Plato’s Account of Socrates’ Death

(From the Phaedo - 115b-118b)


[The character Phaedo is narrating the account of Socrates’ death to his friend Echecrates …]


         Nothing new, Crito, said Socrates, just what I am always telling you.  If you look after yourselves, whatever you do will please me and mine and you too, even if you don't agree with me now.  On the other hand, if you neglect yourselves and fail to follow the line of life as I have laid it down both now and in the past, however fervently you agree with me now, it will do no good at all.

         We shall try our best to do as you say, said Crito.  But how shall we bury you?

         Any way you like, replied Socrates, that is, if you can catch me and I don't slip through your fingers.

         He laughed gently as he spoke, and turning to us went on, I can't persuade Crito that I am this Socrates here who is talking to you now and marshaling all the arguments.  He thinks that I am the one whom he will see presently lying dead, and he asks how he is to bury me! As for my long and elaborate explanation that when I have drunk the poison I shall remain with you no longer, but depart to a state of heavenly happiness, this attempt to console both you and myself seems to be wasted on him.  You must give an assurance to Crito for me--the opposite of the one which he gave to the court which tried me.  He undertook that I should stay, but you must assure him that when I am dead I shall not stay, but depart and be gone.  That will help Crito to bear it more easily, and keep him from being distressed on my account when he sees my body being burned or buried, as if something dreadful were happening to me, or from saying at the funeral that it is Socrates whom he is laying out or carrying to the grave or burying.  Believe me, my dear friend Crito, misstatements are not merely jarring in their immediate context; they also have a bad effect upon the soul.  No, you must keep up your spirits and say that it is only my body that you are burying, and you can bury it as you please, in whatever way you think is most proper.

         With these words he got up and went into another room to bathe, and Crito went after him, but told us to wait.  So we waited, discussing and reviewing what had been said, or else dwelling upon the greatness of the calamity which had befallen us, for we felt just as though we were losing a father and should be orphans for the rest of our lives.  Meanwhile, when Socrates had taken his bath, his children were brought to see him--he had two little sons and one big boy--and the women of his household, you know, arrived.  He talked to them in Crito's presence and gave them directions about carrying out his wishes.  Then he told the women and children to go away, and came back himself to join us.

         It was now nearly sunset, because he had spent a long time inside.  He came and sat down, fresh from the bath, and he had only been talking for a few minutes when the prison officer came in, and walked up to him.

         Socrates, he said, at any rate I shall not have to find fault with you, as I do with others, for getting angry with me and cursing when I tell them to drink the poison--carrying out government orders.  I have come to know during this time that you are the noblest and the gentlest and the bravest of all the men that have ever come here, and now especially I am sure that you are not angry with me, but with them, because you know who are responsible.  So now--you know what I have come to say--good-by, and try to bear what must be as easily as you can.

         As he spoke he burst into tears, and turning round, went away.

         Socrates looked up at him and said, Good-by to you, too.  We will do as you say.

         Then addressing us he went on, What a charming person! All the time I have been here he has visited me, and sometimes had discussions with me, and shown me the greatest kindness--and how generous of him now to shed tears for me at parting! But come, Crito, let us do as he says.  Someone had better bring in the poison, if it is ready-prepared; if not, tell the man to prepare it.

         But surely, Socrates, said Crito, the sun is still upon the mountains; it has not gone down yet.  Besides, I know that in other cases people have dinner and enjoy their wine, and sometimes the company of those whom they love, long after they receive the warning, and only drink the poison quite late at night.  No need to hurry.  There is still plenty of time.

         It is natural that these people whom you speak of should act in that way, Crito, said Socrates, because they think that they gain by it.  And it is also natural that I should not, because I believe that I should gain nothing by drinking the poison a little later--I should only make myself ridiculous in my own eyes if I clung to life and hugged it when it has no more to offer.  Come, do as I say and don't make difficulties.

         At this Crito made a sign to his servant, who was standing near by.  The servant went out and after spending a considerable time returned with the man who was to administer the poison.  He was carrying it ready-prepared in a cup.

         When Socrates saw him he said, Well, my good fellow, you understand these things.  What ought I to do?

         Just drink it, he said, and then walk about until you feel a weight in your legs, and then lie down.  Then it will act of its own accord.

         As he spoke he handed the cup to Socrates, who received it quite cheerfully, Echecrates, without a tremor, without any change of color or expression, and said, looking up under his brows with his usual steady gaze, What do you say about pouring a libation from this drink? Is it permitted, or not?

         We only prepare what we regard as the normal dose, Socrates, he replied.

         I see, said Socrates.  But I suppose I am allowed, or rather bound, to pray the gods that my removal from this world to the other may be prosperous.  This is my prayer, then, and I hope that it may be granted.

         With these words, quite calmly and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath.

         Up till this time most of us had been fairly successful in keeping back our tears, but when we saw that he was drinking, that he had actually drunk it, we could do so no longer.  In spite of myself the tears came pouring out, so that I covered my face and wept brokenheartedly--not for him, but for my own calamity in losing such a friend.  Crito had given up even before me, and had gone out when he could not restrain his tears.  But Apollodorus, who had never stopped crying even before, now broke out into such a storm of passionate weeping that he made everyone in the room break down, except Socrates himself, who said, Really, my friends, what a way to behave!  Why, that was my main reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of disturbance, because I am told that one should make one's end in a tranquil frame of mind.  Calm yourselves and try to be brave.

         This made us feel ashamed, and we controlled our tears.  Socrates walked about, and presently, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down on his back--that was what the man recommended.  The man--he was the same one who had administered the poison--kept his hand upon Socrates, and after a little while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it.  Socrates said no.  Then he did the same to his legs, and moving gradually upward in this way let us see that he was getting cold and numb.  Presently he felt him again and said that when it reached the heart, Socrates would be gone.

         The coldness was spreading about as far as his waist when Socrates uncovered his face, for he had covered it up, and said--they were his last words--Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius.  See to it, and don't forget.

         No, it shall be done, said Crito.  Are you sure that there is nothing else?

         Socrates made no reply to this question, but after a little while he stirred, and when the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed.  When Crito saw this, he closed the mouth and eyes.

         Such, Echecrates, was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man (Phaedo 115b-118b; Paul Shorey, trans.).