Death and Divinization II (The Dionysian Feast)

Death and Divinization II (The Dionysian Feast)

In the Phaedo, Socrates famously characterizes philosophers as those who “cultivate nothing but dying and death” (ἐπιτηδεύουσιν… ἀποθνήσκειν τε καὶ τεθνάναι). Modern commentators generally approach this passage in one of two ways. Those who admire Socrates, but are embarrassed by his life-denying interpretation of philosophy, try to show how this passage is, when read properly and contextualized, not so gloomy after all. On the contrary, Socrates affirmed life and this world. While he might say that true philosophers “desire death” (θανατῶσι, a desiderative form of ἀποθνῄσκω), Socrates actually “appropriated and affirmed his embodied existence” and demonstrated that “the major reward for the practice of philosophy [is] a more fully embodied humanity.” As one recent commentator put it, the arguments in the Phaedo, when situated in their dramatic mis-en-scene, are really “engendered by [Socrates’] bodily experience.”

Needless to say, I find this line of interpretation unconvincing. Aside from the fact that it retrojects thoroughly modern concerns about the body as well as Nietzschean ideas about life-affirmation onto Plato and Socrates, it is spiritually unsatisfying both as a Platonist and (more importantly) as a Christian. Plato’s doctrines, as they were interpreted by Aristotle, the Peripatetics, early and middle Platonists, and the unfortunately named ‘Neo-Platonists,’ were life denying in an important sense. What’s more, Platonists should unapologetically defend such teachings. Plato rightly thought, in my view, that the fullness of truth is with God, that this world of appearances is a mixture of similarity, difference, presence, and absence, and that matter is an absence of form and unintelligible in itself except as privation. These doctrines have (until modern times) been relatively uncontroversial for Platonists. In fact, one could argue that they were constitutive elements of Platonism as an intellectual tradition.

I. A Modest Defense of Life-Denial

Much more refreshing, then, are those critics of Socrates, who, following Nietzsche, take him to task for his alleged ‘pessimism.’ Nietzsche, eloquent firebrand that he was, expresses a quintessentially modern reaction to Socrates’ life-denial in the Phaedo—thoroughgoing disgust. As he puts it:

Even Socrates was tired of [life]. What does that evidence? What does it evince? Formerly one would have said…’At least something of all this must be true! The consensus of the sages evidences the truth.’ Shall we still talk like that today? May we? ‘At least something must be sick here,’ we retort. These wisest men of all ages—they should first be scrutinized closely. Were they all perhaps shaky on their legs? late? tottery? decadents? (The Problem of Socrates from Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche).

Following Nietzsche’s cue, other scholars have attacked Socrates’ “other-worldliness” and his “detachment of [the] intellect from other parts of the personality” (see Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of the Good, p. 216). It seems to me that this line of interpretation, while incomplete and based on rather dubious metaphysical premises, is at least faithful to the text and doesn’t try to salvage Socrates or his asceticism at the cost of making him unintelligible to the subsequent Platonic and Aristotelian tradition.

In this post, I don’t want to shy away from the fact that, to some extent, Nietzsche was right. Socrates was a life-denier, not because he thought the body was evil, but because bodily life pales in comparison to the fullness of life ‘over yon’ (ἐκεῖθεν). This is why Socrates has such a positive view of his own death. He sees it as a reward for a just and pious life.

This is where the shortcomings of Nietzsche’s interpretation become clear. To my knowledge neither the gods, Socratic piety, Socrates’ divine mission, nor the city’s liturgy play a significant role in Nietzsche’s analysis of Socrates in either The Problem of Socrates or The Birth of Tragedy. Instead Nietzsche analyzes Socrates as a psychologist, namely in terms of ressentiment, slave-morality, and a nihilistic penchant for irony. Yet this analysis fails insofar as the Phaedo is not primarily concerned with Socratic psychology. On the contrary, it is about a pious sacrifice. That is, it is about Socrates’ self-sacrifice on behalf of Athens as well as his desire to offer right praise to Dionysus.

II. Death as Deliverance and Dissolution

Before we exorcise these Nietzschean specters, let us ask a more fundamental question about the Phaedo. What is death for Socrates? “Nothing other than the departure of the soul from the body” (μὴ ἄλλο τι ἢ τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος ἀπαλλαγήν). Death is dissolution, a separation of the soul from the body. For Socrates, this dissolution is also a form of deliverance (another sense of ἀπαλλαγή), since the body necessarily implicates us in falsehood. The body distracts the soul “in its reasoning” (ἐν τῷ λογίζεσθαι) by its pleasures, pains, and false perceptions (64c). Recalling the divided line from the Republic, we might say that things in time, perceived through the body, are mere icons or participations in what really is (τὸ ὄν). What is fully real is what is by itself (αὐτὸ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ), like “Justice itself” (δίκαιον αὐτὸ). These realities are “pure” (εἰλικρινὲς) and must be grasped with the corresponding part of the soul, “pure thought by itself” (αὐτῇ καθ᾽ αὑτὴν εἰλικρινεῖ τῇ διανοίᾳ) (66a). Like can only be grasped by like, as Aristotle says, or, in this case, immaterial realities by the immaterial part of the soul.

Death is, therefore, full unity and participation in Truth. The soul, freed from the body, will go to that place where “pure wisdom” dwells (68b). If it is true that the body involves us in time and falsehood, and we attain the fullness of Truth only after death, then philosophy is rightly defined as the practice of death and dying. For philosophy, more than any other practice, accustoms the soul to “gather itself (συναγείρεσθαι) and collect itself (ἀθροίζεσθαι) out of every part of the body and to dwell by itself as far as it can both now and in the future, freed, as it were, from the bonds of the body” (67d). The philosopher, through his detachment from the distractions of the body and love of the Truth, lives as though he were already dead. He anticipates and prepares his soul for its final separation from the body. Without resorting to suicide, an impious and sacrilegious form of rebellion, the Socratic philosopher looks forward to his own death and, when it arrives, sees it as the culmination of his earthly asceticism as well as the fulfillment of eros, of his desire to know. “It would be strange indeed if [philosophers] were eager for [death] all their lives and then resent it when what they wanted and practiced for a long time comes upon them” (64a).

III. The Servants of Dionysus

“Shall we still talk like that today? May we? ‘At least something must be sick here’ we [i.e we modern people] retort.” Socrates was certainly aware of Nietzsche’s criticism, for it had already been made in his day. Philosophy, both then and now, looks ridiculous aux non pratiquants. As Cebes says:

I think that the majority, on hearing this (i.e. that philosophy is the practice of death and dying), will think that it describes philosophers very well, and our people in Thebes would thoroughly agree that philosophers are nearly dead and the majority of men is well aware that they deserve to be.

Not only does philosophical asceticism look ridiculous to outsiders, it renders one incomprehensible and, consequently, suspicious to one’s fellow citizens and useless to the polis. Philosophers are worthy of death because they most likely do not worship the city’s gods—no one really knows what or even if they worship—nor do they take any interest in what motivates most men (i.e. political life and the common good of the city). They are apolitical and impious vagabonds.

These charges should be familiar to anyone familiar with Aristophanes’ portrayal of Socrates and his students in the Clouds. Aristophanes paints a rather ghastly portrait, one of poor, emaciated creatures, unable to stand in the sun, whose heads are buried in the sand so as to investigate the things under the earth, and whose rear ends are pointed towards the sky in order to get a good view of the heavens. Socrates alludes to this caricature in the Phaedo when he refers to a certain “comic poet” (κωμῳδοποιὸς) (70c). This comedian, he thinks, will try to censure his speech and ridicule his coming reflections on death.

This reference to Aristophanes in the Phaedo ought to refer us to the Symposium, where Agathon (a tragedian), Aristophanes (a comedian), and Socrates (a philosopher) agree to praise love, all under the patronage of Dionysus. Socrates and Agathon even agree to be judged by Dionysus himself. In fact, this comes to pass when a drunken Alcibiades, accompanied by his bacchic entourage and bedecked in laurel, arrives to judge the wisest speech. While this is a post for another time, I think there are good reasons to think that Agathon’s speech is nothing but a more persuasive and ornate account of the logos expressed in Aristophanes’ account of love as the desire for “one’s own” (192b). Hence, I think the main competition takes place between two accounts of love—love as love of oneself (Aristophanes) and love as love of the other and the Good (Socrates and Diotima). Since the contest is about love, a wild and unruly passion, it is fitting that Dionysus, the god of revelry and wine, sit in judgement.

The Phaedo reveals that this contest is ongoing. In fact, it never ended in the Symposium. For Aristophanes tried “to make himself heard over the cheers in order to respond to something Socrates had said about his own speech” (212c). Aristophanes (and, by extension, Nietzsche, who recognized the similarities between his own doctrine of the will-to-power and Aristophanes’ account of love 1) is still present in the Phaedo. Yet the contest is no longer about which speech is the wisest. Rather the contest is liturgical in character. Who, it might be asked, is the true Bacchant, the true servant of Dionysus? Aristophanes, whose primary concerns, according to Socrates, are the things of Dionysus and Aphrodite (Ἀριστοφάνης, ᾧ περὶ Διόνυσον καὶ Ἀφροδίτην πᾶσα ἡ διατριβή) (Symposium, 177e), Nietzsche, who said “all this is meant by the word Dionysus: I know no higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism of the Dionysian festivals… i.e. the most profound instinct of life, that directed toward the future of life, the eternity of life, is experienced religiously (Twilight of the Idols),” or Socrates, who aspires, through “the mysteries” (αἱ τελεταί), to become one of the “few Bacchants” (παῦρος βάκχος) (69d)?

IV. The Liturgies of Apollo and Dionysus

The liturgical character of the Phaedo is signaled at the start of the dialogue. Socrates must die at the end of the Phaedo because the “ship from Delos has arrived in Athens” (59c). He cannot be killed beforehand. This would violate the city’s ritual to Delian Apollo, a ritual said to have been established by none other than Theseus himself.

Several rituals are referred to throughout the Phaedo. For instance, Thargelia, a rite dedicated to Apollo and the purification of the city, is alluded to more than once. It involved the purification of the city through the expulsion of certain φαρμακοί (sorcerers who function as scapegoats). This rite involved selecting, feeding, and ultimately exiling two people from the city. In ancient times these scapegoats may have been killed, as an apotropaic offering to Apollo. The word φαρμακός is significant, as Socrates dies via the “drug giver” (ὁ δούς τὸ φάρμακον). The regular word for executioner (ὁ δήμιος) does not appear. Socrates, moreover, seems to have taken the place of a sacrificial animal.2 Right before he drinks the hemlock, Socrates looks up and flashes his eyes “in a bull like fashion” (ταυρηδόν). This is an important reference to animal sacrifice in Athens, since, if the bull or animals looked up, it ‘consented’ to its own sacrifice and was taken as a propitious omen. If this is right, then a strong case can be made for Socrates’ voluntary self-offering qua sacrificial victim, given up for the life of the city.

More importantly, though, the Phaedo seems to refer to the feast of Oschoporia, a celebration in honor of Theseus’ victory over the minotaur and voyage home. Oschoporia was dedicated to Dionysus. As Matthew Hiscock has observed, references to this feast are scattered throughout the Phaedo. The festival involved races, story-telling, and a victory libation and drink at the end. Socrates seems to allude to all three elements in the Phaedo.

First, there is a race in the beginning of dialogue between Socrates and an obscure philosopher Evenus. Socrates interprets his dreams as divine exhortations to practice the arts and continue philosophizing. He says they are like the admonitions given to those “running a race” (ὥσπερ οἱ τοῖς θέουσι διακελευόμενοι) (60e). He urges Evenus to “chase him as fast as he can” (διώκειν ὡς τάχιστα) (61b). But theirs is a race to the grave. Socrates and Evenus, true philosophers both, are running towards death.

Second, Socrates and his comrades tell stories to one another in order to assuage their fears related to his inevitable demise. “It is most appropriate for one who is about to depart yonder to examine and tell tales (διασκοπεῖν τε καὶ μυθολογεῖν) about what we believe that journey to be like” (61d). During Oschoporia, Athenian women would compete with one another by telling stories, mimicking a time when Athenian mothers would do likewise and console their children departing for Crete and ultimately the Minotaur’s labyrinth. These stories were meant to encourage children in the face of certain death. Likewise, Socrates consoles his friends with arguments about the immortality of the soul, though in this case we might say the mother is consoling her children before her own departure.

Third, and most importantly, the winner of the race drank from the πενταπλόα, a drink containing five (pente) ingredients. It is hard not to connect this to the φάρμακον ἐν κύλικι τετριμμένον, the cup of hemlock given to Socrates. If the two are connected, then Socrates’ final draught is paradoxically a kind of victory. He has won the race and fought the good fight, so to speak. The hemlock, no longer a shameful and unjust means of execution, has been transfigured by Plato into a philosopher’s reward. In the context of Oschophoria, we must say that the hemlock is part of Socrates’ liturgical piety, his worship of Dionysus. As the πενταπλόα was the supreme honor at the festival of Bacchus, a reward for great athletic feats, so too is the hemlock a ‘reward’ for Socrates’ philosophic deeds and pious way of life.

This takes us back to Socrates’ main concern, mentioned at the beginning of the Phaedo. He wanted to be a true Bacchant. Although the following text is rather long, it ties together all of the themes mentioned above, so it is worth quoting in full. He says:

When virtues are exchanged for one another in separation from wisdom, such virtue is only an illusory appearance of virtue (σκιαγραφία); it is in fact fit for slaves (ἀνδραποδώδης), without soundness or truth, whereas, in truth, moderation and courage and justice are a purging away of all such things, and wisdom itself is a kind of cleansing or purification. It is likely that those who established the mystic rites (τὰς τελετὰς) for us were not inferior men but were speaking in riddles long ago when they said that whoever arrives in the underworld un-mysteried and un-rited (ἀμύητος καὶ ἀτέλεστος) will wallow in the mire, whereas he who arrives there purified and initiated will dwell with the gods. There are indeed, as those concerned with the mysteries say, many who carry the thyrsus, but the Bacchants are few (ναρθηκοφόροι μὲν πολλοί, βάκχοι δέ τε παῦροι. These latter are, in my opinion, none other than those who have practiced philosophy in the right way (οἱ πεφιλοσοφηκότες ὀρθῶς). I have in my life left nothing undone in order to be counted among these as far as possible, as I have been eager to be in every way (69d-e).

The practice of philosophy, then, is what initiates one into the mysteries and allows one to enter the afterlife a sanctified Bacchant. Philosophy is not, therefore, the mere analysis and dissection of arguments, but a Dionysian rite that prepares one for one’s final dwelling place amongst the gods (μετὰ θεῶν οἰκήσει). It is divinization through the practice of virtue and the pursuit of wisdom, which simultaneously purifies the soul of its practitioner and prepares it for its final state.

In another post I may discuss how this view of liturgy and sacrifice in the Phaedo, whereby rites do not contribute to or benefit the gods (for the gods are already perfect), conforms to what the Athenian Stranger says in the Laws. In that dialogue, the liturgical rites of the city exist in order to help citizens imitate the gods and proleptically participate in their divine peace. Liturgy for Plato (and perhaps Socrates too) is fundamentally a divine gift intended to sanctify man as well as the polis.

Yet, if what is said above is correct, if philosophy is a mystic rite of sanctification that prepares one for a divine life, then it seems to me that Socrates rather than Nietzsche is the true Bacchant. Nietzsche’s Dionysus is an archaic and chthonic deity whom one ought to fear and propitiate. Bacchus, for Nietzsche, should not be loved too much. But this dare I say secular approach (for the secularist always keeps the god at arms length) is born of terror rather than authentic piety. There is nothing here of respecting the god as author, sustainer, and φιλάνθρωπος. Nietzsche’s religion is fit for those who would rather remain servants rather than friends (cf. John 15:15), for they never know what their master is about. A Nietzschean bacchant lives in terror before the face of a cruel and capricious diety. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, one might even call this, if not slave-morality, slave-religion par excellence. Yet Nietzsche too knows all this, for he is nothing if not honest. He knows that his Dionysus remains forever above us, inclosed in that hyperborean realm ‘beyond’ good and evil. We are well rid of him.

As a matter of liturgy, however, Nietzsche’s θεραπεία is impious. He serves the god without loving him. But human beings love the Good, not merely ‘their own.’ We love God because He is Good, He is not Good because we love Him. A blasphemous thought if ever there was one. Nietzsche’s rites are nothing other than celebrations of orgiastic and ultimately vapid self-love. They cannot challenge us, sanctify us, or summon us out of ourselves (the literal meaning of ecstasis). Far from the ecstatic joy of the Bacchanal, Nietzsche’s god is finally a boring one. It is nothing more nor less than the self in whose image it subsists and has its being. It is an idol, the work of human hands, fashioned in the dim light of the understanding. Simulacra gentium argentum et aurum, opera manuum hominum. Similes illis fiant qui faciunt ea, et omnes qui confidunt in eis. The unillumined nous, however, is the smallest and most profane temple imaginable, and those who worship therein the most impoverished celebrants. In short, Nietzsche’s Dionysius is a shadow (a σκιαγραφία), a pale imitation of the god fit for slaves (ἀνδραποδώδης). Nietzsche himself merely carries the thyrsus, incapable of joining in the Dionysian feast, the ecstatic dance around the Good reserved for true philosophers. As Socrates says, the Bacchants are few.

Photo Credit: The Triumph of Bacchus by Ciro Ferri

  1. See Beyond Good and Evil, II.28. 

  2. See Without the Least Tremor, 58-59. 

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


christian-platonism Textual Commentary Phaedo Nietzsche Life-Denial Liturgy

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