Excerpt from Teach yourself Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013), copyright © Donald Robertson.
Xenophon wrote that his friend and teacher, Socrates, faced the death-sentence with absolute serenity and fortitude, and that it was “generally agreed that no one in the memory of man has ever met his death more nobly” (Memorabilia, 4.8). We’ve already mentioned the events surrounding the trial and execution of Socrates. The Stoics undoubtedly treat this as the example par excellence of a “good death”. In reading about Socrates’ preparing to meet his death, in a sense, we accompany him and prepare ourselves for our own deaths.
Plato wasn’t there himself but, in an eponymous dialogue, portrays Socrates’ friend Phaedo recounting his astonishment at the philosopher’s composure during his final hours. “Although I was witnessing the death of one who was my friend, I had no feeling of pity, for the man appeared happy both in manner and words as he died nobly and without fear” (Phaedo, 58e). So what did Socrates do? Well, he acted normally. He saw his persecutors, the men responsible for his death, as simply misguided rather than hateful. The Enchiridion of Epictetus makes a point of concluding with a remarkable quotation attributed to him: “Anytus and Meletus [who brought the charges] can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” (Obi-wan Kenobi echoes this in the movie Star Wars!)
In prison, awaiting execution, Socrates spent his final hours debating amiably with his friends about philosophy. Given the proximity of his own demise, he chose to explore the question of what happens to the soul after death, coolly examining several possibilities while keeping an open mind, tolerant of uncertainty. More importantly, he explains his view that philosophy is essentially a lifelong “meditation on death” (melete thanatou), as the reason for his surprising indifference. He says that those who practice philosophy in the right way are constantly training for death, and true philosophers fear dying least of all men (Phaedo, 67e). The “contemplation of death” therefore emerged right at the most dramatic moment in the birth of Western philosophy, spoken at the heart of what Socrates called his philosophical swansong. When the time came, he calmly drank the poison and waited to die, something he’d clearly reconciled himself to, and faced with supreme equanimity and an attitude of philosophical curiosity.