato’s language and verbosity (or the translator’s), along with a mind that is not altogether sharp but more open to ideas (along with the knack to correlate concepts mentioned in passing in the book to real-life happenings), the rhetoric can be immensely informative.

I need not tell you this, but Socrates will not let you down irrespective of what question you have for him.

Foremost, Plato has employed the art of the dialectic and the rhetoric to the most – he has not squeezed persuasion out like water from a wet rag, rather he’s put it down with the kind of introduction it deserves and then has let it do its job well. Dialectic is based on a dialogue between two or more people who may hold differing views, yet wish to seek the truth of the matter through the exchange of their viewpoints while applying reason. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is the art of oration, often long and profound.

Any other writer would’ve embarked on a tortuously long journey of words in order to put down, as simply as possible, an idea or two that retains original semantic content while also allowing for some interpretation. Plato has made it seem like duck soup.

Next, although the “gods of Athens” appear to be a strong influence on Socrates’ reasoning, they’re conveniently eliminated from the final equations – like some sort of logical normalization. Socrates only uses them in two contexts, both peripheral to the central dialectic:

  1. As beings who prompt him to think,
  2. As beings who serve as occupants of the altar at which Socrates places his work in return for whatever they’ve promised him

Both peripheral to the central dialectic. The reasoning he employs – wonderfully simple at just the first glance – are cleanly rendered independent of any reference to religion or religious bias of any sort.

At the book shop, I was flipping through the pages stopping only to look at random titbits of the narration when I found a section that concerned death and the state of the soul once death was past.

Socrates (according to Plato) first takes up the dual notion of the universe with Simmias and Crito – two of the disciples with him then. The argument stems from Crito’s question: why does Socrates prefer the death penalty to being exiled from Athens – possibly to Thessaly? Socrates replies that exile is only preferable to someone who fears death more than anything, an assertion that the philosopher fears uncertainty OR the immutable right of the polity to dictate his death.

When the disciples are still confused, Socrates goes on to elaborate on the “philosopher’s objective”: that of knowing the truth and understanding it. This, he says, can only be perceived only when the functions of sight and sound are absent because they are corrupters of true knowledge.

For example, piety, according to one, is being in a state of favour by the gods. The gods, however, are known to be feudal – many of them have bad relations with the rest on count of various happenings. Therefore, if one is to be considered to be in favour of one god, he is also very likely to be not favoured by another rival god, ergo being pious as well as impious. That is absurd and, therefore, the definition is insufficient and wrong.

Similarly, one might call the moon as being beautiful at night while another might deem it unsightly. Thus, sight and sound are insufficient perceivers of beauty. Based on the assumption that absolute beauty does exist (and also assuming that it can’t be understood by mankind – making its perception a relative concept), a simple conclusion is that the body and the bodily functions pose only hindrances to the quest of knowing the truth.

In fact, the role of the body is further undermined given that it is dependent on the individual’s intake of food and the very many number of maladies that hamper its condition. Anyway, if anyone is to know the truth, it has to be a conquest of the soul that has been liberated from the “invisible chains” of the body.

After that, Socrates moves on to talk about what happens once death passes. Crito’s curious again: why is the layman afraid of having the soul liberated? Socrates hits back with the dual nature of all things material or immaterial in this universe. Can one know love without knowing hatred? Can one know light without having experiencing darkness first? Can one know waking without having slept first?

The answer to all these questions, and many more like them, is an obvious “No”. Similarly, can one know life without having known death? No? That being the case, where does the soul go if it has known death? To another body? Perhaps. However, it does suffice to be the answer since no other solution presents itself (within the bounds of this reason we employ).

Conclusions such as these, based completely on history that is assumed to be a collective pool of human experience and of the kind of knowledge we can reach out to, are hard to refute – at least destructively (a constructive refusal being that which is based on another line of reasoning). Apart from being hard to refute, they are also quite simplistic and easy to understand. I think that has been Socrates’ contribution to all of mankind: the exhibition of the beauty of the dialectic.

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