Socrates & the Good Death


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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.

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  1. “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.”

    You don’t see that these can be one and the same?

    The ‘decline of Western civilization’ is one of the most uselessly ignorant terms used in sloppy comment by those who merely wish some things were different. There are many ancient Greek practices which if reinstated today would be better indicators of moral decline – like slavery.

    And though you point out how not all Greeks approached death as some of the philosophers did you fail to acknowledge other accounts of death. There are many people in the armed forces, or non-military support roles, dying in conflicts quite courageously, no matter what we make of the conflict itself. And there are civilians who put their life on the line and accept the threat of death for their principles.

    There’s enough variety in human psychology to make one’s approach to death entirely personal; so deciding on how anyone else should face this final stage of life is a bit pointless, and overly judgemental. It’s not as if the dead can come back and be proud in some ‘good’ death, or suffer the shame of a ‘bad’ death.

    What is a good death? From whose perspective?

    One that is wanted by the dying: suicide? One that is inevitable to the dying and accepted with dignity, even if in comfort? Why not go out screaming and lamenting the loss of life – what’s so bad about that, if only the inconvenience the living witnesses suffer? Why would a quick assisted death to relieve the torment of pain not be a good death – it was the living that was bad?

    Change perspective: how about the ‘legal’ killing through capital punishment of an ‘evil’ murderer – doesn’t that sound pretty good, to those that support capital punishment? Of course it’s the over moralising that makes capital punishment retributionally appealing in the first place,

    Another philosophical mountain built from a psychological and sociological molehill.

  2. I agree that a ‘good death,’ in the sense that it is being discussed here, is one that is consistent with the values that defined one’s life. Human beings are the only creatures capable of inventing meaning and creating values worth living by and dying for. To go back on those values in one’s dying moments, is in a way to say that your life was a sham, proving that you were a fraud and a hypocrite. It is about consistency and integrity, which is why capital punishment is wrong… we proclaim that human life is a paramount value, then we somehow justify taking it ourselves. Our actions undermine the same value we sought to defend.

    The Western world is sick because our values are based on shallow consumption and consumerism… we live by and kill for money and wealth. Human life is reduced to physical comfort and survival. Higher values are eroded. Our culture is also filled with day-to-day distractions that prevent us from thinking too hard or feeling to much. Is it any wonder that when many of us near death we prefer to be comfortable, numb, and unthinking? Again, we die in the same way that we live, though our life and death might be as meaningful as that of a lizard or a cow.

  3. Ron Murphy,

    “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.”

    You don’t see that these can be one and the same?

    On the one hand, I might be inclined to say that a peaceful and painless death would not require much courage or control to face. On the other hand, a person’s control and courage could make a death peaceful and painless (that is, the person’s courage and control enables her to be at peace and to not be troubled by any pain that might be occurring).

    The question of the good death does seem to be an important question-after all, we will all face death and sorting out what would be a good death seems to matter, although perhaps a bit less than sorting out the good life.

  4. Mike,

    “… I might be inclined to say that a peaceful and painless death would not require much courage or control to face.”

    But you, like Socrates, are equating a courageous death with a good death – painful or not. Why is it good? I think Socrates, and maybe you too, means good in the virtuous sense, and I wonder why you think a courageous death is good, and a non-courageous one not good.

    Why is a peaceful and painless death, even when experienced by in an uncourageous manner, not a good death? In what respect is it not good?

    “The question of the good death does seem to be an important question-after all”

    I don’t think you’ve shown this, but merely asserted or inferred that it is important, by appeal to Socrates. But even then you are only asserting or inferring it is important, and not saying if or why there is actually good in a courageous death, or if there is a good death at all.

  5. Brad,

    I disagree with this:

    “To go back on those values in one’s dying moments, is in a way to say that your life was a sham”

    Since we value life, death is the finality of it, and in the approach to certain death I think it quite reasonable to expect that our great biological, and hence psychological diversity will produce people who react differently to their death. It’s such an extreme event that I think any response at all should be taken as acceptable. The last thing I’d want to do at anyone’s death is remind them how their whole life is a sham because they are not living up to the high goals they set for themselves in life.

    If there’s anything ‘sick’ in the Western world I’d say it is the moralising pontification on what is a good death, usually made by people who haven’t had to face their own yet. This is where the real hypocrisy is – in the judgementalism being applied to those (even hypothetically) facing death when oneself is not.

    It’s not about consistency. No human is consistent throughout life. I think they can be at least given a free pass on consistency in death.

    “our values are based on shallow consumption and consumerism”

    No more than at any time in history. The only difference is that there is more to consume now. You have no way of knowing that people of the past would be any different to us now. And on top of that it’s a gross generalisation. Many people are not particularly enthralled by consumerism and generally avoid it when it’s easy to avoid.

    “we live by and kill for money and wealth”

    Nothing new there at least since money was invented in Lydia.

    “Human life is reduced to physical comfort and survival.”

    That’s the history of all animal life. That’s biology, to be comfortable, well fed and well housed. Can you tell me a life form to which that does not apply?

    “Is it any wonder that when many of us near death we prefer to be comfortable, numb, and unthinking?”

    There’s no indication this is the case, except for those in pain. What’s wrong with a comfortable painless death?

    “Again, we die in the same way that we live”

    Observationally not true. Unexpected bravery and cowardice crops up often. Many people who have lived ‘good’ lives (as some measure of their contribution to the wellbeing of fellow humans) have died horrible ‘undeserved’ deaths through cancer or accident.

  6. The Greeks believed that one who died heroically would be immortalized in the memory of the polis.

    In fact, their whole culture of the heroic death was based on their sense that they would be immortalized by the polis.

    I doubt that whether I die heroically or not, anyone will remember me, besides a few family members and my creditors.

    Given that I do not expect to be remembered or immortalized by the polis, I will try to die as painlessly and comfortably as I can.

  7. Ron, I want to be clear that I am not judging what another person does in the face of their own mortality. This is my own intuition about what a good death means. I am not going to respond to all of your arguments; I think I can most clearly point out the issue in your response to me saying: “Human life is reduced to physical comfort and survival.” … Ron: “That’s the history of all animal life. That’s biology, to be comfortable, well fed and well housed. Can you tell me a life form to which that does not apply?”

    You prove my point. You seem comfortable reducing human values to biological drives; reducing the self-conscious human being, a creature capable of inventing morals and values, and raising them in importance in many cases above their own physical survival, to nothing more than the equivalence of an unthinking sea slug or donkey. If that’s what life is to you, then yes, your approach to death would be quite meaningless.

  8. Brad,

    You illustrate my point. Humans do invent morals; and the values that drive us biologically are elevated to virtues dogmatically to an extent that the notion of a virtuously good death, once invented, becomes a judgement that no longer takes account of our natural differences. Sometimes this is pragmatically useful – by moralising killing as murder. But what on earth is the use of making such a fuss about death?

    Your complaint of reductionism is misplaced, as it often is when this ploy is used. It’s as if those who reference our animal nature discount our specifically human nature. This is really disingenuous, because those who make the reductionist complaint are usually guilty of neglect, by wanting to consider our human nature as being so special that our animal nature can be neglected. It can’t. In this context death is such an extreme situation I think it misguided for the non-dying to get on their high horses about how courageously one should face death. Particularly when, as you say, morals are a mere invention.

  9. This conversation reminds me of a joke.

    There’s a saying:
    “it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

    That is generally said by people seated (in comfortable chairs.)

  10. It seems to me the worst possible life is one spent setting up one’s death. On the other hand, perhaps the best possible death is met living one’s life in that manner that seems to one most useful to as many others as possible.

    Personally, I think that is the real lesson of the death of Socrates. He did live according to the dictates of his moral code even past the point that doing so had irritated many in a self-destructively corrupt society to the point that they sought to use the machinery of the state to silence him. Note, though, that Socrates’s moral code insisted he idealize the law, which meant he used the mechanism corrupt society members in Athens thought he would lay aside, when his way out of Athens was paved with accepted bribes, to embarrass the whole city before the world. He was always challenging people to prove they meant (or just understood) what they were saying.

    His final act was Socrates being Socrates- and proving he really meant it.

  11. How can there be anything good about death. It is the worst possible thing that can happen to us. The thought of it is both vile and loathsome, the misery it causes for those still living. Yes it may release us from the agony of living but it is not that we want to die, we want the agony to go away. Death hangs over us from birth we are never sure when it might strike but somehow we manage to ignore the threat. I sometimes envy those whose religious beliefs provide for an afterlife and a loving God.
    I sometimes think I would prefer to die with a bang rather than a whimper, but preferably a bang of my own engineering. A reminiscence from my days as a much younger man Defending a beautiful damsel from a ferocious lion, sword in hand, killing the creature, and then dying from my own wounds. Plunging Earthwards from a great height in an aircraft I am piloting laden with explosive hurling verbal abuse at the world and life, one last glorious moment of incandescence. Not sure now; I think I will just wait and see what happens or maybe I will suddenly just slip away painlessly, that sounds good, provided I don’t whimper. What will happen? God Knows, but then I don’t believe in him/her/it.
    I have never been able to admire the manner of Socrates’ death. He had the opportunity to escape but refused to take it. He died for a principle. I have met many people who have acted unnecessarily for the sake of a principle they rarely if ever flourished from so doing. My advice is swallow your pride, stay in the world or the job you have, and remain alive and effective. I do not find what was in effect, the suicide of Socrates, a good example, or in any way appealing. Beware those who claim to be just doing something on Principle, they are often just wrong headed; well that is my experience anyway.

  12. Lee,

    … or so the story goes. Are we really any more sure of how courageous Socrates was, than say we are about Jesus on the cross? Which is, not at all sure.

    Okay, so even if it is all contrived tripe in order to make a philosophical point, a myth to stir the emotions into virtuous action, or even, for that matter, if it is all true and this is really how Socrates took his death, does it really address the question of whether the whole notion of a ‘good’ death is anything remotely noble?

    Can anyone explain why these notions of vurtue should be taken seriously, now that we know so much more about human behaviour? They seem no more relevant today than many aspects of the chivalric code or Bushido. Of course those martial arts aficionados will probably see plenty of merit in Bushido. And I’m sure many specific codes can be justified by pretty much most of today’s moral systems, whether religious or secular.

    I could understand a pragmatic argument, say, because it feels better to be brave in the face of adversity, than it does to be quivering in fear; or your last moments of consciousness might be better experienced in calm delight at your last opportunity to do any experiencing at all.

    But is there anything else to commend a good death, from a noble perspective?

  13. Don,

    I take your point that we mostly want life; and I think that is the case because we are, biologically, survival machines; our brain body systems clutch on to life. When the brain functions are severely compromised artificial life support is often needed, but I think mostly, if the brain is pretty much working in its basic animal functions then the brain body system will just keep on going until the energy runs out. And the physics of energy conservation and conversion are crucial in maintaining life – homeostasis rules.

    Having said that, the brain is a prediction machine, and it’s fairly good at recognising a dead end in sight, no light at the end of the tunnel, the prospect of a painful death. It may not get it right all the time – it is a fallible human brain, after all. I’m sure people who have given up on life have been revived and have been thankful for the new lease of life.

    But the right to assisted suicide is one I support. Like all rights I think they are only what we confer on ourselves and each other; and this particular one seems to need others to confer the right on us when we are ready to go but are unable to do it ourselves. I’d have thought that this was the most expressive of the rights we talk about. The right to freedom seems to come through the state of freedom nature leaves us in once we are adults, and is only restricted by the force of others, by laws we may not have had a hand in making. With the right to die we are actively asking for a hand to oppose nature’s tendency to drag things out too much, to avoid the default of a long and unhappy death. The survival machine’s capacity to keep us alive that we relied on throughout our life is now a burden.

    I think the philosophical ‘good’ death is a bit too reliant on simplistic ideals.

    I get your point of going out with a bang. Here’s a personal request that I’ve put to my family, should I become incapacitated and about to die. Wrap me up warm, with eye protection and some ant-spin stabilisers and throw me face down out of a plane without a parachute. The prospect of the up-rushing ground with a pretty certain fast finish seems like one last exhilarating experience worth having. That sounds like an experientially good death to me, a pragmatically good death, a last finger to nature’s apathy and indifference.

    But, as swallerstein points out, an easy request to make from my armchair now.

  14. Ron,

    Are you really asking the appropriate question? Death is simply a programmed biological process. Sear away any metaphysical pretensions and theological assertions and it is neither good nor bad, noble nor ignoble. As part hardware/part software entities we face the perishability of the hardware with trepidation. To relieve ourselves of the conceptual vacuum left by a biological process that bears no witness to our software side we create all manner of pseudo-predictive conceptual structures.

    Does death itself cause us pain, though? No. Death does violence to our image and expectations of the world, the concept space in which any one person’s software side lives. A philosopher should come to grips with this. Socrates, in the Phaedo, says this of death: “…it would be absurd for a man preparing himself in life to be as near as possible to death so to live and then, when death came, to object?”

    Socrates called life “a preparation for death”. He clearly understood that he really knew nothing beyond that curtain, and he repeatedly says a real philosopher would not shrink from death nor fear it. Does that not, then, call your question itself into question? Is Socrates seeking a noble death as a thing separate from his life, or is he living his life in the manner he always had as a soldier, social gadfly, and unpopular defender of the Ten Generals, and idealizer of the law despite the fact that doing so could lead to a possibly avoidable particular moment of death?

    You have pointed out the examples of Diogenes of Sinope, Zeno, and Anaxarchus. I would contrast their examples, with their seeming petulance and lashing out at death, with Socrates, Jesus, and the second-century Jewish sage, Akiva, each of whom accepted their deaths and used them as a witness to the manner in which they had lived their lives.

    In a century you and I will be dead. Entropy’s toll will come due no matter how we twist our convictions to avoid payment. So our choice is not life or death. It is living as we think we ought to live even if it brings us to the toll gate early or violating that set of values to put off the inevitable for some little time.

    A noble LIFE will not shrink from death.

  15. Lee,

    Then, if I read you correctly, the notion of a good death is quite meaningless, and it’s the value one puts on how one leads one’s life that is significant. If that’s what you’re saying then I agree.

    And the choice to die is really a choice about life, to shorten life? Yes, that seems a fair way of putting it, if a little hair splitting. The notion of a good death seems to be clearly about death is faced in what remains of life when death approaches. I still don’t see anything other than the pragmatics of how the dying person experiences their approach to death – which is personal choice, which might well consist of what would classically be labelled as ignoble.

    But then we get into not what is a good death, but what is a good life. My sentiments about that are similar.

  16. David Keith Johnson

    The concept of a death that serves somes transcendant good is embedded in Western culture. In my view the aphorism: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” does not gain any particular authority because it occurs in a Christian gospel. It is simply the statement of a commonly shared value. The last couple of months gave disturbing examples: School teachers and school bus drivers throwing their bodies in front of streams of bullets in an effort to save the lives of their young charges. If you can remain indifferent to the “quality” of those deaths, well, you are quite a philosopher, indeed, and humanity is just some ant farm you received for a Christmas present.I agree there is no objective measure of “the good.” But there are various circles of human culture, agreed upon norms, analagous to language, the informal committee, perpetually in session, perpetually entertaining amendments to its unwritten constitution. The quality of our own death is likely utterly meaningless, assuming our consciousness is turned off at its instance. Meaning survives in the survivors, and is, in my view, undeniable, though certainly debabatable.

  17. David Keith Johnson:

    The news of the last few months gave us as many, probably more, examples of people trampling each other and of the strong literally stepping on the weak to get out of a burning discoteque as of teachers heroically throwing their bodies in the path of bullets.

    You never know what you’ll do until you’re there.

  18. David Keith Johnson

    Correspondent Swallerstein:

    Could not agree more that I do not know how my feet would behave standing in the place of those who do not hesitate to sacrifice themselves for others. I doubt if those people would have been able to predict their own reactions. I also agree that monstrous behavior likely gives a higher count than heroic episodes. However, valuation of behavior is not a straw poll. We do not value the most common behavior simply because of its commonness, but tend (as a species) to honor exceptional behavior. This is a tendancy only. Many among us scoff at behavior that smacks of altruism. Well, they may scoff, and I may choose not to scoff. We all have our little cultural vote in the matter.

  19. David Keith Johnson:

    I don’t scoff at altruism, but I wonder if the best example of altruism is the heroism of people throwing themselves in the path of bullets.

    True, in the cases you cite, their heroism seems in a good cause, but the idea of dying heroically has served to brain wash generations of young soldiers into sacrificing their lives in conflicts which generally have nothing to do with the lofty ideals which are presented as pretexts for wars.

    It would be a lot better if the millions of soldiers who died heroically charging the enemy trenches in World War 1 had simply refused to be so heroic.

    If one believes in altruism, it would be preferible, I consider, to convince people to go into professions and careers which serve others: teaching, medicine, nursing, etc., for the opportunities to die heroically for bad causes are a lot more frequent than the opportunities to die heroically for good ones.

    Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: that’s poison.

  20. David Keith Johnson

    Amigo S,

    Again agree more than disagree. It is interesting that according to research I cannot cite, but which I do recall reading, soldiers tend to order their behavior for the benefit and out of regard for the people next to them in the trench, and rarely think about altruistic principles where the bullets are flying. These are not exclusive choices however. One can oppose war as a practice except under the most dire circumstances (and then understand how it damages all that come within its influence) and still prefer peace and peaceful lives and careers. I just saw a presentation by a medal of honor winner who during action in Afghanistan picked up a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers and lost his hand in the process. He was not thinking about promoting US policy in that part of Asia, just about his friends. I recalled my own grandfather who lost his hand plucking an improvised 4th of July bomb from the hands of a couple of neighbor kids back in the 20s. He received no awards or recognition whatsoever, but his act was much like the MOH winner’s in its automatic impulse to save another person from injury, right there, on the spot. I am losing focus somewhat, here and rambling a little. I plead “blog comment” and ask your forebearance. It has been good to discuss this with you. Hope to run into you again on these pages.

  21. David Keith Johnson:

    El placer fue mío.

  22. This altruism thing is interesting. I do not think it is quite the same as spontaneous acts of heroism e.g. falling on the unexploded grenade. We never know the extent of our Cowardice or Heroism until the appropriate situation includes us. Altruism is different. So far as I remember from my studies of animal behaviour, very briefly, the parent will sacrifice themselves to protect the young. This seems to be an innate propensity selected by the evolutionary process which confers better survival value enabling the young to go on and reproduce the species. Thus it is not so surprising that the teachers sacrificed themselves to save the young pupils. I am not so sure I would fall upon the grenade but if it ever came to a child or me I have a strong feeling the child would win through, but I wonder if my, what turned out to be a cowardly nature, could swamp the altruistic urge. I have read reports of adults sheltering behind children.

  23. Ron,

    Your reading of me is close to the truth. I understand the difference between what one does one’s self in living fully right up to the moment of death and what witness others will bear to how some people died because of the acts they did in so living. Survivors write the judgement on the deaths of others.

  24. Not sure I like the concept of the ‘good’ death. Strikes me that the 9/11 terrorists dies a ‘good’ death by most criteria thus far presented.

    But if one must have an opinion then here’s a joke:

    My grandfather died a good death, passing gently in his sleep. Not terrified and screaming like his passengers.

  25. 9/11 Terrorists could not have died less noble deaths. Their last act in life was to strike out at people murderously, almost indiscriminately, and anonymously. They sought to make their statement by negating the value of the thousands of others whom they erased and by bringing pain literally to millions. They were vicious and utterly ignoble in their last living acts.

    Contrast that with Socrates, Jesus, and Akiva, who not only take no one with them in death but seek to be uplifting even to those who participate in carrying out the sentences against them.

  26. Keddaw,

    Interesting point. From their perspective, terrorists believe they are dying a good death (and engaged in righteous killing). My view is, not surprisingly, is that they are wrong and should know that they are wrong.

  27. I suppose the terrorists believe that death is not the end of the conscioiusness which is rewarded In heaven by all sorts of sexual experiences and other bodily pleasure for eternity. I would not be keen on that myself but the idea has been created in them by methods akin to brainwashing. They accordingly have a very different view of life and much else. Might be interesting to compare them with dedicated Nazis the vast number of whom began life as harmless genuine people until their minds were turned by the incessant lies and propaganda by those skilled in manipulating minds which turned gentle men into savage brutes

  28. Read Muhammad Atta’s instructions for the 9/11 hijackers (Atta led them and died there)[link at bottom of post]. Contra Lee, it seems to me that this fits (with a major qualification below) with conceptions of the good death akin to Herodotus’ description of Thermopylae or Kamakazi in defense of Imperial Japan.

    With the exception of the problem of Suicide Bombers being “self-appointed martyrs” (as if Socrates had explicitly tried to get condemned and killed). Actively seeking death instead of having it imposed on you falls outside the “good death” conception. See that the Spartans did not glorify Aristodemus at Plataea, because Aristodemus was the lone survivivor of Thermypole (he was injured and did not return when he heard the 300 were to make their stand) and went into the battle searching for death. If Atta and the others’ argument that civilians were really not non-combatants and the idea of self-appointed martyrdom is accepted. It appears that we should view Atta and the rest of the 9/11 hijackers as having died a good death.

    Don, I would try to look harder at individuals. A quick brainwashing/radically different conception of life seems to not differentiate why everyone who believes in afterlife and the advantages of martyrdom (most people in history) does not die in a similar manner. (though i don’t like the translation)

  29. Joe: “Actively seeking death instead of having it imposed on you falls outside the “good death” conception.”

    Well, soldiers jumping on a grenade, or Lily Potter would tend to disprove that point (assuming you think they died a good death).

    Since these people are actively seeking death, or are at least impervious to the danger to themselves, in order to protect others then the same could be said of many, many horrific acts of suicidal, or exceedingly dangerous to the perpetrator, violence.

    One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as someone (Gerald Seymour) once said.

  30. At Thermopylae(and, given today’s date, the Alamo) everyone went to work knowing they risked death by the sword. Those who stood in defense of Greece faced no one anonymously. They firebombed no women doing daily chores innocently. Yes, THEY met some, but not all, criteria of a good death as given by Socrates’s example.

    Atta was just a petulant murderer who thought it would be cool to take as many innocent lives as he possibly could with him and die in the process so a lot of people who think killing lots of a certain kind of people would celebrate what he did. If you think that’s noble you might as well contract AIDS somewhere and spread it to as many people as you can before you expire.

  31. The death of Socrates is no simple thing. Waterfield’s “Why Socrates Died” is very good and very ancient Greek-ish.

    Two points: In Socrates’ day, life was cheap, and death freely roamed the Greek world. Xenophon’s opinion seems to have been that Socrates was a coward for provoking a death sentence to avoid the indignities of old age. So… perhaps that old coat of Socrates (the Phaedo) has been reincarnated in our modern healthcare.

  32. Lee Jamison:

    I doubt that anyone in this conversation believes that what Atta did was noble.

    However, I (and probably others) believe that Atta believed that what he was doing was noble.

  33. Swallerstein,
    I’ll give you that. I’m just holding the concept of a “good death” up to an objective standard that respects other people and the ‘law’ imposed by the prevailing civil authorities- to the extent it can be followed without bringing harm to the innocent.

  34. Charles Sullivan

    You might consider asking Eric MacDonald at Choice in Dying for his view in the matter.

  35. Lee
    1. Atta in his writing does not come off as “petulant” and “thought it would be cool” in his writing and the writings of others (like Bin Laden) who are educated thhigh ranking Islamic terrorists and i feel that can have intellectual significance when the issue is not strictly the morality of the action. I forgot to make a brief statement and was trying to avoid the unarmed citizen issue* (since very few people outside of radical terror groups agree with it) and focus on the self-appointed martyr problem, which is much more interesting. An example being Camp Chapman attack in 2009 (and in zero dark 30).


    Well, soldiers jumping on a grenade, or Lily Potter would tend to disprove that point (assuming you think they died a good death).

    I think you misunderstood what I was saying. The new innovation of self-appointed martyrdom would be akin to Lilly Potter actively seeking out Voldemort with Harry in her arms so she could die to save him. This is why I made the Plataea example. The Spartans did not consider the man who died bravely in battle as having a good death if he went out trying to die. On the other hand, the 300, like the Alamo, went to their death, but it was from not shirking from an opposing menace, not wildly seeking out death. This is why, for example, radical Wahhabis generally reject suicide bombings since Islam has prohibitions against suicide.

    *Of course Bin Laden in his address to the American people (2002) claims that they are combatants because they pay taxes and vote for elected official who perpetuate war on Islam and prop up pseudo governments.

  36. on the Chapman idea, the idea may work better if it was, for example, a suicide bomber who sank the USS Cole.

  37. because i can’t stop remembering little things:

    The distinction i’m trying to make, if I understand Xenophon’s description of Socrates death correctly,is that Plato has Socrates dying a good death because he doesn’t turn away from advocating the philosophic ideal at the trial, even when it is sure to lead to his death. While Xenophon’s description suggests a non-good death as Socrates acts in a way essentially to set up the trial and avoid the mental infirmity of old age.

  38. Joe,
    I can, within limits, agree with you on the Cole. For a people whose self-image is one of impotence in the face of vast powers the Saladin-like show that soldiers are willing to throw themselves out a window in support of their political leadership does show them to capable of drawing blood. But as with the messianic impulse of Jews two thousand years before it is pointless and self-destructive gesticulating, a Justin Klebold significance ultimately ennobling no one.

  39. To jim p houston:
    Admittedly it is a bit of an inference. Still it seems he had supporters who were tremendously disappointed by his poor showing at trial. As for Xenophon, he was not at trial. He was far away cavorting with his Spartan friends. He relies on Hermogenes for his assessment of Socrates’ mental state.

    Now it seems to me that if you have a fellow say ‘How nice of the gods to let me die before old age turns me to a Tithonus-like cricket’ that fellow is not brave enough to let nature have her way.

  40. Boreas,
    Modern executions are far less uncomfortable than that experienced as the result of the ingestion of hemlock. Nevertheless, six blocks from where I write people seem infinitely more eager the exit the criminal justice system of the state of Texas via the front gate, regardless of their age, than they are via the side gate- on a gurney.

  41. History appears written by the winners ..Socrates who own hand refused to scribe was quoted in life and after,killed by a state that refused philosophical independent reasoning .Plato however set up schools of thought backed by the very state that executed his master .This in my mind rings alarm bells. Education has become a dog chasing its own tale and independent reason still faces state execution .
    Maybe Socrates said screw you ..if you want me to drink that drink your gonna have to force it down my throat.
    Propaganda has been a hand tool by many states .If Socrates had written anything it would be .Don’t believe all you read .

  42. Sorry im dsylexic ….its hard for me to express myself .

  43. Live life realizing it’s short. Appreciate everything,learn much, try to be a decent person and always help rather than hurt. Then you will fear dying a lot less.

  44. @Ron Murphy.

    I think you fail to grasp what philosophy is: a reasonend discourse on a topic beyond empirical truth. In this case based on what the ancients understood by the notion of a good death.

    “There’s enough variety in human psychology to make one’s approach to death entirely personal; so deciding on how anyone else should face this final stage of life is a bit pointless, and overly judgemental. It’s not as if the dead can come back and be proud in some ‘good’ death, or suffer the shame of a ‘bad’ death.”

    Your first sentence is absolutely untrue: as if one could make abstraction of one’s culture, one’s upbringing etcetera. For one who makes allusions to psychology and sociology surely you should know this.

    The notion of the good death guided the lives of individuals like Socrates and Seneca and was a central aspect of philosophies that focussed on discovering through rational argumentation how one should live. Your comment in this regard is completely beside the point. In your view one shouldn’t care how one dies while it’s clear death is one the few events in life that are inevitable and universal.

    In that respect Nietzsche was quite right when he spoke of the last men who only care about their own comfort and a hedonistic existence. A little poison to get through the day and a lot of it to ensure a quick and painless demise. If your only goal in dying is to be as comfortable as possible and get it over with as quickly as possible (contrary to Socrates who deeply contemplated what was to befall him and comforted those around him by exalted arguments and a demeanor that is nothing short of admirable) then there is little difference between you and a sick animal that is put down by a vet.

    The question raised here is obviously not meant to judge individual people (where on earth do you get this notion?) but to contrast the modern view with the ancient one. If you don’t get this obviously this topic and philosophy as a whole must indeed seem like an insurmountable mountain. Especially when viewed from the vantagepoint of the molehill of psychology and sociology.

    What is pointless and judgemental is your reply, not the article itself.

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