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Roberto Rossellini's "Socrates"
The philosopher at the hour of death
It was my good fortune to happen across Rosselini's Socrates. From 1971, in Italian with English subtitles. I tuned in about 15 minutes late, but it riveted my attention until the end. It is full of excellent, accurate dialog based on the texts of Plato that record Socrates' last sayings and doings. I was easily able to recognize material from the Platonic dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and the immortal Phaedo. The dialog moves fast, especially in Italian, and near the end it was difficult to read the fast moving subtitles through eyes filled with tears.
One ought to meditate on the fact that the two greatest teachers of the West, and two great teachers of humanity, Socrates and Jesus, were unjustly executed by the State. This is something contemporary liberals, uncritical in their belief in the benevolence of government, ought especially to consider.
My eyes glued to the TV, I was struck by how Socratic my own attitude toward life and death is. Death is not to be feared, but is to be prepared for and embraced as a portal to knowledge. It is the ultimate adventure for the truth seeker. It is not unreasonable to suppose that it is such a portal even though we cannot know it to be so in this life. There is no dogmatism in the Socratic wisdom: its incarnation does not claim to know here what can only be known, if it can be known at all, there. Socrates is an inquirer, not an ideologue defending an institutional status quo. Nor is he a promoter of an unexamined worldview. The point of the arguments recorded in the Phaedo, and partially rehearsed in the movie, is to persuade sincere truth seekers of the reasonableness of the philosopher's faith, not to prove what cannot be proven, and especially not to benighted worldlings who care little about truth, smug secularists whose hearts and minds have been suborned by their love of power and money and the pleasures of the flesh.
His friends want the seventy-year-old philosopher to escape Athens and execution and have made preparations. But what could be the point of prolonging one's bodily life after one has done one's best and one's duty in a world of shadows and ignorance that can offer us really nothing in the end but more of the same? This vale of soul-making is for making souls: it cannot possibly be our permanent home. (Hence the moral absurdity of transhumanism which is absurd technologically as well.) Once the soul has exhausted the possibilities of self-formation behind the veil of ignorance and has reached the end of the via dolorosa through this vale of tears then it is time to move on, to nothingness or to something better.
Or perchance to something worse? Here is where the care of the soul here and now comes in. Since the soul may live on, one must care for it: one must live justly and strive for the good. One must seek the knowledge of true being while there is still time lest death catch us unworthy, or worthy only of annihilation or worse.
Socrates' life was his best argument: he taught from his Existenz. He taught best while the hemlock was being poured and his back was to the wall. His dialectic was rooted in his life. His dialectic was not cleverness for the classroom but wisdom for the death chamber.
Whether his life speaks to you or not depends on the kind of person you are, in keeping with Johann Gottlieb Fichte's famous remark to the effect that the philosophy one chooses depends on the sort of person one is.
Does it matter whether Socrates existed and did the things attributed to him in the Platonic writings? I don't see that it does matter all that much, not that I doubt the man’s existence. What mainly matters is whether a person here and now can watch a movie like Rossellini's and be moved by it sufficiently to change his own life. What matters is the Idea and the Ideal and the possibility of self-transformation here and now.
What matters is whether one can appropriate the Socratic message for oneself as Johann Gottlieb Fichte did in this very Socratic passage from The Vocation of Man (LLA, 150):
Should I be visited by corporeal suffering, pain, or disease, I cannot avoid feeling them, for they are accidents of my nature; and as long as I remain here below, I am a part of Nature. But they shall not grieve me. They can only touch the nature with which, in a wonderful manner, I am united, not my self, the being exalted above all Nature. The sure end of all pain, and of all sensibility to pain, is death; and of all things which the mere natural man is wont to regard as evils, this is to me the least. I shall not die to myself, but only to others ; to those who remain behind, from whose fellowship I am torn: for myself the hour of Death is the hour of Birth to a new, more excellent life.