Morning Prayer: In dialogue with Socrates 4: ‘What happens when we die?’

28 October 2007 at :00 am

Through the Sundays of October I have been speaking about the trial, condemnation and imprisonment of the Greek philosopher Socrates. He was condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. What he had done, as a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, was to ask awkward questions and to teach young people to ask awkward questions too. For this his enemies accused him of being an enemy of the state. He was not going to be stopped from asking his questions because he had an absolute passion for truth (or hatred of untruth) and because he did not fear death. At his trial, he had the opportunity to suggest a punishment other than death: what he suggested was that he should be given a pension by the state because he had served it so well! When he was in the death cell, his friend Crito came to see him and offered to help him escape. Socrates refused because he believed he should accept the fate that had been decreed according to the Laws of Athens - and if his fellow citizens said he should die, then die he would. All of this is described in four texts, written by Socrates’ pupil Plato, and translated in the Penguin book entitled The Last Days of Socrates. We now come to the dialogue with Phaedo, the last of the dialogues, the one that ends with the unforgettable description of his death.

We have seen in previous weeks some of the obvious parallels between Socrates and Jesus, even though Socrates lived more than four hundred years before Jesus was born. Like Jesus, Socrates was revered as a teacher even though he never wrote anything down. Like Jesus, he gathered around him a group of disciples who passed on and developed his teaching after his death. Like Jesus, he was arrested and tried as a blasphemer and danger to the state. Like Jesus, he never advocated violence and died at peace with all. Unlike Jesus, Socrates spent about a month in prison after he had been condemned to death and before he was executed. We have Plato’s account of his thoughts at that time. It is fascinating to compare them with the teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel. I find it impossible to believe that the author of the Fourth Gospel was not familiar with some of the ideas of Socrates, though in some ways Jesus is so very different.

In the dialogue with Phaedo, Socrates explains why he is not afraid of death. He believes that human beings are made up of a mortal body and an immortal soul. The soul comes from a world beyond this one, spends some time in a human body, and then – if it has not become too attached to the body through the way it has behaved in this world - returns to the better world from which it came.

Socrates’ idea of the soul, written down for us by Plato, has been enormously important for Christians through the centuries. Plato developed Socrates’ ideas to teach that this world is merely a word of shadows and reflections. Nothing that belongs to this world lasts; everything passes away. But there is a higher world, where things are not passing away. This is the world that the real ‘you’ comes from and the real ‘you’ goes to. When we become too attached to this world we get caught up in sensuality and illusion. When we apply ourselves to philosophy and wisdom, we learn how to leave the things of this world behind and to rise above its misleading and enticing concerns. This is what Socrates has been teaching young people like his disciple Plato. Plato learnt from Socrates to be negative about involvement in this world and positive about detachment from the world – to seek the world above from which our souls have come and to which, if we follow the path of detachment, they will return. Already, in this life, we can learn to leave the body behind by not spending all our time thinking about food and drink and possessions and sex and outward appearance – the pleasures of the body, all of which pass away. The questions Socrates raises about the truly human life are as relevant today as they have ever been.

Socrates links the health of the soul with the power of reason. The person who reasons wisely will dedicate themself to wisdom and not to the cares of the body. Soul is more important than body, so the wisest thing we can do is to care about the saving of our souls. This is how Socrates has spent his life and this is why death holds no fear from him. Death for him will mean liberation from the body and return to the higher world from which his soul originally came.

If Socrates’ teaching sounds remarkably familiar, this is because so much of it passed into Christian tradition. Ideas about this world as a lower world of shadow and illusion, and of an upper world of real reality, seem to fit so closely with the way the author of John’s Gospel looked at this world. He wrote about Jesus saying he came ‘from above’ (Jn 3:31; 8:23; 19:11) and that he was leaving this world to be with his Father (Jn 14:28; 17:11 etc). In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the bread which came down from heaven’ (6:41; cf. 38) – that is real bread, not like earthly bread which passes away. The one major difference was that the church rejected the idea that souls existed before they had bodies and that they dropped into bodies from above. The Christian belief is that, though our existence has been willed by God from before the time we were born (cf. Rom 8: 28-30), each one of us has been created individually in our mother’s womb – a point to bear in mind in the light of current debates about when abortion can be allowed. We do not have souls that existed somewhere else before we were born.

In taking on so much of Socrates’ ideas about the soul, and the heavenly world above, the church took on other ideas which did not fit with the teaching of the Bible and which did a great deal of damage. The main one was that human beings have a higher self – the soul – and a lower self – the body – and that it should be our aim in life to reject the things that give pleasure to the body so that we can save our souls. There are two things here that run deeply against Christian teaching. The first is a negative attitude towards this world and towards the body. Christians have all too often lost touch with the Bible’s teaching that God made the world and that when he did so it was very good (Gen 1:31); that in Christ God took a human body, showing that there was nothing about the human body which is unfit for God. Paul, of course, refers to the human body as ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 6:19). Socrates was right to say that human beings all too easily misuse this world and misuse the body but wrong, so far as Christians are concerned, to see creation and the human body as all snare and delusion. Delight in creation and delight in the human body is something of which Christianity has often been afraid – not because of the teaching of Jesus but because of the influence of Greek teachers like Socrates.

The other thing Socrates says which runs against Christian teaching is that we have to learn the way of wisdom – of philosophy - to save our souls, leaving our bodies behind. For Christians, salvation is not a matter of what we do by reason, or by self-denial, or by self-improvement. Salvation is what God does for us to give us new life. And that new life is for the whole person. If we want to talk in terms of body and soul – and I hope you are beginning to see that this can create real difficulties – then we should speak of God saving both body and soul. For the Christian the body is not disposable wrapping for the soul – wrapping that after a time gets thrown away. The body is the form that the whole person takes here and now, and if the person lives on after death then there is a future for the body as well. What that future is we can’t easily put into words. The point is that when Jesus was raised from the dead it wasn’t just as a spirit or a soul who had left the body behind, but it was as the same Jesus whose whole life, including his body, had been transformed. The Christian faith teaches that if God could do that for Jesus he can also do it for us.

The question that Socrates faces us with is one that still troubles us today. What happens when we die? Socrates uses the language of the ‘soul’ to explain what he believes and why he is so calm in the face of death. In the Gospels, Jesus also talks about the ‘soul’, but relatively infrequently, and, being a Jew he probably thought about it very differently to Socrates. It won’t do for Christians simply to take over Socrates’ way of thinking about the soul. At one time nearly everybody believed they had a ‘soul’. Now, I guess, most people wouldn’t know what you meant if you talked about their soul. As Christians, though, we need a word which says we are more than mere bodies who live in and for this life alone. If we believe that each person has been uniquely created by God, and that in each of us there is a slow work going on by which God teaches and shapes us, can we honestly believe that all this ends with our death? The central belief of the Christian faith is that the work of God in Jesus did not end with his death: on the third day the disciples knew him to have lived on beyond his death and to be with them in a new way. If Jesus lived on beyond his death, who is to say that we shall not? There are good reasons, if we are Christian, not to talk of survival beyond death in the precise way that Socrates did. We are followers of Jesus, not of a Greek philosopher. There are good reasons to try to speak of life beyond death in a thoroughly Christian way.

At the end of the dialogue, as the sun dips below the mountains and day gives way to night, with his disciples round him Socrates calmly drinks the poison he has been given, and after walking round a little lies down to die. ‘Such’, says ‘Crito, 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.’ It is a remarkable tribute. This whole collection of texts shows it was fully deserved. Socrates taught others how to live their lives – by preparing for death. By his death he showed others how to live. The gospels say something rather different about Jesus: through his death, in a different and fuller sense, he brought life to others. Jesus is most like Socrates when, as he dies, he calmly prays, ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit’, the prayer of every Jewish child falling asleep. Socrates was convinced that when he left his body behind his soul would enter the fullness of life. When Jesus died, according to the New Testament, not only did he enter into life, but he opened God’s way for others to do so too. Socrates taught people to think about, and to reach out for, life after death: Jesus opened a new way by which God reaches out to us and invites us to experience eternal life now.

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