Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

The Cup of Hemlock

In a play now almost forgotten, the "Cato" of Joseph Addison, the hero, who has been fortifying himself in his purpose of suicide by a perusal of Plato's dialogue of Phaedo, begins his great soliloquy with the words:

"It must be so; Plato, thou reasonest well!"

It is quite possible, however, that a modern reader of the Phaedo may be disappointed in this same reasoning. The arguments in favour of the Immortality of the Soul are scarcely convincing; some of the objections are but imperfectly answered. Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why the Dialogue has held its place as the greatest of all pre-Christian statements of the doctrine. But this greatness lies, not so much in the reasoning of the abstract question as in the pictures which it draws, with an unsurpassed literary force, of the practical faith of the philosopher as he stood face to face with death. It is a picture manifestly drawn from the life, and the cheerful, unfaltering confidence which it portrays, is far more convincing than any argument, even when this is reinforced by the dialectical subtlety of the reporter.



Phaedo, the disciple from whom the Dialogue takes its name, describes his feelings thus: "As for myself," he says to his friend Epicrates, who had been asking for details of the last scene, "I was affected by what I saw and heard in a quite surprising way. I could not feel the compassion that might seem natural to one who was present at the death of a dear friend. The man seemed absolutely happy, to judge from his manner and his talk, so fearless, so noble was his bearing in the face of death. I saw in him one who, if ever a man did so, was passing into the other world under divine protection and once arrived would assuredly be happy. The result was this. There was no question of compassion, as there might have been in the presence of so great a sorrow; on the other hand, we could not feel our wonted pleasure in our philosopher's talk; for, indeed, our talk was philosophical. Our condition was the strangest possible. There was a most unusual mixture of pleasure on the one hand, and pain on the other, pain because we knew that he was soon to die. We were laughing at one time and weeping at another; no one more so than Apollodorus. You know the man and his ways.

After enumerating the disciples who had been present at the last scene, Phaedo goes on to describe what had been done, and said:

"We came that day earlier than usual, for on the day before we had heard on leaving the prison, that the ship from Delos had arrived. Accordingly, we agreed among ourselves to come as early as possible. The porter who was accustomed to open the door, told us to wait a while, and not go in till he bade us. 'The Eleven,' he said, 'are taking the chains off Socrates, and notifying to him that he is to die to-day.' Before long the man came out to us again and bade us follow him. Going into the chamber, we found Socrates just quit of his chains, and Xanthippe, with his little child in her arms, sitting by him. As soon as she saw us, she cried out, saying the sort of things that women do say, as, for instance, 'O Socrates, this is the last time that your friends will speak to you, or you to them.' Socrates looked at Crito, and said, 'Crito, let someone take this poor woman home.' Thereupon some of Crito's attendants led her away wailing and beating her breast."

After this the philosopher discussed various topics, as the close union of pleasure and pain, suggested by the sensation of relief when his fetters were removed, and his employment in prison, which had been turning Æsop's fables into verse.

He sent an ironical message to a certain Euenus, who, he said, was to follow him as quickly as possible; "for I must go," he said, "to-day; the Athenians will have it so." Before long the conversation turned to the subject of Immortality. I shall not attempt to analyse the reasoning, but shall hasten on to the concluding scene, first giving, however, the final portion of Socrates' description of the rewards and punishments of the other world.

"When the dead are come to the place whither the divine guide conveys each separate soul, first they that have lived after a holy and noble fashion are divided from them that have lived otherwise; and they that are judged to have lived neither ill nor well, going to the river Acheron, mount the carriages there provided for them, and so are conveyed to the Great Lake. There dwelling they suffer cleansing and expiation, paying the penalty for such things as they have wrongly done, and receiving on the other hand, due reward for such things as they have done well, each according to his deserts. As for such as seem to be past all healing, by reason of the greatness of their transgressions, having committed many mid great robberies of holy things, or committed many murders against justice and law, these the attending Fate casts into the pit of Tartarus never more to come out thence. As for those who may be judged to have sinned sins, great indeed, but such as may be cleansed, as doing violence in the heat of anger to father or mother, or slaying any man in the like fashion, they must needs fall into the same pit, but having so fallen a wave carries them out of it every year, the manslayers by the stream of Wailing, and the parricides and matricides by the stream of Burning Fire, and when being so carried, they come over against the lake of Acheron, then they cry out aloud, calling to them whom they have slain or wronged, and beseeching them that they will suffer them to come out into the lake, and will so receive them. If they persuade them, then they come forth, and are quit of their troubles; if they persuade them not, then they are carried back into the pit and from thence again into the rivers. And this must be till they persuade them whom they have wronged, this being the penalty laid upon them by their judges. As for them that have lived with exceeding holiness, they being set free from these earthly dwelling-places, from which they come forth as from a prison-house, pass to fair habitations above. And such of these as have duly cleansed themselves by philosophy, these live wholly without bodies for the time to come, and come to habitations yet fairer, such as it would be hard and beyond the opportunity of this present time to describe. Here, then, there is cause sufficient why we should do our best to keep fast hold in this present life of virtue and wisdom, seeing that the reward is noble and the hope great. Verily a man may have good confidence concerning his soul, who has put away from him all pleasures that concern the body as things that concern him not, but by temperance and courage and freedom and truth has made himself ready for his passage into the unseen world, that he is prepared to go when fate shall call him.

"As for me," he went on, "fate is now calling me, as they say in a play. It is time for me to go to the bath. It is well to do this before I die that the women may not have the trouble of washing me when I am dead."

"It is well, Socrates," said Cebes. "But tell us, is there anything you would have us do for your children or in any other matter?"

"I have nothing more to say," he replied, "do that for yourselves that I have bidden you, and you will do all that is best for me and mine, whether you now promise or no. But if you do it not, then whatever you may promise, you will fail in your performance." "We will do our best," said Cebes, "but how are we to bury you?"

"Bury me just as you please, that is if you can catch me, and if I do not altogether escape from you."

"Then with a quiet laugh and a look at us, he said: 'Dear friends, I cannot persuade Crito here that I who am now talking to you am Socrates. He thinks that that which he will soon see lying dead before him is Socrates, and asks, forsooth, how he is to bury me. Now, I have been long trying to convince you that when I shall have drunk the poison I shall not be with you any more, but shall depart to some happy place. He thinks that this is all foolish talking on my part, meant to give comfort both to you and to myself. Now I want you to give to Crito just the opposite guarantee to that which he gave the court. He guaranteed that I would stay. Do you guarantee that I shall not stay when I am dead, but shall depart. So he will take the matter more easily, and when he sees my body burnt or buried may not be greatly troubled as if I had suffered some grievous loss. Do, Crito, what you think best, and what is customary in this matter.'

"Saying this he left us, going into an adjoining room where he was to take his bath. Crito followed him, bidding us remain where we were. So we remained, now talking to each other about what had been said, and thinking it over, and then conversing about our loss, for it seemed to us as if we were about to lose a father, and that we should be orphans for the rest of our days. When he had finished his bath, his children were brought to him; he had two that were quite young and one grown up. The women of his family also came. He talked to them in Crito's presence and told them what he wanted them to do. Then he sent the women and children away, and came out to us. It was now nearly sunset, for he had been a long time away. Then he came and sat down, saying but little. After this came the servant of the Eleven, and stood by his side. 'I shall not have to complain of you,' said the man, 'what I have to complain of others, that they fall into a rage, and curse me, when at the command of the magistrates I tell them that they must drink the poison. I have always found you during the time when you have been here, the very noblest and gentlest and best man of all that have ever come into this place. And now I am quite sure that you are not angry with me, but as you know who are to blame, with them. You know what I come for: cheer up, and try to bear what has to be borne as well as you can.' So speaking he burst into tears, and turned away, and went out. Socrates looked at him and said, 'You, too, must cheer up; I will do what you say!' Then turning to us, he said, 'How courteous the man is! All the time he has come and sometimes talked with me, and has been the best of friends. And now see, how genuinely sorry he is! But come, Crito; let us do what he says; let someone bring the poison, if it has been pounded; if not, let the man pound it!' 'But,' said Crito, 'I think, Socrates, that the sun is still on the hills. and is not yet set. I know that others have put off drinking the poison till as late as possible; and after the message has been brought to them, they have dined and drunk bountifully. Anyhow, there is no hurry. There is plenty of time!' 'They are quite right,' replied Socrates, 'from their point of view; they think that by so doing they will get some advantage. But I shall be equally right in not doing so. For I think that I get no advantage by drinking the cup an hour or so later, but shall only make myself ridiculous, clinging to life. Pray, go and do as I say!' When Crito heard this he nodded to the slave that stood by him, and the slave went out, and after a while, came back bringing the attendant who had to administer the poison, which he carried ready pounded in a cup. When Socrates saw it, he said, 'Very good, my man; as you know all about these things, tell me what I ought to do.' 'Only this,' said the man, 'When you have drunk it, walk about, till you find your legs growing heavy; then lie down.' And so saying he reached out the cup to Socrates. He took it very quietly. He did not tremble, or change colour, or expression, but knitting his brow, as his habit was, said to the man, 'What do you say about the draught? Might one pour out a libation to anyone?' 'Well,' said he, we mix just so much as we think the proper quantity to drink.' 'I understand,' answered Socrates, 'still, I suppose one may, indeed one ought, to pray to the Gods that my change of abode from this place to that may be for good. Verily I do pray it. May it be so!' So speaking he drank off the hemlock as easily and cheerfully as a man could.

"But when we saw him drinking, and the cup empty, my tears came in a flood, yes, in spite of myself; so I covered my face and wept. Nor could Crito control himself. As for Apollodorus, he had never ceased weeping all the time, and now he burst out into such a passion of grief that we all broke down, all, that is, except Socrates. 'What are you about, my good friends?' said he. 'This is why I sent the women away, lest they should do anything absurd; for I have always heard that a man ought to die in peace. Be quiet, I beseech you, and control yourselves.' Then for very shame we restrained our tears. He, meanwhile, had been walking about, and when he felt his legs growing heavy, he lay down on his back, for the man told him so to do. After a while the attendant who administered the poison looked at his feet and legs, and pressing one of his feet with much force, asked him if he felt anything. 'No,' said Socrates. After this the man felt his ankles, and so, going upwards, showed us how he was growing cold and stiff. Socrates himself said that when the coldness should reach his heart, then he should die. And when it reached the abdomen, he uncovered his face, for he had covered it, and said, and these were the last words that he uttered, 'Crito, we owe a cock to Æsculapius. See that you pay it and do not forget.' 'It shall be done,' said Crito. 'Is there anything else you have to say?' but he made no answer. A short time after the attendant uncovered his face, and we saw that the eyes were fixed. When Crito saw this, he closed the mouth and the eyes."