The death of Socrates—ritual sacrifice or deliberate rebellion?

Without the Least Tremorby M. Ross Romero, SJ

SUNY Press. 176p. $75

In this most classic of philosophical tales, Socrates dies a death that has been the subject of so much speculation and controversy that it has been fairly difficult over the years to determine what exactly, if anything, philosophically speaking, was accomplished through his singular death. Nonetheless, the question still remains an important one: Why did Socrates do it? Why did he drink from the cup that would lead to his imminent death. Moreover, since we are told that Socrates held the cup of poison he was soon to drink “without the least tremor,” was he signaling through this steadfast resolve, perhaps, his desire to produce another way of perceiving death, and in this case in particular, the death of the philosopher? What M. Ross Romero attempts to do in this book, whose title reflects the significance of Plato’s phrasing, is nothing short of enabling an interpretation for the ages, one wherein our glimpse of the context of ancient Greek sacrificial rituals, if seen from a religious perspective, might enable us to gather in the realization that Socrates’ actions may have been intended to “transform the purpose of sacrifice” altogether.

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From Søren Kierkegaard to Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida (though only the last of these authors is taken up in the book directly), the death of Socrates and the radical rereading of the ancient Greek care of the self that such an act might prompt us to reconsider have been a major point of both comparison and contrast with theology. Here such discussions are recounted by Romero as a final confirmation of Socrates’s willingness to push philosophy to its boundaries—in this case the boundary between life and death as much as between the body and the soul. Taking the death of the philosopher as potentially being any philosopher’s, not just Socrates’s alone, also gives us a reason to pause and reflect on the manner by which Socrates’s actions instruct those searching to live the examined life—the philosophical life—above all else.

What we witness in Romero’s fine study is a rich textual and close reading of Plato’s Phaedo as well as a number of significant commentaries upon this dialogue in the hopes of advancing a luminous interpretation of Socrates’s death. From the start, Romero is clear that in some ways, his is an advancement of the analysis offered a short while ago by Catherine Pickstock, as well as an attempt to infuse commentary on Socrates’s actions with a religious dimension often found to be lacking, an insight he develops directly from the work of Adriaan Pepperzak. By exploring the often unnoted parallels between ancient ritualistic sacrifice in a Greek context and Socrates’s words and actions leading up to his death, Romero guides us in a poignant reconsideration of just how Socrates’s death both intentionally does and does not reflect such sacrifices—that is, “This way of receiving the death scene beholds it as a careful mixing, a careful weaving, of sameness and difference—of ritual sacrifice and its other.”

By imitating ancient sacrificial rituals specifically (much of Romero’s timely meditation rests upon this comparison), Socrates is able to produce a significant contrast with such rites by effectively mimicking what is central to their use while also deviating in very specific ways. By demonstrating how ritualistic sacrifice maintains a proper relationship, or proportionality, between humans and the divine, Romero is able to detect underneath Socrates’s apparent self-sacrifice another level that is not commensurate with such interpretations. By focusing on the disproportion between the body and the soul, Socrates’s speech in the Phaedo actually undermines any established sense of proportionality (human/divine, body/soul) as maintained by the ritualistic spectacle of sacrifice. What Socrates presents to his listeners instead of an expected proportionality is, then, in Romero’s wording, a “logos of the soul” that portrays itself “as if” it were not itself, as then other to itself. Such an inversion of sacrificial codes is nothing short of a radical contestation of those cultural and political sacrificial mechanisms that govern society, as much during Socrates’s time as in our own.

To what degree this deliberate inversion of the codes of ritual sacrifice in ancient Greece points likewise toward the challenge to sacrifice (not to mention the various theories of atonement) within the history of Christianity is not brought to bear in his reading as much as the reader might desire to see it. Such a contrast was precisely what had intrigued Kierkegaard so many years ago. Nonetheless, what we do see is a radical parody of sacrifice that opens up other ways through which to perceive Socrates’s actions. In essence, Socrates’s death points his most ardent followers toward taking more seriously than ever the vigilance necessary to lead the examined life and to overcome the obstacles of hubris and despair in order to learn to care for the gift of oneself and to understand one’s self as an “embodied logos.”

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