Socrates and the immortality of the soul

SocratesOne of the biggest mysteries of all the times is the recognizing of the existence of the soul. The soul intended not simply as a vital breath, but as an eternal aware entity that consists in the essence of our being.

We think that the conception of reincarnation is only typical of an oriental tradition and that is well away from our culture. Well, it’s not exactly like this.
In the age of the ancient Greece, many people dedicated to philosophy and investigated the mysteries of nature and life and, amongst them, the one who went deep in this matter was Socrates.

Socrates was born in 469 BC in Alopece, a suburb close to Athens. He came from a well-off family and this allowed him to study and dedicate to philosophy for almost all his life. Furthermore, he was leading a frugal life, as he was not attracted by luxury and comforts, and did not feel the need of longing for richness at the point to give free lectures to his students.
He was very dutiful and went to war to serve his country. He also considered very important to respect laws at the point to refuse the offer of flight that his devoted disciples offered to him when he was sentenced to death. He reckoned that we get everything from our country and included its laws (useful for our sustenance and social life) and so it is unfair to repudiate them when we do not consider them any more convenient.

At that time, Athens was meeting a period of big expansion and enrichment.
This condition allowed the Athenians to develop their trades and expand their cultural horizons (architecture, art, philosophy, etc). We can have a glance in our imagination and see all these old men walking slowly in the main square of the town (called agorà), whilst discussing various subjects, and followed by young students thirsty of knowledge.
But at the same time, the ambition of the Athenians was inexorably growing up and with that the thirst of power and richness.

School of Athens - Raffaello

School of Athens - Raffaello

It is clear the condemn from Socrates towards this unstoppable ambition: “The desire of possession, this is the cause of all the wars, the discords, the scuffles: it is the body that gives them birth because of its passions; and if we busy ourselves in getting hold of wealth is the body we are slave of”.
The research of the Pure and Absolute Truth cannot be accomplished until we remain bound to the needs imposed by our body and our mind.
“The soul of every person, when he feels intense pain or pleasure for something, believes that what causes this intense emotion is the only reality, true and evident, whereas it is not at all… because every pleasure and every pain, almost like nails, nail the soul to the body, they bind the soul to the body in a way that the soul becomes corporeal, till to the point to believe true the things that the body consider true”.
Therefore it is clear that if we want to reach a pure knowledge of something, we need to detach from the body and arrive to “contemplate with the only soul the thing in itself”.
Even Love, one the biggest myths, acquires a cathartic aspect in Socrates’ conception, as it tends to the supreme possession: the Supreme Good. But this conquest arrives by degrees, first by being attracted by the beauty of the perceptible forms, then by going through the hierarchy of the values until the contemplation of the ideal Beauty that, at a higher level, identifies itself with the Supreme Good.

If it is clear that by detaching from the body and getting closer to our soul, it is possible to access the pure knowledge, it is not as much clear how could the soul be considered immortal and pass from one body to another one after death, just like when we change our clothes.
Now, the point is that Socrates does not use miracles to induce trust in his disciples. He use another way: the dialectics.
To arrive to the truth, he starts from the point that he knows nothing. In this way, he starts investigating by questioning his interlocutor and by pulling out of him all the prejudices, the false ideas and the superstitions that dwell in his mind. After delivering the mind from its burden, then Socrates can bring to light the truth from inside of the other person.
So Socrates does not give a perceptible proof of the immortality of the soul, but he tries to bring his interlocutor to a higher state of awareness that is capable to witness the Absolute Truth.
He reckons in his investigations that, if the soul were not eternal, many things should result inexplicable. For example, he states that “knowing” is just a remembering. Otherwise, how could many concepts, like the Beauty, the Equal, the Righteousness, so easily be acquired by us (in our bringing up) if they were not somehow already existing and needed only to be “recalled”?

The question comes spontaneously: but, if Socrates was so righteous, correct, loyal to his country etc, how is it possible that he was condemned to death?
The point is that men need certainties, certainties that usually are built up on the basis of experiences, conditionings, traditions, values that one can consider consolidated and steady. Then someone else arrives and with nonchalance calls all these certainties into question, seeding doubts: well, not everybody is capable to accept it. Not to metion the fact that many people are very proud of themselves and their worldly success and cannot easily accept to be critisized.

To comfort the reader, I add that few days after the death of Socrates, the Athenians repented to have condemned him: they closed schools , gymnasiums, theatres in sign of grief and condemned his accusers.

References:

  • Fedone and Convito by Plato
  • History of Greek philosophy by Luciano De Crescenzo
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2 Comments

  1. This is a forum for those who seek higher knowledge.based upon the spelling in the tags and comments, many of these “knowledge seekers” should begin with the alphabet.

  2. I read the description of Socrates last hours before he drank the poison he was given – hemlock – it was so moving. He was anxious to ensure an old and small debt was paid – a borrowed chicken I think – even the executioner was upset at what was happening. His nobility put to shame the whole council of his condemnation. And of course he could have escaped in a waiting ship. But went to his death because he put the city above himself despite his innocence. I cried when I read it. One of the noblest men who ever lived. Philosophy just went down hill after his death – I am reading Heidegger now and his attempts to return to those pure beginning of philosophy in Being and Time. Of course Heidegger is maddeningly difficult but something in his work grips me as worthwhile – although I barely understand anything even after two years of studying.

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