Novelist Rossiter Worthington Raymond once said, “Life is eternal; and love is immortal; and death is only a horizon; and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.” A horizon, by definition, is no more than the range of one’s knowledge or experience. With this explanation in mind, death is no longer a destination to be feared, but rather an adventure to be explored, full of uncertainties.
Long before Raymond ever put pen to paper, philosophical forefather Socrates devised a similar stance, concerning the actual relevance of fear of death for the living. Throughout the final speech of the Apology, Socrates claims that fearing the unknown is futile, especially when more realistic fears exist in one’s own nature. In Socrates’ opinion, death can only result in nothingness or the induction into another world, either scenario being preferable to a life of persecution. His argument does not rest solely on proving death an unworthy fear, but rather expands his case to claim that character flaws are far more detrimental to one’s spirit than man’s mortality. In essence, Socrates advocates practical and healthy fears for that which man can control, as opposed to resisting the inevitable death.
Socrates first argues that the most seemingly depressing state of death is not as detestable as first envisioned. Assuming that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness,” there is no actual loss for the deceased individual (Plato 45). In a state of nothingness, one neither exists nor realizes that existence continues without him or her. Therefore, to fear this numbness is to fear a “sleep undisturbed even by dreams,” likening death to that which man experiences nightly in a state of unconsciousness with no initial reservations or qualms (Plato 45). An undisturbed sleep is known as restful and peaceful. Dreams, however, represent the glimpses of reality that the individual is forced to encounter-some dreams pleasant and some nightmarish. This possible dichotomy begs the question as to whether the dream life (and therefore reality) is actually a worthwhile venture. The invasion of nightmares may in fact cause the sleep to be restless and unfruitful. A dreamless state of sleep, although lacking in fantasy, also lacks the element of fear and reality associated with dreams themselves. Without the disruption of these episodes, the rest is therefore more calming and fulfilling for the sleeper. Like this deep sleep, the unconscious state of death may be preferable to that of life because it is a purely quiet state, devoid of corruption by the outside world. Without these dreamlike encounters, the eternity of death is “only a single night,” of uninterrupted and extended sleep (Plato 45). Socrates argues that this state of numbness and detachment is preferable to the life of persecution for the incendiary philosopher. In death, Socrates claims that man simply ceases to exist-no negative element is involved.
Oblivion is not the only option for the dead, according to Socrates. There may very well exist another realm attainable once man passes the horizon of life. In this other world, Socrates hopes to find the “true judges who are said to give judgment there” (Plato 45). In essence, he hopes to meet the profound thinkers and philosophers of times past who alone possess the right to share their “judgment” (or opinions) concerning theories and beliefs. In his passing, Socrates will find “infinite delight” in asking question of the intellectual equals and superiors from times past, thus enabling him to share his theories and benefit from theirs (Plato 45). Death is not a foe to be feared, but rather a threshold to realm where time is nothing, wherein brilliant minds can convene and discuss theories without fear of harassment or punishment by ignorant people. In dying in the mortal sense, he will live in the immortal realm. Such a “pilgrimage will be worth making” in Socrates’ eyes because he will find among his companions others like himself (Palamedes and Ajax), unjustly condemned to a similar fate during their time on earth (Plato 45). This postmortem vision mirrors the Christian perception of heaven because man is reunited with loved ones that have died, therefore revealing that a modern audience still clings to this vision. There is no strife in this utopian world because it is deemed a place of honor and achievement. In this respect, death will be a far greater blessing than a curse because a true “lover of wisdom” thrives in an environment of others with the same passion and vitality.
Because Socrates argues against the existence of man’s greatest fear, he chooses to replace it with another, healthier fear-the fear of unrighteousness. Socrates advocates that he would “rather die having spoken after [his] manner, than speak in [the prosecutors’ and condemners’] manner and live,” revealing his true admiration for a man of principles (Plato 44). Through this belief, Socrates illustrates that he values courage and honesty over cowardice and weakness. In defending himself in the manner that his prosecutors prefer, he would lose his identity as a man of integrity but would retain his life. His acceptance of death before degradation of his values reveal that Socrates considers a life without beliefs and convictions a life not worth living. Unrighteousness is more difficult to avoid than death because it “runs faster than death” (Plato 44). A weak man knows how to flee from a fight by nature, but must summon his deepest morals and allegiance to the cause to fight a losing battle. Furthermore, his final requests for his sons at the conclusion of the piece reveal Socrates’ greatest fear for mankind in general. He pleads that the officials “trouble them…if they care about riches, or anything, more than virtue” and “reprove them for…thinking that they are something when they really are nothing,” again depicting that a virtuous and humble life is the only existence worth knowing (Plato 46). Only through such an existence of humility and morality, can man ever attain true harmony with himself and society. By illustrating that man remain strong in his integrity, virtue, and humility, Socrates states that a life devoid of these characteristics is more fearful than death itself.
Beyond the level of sight, resting at the horizon, there is a destination to which every man must reach. Socrates claims that is it not the horizon, but rather the winding path that leads us to the destination that man must fear. The destination is a complete unknown and will remain as such until man inevitably reaches that plane of sight. Without actual experience, humanity can only imagine and anticipate life at that boundary. Fearing this great unknown is therefore futile, as man knows not if it is a good or bad alternative to life. Socrates claims that the path is all that man is able to control and must therefore be cautious on his journey to the horizon. Living each day morally and virtuously will make this mortal life worth living. Many paths lie before humanity-paths laden with integrity and unrighteousness. Man alone must cautiously decide the course. As Socrates said, “the hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways-I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows” (Plato 46).
Plato’s Apology, as reprinted in Philosophy published by the McGraw-Hill Company, copyright