Reading the section on the deaths of the philosophers in Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution led me to think about the notion of the good death.
As Plato recounted in the Apology and the Crito, Socrates makes it clear that he prefers to keep to his moral principles and die sooner rather than violate these principles and die somewhat later. The account of his death presents Socrates as courageously accepting death—he freely drinks the hemlock and philosophizes as the hemlock kills him. He also expresses a principle defiance against his accusers and a respectful defiance towards the state. In regards to the state, he claims that he will obey the state, unless he is ordered to cease engaging in philosophy—he cannot accept that order.
While Socrates death is often considered to be the model of how a philosopher should face death, other philosophers have even more dramatic ends. Diogenes of Sinope, it is claimed, held his breath until he perished. Zeno, of the famous paradoxes, allegedly bit of his tongue and spat it towards the tyrant who was questioning him. Perhaps the most extreme case involves Anaxarchus—not only did he spit his own tongue at the tyrant Nicocreon, he also responded to being beaten with pestles (while, appropriately enough, being in a mortar) with the remark, “just pound the bag of Anaxarchus. You do not pound himself.” This remark mirrors one made by Socrates when Crito inquires about how he is to be buried. In reply he says, “However you want to, if you can actually catch me and I don’t escape you.”
At least according to the legends, these philosophers regarded a good death as one which involved some or all of the following: choosing death over violating one’s principles, expressing courage and self-control before and during the death, and expressing defiance towards the wicked. Such principled deaths were praised in the ancient world and held up as a model of how a person should conduct himself when faced with death.
This is not to say that people in the ancient world wanted to die—presumably they wanted to live as much as people do today. However, the moral of these death tales is that a person should die a good death in preference to living a bad life. In any case, these heroic deaths were presented as a model as how a worthy person should die.
As might be imagined, as Moss notes in her book, most people in the modern Western world seem to regard dying well in a rather different way. To be specific, most seem to hold the view that the good death is dying in comfort and peace of old age. If Socrates is the model of how to die for the ancient world, Winston Smith of 1984 is the model for the death to avoid for the contemporary world. Smith, unlike Socrates, is broken and the lesson of this story is rather different from that of Socrates’ story.
While it might be tempting to regard this view as a sign of the decline of Western civilization, there are two things well worth noting. The first is that while the ancients presented the heroic philosophical death as an ideal, most of the ancients did not seek out such heroic deaths. Socrates himself notes that he knew of the apparent common practice of people engaging in shameful behavior in the court in the hopes of postponing their death. The second is that we still value the heroic philosophical death today. For example, Dr. King is lauded for his heroism in facing death threats and it seems reasonable to think that he believed that he, like Moses, would not live to see the promised-land. Like Socrates, he faced the threat of death with courage and he essentially elected to die rather than abandon his principles. There are, of course, numerous other examples of people who are praised for dying in a way that the ancients would certainly regard as good deaths.
I will close with a question well worth discussing, namely what is a good death? That is, what should we hold as the highest value when it comes to dying? For Socrates and other ancients, a good death involved meeting death with courage and control. For much of the Western world today, it is meeting a peaceful and painless death.