Death & Fear

July 15, 2014 Death Awareness

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the_myth_of_persecutionDeath & Fear
by Michael LaBossiere

As mentioned in the previous essay, Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution got me thinking about the notion of the good death. Her mention of Socrates and discussion of the stories of martyrdom reminded me that a considerable part of the Apology is about death and why it should not be feared.

In her book Moss makes an interesting argument in which she endeavors to show how the death of Socrates and other ancient philosophers shaped the later Christian martyrdom. One similarity worth exploring further is the idea that the philosophers and Christian martyrs face death bravely. To use the most famous example, Socrates faced both his trial and death with considerable courage. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, a lack of fear. Since Socrates, unlike most martyrs, presented a detailed case supporting his view that death should not be feared, his story makes an excellent point of focus.

Socrates gives multiple arguments to support his claim that death should not be feared. I will present a summary of each as well as commentary.

Socrates first argument, which I will call the ignorance argument, runs as follows: As Socrates sees it, “no one knows if death may be the greatest good” and hence if someone fears death, they are making an error. This error, for Socrates, is to have the mere pretenses of wisdom—believing that one knows something he does not.

Socrates, who well known for his claim that his wisdom amounted to knowing that he knew nothing, claims that he does not know about death. He does, however, claim that he knows that he should not fear or avoid a possible good (which death might be). Rather, he should fear and avoid a certain evil—in this case, injustice. Thus, Socrates two main reasons here for not fearing death are that 1) he does not know if death is good or evil and 2) he fears injustice as a known evil and will choose death, which might be good, over being unjust.

As might be suspected, the Christian martyrs would not, in general, lack the fear of death for the reason that they accepted their ignorance of the matter. As Moss notes in her book, the generally held view was that martyrs were guaranteed not only heaven, but also premium treatment. However, the Socratic influence can, perhaps, be seen in the notion that the Christian martyr stories often involved the martyr facing the same choice as Socrates, namely giving up his principles to avoid death. Like Socrates, the martyrs elected to avoid what they regarded as the known evil.

In terms of courage, facing the unknown nature of death would require some degree of bravery. After all, while it could be good, it could also be bad. Socrates does, of course, seem to be assuming that any possible evil of death would be less evil than injustice. As such, it could be claimed that his choice is not a matter of courage—after all, he is merely choosing something he does not fear (death) over something he does fear. He can, obviously enough, be regarded as brave from the perspective of people who do fear death.

Socrates’ main argument as to why death is nothing to fear is his famous dilemma: he claims that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams. The other option, as he sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.

Interestingly enough, Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to match what Socrates: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” There is also the more popular view that the good go to Heaven when they die—where they are, as Socrates said, happy and immortal.

While some claim that Socrates is merely trying to calm his friends, the argument is worth assessing in terms of whether or not it shows death is nothing to fear and also in terms of how this connects to the matter of bravery.

On the face of it, if Socrates actually believed the claims in his own argument, then facing death would not seem to be a matter of courage. After all, facing something that one does not (and should not) fear is not courage. To use an analogy, suppose we are in a house and hear a strange noise coming from the dark basement. If I have no idea what is down there in the dark, then it would (or could) be brave of me to go into the dark to find out what made the noise. However, if I believe the noise is being made by my husky pursuing a cat, then it would be no braver of me to go into the basement than it would be for me to eat some ice cream—after all, I would believe that I was not facing anything bad.  As such, if Socrates believed that death was really nothing to fear, than facing it without fear would not be courage.

As should be obvious, Socrates can be easily accused of presenting a false dilemma. After all he offers two alternative when it is easy enough to imagine post-death experiences that are very horrible indeed, such as Hell or a Hell like place where people are unhappy and immortal. Such fates would presumably be something to fear. What would be needed is, of course, evidence that only good things can happen to the good. Naturally, Socrates clearly believes that he is good, just as the martyrs are presented as being good.

Socrates does, of course, make exactly that claim. Near the end of the Apology he says, “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” While he is aware that he has been sentenced to death, he does not regard this as a harm, since he is sure that he has not been “neglected by the gods” and, famously, his little voice did not stop him from choosing the course he followed.

Not surprisingly, a similar view is held by the martyrs—at least as they are generally portrayed in the stories. That is, in the stories they receive a proper reward for their martyrdom. If a martyr knows or at least believes that death is actually a great gain, then choosing death or accepting death are not acts of courage. After all, if I choose ice cream or accept a bowl of it, I am not thus a brave person.

The obvious reply is, of course, that the process of death tends to hurt—especially the deaths that the Christian martyrs are said to have experienced. As such, it could be argued that they had physical courage in that they were willing to face the pain that stood between them and their reward. Going with the ice cream analogy, I could (perhaps) be called brave if I had to win my ice cream by enduring some modest amount of pain (after all, I am just getting ice cream and not Heaven).  Then again, perhaps enduring some discomfort for a gain is not courage at all, but merely a desire for gain that is stronger than the pain.

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