PHILOSOPHY 1100: THE MEANING OF LIFE
Lecture Notes: Plato's Apology
Socrates' behavior at his own trial was unusual in that, while he did try to show the jury that the
charges against him were false, he did nothing to try to win their sympathy or plead for their
mercy. Indeed, he often spoke in ways that were likely to antagonize members of his audience
(such as when he suggested that an appropriate 'punishment' for his ‘crimes’ would be for the
city to feed him for free for the rest of his life). Socrates makes it clear that sticking to his own
moral principles is more important to him than mounting the type of defense, or proposing the
sort of punishment, that would allow him to escape his trial with his life. As he puts it after his
conviction, "nor do I now repent of the manner of my defense, and I would rather die having
spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live" (p.8).
We spoke earlier about how our own behavior often manifests an implicit conception of what we
take the most important thing in life to be, and while I mentioned things like money, pleasure
and power, one of the main things that people implicitly seem to value is life itself. That is to
say, most people are willing to sacrifice almost anything else in order to stay alive, and what
Socrates is stressing in the quotations mentioned above is that if something else makes life
meaningful, then that thing should be preserved even at the cost of life itself. The clearest way to
show that you take something to be the most important thing in your life is to be willing to die
for it, and political, religious and family-centered convictions often bring about such sacrifices.
Socrates will argue that virtue itself is one of these things that we should be willing to die for.
While Socrates recognizes that most people would be willing to compromise a little in order to
preserve their life, but he claims that they are mistaken to do so, because "a man who is good for
anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether
in doing anything he is doing right or wrong" (p. 3).
All of this would be compatible with thinking that life is a good thing and that death is a bad
thing. One could, after all, insist that virtue, power, God's will, etc. are just more important than
avoiding otherwise bad things such as death. Nevertheless, Socrates makes the stronger claim
that not only should the importance of virtue trump our fear of death, but also that the virtuous
person shouldn't fear death at all, since he or she has no reason to think that death is a bad thing.
People will often do things that they know are wrong in order to preserve their life (indeed, they
will knowingly commit wrongs for much less), and Socrates argues that this is because they
believe that death is a bad thing, in spite of the fact that they have no evidence that it is so. Our
fear of death is, he claims, "the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, since no one knows
whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest
good " (p. 4). Death could, after all, be a blessing, since life after death could turn out to be
much better than our life in this world (indeed, most people seem to believe they are headed for
something better once they die), and if that is the case, then there is no reason to fear it. If there is
no reason to fear death, and thus no reason to compromise one's values just to avoid death. Given
that he claims to know that injustice is a bad thing, Socrates could claim that if given the choice
See the discussion of Achilles on p.3. 2
between something you know to be bad (injustice) and something you know about its status
(death), it’s better to choose the latter.
That said, Socrates not only criticizes those who claim to know that death is a bad thing, but also
argues that we can determine that death isn’t a bad thing. However, Socrates doesn’t just rely on
this, he has a number or arguments suggesting that Death isn’t a bad thing, and among those are
Socrates’ first argument for why he has no reason to fear death.
Socrates' first argument for thinking that death is not a bad thing runs as follows:
1. My 'oracle' warns me against any action that would have bad consequences for me.
2. My oracle didn't warn me against defending myself as I did.
3. Having defended myself as I did has my death as a consequence.
Therefore, 4. Death cannot be something bad for me. (p. 8)
The argument seems valid, however, it isn’t of tremendous interest to anyone other than Socrates
because: (1) We simply have to take him on his word that this ‘oracle’ of his behaves (and is
continuing to behave) in the way he describes, and (2) even if the argument were sound, it would
only follow that Death wasn’t bad for Socrates, while we should be more interested in arguments
that have wider application.
Socrates’ second argument for why he has no reason to fear death.
Socrates’ second argument has such a wider application than the first, since rather than just
applying to himself, it applies to any just person, and the argument can be summed up as
something like the following (p.9):
1. Death is either like an endless deep sleep, or involves an afterlife.
2. There is no reason for anyone to fear anything like an endless deep sleep.
3. There is no reason for the just to fear the afterlife.
Therefore, 4. There is no reason for the just to fear death.
Socrates' argument seems valid, but there are good reasons for doubting its soundness.
Premise One: The first premise seems plausible enough since the claim that death might be
like an “endless deep sleep” is not that it would involve anything like dreaming, but rather
that it would be a state of “utter unconsciousness” (p. 9), and it seems that after death and the
destruction of our bodies the only possibilities are utter unconsciousness, or the preservation
of our consciousness somewhere else (this sort of afterlife her refers to as the “migration of
the soul from this world to another (p. 9)). In a sense the first premise is committing itself to
little more than that either there is no life after death, or there is some sort of life after death. 3
Premise Two: The second premise is a little more problematic. Socrates argues that if there is
no life after death, then it is like nothing at all (comparable to a deep sleep from which we
never wake up), and there is nothing particularly unpleasant about that either. However, it
isn't obvious that we would have no reason to view an endless sleep as a bad thing. While
such a state wouldn't be unpleasant, it can reasonably be viewed as a bad thing (this will be
discusse2 more when we get to Nagel's article on death) given all of the things we might miss