“To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Night comes softly following the glory of sunset. The sun dies in a blaze of color, hues of gold and magenta, blood orange and dusty rose. When the sun sinks below the horizon it is as though it has taken hold of all the colors of the waking world and pulled them from out of the landscape, like dye extracted from cloth, and trailed them in streaming splendor toward the dying sun. The landscape bleeds out its colors, fading to a twilight gray, while the dying ember of the sun shines forth in one final burst of magnificence. At last, when the day star appears to sink beneath the wine-dark horizon, the colors depart with it, the inky black of night oozing out across the open canvas of the sky.
Wait patiently. The liminal space seems to be most still now, in this time that is neither day nor night. The world seems to hold its breath. Then, with a gasp of wonder, the dusk is pierced by the first white star of the evening. It is there, where it was not a moment before, yet the exact moment it appeared is unknown. In cooling quiet the sky bedecks herself in jewels, webs and nets of storied interconnection, shapes that have walked the sky since before ever human eyes beheld their patterns.
Socrates drank the hemlock at sunset.
No sunset is ever the same. If you are present to witness one, you cannot bring yourself to look away. The sunset is like a moment out of time; yet it is the moment that makes time be as well.
In the period of time right before to his execution, Socrates spoke to his students of the rhythms of life and death. “Well then,” he spoke, “is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is the opposite of being awake?” “Being dead,” one student answers.
Sleep follows waking, waking follows sleep. Dawn comes after each long night. Does death too birth into new life? How can we know? How do we prepare ourselves for our own sunset, the inevitable ending of this life? Plato’s dialogue Apology tells of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, in which he says
To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.
Here Socrates claims that no one knows if death is a great blessing, yet in the dialogues that lead up to his inevitable demise he seems to have an increasingly clearer understanding that death is indeed a gift.
Many of Plato’s dialogues carry implicitly the theme of death in their tone and setting. Plato was just crossing into his third decade of life when his teacher Socrates was condemned to death by the city of Athens. He did not begin writing the dialogues until some time after the execution of his mentor, but the impression of that pivotal moment underlies nearly every dialogue composed. Socrates’ death is imprinted upon each of Plato’s dialogues as words and images are upon the face of a wax tablet. Other philosophies may be engraved over the initial impression, but through the palimpsest can often be read the echo of this early, defining tragedy.
In the Republic, as Socrates and his students are choosing how best to educate the future guardians of their ideal city, they decide the young guardians should “be told stories that will make them least afraid of death.” Socrates begins reciting lines that must be expunged from the poetry of Greek tradition, censoring and editing to find the tales that will shape the future guardians into the philosopher-kings they are meant to become. But in his dialogues Plato is not only editing the old myths; he is bringing forth new myths as well, illustrating them with images that have since been impressed up the philosophic imagination of the Western world for two and a half thousand years.
While some dialogues literally recount the story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment, and execution, others carry the weight of his death more symbolically. The Republic opens with Socrates saying “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday. . .” in language echoing Odysseus’s “I went down to Hades” in Homer’s epic. One of the first characters we meet is the aging Cephalus, who seems rapidly to be approaching death. Yet the dramatic date of the dialogue is set some twenty to thirty years after the historical Cephalus passed away. Plato’s dialogue is evidently not taking place in the land of the living.
At Socrates’ request Cephalus begins speaking of what it is like to approach death:
When someone thinks his end is near, he becomes frightened and concerned about things he didn’t fear before. It’s then that the stories we’re told about Hades, about how people who’ve been unjust here must pay the penalty there—stories he used to make fun of—twist his soul this way and that for fear they’re true . . . . he is filled with foreboding and fear, and he examines himself to see whether he has been unjust to anyone.
These are the stories that Socrates later refers to that he wishes to censor: stories that ignite a fear of death. Yet it is these very stories that inspire an examination of justice in one’s life. Does not this indicate that the stories do some good?
In the Phaedo, the dialogue that ends in Socrates’ execution, the philosopher says to his gathered students, “I am not so resentful, because I have good hope that some future awaits men after death, as we have been told for years, a much better future for the good than for the wicked.” Here too, Socrates gives reference to myths of Hades for his understanding of the underworld. But Socrates also has his own assurance that death is the right course for him, that it is nothing to fear. During his trial, as laid out in the Apology, he refers to his “familiar sign,” the daemon that accompanies and guides his actions by negating what he ought not to do. Socrates comes to find that his daemon has not opposed anything that he said during his trial.
What do you think is the reason for this? I will tell you. What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken. I have convincing proof of this, for it is impossible that my familiar sign did not oppose me if I was not about to do what is right.
His absolute trust in the guidance of his daemon is remarkable. This assuredness appears to come from an inherent trust Socrates has in the way he has spent his life; if the guidance of the daemon has led him to follow a just life, this guidance must be true. Furthermore, his daemon is one whom Socrates chose himself, if indeed the myth that ends the Republic is meant to be read in such a way. As depicted in the Myth of Er, reincarnating souls choosing their next lifetimes are told “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.” The guidance one receives in life is freely chosen by each individual before birth.
In the Phaedo, Socrates refutes the idea that there might be but a single path to Hades. Rather, he says,
I think it is neither one nor simple, for then there would be no need of guides; one could not make any mistake if there were but one path. As it is, it is likely to have many forks and crossroads; and I base this judgment on the sacred rites and customs here.
The many paths to Hades can also be read symbolically: there are many paths one can choose in life; if there were but one then leading a just life would not be a free decision made with the help of one’s chosen daemon, rather it would be predetermined and unchangeable. One’s lot would be cast and there would be naught to strive for.
Within the prison Socrates tells his gathered followers that “The one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death.” Considering all that philosophy seems to cover in its practice, this statement carries significant weight. But Socrates goes on to explain exactly what he means by this statement. He defines death, saying that it is, “namely, that the body comes to be separated by itself apart from the soul.” The action of the philosopher is to contemplate the divine Forms or Ideas, and to do this he must reach for the Ideas not with his bodily senses but through thought alone, with the soul. The philosopher is therefore in a state most closely related to death, a separating of the soul from the body.
If we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul by itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom.
As a philosopher, Socrates does not claim to ever have attained wisdom, and here we see that he does not believe it to be possible while one is alive and incarnated in physical form. Yet not much earlier in this same dialogue he emphasizes to his disciples that one must not end one’s life to attain the wisdom that is accessible after death. “There is the explanation that is put in the language of the mysteries,” he says, “that we men are in a kind of prison, and that one must not free oneself or run away.” A reason exists for incarnation, for this being one with a body.
The Myth of Er in the Republic tells of how souls after death are led to heaven or hell and, after a specific amount of time in one or the other place, are brought forth again to choose new lives and to be born anew. Socrates notes that most of the souls who come from heaven choose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time in hell are able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they have witnessed and experienced. Only the philosopher is able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,
he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.
The philosopher’s ability to discern a good life is presumably because, as said in the Phaedo, it is only after death that one is able to directly perceive the Forms and to attain wisdom. Yet it seems that not any soul is able to attain wisdom after death, otherwise all of the other souls coming from heaven to choose their new lives would not be plagued by ignorance and choose difficult new lives. Plato seems to be indicating that it is only one who has been a philosopher in life that has the ability after death to reach wisdom.
Plato has often been accused of being a dualist who denies the value of the body, instead privileging the soul and the abstract realm of the Forms. While a soul-body dualism seems to be implicit in Plato’s dialogues, the utter denial of the body may not be a full reading of Plato’s project. The philosopher in life is not one who has attained wisdom; he is a lover of wisdom and not in possession of it. Only by being a philosopher, one who loves but does not possess wisdom, can one choose a just life when one reincarnates. And it is only by being in a body, and therefore at a certain distance from the Forms, that one can actually become a philosopher.
The doctrine of the Forms indicates that an archetype exists for each thing that we experience in the earthly realm, from the more concrete Ideas of Bed, Horse, and Tree, to the more abstract Ideas of Justice, Truth, and the Good. Would this not also indicate that there must be an Idea for Death? Is there an archetypal expression of the mysterious transition that ends all lives? In the ancient Greek world Cronus, later to be named Saturn by the Romans, was the god of Time who ruled endings, mortality, finitude, old age, and death. Saturn was the outermost planet known to the ancients, the furthest celestial body visible to the naked eye. Saturn was the guardian of the threshold, the last circle of the wandering planets inside the crystalline sphere of the fixed stars that encircled the cosmos.
The nature of the Forms is such they can be approached by the philosopher in thought, but never attained while he lives. So too it is with death, that direct knowledge of death is unattainable while alive; as one is dying one comes ever closer to death, yet does not ever fully know what it is until one has actually died. Just as Saturn represents the guardian of the threshold, death too may be such a guardian, standing at the gateway to the realm of Forms: the first Form to be attained by the soul may be Death itself.
How then does one spend one’s life preparing to cross this threshold, cultivating the philosophic way of life? If, as Socrates said in the Phaedo, there is a mirroring between sleeping and waking, death and life, what further insight can be drawn forth from these parallels? After death Socrates says we are released from our bodies and the soul is able, without hindrance, to contemplate the eternal Forms. In embodied life the philosopher strives for the Forms in thought, never fully attaining them but coming ever closer with practice. In the Apology Socrates describes what he sees as the two options for what comes after death: “either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place.” Death is either “like a dreamless sleep” or a “change from here to another place” where one would encounter the “true jurymen who are said to sit in judgment there” and the “other demi-gods who have been upright in their own life.”  If death is the former, Socrates says “it is an advantage, for all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night” and if it is the latter he says, “I am willing to die many times if that is true.” In the parallel between sleep and death, if the former is like a dreamless sleep then the latter, in which one meets gods and heroes, and encounters the realm of eternal Ideas, may be likened to a night rich with dreaming in which one encounters images strange and familiar, beings of all kinds from humans and animals, to mythic creatures, the living Earth, and gods and deities. Dreaming too is like entering into a realm of archetypes.
If death can be likened to entering a realm of dreams, what is it that the philosopher does in life to bring himself closer to that realm? The philosopher contemplates the eternal Forms, but what does this in practice look like? In the Symposium, as Socrates and Aristodemus are walking to the home of Agathon for dinner, Socrates begins to get lost in thought. “As they were walking, Socrates began to think about something, lost himself in thought, and kept lagging behind. Whenever Aristodemus stopped to wait for him, Socrates would urge him to go on ahead.” When Aristodemus arrives Agathon asks of him, “‘But where is Socrates? How come you didn’t bring him along?” So I turned around (Aristodemus said), and Socrates was nowhere to be seen.” Once Socrates has been located, standing still in contemplation on a neighbor’s porch, Aristodemus says, “‘Leave him alone. It’s one of his habits: every now and then he just goes off like that and stands motionless, wherever he happens to be. I’m sure he’ll come in very soon, so don’t disturb him; let him be.” What is it that Socrates is doing? He is clearly lost in thought, but to a degree beyond what most people do. He has the air of one lost in a dream but in waking life; perhaps in contemplating the realm of eternal Forms the philosopher becomes a daydreamer, meditating upon dreams more real than common life.
The Symposium takes place over the course of a single night, the story bookended by sunset and sunrise. Socrates is the only one to stay awake through the entire course of the night, departing quietly at dawn to go about his day. Within the narrative of the dialogue, another story is told of Socrates when he slips into one of his daydreaming states. The tale, spoken by Alcibiades, is worth quoting at length, as it gives a beautiful character picture of Socrates, this man who “as a whole . . . is unique; he is like no one else in the past and no one in the present—this is by far the most amazing thing about him.” So Alcibiades describes:
One day, at dawn, he started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He couldn’t resolve it, but he wouldn’t give up. He simply stood there, glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and, quite mystified, they all told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day, thinking about something. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside, where it was cooler and more comfortable (all this took place in the summer), but mainly in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.
The imagery of the sun in this story is prominent, with the period of thought or daydreaming beginning at dawn and not reaching completion until the following sunrise. In the Republic, Socrates gives the image of the sun as a metaphor for the Good. “This is what I called the offspring of the good,” he says, “which the good begot as its analogue. What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.” But, from an earthly perspective, the sun dies every night, descending below the horizon in a flaring forth of color. The sun pulls the clear definition of all that has illuminated, the bright hues of the landscape, into the underworld with it. To follow the images of the sun we must dream, or learn to contemplate them in thought or dialogue through the night.
Socrates, the only member of the Symposium to stay awake through the entire night, was in the same way caught in thought all through the long night during the summer campaign of which Alcibiades speaks. The work of the philosopher takes place within the embodied realm, for once he has passed the threshold of death he is no longer a lover of wisdom; he has attained wisdom and is no longer a practitioner of philosophia. To be a philosopher is to prepare to cross the threshold of death by always striving to remain in a state closest to death. Thus Socrates, the true lover of wisdom, stays awake through the night to try to consciously understand the Forms in their completeness, so he might recognize them once he too crosses with the Sun below the horizon. “As long as I draw breath and am able,” he says in the Apology, “I shall not cease to practice philosophy.”
The death of Socrates was a literal event in the life of Plato, but the dialogues that poured forth afterwards are a mythological eulogy that has elevated Socrates from human status to that of mythic daemon, a mentor and conscience to guide the dawning philosophical tradition as it walked across Greece’s borders and began its criss-crossing journey throughout the Eurasian continent, leading it eventually to cross the encircling seas and make its wanderings throughout other continents as well.
Socrates was executed at sunset. It is those who remain who are asked to contemplate the long night. It is those who remain who must await the dawn. But in that quiet twilight moment between the sun’s departure and the descent of dark night, we wait for the arrival of that first shining star, the wanderer who appears in the metaxic realm of dusk. As night deepens, the star known by the ancients to be the shining symbol of Love blazes forth ever brighter in the darkening western sky. Never far from the sun, this brightest of planets circles sometimes closer, sometimes further from the celestial image of the Good. It stands as a guide for those called to follow, to be lovers also of wisdom.
“Evening star, you bring all things
which the bright dawn has scattered . . .”
Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.
 Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 62, 71c.
Plato, Apology, trans. G.M.A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 27, 29a-b.
 Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1022, 386a.
 Plato, Republic, 975, 330d-e.
 Plato, Phaedo, 55, 63c.
 Plato, Apology, 35, 40b-c.
 Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.
 Plato, Phaedo, 92, 108a.
 Plato, Phaedo, 55, 64a.
 Ibid, 56, 64c.
 Ibid, 58, 66e.
 Ibid, 54, 62b.
 Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.
 Ibid, 1221, 618d-e.
 Plato, Apology, 35, 40c-d.
 Ibid, 40d.
 Ibid, 40e.
 Ibid, 41a.
 Ibid, 40e.
 Ibid, 41a.
 Plato, Symposium, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 460, 174d-e.
 Plato, Symposium, 460, 174e.
 Ibid, 461, 175b.
 Plato, Symposium, 503, 221c.
 Ibid, 502, 220c-d.
 Plato, Republic, 1129, 508b.
 Plato, Apology, 27, 29d.