In the Socratic philosophy, memento mori is emphasised in Phaedo, a dialogue between Socrates (470 – 399 BC) and his students who are saddened and scared because their teacher is going to die. This dialogue explores questions such as whether death is a good or a bad thing, the nature of the afterlife and more. It is in this context that the most beautiful Socratic dialogue, focusing on death and the moment of death, unfolds. One of the most puzzling thoughts expressed by Socrates in this dialogue is that: “those who philosophise properly study how to die” (Οι Ορθώς Φιλοσοφούντες Αποθνήσκειν Μελετώσi) and that his entire life was a preparation for the moment of his death:
I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying; and if this is true, why, having had the desire of death all his life long, should he repine at the arrival of that which he has been always pursuing and desiring? (Plat. Phaedo: 59-64).
Socrates also explains to his students that if they want to know any absolute truth, which is the aim of the philosopher, they should not fear to die. The soul is imprisoned in the body, and for this reason, it is not possible to know any absolute truth. Death represents the possibility of knowing absolute truths because it frees the philosopher from the limitations of the body. Therefore, the philosopher should not fear death. For Socrates, it is not possible to acquire absolute knowledge while identified with the body. In this way, death is a friend of the philosopher and represents the only possibility to know the absolute and divine Truth of anything. He also says that while living in the physical body we should do our best not to identify ourselves with it, in order to approach any relative truth:
[If] we are ever to know anything absolutely, we must be free from the body and must behold the actual realities with the eye of the soul alone. And then, as our argument shows, when we are dead we are likely to possess the wisdom which we desire and claim to be enamoured of, but not while we live. For, if pure knowledge is impossible while the body is with us, one of two thing must follow, either it cannot be acquired at all or only when we are dead; for then the soul will be by itself apart from the body, but not before. And while we live, we shall, I think, be nearest to knowledge when we avoid, so far as possible, intercourse and communion with the body, except what is absolutely necessary, and are not filled with its nature, but keep ourselves pure from it until God himself sets us free. And in this way, freeing ourselves from the foolishness of the body and being pure, we shall, I think, be with the pure and shall know of ourselves all that is pure, and that is, perhaps, the Truth. (Plat. Phaedo: 66d-67b).
Still, regarding death, Socrates says the following in the Apology:
To fear death is nothing other than to think oneself wise when one is not; for it is to think one knows what one does not know. No man knows whether death may not even turn out to be the greatest blessing for a human being, yet people fear it as if they knew for certain that is the greatest of evil.(1)
Socrates also thinks that death may mean two things: 1. the soul moves from one place to another; 2. nothingness, a night of dreamless sleep in eternity (Plat. Apol. 40e). If death is a migration from one place to another, there is no reason to fear it. If death is like a dreamless sleep in eternity, there is no reason to fear it also.
Finally, at the moment of Socrates’s death, his last words were: “don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asclepios” (Phaedo 117a–118a). Asclepios, the healer, is also said to have the power to resurrect the dead. In this way, death is considered a cure for the sick man. The sickness is the limitation imposed by the prison of the soul in the physical body. Death is freedom.
(1) “The Apology (The Defense of Socrates).” Great Dialogues of Plato, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, Bergenfield, NJ: Mentor Books, 1971, p 435.
HPB embraces an approximated Socratic view about the Truth. For instance, in the article What is the Truth, she discusses absolute and relative truths:
To sum up, the idea, concerning absolute and relative Truth… Outside a particular highly spiritual and elevated state of mind, during which Man is at one with the UNIVERSAL MIND — he can get nought on earth but relative truth, or truths, from whatsoever philosophy or religion… Meanwhile, everyone can sit near that well — the name of which is KNOWLEDGE — and gaze into its depths in the hope of seeing Truth’s fair image reflected, at least, on the dark waters…
However, she supports the notion that it is possible to reach, using her own words, “a ray” of the absolute Truth, while in the physical body, but only by way of identification of the mind or manas with the spiritual soul, buddhi. HPB embraces a mystical viewpoint concerning absolute Truth.