Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1

Socrates in Prison

7 minutes  • 1378 words

Persons Of The Dialogue:

Phaedo, the narrator of the dialogue to Echecrates of Phlius Phaedo
Echecrates Echecrates avatar
Socrates Socrates avatar
Apollodorus Apollodorus avatar
Simmias Simmias avatar
Cebes Cebes avatar
Crito Crito avatar
Attendant of the Prison Attendant avatar
Scene The Prison of Socrates
Place of Narration Phlius
Were you yourself in the prison with Socrates on the day when he drank the poison?
Yes, Echecrates, I was.
What did he say in his last hours? We don’t have much information because no Phliasian ever goes to Athens now.
Did you not hear of the proceedings at the trial?
Yes, someone told us about the trial. But we could not understand why he should have been put to death long after his trial.

There was an accident. According to Athenian tradition, Theseus went to Crete with 14 youths and saved them. They then vowed to Apollo to send a yearly mission to Delos.

This custom still continues. The voyage to and from Delos starts when the priest of Apollo crowns the stern of the ship during a holy season, during which the city is not allowed to be polluted by public executions. The voyage is delayed by contrary winds. The ship was crowned on the day before the trial and this kept Socrates in prison and delayed his execution.

Please tell me how he died.

He died so fearlessly. I thought he was dying as part of a divine call, and that he was doing it happily. This is why I did not pity him. He was soon to die. This double feeling was shared by us all. We were laughing and weeping by turns, especially the excitable Apollodorus.

Of native Athenians there were, besides Apollodorus, Critobulus and his father Crito, Hermogenes, Epigenes, Aeschines, Antisthenes, Ctesippus of the deme of Paeania, Menexenus, and some others. Plato was ill.

There were non-Athenians like Simmias the Theban, and Cebes, and Phaedondes. Euclid and Terpison came from Megara. Aristippus and Cleombrotus were not there as they were in Aegina.


On the previous days, we had assembled early in the morning at the court in which the trial took place. It is not far from the prison. There we used to wait until the opening of the doors. We passed the day with Socrates.

On the last morning we assembled sooner than usual, having heard on the day before when we quitted the prison in the evening that the sacred ship had come from Delos, and so we arranged to meet very early at the accustomed place. On our arrival the jailer who answered the door, instead of admitting us, came out and told us to stay until he called us.

We found Socrates just released from chains. Xanthippe, whom you know, was sitting by him and holding his child in her arms. When she saw us she cried and said

‘O Socrates, this is the last time that you will converse with your friends’

Crito, let someone take her home.'

Some of Crito’s people accordingly led her away, crying out and beating herself. And when she was gone, Socrates, sitting up on the couch, bent and rubbed his leg, saying, as he was rubbing= How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head.

I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed.

I am glad, Socrates, that you have mentioned Aesop because it reminds me of the question by Evenus the poet= Why are you composing that hymn in honour of Apollo when you have never before written poetry, now that you are in prison are turning Aesop’s fables into verse.

Tell him that I had no idea of rivalling him or his poems as it is no easy task. I wanted to settle the meaning of certain dreams. I have often dreamt that I should compose music. I thought this was only for encouraging me into philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music.

The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing, in the same way that a runner in a race is bidden by the spectators to keep on running.

But I was not sure. The dream might have meant music in the popular sense. Being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that it would be safer to satisfy the dream and compose a few verses before I departed.

First I made a hymn in honour of the god of the festival. Then I took some fables of Aesop, which I knew and turned them into verse. Tell this to Evenus, Cebes, and bid him be of good cheer; say that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man, and not tarry; and that to-day I am likely to be going, for the Athenians say that I must.

What a message for such a man! having been a frequent companion of his I should say that, as far as I know him, he will never take your advice unless he is obliged.
But Evenus is a philosopher. So he will be willing to die, but he will not take his own life, for that is unlawful.
Why should a man not to take his own life, but a philosopher should be ready to follow the dying?

There is a doctrine whispered in secret that man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door and run away. I too believe that the gods are our guardians, and that we are a possession of theirs.

If one of your own possessions, such as an ox killed itself without your permission then you would be angry with him. You would punish him if you could. And so a man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him, as he is now summoning me.


Yes, but how can you reconcile this seemingly true belief that God is our guardian and we his possessions, with the willingness to die which we were just now attributing to the philosopher? That the wisest of men should be willing to leave a service in which they are ruled by the gods who are the best of rulers, is not reasonable; for surely no wise man thinks that when set at liberty he can take better care of himself than the gods take of him.

A fool may perhaps think so—he may argue that he had better run away from his master, not considering that his duty is to remain to the end, and not to run away from the good, and that there would be no sense in his running away.

The wise man will want to be ever with him who is better than himself. Now this, Socrates, is the reverse of what was just now said; for upon this view the wise man should sorrow and the fool rejoice at passing out of life.

The earnestness of Cebes seemed to please Socrates. Here, said he, turning to us, is a man who is always inquiring, and is not so easily convinced by the first thing which he hears.

Cebes thinks that you are too ready to leave us and the gods.
I will try to defend myself better to you than to the judges. I say that the gods are good and that I am not better than the ones whom I will leave behind. I do not grieve as much because I have hope that there is yet something remaining for the dead who are good.

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