One of the most important passages in the whole corpus of western philosophy was written by Plato who describes the final hours of the life of Socrates, Plato’s mentor and friend. Socrates had been condemned to death by Athens for “corrupting the youth,” a sentence his followers believe is false, and hence his death is, to them, analogous to martyrdom. The scene is set in Socrates’ prison cell. Plato gives an account of Socrates’ conversation with his friends in the hours before his execution.
In the final hours of Socrates’ life, rather than being despondent, frightened, and needing encouragement from his friends, Socrates is portrayed as calm and content. He makes his friends upset by being so peaceful: “How could you possibly be so composed, while we are so grieved?” they ask. Socrates makes a case to his weepy friends as to why he so relaxed: a true philosopher should be happy in the face of death. He reasons that, if a person seeking wisdom has spent his whole life in pursuit of the separation of the soul from the body, then why should that person be upset when that separation finally comes? “Philosopher” means “lover of wisdom” and Socrates reminds his friends that he has spent his whole life seeking wisdom. To him, that means his soul detaching from worldly concerns such as fine clothes, extravagant food and bodily comforts. Instead, he has trained his soul to enjoy that which is “above” bodily things.
What is there “above” bodily things to enjoy? Plato is famous for his theory of Forms—eternal, immaterial realities such as Goodness, Beauty, Justice.
What this means to Plato is that, while one person may do a good action, and a government might pass a good law, and a singer might sing a good song, all of these good things get their goodness from the Form of Goodness Itself. The eternal, immaterial Form of the Good is that from which good things derive their goodness. Why does he posit the existence of Forms? The main reason is to avoid relativism. There is an objective standard of goodness, Plato asserts. People cannot give an evil action a new label, saying the evil thing is “good.” Words like “good” should mean something. If murder is evil while telling the truth is good, those are timeless truths that transcend culture and personal opinion. Even if no one in the world agreed, these facts would still be true, and in that case 100% of humanity would be in error.
Plato imagined the world having two realms: a world of the five senses in which material things exist such as birds, trees and rocks and seas. He also imagined a world that is real, true, and that the intellect could know, but that is not detectable to the five senses. This is the realm of Forms. Goodness is the highest of the Forms. Then there are other Forms such as Justice, Piety, and Courage. Below these “virtue” forms are numbers. All numbers (one, two, three, and so on) and mathematical forms (such as line, point, triangle, and the like) are real things. They are not mental constructs, or things that communities of people agree to use for the sake of practical purposes. Again, if all people in the world disappeared, it would still be true, Plato believed, that 2+2=4. One reason why this was so important to Plato is that if number is true, then ratio is true, and if ratio is true, then harmony is true. Plato believed in the beauty of the universe, a kind of transcendent beauty.
The reason that Socrates is happy in the face of death is that he has spent his whole life detaching from earthly concerns of fame, reputation, wealth and comfort, and has instead pursued knowledge of and a love for Forms. The human being, Plato believes, is like an amphibian creature: while the human body longs for earthly comforts, its soul is made for the divine. The human being, unlike other earthly creatures, has an immortal soul that is oriented toward what is beyond it. The human soul belongs with the Good, the Beautiful, and the Just. Human beings have an other-worldly soul in an earthly body. The philosopher is the person who spends his or her whole life preparing for the soul to be united with the divine Forms.
The ancient Jewish philosopher and theologian Philo of Alexandria believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When he learned of Plato’s theory of the Forms, he said, “Yes, I know what these Forms are. They are ideas in the mind of God.” Ancient Christian thinkers latched onto this idea and for the following thousand years, writers from Augustine to Boethius to Anselm to John Duns Erigena to Thomas Aquinas all posited various versions of this theory, that Plato was right about there being objective standards of beauty, goodness and justice, and they are ideas in the mind of God.
The soul of the person who has effectively separated himself from attachments to physical, material things, and has sought instead contemplation of true Goodness, Beauty and Justice, can have “good hope” the character Socrates says in the Phaedo, that he will behold these realities in their fullness upon death.
The character Socrates is saying to us: “What are you doing with your life? How are you living? Are you attached to the finite goods of this life? Are you too bound up in the ephemeral values of the temporal world? Or have you set your sights on the next life? Have you realized that the only way to become truly happy is to detach from this temporary home, and seek with all your soul goodness, justice and beauty, in all their fullness? For Plato, these are divine. And the soul is “like the divine” in belonging with the divine realities. For him, while the soul is stuck here in this bodily life, it is truly made for something greater, something higher.
As a mother, how does this impact you? Does it help you remember not to care so much about money, possessions, honors and accolades, and instead to focus on the soul of your child, the soul of each member of your family, and their prospect for eternal life? Remembering that we are transcendent helps me unhook from the cares of the world, and hook back into my child, her life and future. It helps me ask: “Will I be happy in the face of death?” I think my children have a lot to do with the answer to that question. Giving them and my husband my best for the glory of God is how I want to spend my short time on this earth.
This is so beautiful and inspiring Kathryn! I love how you have hinged the theme of this post on ancient truths as well as appealing to me as a mother today! I will be pondering the rich themes you have presented and asking the Holy Spirit to make me sensitive to what it means to be a “lover of wisdom” . . . that I might truly live out the glory of virtue through God’s grace.