In the 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates is about to drink the hemlock. That was the execution method to which he was condemned by an Athenian jury for the crime of asking too many philosophic questions.
Cebes, one of his followers, says to him, “’Try to convince us [that the soul lives on] as if we were afraid … . Perhaps there is a child within us who has these fears. Let us try and persuade him not to be afraid of death, as if it were a bugbear.’”
“’You must charm him every day, until you have charmed him away,’ said Socrates.”
“’And where shall we find a good charmer, Socrates,’ he asked, ‘now that you are leaving us?’”
“’Hellas is a large country, Cebes,’ he replied, ‘and good men may doubtless be found in it; and the nations of the Barbarians are many. You must search through them all for such a charmer, sparing neither money nor labor … . And you must search for him among yourselves too, for you will hardly find a better charmer than yourselves.’”
Despite Socrates, I think the question is not really whether we fear death. Unless we have had rather special training or experiences, it’s a natural fear and the whole force of it cannot be charmed away.
The question is rather, what work does the fear of death do in our lives? For me, it’s the fear of a premature ending, before I’ve done whatever I’m here to do and bring over the finish line.
Death is not, in my experience, the great equalizer. Or anyway, dying is not. I’ve seen people approach the finish line as if it were a sentence decreed by a despot from whom escape was the only thing to be hoped for. I’ve also seen people whose death was an education to those who looked on.
Socrates said that philosophy is learning how to die. And yet a dying colleague said to his wife, “Nothing in philosophy has prepared me for what I’m going through!”
Is there anything in a woman’s purchase on life that can help us to get that one right? I believe that, in the course of a lifetime, women “die” rather frequently, and it’s important how we jump those hurdles, those little deaths. My own technique (if that’s the right word) is a bit tricky to bring off, and to explain, but here goes:
I believe that defeats and suffering, if at all bearable, are best suffered through to the dregs. It’s not the suffering that leaves a scar but the refusal to suffer it through. If a hope or a plan was cut short in a way that nothing can restore, then the thing to do is to die all the death that was contained in this defeat. Then see where that leaves me, what I learned, and go forward from there.
There is life after death, but one should take care not to get to it prematurely.