106. Socrates and The Practice of Death

Plato, in his dialogue Phaedo, has Socrates refer to philosophy as “the practice of death”. In the dialogue, this practice is presented as one in which the philosopher tries to remove herself from the seductions of the sensible world in order to pursue knowledge of the eternal, unchanging, and invisible Forms (for some posts on the Forms, go here). But we can also interpret the practice death more broadly as a process of dying to one’s false beliefs over and over in order to pursue true ones. This, of course, sounds like a recipe for an anxiety attack. But Plato’s dialogues suggest just the opposite:

Paradoxically, it is only when we are constantly seeking to reform of our beliefs by examining them with arguments that we are stable.

In Plato’s dialogue Meno, Socrates says that our opinions run away from us like the beautiful statues of Daedalus if we do not tie them down with the chains of argument. The character Meno, however, is rigid and fearful of changing his unexamined beliefs. As a result, his opinions run away and he is caught empty handed time and time again. At one point he feels paralyzed in the presence of Socrates’ questions – he feels like he has been stung by a sting ray. This is interesting:

Meno is having the life of his mind frozen – he feels like he is dying – precisely because he doesn’t practice death. Socrates, by contrast, is having the life of his mind enhanced precisely because he is always practicing death. 

Thus the encounter with Socrates reveals unexamined information which, in turn, leads to an existential challenge: can one die to one’s unexamined beliefs and emerge born again into a new set of better beliefs? Or will one run from the challenge and decide to love the dead image of being wise rather than the vitalizing power of wisdom itself? Of course, the challenge, as Plato’s dialogues demonstrate so beautifully, is not an easy one. Indeed, in Plato’s Phaedo Socrates discusses the threat of misology, the hatred or reasoning/arguing, which may emerge when we see how argument after argument gets knocked down. We may especially come to hate the rational life when our favored arguments supporting our cherished ideals are refuted. But Socrates encourages us to see such refutations as liberations that set us on paths with less falsehood. Those who do not have the courage to face the death of their beliefs  run the risk of being rigid when life’s changes demand the flexibility of radical belief revision. John Peterman elaborates in his phenomenal book On Plato (Wadsworth: 2000):

“There are the dangers of living a rational life for which we have to prepare by practicing dying and being dead. We need to become more sensitive to the experience of how our ideas work: bringing our ideas to criticism, finding that an idea cannot explain what it pretends to, accepting the death of this idea and the subsequent hole in our understanding, passing through the dark night of the soul when no replacement ideas appear, and finally finding a new candidate. Then our soul has a better chance, not only of surviving, but of becoming stronger. It sounds like falling in and out of love: elation, suspicion, confusion, depression, reorganization, elation. In a significant sense, philosophy is the preparation for being depressed. When our world has crashed, when our career, lover, parenting, friends, etc. has failed us or we failed it, then we need to be prepared or face being crushed.” (42)

Socrates’ method allows us to practice dying so that, should we really have to die and be reborn, we can, as Socrates states at the end of Plato’s Republic, make a good crossing.

“While changing it rests” – Heraclitus

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