Socrates' Sacrifice

Nothing better illustrates the radical novelty of the resurrection, and its implications for religious life, then to juxtapose a famous, sardonic quote from the dying Socrates and a seemingly insignificant act of the resurrected Jesus.            

In his last words, Socrates offers an exemplary illustration of the hopes and expectations his era, perhaps of our own as well. Here’s the text from Plato’s Phaedo. Socrates drinks the Hemlock and then rebukes the men around him for weeping at his fate. Phaedo records:

His words made us ashamed, and we checked our tears. He walked around, and when he had said his legs were heavy he lay on his back as he had been told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body, and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressed hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said no. Then he pressed his calves, and made his way up his body and showed that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself and said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone. As his belly was getting cold, Socrates uncovered his head — he had covered it — and said — these were his last words — “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.” — “It shall be done, “ said Crito, “tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards Socrates made a movement; the man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this Crito closed his mouth and his eyes.

Why does Socrates tell Crito that they owe the sacrifice of a rooster to Asclepius? It’s a terribly telling remark. Asclepius was the god of healing in ancient Greece, and — as Socrates sees it — if he is about to die, then he is about to be healed of the disease, the dis-ease, the burden and illusion, that is our physical life. “Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body.” His soul will be loosed from the body and its enveloping world. It will finally be free to contemplate unfettered, to rise to spiritual heights. For this blessing, he seeks to render thanks to Asclepius, the god of healing.

In contrast, the radical novelty of the resurrection is illustrated with a seemingly errant record of St. Luke, in the last encounter of the risen Jesus with his disciples. “While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them” (24: 41-43). This is far from a trivial detail. It’s more akin to a prophetic act, a revelation of the resurrection’s significance. In fact, when Peter recapitulates his Gospel, in a few short lines, in the Book of Acts, he cannot omit this trenchant detail:

We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and (in) Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree. This man God raised (on) the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (10: 39-41).

Why are the dietary habits of the resurrected Jesus of such import? Because, in the very act of eating, Jesus reveals that the life to come, the life disclosed in his own resurrected flesh, raises this material world to new and permanent heights. “Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have. And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet” (24: 39-40). Unlike Socrates, Christians don’t desire their spirits to be set free from the created world. On the contrary, we anticipate joining Job in his boast, “from my flesh I will see God” (19: 26).

The dying Socrates will never eat again. No one will ever touch his hands, or caress his brow. He will be free from all of this. Christ will eat and drink in the kingdom (Lk 22: 18); Thomas is told to touch him. The resurrection of Christ reveals the destiny of our material world. Indeed, the teaching, which we call the Incarnation — God assuming our flesh in Christ — is simply the first implication of the resurrection. If the flesh is not flotsam, then it something holy. The world, its fauna and its creatures — what we now call our environment — is not occluding dross, or a weight upon our souls. It is the very dwelling place of God, the tabernacle of his Risen Christ.

Socrates was a noble soul burdened with the weight of our world. Christ was a man of flesh and blood who redeemed and raised that world. We who will not rise to the heights of Socrates’ wisdom can continue to learn from him. Fortunately, we can also be taught, like little children, to seize, in an instant, Gospel truths never to be sufficiently fathomed. We can value what Christ valued, what Christ assumed, what Christ redeemed and consecrated: our flesh and its enveloping world.

Rev. Terrance W. Klein


Kang Dole
5 years 1 month ago
What, then, is to be done with 1 Cor 15?
Nancy Good
5 years 1 month ago
1 Cor. 15:36-37 paints a helpful picture:  The seed may not look like much, but, properly handled, it will grow into something amazing.
Richard Cross
5 years ago
I don't read Socrates' last words as sardonic.  The cock for Aescalapius strikes me as being a token of gratitude for a long, healthy life and a relatively easy death.  As for Socrates' attitude toward his physical being, it's comparable to that of St. Francis' feeling about the ''donkey'' he was given to ride. 

To my mind, the comparison to be made between Socrates and Jesus is the readiness of each to, as we used to say in the '60s, put his body on the line.  Erasmus spoke with affectionate irony of St. Socrates.  I'll go with that.

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