The memory of it keeps coming back to me and chills me to my bone. While reading the death scene in the Phaedo, I suddenly found myself transformed back into the blue-grey light of that Grecian cell, and I was overcome by the strangest feeling that I was in the presence of little boys who had been caught up in the drama of a play that suddenly had become deadly earnest, as stark and real as that Mediterranean sunlight that leaves not even shadows vague and undefined.
Sudden death – sharp as the blade of a knife held against his breast – was there, and there was no turning back. His whole life and its meaning had been caught up in that drama … and it must be played to its proper conclusion, its logic hard and cold as that of a dream. With any other ending, it had been a different dream, another life, one in which there was no Socrates.
And, outside the dream? Beyond the curtain about to be drawn? Nothing. Darkness black and empty as the heart of deepest sleep. And yet, over the centuries it comes down to us still intact, held together by its relentless logic, this dream of a man who told us that our life is nothing but false appearances, nothing but a dream.
So what is this coldness blowing through my soul, nameless fear of falling infinite spaces through that void where dreams are gone, eternities away from distant points of stars that we will never reach? It is knowing that this dream was really lived by a man of flesh and blood, a man as real as you or I.
Down those darkened corridors of time, grown twenty-four centuries long and cold, who can see his daylight? Who can taste the honeyed sweetness of bread once upon his tongue, or breathe those salt-sea breezes blown from wine-red ancient seas? How can we hope to feel his living pulse, the passion that inflamed his now cold brain, as more than part of a lost fable from times of old?
Who can read the dust or feel it on their finger tips? Yet, surely the birds sang for him on that bright and early morning in his beloved Athens. And, surely, the door through which he passed was every bit as hard and real for him as is the death that waits for you and me.
The question that I want to ask (and do not want the answer) is: Did this man I cannot help but love awaken from his dream before his lines were out? Did he step outside himself at last, to observe the motions of his body, a spectator to his own performance … to finally hear full force the terrible reality of the words he spoke, that in truth the life that he had lived as a dream was in fact no less and nothing more – a dream that acquired its reality and permanence (still only the reality of a dream) only from his taking it so seriously?
Surely he must have awakened as the end came near enough to touch. How could it have escaped him? Staring into the face of nothingness, there are no false reflections, no appearances of any kind at all to trick and take us in.
And yet, he walked off the stage with a joke: “I owe a cock to Asclepius” – the god to whom one makes sacrifice upon recovering from a long illness.
Socrates: Serious to the end.
W .J. Holly
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