Join 3,557 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


We owe a cock to Asclepius
March 29, 2008 9:58 PM   Subscribe

What is the relevance of Socrates' last words?

"Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don't forget." I know the story as plato recounted it, and I've seen all or part of the quote reffered to many times, most recently here. Still, I feel like I must be missing some sot of meaning, whether intentional or "found" after the fact, that Im' just not getting here.

I studied philosophy at one of the country's top schools. What am I so blind to be missing here?
posted by Navelgazer to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm pretty sure that there was nothing meant on a deeper level by his dying words. He didn't know those would be his last words.

What it says to me, is that even though he was being unjustly executed - he was wanting to live his life correctly. It wasn't his philosophy that was important to him as he died, we wanted to settle up with the world.
posted by bigmusic at 10:12 PM on March 29, 2008


Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing? Perhaps this has something to do with it:

"Asclepius was killed from a thunderbolt from Zeus. The exact reason varies but it was definitely punishment for violating the natural order of the world by bringing the dead back to life. According to some, the catalyst was his acceptance of money in exchange for resurrection. In others, Zeus killed him after Athena asked him to resurrect Hippolytus. Zeus killed Asclepius and, in some versions, re-killed Hippolytus." [source]

(Then again, I've got no idea about philosophy or Greek mythology, hence no idea what I'm talking about)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:18 PM on March 29, 2008


I remember Nietzsche mentioning that quote in The Gay Science at 340.

"The dying Socrates.— I admire the courage and wisdom of Socrates in everything he did, said—and did not say. This mocking and enamored monster and pied piper of Athens, who made the most overweening youths tremble and sob, was not only the wisest chatterer of all time: he was equally great in silence. I wish he had remained taciturn also at the last moment of his life,—in that case he might belong to a still higher order of spirits. Whether it was death or the poison or piety or malice—something loosened his tongue at that moment and he said: "Oh Crito, I owe Asclepius a rooster." [Asklepios: Greek god of medicine.] This ridiculous and terrible "last word" means for those who have ears: "Oh Crito, life is a disease." Is it possible! A man like him, who had lived cheerfully and like a soldier in the sight of everyone,—should have been a pessimist! He had merely kept a cheerful mien while concealing all his life long his ultimate judgment, his inmost feeling! Socrates, Socrates suffered life! And then he still revenged himself—with this veiled, gruesome, pious, and blasphemous saying! Did a Socrates need such revenge? Did his overrich virtue lack an ounce of magnanimity?— Alas, my friends, we must overcome even the Greeks!"

So, according to Neitzsche, Socrates is glad to be 'cured' of the disease of life, and so he tells Crito to make an offering to Asclepius, god of medicine.
posted by askmeacct at 10:48 PM on March 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


This is one of those things that philosophers like to argue about, because it seems oddly obscure when compared to the rest of the Phaedo.

Wikipedia has a fairly common explanation (that Ascepius heals Socrates' soul of it attachment to his body).
posted by ssg at 10:51 PM on March 29, 2008


In the Hackett edition of Plato's complete works (ed. Cooper), the footnote to this line sums up my understanding of it admirably:

"A cock was sacrified to Asclepius by the sick people who slept in his temples hoping for a cure. Socrates apparently means that death is a cure for the ills of life."

The Phaedo (the dialogue in which this scene occurs) is concerned with the question of whether Socrates is his mind or his body, and what happens after death. Crito thinks that Socrates is just his body, and so that he will become a dead body upon death. Socrates thinks he is his soul and after death he will go dwell with the happy dead in the afterlife. Socrates makes gentle fun of Crito's distress at the death of his body. So I take it this is gently poking fun at Crito too. (Disclaimer: I teach philosophy but ancient philosophy isn't my area of expertise.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:58 PM on March 29, 2008


I'm pretty sure that there was nothing meant on a deeper level by his dying words. He didn't know those would be his last words.

Well, he'd drank the hemlock & his feet were already cold - they could certainly be his last words if he wanted them to. ANyway, it's as recounted by Plato, so whether they were technically the last words or not isn't the point. They're what Plato wanted to convey.

But I don't think they're obscure (once you know who Asclepius is) - he spent the whole dialogue arguing against a materialist vision of the "soul" (or animating principle, and as he's about to die, he reminds his friend to give thanks to the god of healing. He'll be free from having to lug around this old body...
posted by mdn at 7:36 AM on March 30, 2008


I'm pretty sure that there was nothing meant on a deeper level by his dying words. He didn't know those would be his last words.

This argument assumes Plato is some sort of reporter. It's the same problem that all the attempts to reconstruct the worldview of Socrates have. In Plato's Dialogs Socrates is not so much the historical person as a literary character. The Dialogs are not philosophical propositions that just happen to be expressed in a literary form and from which they can be abstracted. Leo Strauss and some of his students, along with Jacob Klein, did a lot to promote a "dramatic" approach to the Dialogs. One of Strauss' students, Seth Benardete, put a lot of emphasis on the Phaedo, with its image of a 'second sailing' and the idea that death was the business of the philosopher. This isn't something I can neatly summarize. Those are Socrates' last words because dying is promoted as a kind of healing and the above sources have some commentary on what may have been further implied.
posted by BigSky at 8:45 AM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


I realize you didn't mean to imply this, BigSky, but just for clarity for future readers: Strauss's readings aren't universally accepted by pros. Although of course, the basic point stands, that Plato is an author and is aware of his power to present a version to make one point or another, and that we should pay attention to the way he's choosing to frame things.

As far as whether the dialogues represent Socrates's own view or Plato's:
The current broad consensus is that the "early dialogues" probably are more-or-less accurate reportings of Socrates's actual views, and the "late dialogues" are almost certainly just Plato's views, and the "middle dialogues" represent some sort of mix, increasingly becoming Plato's own views as time goes on. The exact nature of the mix and which views are whose in those middle dialogues is a subject of controversy. We're pretty sure the theory of Forms for example is not something Socrates believed, but is a Platonic innovation.

The broad groupings:
Early: Charmides, Euthyphro, Crito, Lysis, Laches, Protagoras, Apology
Middle: especially Gorgias and Meno, then the later Republic, Symposium, Phaedo, Parmenides, Theaetetus,
Late: Statesman, Sophist, Philebus, Critias, Timaeus, Laws

Caveat to this, summarized from Cooper's introduction to the Hackett complete works: we're not really sure of the order of composition, except in a few cases (Laws is last; Parmenides refers to points raised in Republic so probably comes after it, Theaetetus was probably composed at the occasion of the death of Theaetetus in 369 BCE, etc). So the conventional chronological ordering has been influenced by the theory about the evolving style and philosophical content described above -- this risks circularity.

So, the Phaedo is in the middle grouping -- pretty certainly not pure reportage of Socrates's actual views, but maybe not yet completely removed from the actual events of the deathbed.

There's another conventional breakdown of the dialogues -- into "Socratic" and others. The Socratic ones are the ones scholars think represent the views of the real Socrates (for example by comparing to another writer at the time who recorded some of Soc's views, Xenophon). They are not solely the early ones, although the early ones are included. Phaedo is not in this "Socratic" group. So again we think the philosophical views presented there are not mainly Socrates'.

So the question whether these were indeed his last words, or were wholly invented by Plato, is an open one (as far as my cursory knowledge goes, which isn't that far). It's probably been addressed in the scholarly literature.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2008


LobsterMitten, I agree that this reading of Plato is not universally embraced. Still, I feel there is significant evidence that suggests the entire corpus should be looked at as presenting one man's view instead of a mixture of reportage and opinion disguised as further reportage. Since "nothing in great literature is innocent" as one of my professors used to say, I'll give a bit more evidence for considering the dialogs as literature (self consciously crafted as such) instead of reporting. I think this is pertinent as to why the Phaedo closes as it does.

First, if Plato is interested in presenting the "early" dialogs as authentic accounts of Socrates' own words, then he does a rather poor job of presenting himself as a reliable authority. This is all the more significant considering Plato's mastery of rhetoric and the first class education he received as a member of the aristocracy during Athens' wealthiest period.

From Wikipedia (Plato):

"Plato never presents himself as a participant in any of the dialogues, and with the exception of the Apology, he does not claim to have heard any of the dialogues firsthand. ... With the exception of the Theaetetus, Plato gives no hint as to how these orally transmitted conversations came to be written down, or how he came by them."

"In this vein, it is worth noting that although tradition tends to see Plato as writing a kind of "pseudo-history" of the life of Socrates, the chronologies of the characters are inconsistent. For example, in the Protagoras, Alcibiades and Agathon are teenage boys growing beards (and are the respective beloveds of Socrates and Pausanias), and Apollodoros and Glaucon are fathers of teenage sons. When the Symposium allegedly took place, however, Glaucon and Apollodorus were infants and Alcibiades and Agathon were full-grown men (and Alcibiades is said to be older than his beloved Agathon). This chronological discrepancy, which does not appear to be inadvertent, suggests that Plato is not a historical writer."

A lot can be explained way by claims of "carelessness" but Alcibiades was a contemporary of Plato from the same social strata. Furthermore he was one of the most eminent citizens of Athens and a key figure in the persecution of Socrates. This isn't a mistake, it's an error that would be immediately recognized by his audience. The most compelling explanation for consciously making such an obvious error is to signal that this is literature, not history. If Plato was concerned with accurately portraying Socrates then why make him inconsistent from dialog to dialog?

"In the dialogues for which Plato is most celebrated and admired, Socrates is concerned with human and political virtue, has a distinctive personality, and friends and enemies who "travel" with him from dialogue to dialogue. This is not to say that Socrates is consistent: a man who is his friend in one dialogue may be an adversary or subject of his mockery in another. For example, Socrates praises the wisdom of Euthyphro many times in the Cratylus, but makes him look like a fool in the Euthyphro. He disparages sophists generally, and Prodicus specifically in the Apology, yet tells Theaetetus in his namesake dialogue that he admires Prodicus and has directed many pupils to him. In Cratylus (384b-c), Socrates says that he studied with Cratylus, and took his one-drachma course because he could not afford the full fifty-drachma course. Socrates' ideas are also not consistent within or between or among dialogues."

Such treatment takes the focus away from Socrates and puts it back on the dialogs themselves.

And because some will hear the name Leo Strauss and automatically bristle let me point out that this approach does not come from him alone. I believe he and Jacob Klein developed their approach to the Dialogs while studying under Heidegger whose reading of Plato had been influenced by Schleiermacher. Lawrence Lampert's studies of Nietzsche claim that Nietzsche understood Plato "esoterically", that is, giving full weight to the argument and the action. And Montaigne simultaneously praises Plato for his wisdom and states that Plato could not have fully meant what he said as some of the thoughts are too stupid to be understood literally.

From what I understand though, Leo Strauss did play an important role in bringing this character of the dialogs out. Two of his students, Stanley Rosen and Seth Benardete are well respected commentators on Plato and have continued this line of inquiry. They are not alone, do a search on Google for 'dramatic interpretation Plato', take a look on Amazon and see the related books that come up when you look at Rosen's books or Benardete's. It isn't all about Strauss.

Stanley Rosen did a fairly long interview where he touches on some of this. It's worth a read.

And, I am not a professor and I have done no graduate study. This is just a layman's opinion. Take it for what it's worth.
posted by BigSky at 1:56 PM on March 30, 2008


What I meant to be claiming was that Strauss's view in its details (or if you prefer, this kind of reading generally) is not the only (or, I think, the mainstream) view among contemporary philosophers who study Plato. This doesn't mean that it's completely wrong in every detail, and it doesn't mean that contemporary philosophers think that Plato's every word should be taken as a simple-minded literal report of what Socrates said. It isn't, and nobody understands Plato that way.

(Minor factual note: Alcibiades was dead, and discredited in Athens by the time Socrates was tried, so I'm not sure what you mean by saying that he was a "key figure" in the trial. He was certainly a huge celebrity and people would have known who he was. I'm not in a position at the moment to look up all the inter-references among dialogues, so it's quite possible that wikipedia is correct that the timelines are inconsistent.)

During the time Plato was writing, the idea of "historical writing" was a very new and uncodified genre, not fully distinct from literature -- as I understand it. So, saying that "Plato is trying to write literature not history" is a bit misleading, since it suggests he would have had the concept of two separate enterprises and chose one over the other. I don't think this is quite correct. Plato and Xenophon (another student of Socrates who wrote dialogues in which he appears as a character) both felt free to put words in Socrates's mouth and indeed to use him as a mouthpiece for views that he probably never held. They were not attempting to do plain reportage and their audiences would not have understood it as reportage.

What I was saying above is: the going view among mainstream contemporary ancient-philosophy scholars is that there is a rough progression from early dialogues in which Plato is doing something much closer to describing Socrates's view, to middle and later dialogues in which he's more clearly giving his own view. Nobody thinks (AFAIK) that Plato is mainly attempting to recreate word-for-word actual conversations, and nobody thinks that he is not using literary devices etc. But in the early dialogues the views expressed are, we think, views the historical Socrates probably held. And in the later dialogues this is not true.

Phaedo is in the middle of this progression, so given that, it's not clear that this would have been an accurate report (or even that it was meant to be taken as an accurate report) of Socrates' real last words.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:23 PM on March 30, 2008


This doesn't mean that it's completely wrong in every detail, and it doesn't mean that contemporary philosophers think that Plato's every word should be taken as a simple-minded literal report of what Socrates said. It isn't, and nobody understands Plato that way.

No argument. I don't want to create a caricature of the opposing side. Some years ago I read some of Vlastos' essays and there is this notion that Socrates' philosophy can be pulled out of the Dialogs. Now he is also the one who suggests that the Dialogs can be meaningfully broken up by time period. I'm skeptical but what I find particularly difficult to swallow is that it is useful to abstract an argument out of a dialog (the essay "Self-Predication in the Parmenides"?).

Minor factual note: Alcibiades was dead, and discredited in Athens by the time Socrates was tried, so I'm not sure what you mean by saying that he was a "key figure" in the trial.

Perhaps I should have phrased that differently. He figured in the trial in that he was well known as a student of Socrates and some see the accusation of "corrupting the youth" as referring to his relationship to Alcibiades who went on to be accused of sacrilege and who certainly did commit treason.

So, saying that "Plato is trying to write literature not history" is a bit misleading, since it suggests he would have had the concept of two separate enterprises and chose one over the other. I don't think this is quite correct.

You're right. It doesn't make much sense to speak of genres here. But let me continue to be a little fanciful and use another anachronistic distinction, Plato is self consciously writing fiction. That's all I meant. Even without their having strong ideas of a genre and its conventions, I think the Ancient Greek mastery of rhetoric was enough for sophisticated subtexts to be expressed and developed through markers, like intentional errors and textual inconsistencies.

But in the early dialogues the views expressed are, we think, views the historical Socrates probably held. And in the later dialogues this is not true.

Stanley Rosen has a strong response to this interpretation:

"The attempt to interpret the Platonic dialogues on the hypothesis that he had a historical development is gratuitous, in other words, there is no proof for it, it is a completely arbitrary assumption, which is typical of late modern historicism. It’s perfectly reasonable to say that a thinker must have changed his mind at some point as he grew older. I have nothing against that. But when you read dialogues, you cannot assume that the difference between, let’s say, something that Socrates said in the Philebus and something that he said in the Phaedrus can be explained by the fact that Plato was older when he wrote the Philebus than when he wrote the Phaedrus. You have to start with the assumption that whatever Socrates said in the Philebus has to be interpreted on the basis of the context of the Philebus. Only after you understood the Philebus in its own terms, then the Phaedrus in its own terms, can you ask how they relate to one another. And a much more reasonable hypothesis than the one that says that Plato wrote these two dialogues at different times in his life is to say that Plato has different purposes in writing these two dialogues, right?"

Granted, I'm probably arguing this position too strongly considering the context. I find this to be a fascinating subject and since the quote of Socrates' last words is, to me at least, so obviously a literary element, it is all too tempting to show how large that literary element is (OK, maybe is). Returning to the original question, I think there is an intended meaning to the words that is easily missed, but that is not what's intended when referenced. And even in the dialog I don't think there's a meaning that can be expressed beyond something clumsy like, "dying is a kind of healing" or perhaps "something that can be suggested by the image of dying is what heals", it's more like a pointer back into the text.
posted by BigSky at 3:17 PM on March 30, 2008


Well, I don't think it's correct to say that there's no evidence for the chronological sequencing, and I don't think it's crazy to think that over a period of 50 years Plato's views would become more developed and more fully and confidently articulated. I'll certainly agree that each dialogue should first be understood in itself and then we can start drawing comparisons, but the comparisons can also be illuminating. I don't have any dog in the fight between Vlastos and his followers on the one hand (who I agree sometimes go too far to the no-literary-elements extreme) and Strauss et al on the other. As I said it's not my area, so all I'm going on is some grad courses and working on a friend's dissertation on some related issues. I don't think it's a fight we're really equipped to adjudicate here, I just meant to suggest the extreme all-literary-gestures reading isn't uncontroversial.

At any rate, all that's relevant for this question is these two items:
1. Do we know if these were really S's last words? (and if so what would Socrates have meant by them?)
2. What do they mean in the context of the dialogue? (ie what does Plato mean by them?)

I think we have given above a fairly clear first pass at 2, with some reference to the rest of the Phaedo.

My stuff about the putative chronologies was meant to address 1, and suggest that for example we think the Apology is something in the neighborhood of what Socrates really said at his trial, but given the lateness in Plato's career of the Phaedo we can't be as sure whether the line reported here is in the neighborhood of what Socrates really said.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:38 PM on March 30, 2008


Probably stopped checking answers by now, but I went to school for this.
Asclepius was a god of prophecy, and of healing. Traditionally, one with an unknown or incurable illness would sleep in a temple/shrine of Asclepius , and that night's dream would reveal something about the disease or the cure - and the common sacrifice/offering for this boon was a rooster.
Paraphrasing, I remember passages preceding the end where he scolds his pupils for their grieving - they shouldn't be sad, but happy or jealous of him - he was going to die and learn the answers to so many questions!
Socrates/Plato often treated the human condition as one of (mental) illness, or at least folly, and Socrates was always digging at people to try to find the roots and causes of their misbeliefs. Also believed that one knew everything in the world between lives, but would forget it all (Socrates didn't believe in learning, really - you already knew it all, but had forgotten and had to be reminded by being asked the right questions) when born and coming in to this life. So in going to his death, Socrates was going to the sleep and dream that would reveal all the hidden truths whose absence and seach for had plagued Socrates all his life. For which gift a rooster was owing to Asclepius.
I always thought it was very poetic, if an obscure reference.
posted by bartleby at 8:41 PM on March 31, 2008


« Older How can I make Kernels popcorn...   |  What RPGs are there that are b... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.