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  1. Jul 2022
    1. it will be worthwhile to develop his idea of a courageous breaking away from culturally-supported immortality systems by looking back in history to a character who many people have thought of as an epitome of a self-realized person, someone who neither accepts his culture’s standardized hero-systems, nor fears death: the philosopher Socrates. When Socrates was brought to trial in 399 BC before a jury of 501 Athenian citizens on charges that included impiety and corrupting the youth, he disappointed most of the jurors (and irritated many of them) by not petitioning for leniency, or appearing intimidated by the penalties he might face if found guilty. And when the jury condemned him to death, he remained composed, and spoke carefully about the consequences of the judgment first for himself, and then for Athens. Through Plato we understand that Socrates’s typical tranquility and self-control never left him throughout his month in prison and up through the final minutes of drinking the hemlock. The eyewitness report has it that he drank the cup of hemlock “calmly and easily,” and had to chastise his friends for their weeping. Combined with other testimony about Socrates’s bravery as a soldier–and the record of his dangerous refusal to obey what he considered to be immoral orders from the leaders of a temporary govemment-all this adds up to the portrait of someone very much at ease with his mortality. What accounts for it? Did Socrates’ courage come from a psychological denial of mortality through embrace of some “immortality system?” Let us look at what he had to say about death to the jurors at his trial immediately after his condemnation. “Death,” he said to them, “is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or … it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another (Plato, Apology, 40c-d).” Those are in fact the only alternatives: maybe its nothingness; maybe it isn’t. Socrates shows himself prepared for either eventuality. Note well: there is no dogmatic assertion of an immortal afterlife here. An assertion like that would, after all, contradict Socrates’ first principle of conduct, which is to never assume that one knows what one doesn’t know. Earlier in his defense speech Socrates had stated the matter about death carefully: “To be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know …. [Not] possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it (29a-b).”

      Socrates confrontation of death without fear is an example of how to live authentically with death, without the need for immortality projects.