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Socrates

            At the end of the Iliad Akhilleus has learned that all life is precious.  The story of the Iliad is the story of his coming to realize this.  When one is faced with death there is roughly a five-stage process of denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance that one may go through but that few complete.  At the conclusion of the Iliad he has gotten past denial, bargaining, anger and depression to understanding and acceptance that not just he but all men must die.  He is still sad and angry, but these emotions are not ruling him, as they were earlier in his struggles.  Akhilleus is a best-case scenario and his achieving this wisdom is a testament to his courage.  It is an unfortunate fact that most mortals never achieve this; an example of one who failed is Socrates. In this paper I will compare and contrast Akhilleus and Socrates in an attempt to illuminate my thoughts on the main differences between the philosophies of Homer and Plato. 
            Socrates appears to accept his death sentence peacefully but he is actually, I feel, still in the denial, bargaining and anger phases.  His ideas about the immortality of the soul and the imperfections of the flesh allow him to avoid the spiritual maturation that Akhilleus had to face and are actually a complex denial of the power of death.  He unreservedly condemns all of life as imperfect and in a complete turn around from the ideas of the Iliad sees death as perfection and life as corruption.  For Socrates life is becoming, death is being and the body is fettered distraction and with these ideas he is laying the groundwork for a pervasive undercurrent of guilt that comes from the conflict between the care of the body and the care of the soul which mirrors the conflict between honor and justice in the Iliad.  He feels that one should not care for the body too much but only just enough to get it through to its appointed time of death.  “So long as we are alive, it seems likely that we shall come nearest to having knowledge if we do our utmost to have no contact or association with the body except in so far as is absolutely necessary…”(Phaedo pg.75).  This condemnation of life in favor of death seems to me to be based on anger and fear and by never moving past this, as Akhilleus did, he unnaturally arrests his spiritual development.  Its as if Socrates and Akhilleus walk hand in hand to the brooding at the ships but then part ways as Akhilleus eventually moves on to live out his few remaining days while Socrates never leaves, eventually drinking his cup of poison in defiance of injustice.

Perhaps some of Socrates’ anger stems from his being told that he is the wisest man on earth (according to the Oracle at Delphi) but few believe this.  It’s interesting to compare this to Akhilleus being the greatest warrior and everybody knowing it.  Socrates also feels that a philosopher would make for the best ruler of the state but no one else seems to agree for there is no movement to elect him but instead much suspicion of him both in high and low stations.  He says that men are unwise because they think the opposite while he is truly wise because he knows he’s not but few of his day would agree with him on this point, which could cause Socrates some bitterness.  His fear could stem from his advanced age and his realization that his days are numbered and may even be cut short by enemies in high places.  Understanding that those he sees as inferiors to him hold the power to end his life or question his honor probably causes in Socrates some angry resentment.  Like Akhilleus at the ships, truth and justice are his sword and shield but the indifferent universe takes no notice.  Akhilleus accepts this universal indifference to justice while Socrates defies it to his own detriment.

All of Akhilleus’ fears and anger must be faced directly, but Socrates can employ his philosophy to avoid direct confrontation with these emotions.  Akhilleus does put off his development for awhile as he broods by his ships, and it’s interesting to note the almost Socatical philosophizing that he does when Odysseus comes with the bribe offering from Agamemnon, only unlike Socrates he gives free, open and honest vent to his burning anger.  Socrates on the other hand, uses his philosophy to rationalize and displace his anger so that on his surface he presents as a calm explorer of wisdom while underneath and hidden he roils with anger.  Homer forces Akhilleus out of his fancies, but Socrates never escapes and instead sacrifices his life to these sublimated angers and honor based creative musings. 

Socrates’ relationship with the Athenian State and Akhilleus’ relationship with Agamemnon are both representative of their respective relationships with their feelings about injustice or death, which is really the ultimate injustice.  Authority like death is a power that one must wrestle with and is representative of death.  Agamemnon is much like the Athenian State in that he is not perfect.  Akhilleus is Agamemnon’s gadfly especially when he is in his Socratic state, brooding by his ships and preaching in a questioning way to his companions who have come with the bribes.  Akhilleus’ extremism in matters of honor is much like Socrates’ idealism in matters of wisdom and perfection, which can be seen as just sublimations of Socrates’ extremism also in matters of honor.  Akhilleus’ peace with Agamemnon is representative of the peace he makes with death while Socrates’ condemnation of the Athenian State is indicative of his unresolved issues with his own mortality.

To sum up all of the above, Agamemnon angers Akhilleus at the opening of the Iliad and for much of the book he is emotionally where Socrates stays and is when he drinks the poison; this is the state of anger, denial and bargaining in relation to death.  But Akhilleus, unlike Socrates, continues to develop and finds deeper truths.  By accepting death Akhilleus champions life while by condemning life Socrates champions death.

Socrates sees his trial as the trial of the Athenian State and all of Civilization.  Life itself is on trial and condemned by Socrates when Athens fails to embrace wisdom but instead condemns him to death.
“And how are we to bury you?”

“Anyhow you like,” he said, “if you can catch me, and I don’t elude you.”(Phaedo pg.130)  Socrates knows he is not so easily gotten rid of and time has proved him right.  With Socrates death all of life is cast into Tartarus and every year regurgitated along the river Cocytus past the Acherusian lake only life doesn’t plead with Socrates because it still believes itself guilty and deserving of its punishment.  And so Socrates’ curse; the curse of western civilization, the curse of inescapable guilt, still lives in our collective heart.  It can be under stood as if Akhilleus had cursed the Akhaians with defeat unending at the hands of the Trojans rather than just being pushed back to their ships and losing many brave men crowded into the undergloom.  Or as if Akhilleus had condemned all of life to suffering eternal and only those that come to understand that they are wrong and he is right can be freed from this curse.  Socrates’ lasting curse is the curse of death and the belief that we are all guilty and corrupted.  These ideas have grown and developed over time; they have been modified a bit but continue to thrive into the 20th century.  In the universal battle of life against death it is death that has been holding the tide of war and I blame Socrates and Plato for contributing to its enduring power.

Socrates has decided that he shall never die but live in eternal bliss pleasantly pursuing the paths of wisdom with the Gods and the select few truly wise mortals that have gone before him.  Akhilleus doesn’t see it that way but sees his fate tied up with that of all mortals; with death comes the undergloom and one’s soul is only a shade at best of what one was in life.  “Let me hear no smooth talk of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.  Better I say, to break sod as a farm hand for some poor country man, on iron rations, than lord it over all the exhausted dead.”(The Odyssey book 11 line 578-81)  Socrates believes just the opposite; making life the gloom while death brings the light.  In addition Socrates believes that unless men follow his example they shall forever be denied the purity of paradise and instead wallow in their own guilt laden imperfection, weighed down by the soul corrupting power of the flesh, always returning to the dismal hole of half truths and shades, which is his vision of this existence on Earth.
“…But if you neglect yourselves, and refuse to live following the track marked out, as it were, in our present and past discussions, then however much you may now undertake to do, and however earnestly, you will not be doing any good” (Phaedo pg.130) Akhilleus entertained, in a way, similar sorts of self centered, angry, destructive, unreasonable, and elitist visions also, for a while, as he sulked by his ships but eventually abandoned his anger and continued to grow.

Lifeless bodies are afforded great honors in Akhilleus’ world because that’s all that’s left in the end while Socrates cares not what’s done with his body because he fancies himself immortal; sees his future as immortal bliss spent among the gods; his body a curse and the end of his life a blessing.  Socrates’ vision of a life well lived is one spent in hopeful, expectant, anticipation of death!  Socrates, like Akhilleus, for a while, asks the impossible of all men but unlike Akhilleus he never abandons his contention and goes to his death believing himself something greater than his collective parts and qualitatively better then most men living and dead but even worse than this admonishes all men that it would behoove them to do the same.

In the Iliad, men cry without shame, the tears flow in rivers, as can be seen with Akhilleus’ many bouts with despair, but with Socrates emotion is made shameful because the body is corrupt and what one feels is inferior to what one understands.  In the Iliad despair is not shameful but part of the honors one bestows on the dead, while In Phaedo those most likely to show this weakness of the flesh are sent away.  In the Iliad, death is an atrocity, while Socrates has turned it into a call for celebration.  In the Iliad, pain and despair are accepted as a part of life, along with pleasure and joy, but Socrates throws out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, by relegating all emotion to inferior shades of their original purity on the true earth.  Our emotions in life are just becoming while true emotions that come only with death are the being.  It follows logically in Socrates’ worldview that it is foolish to make too much out of these inferior shades.  This contributes to a world where despair is frowned upon and emotion and feeling of any kind can be dismissed as ignorance. Any thing one may feel in life is muddi8ed by the flesh and just an imperfect shade of what’s to come with death if one peruses Socrates’ vision of wisdom in life.  Socrates’ philosophical developments may be good for the machinery of society in the short run but in the end they are a death sentence for the heart of humanity.

The basic tenet that maintains humanity and all of life despite Socrates’ efforts to claim otherwise is that life is desirable over death.  If the opposite were true as Socrates claims, then life would not continue.  Homer’s first written record of Western Civilization got it right but in accomplishing this also laid the foundation for all the complexity of dreams and longings that have been penned and pined after and ever since.  It’s ironic that perhaps Homer helped make Socrates possible.  For society to develop from the chaotic state of the warring tribes of Homer’s world to the beginnings of the law and order of Socrates’ Athens, all the way to our technologically advanced 20th century, truth had to give way for utility’s sake to a wrath of complex, inconsistent, illogical and controlling lies.  Socrates’ previous quote warning men not to stray from the straight and narrow is laying the groundwork for a moral obligation to follow the law which lends itself well to the maintenance of order; but the spiritual impact of his grand vision of this life and the next is a deadening of the human spirit and a permanent guilt, based on human imperfection.  The worst result is the embracing of death over life.  It’s the ultimate injustice handed to the human flame of consciousness that flickers only very briefly in this indifferent unknown and then is extinguished.  What a monstrous mistake if, in the end, this little flicker of life is all we really have and Socrates’ vision of a grand after is only a fantasy…  What a crime for so many generations to have been indoctrinated with these false hopes and denied the ability to fully appreciate the one gift that is known to be real, life.  Instead, taught that the one for sure true thing is actually a corruption.  What if it just isn’t so; what if we really don’t live in a hollow in the earth but only painted it so in dark colors and what if by accepting Socrates’ vision we are not freeing ourselves from the cave but chaining ourselves in it?

Should we give up life for the sake of order?  Do we really want to be a beehive or an ant colony?  Is comfort and security so important that we would abandon life and truth and accept injustice unflinchingly for it?  Is the Chaos of a universe that is ultimately unfathomable really so abhorrent that we must invent a lie that robs all life of pleasure to explain it and foist this invention up as the universal good?  Should we accept the ravings of a self-centered vindictive man who has sublimated his anger below a smooth veneer of philosophic inquiry, as an objective illumination of wisdom and virtue?  The Iliad tells us that the answer to all these questions is no but the Dialogues of Plato say yes.  Akhilleus in the end says no but Socrates unfalteringly and consistently says yes. Akhilleus chooses life while Socrates chooses death.  Life is real and here now, for all of us breathing, while death is only conjecture and dreaming.  It is said that dreams are wiser than men, but should one stake their brief life on it?  What a waste to of spent your life with eyes fixed on the empty heavens while all around you washes the beautiful current of the only thing certainly real.

The above was my attempt to compare the two conflicting philosophies of Plato and Homer using their two main characters, Socrates and Akhilleus, as points of reference.              



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