I will die – of course I will – and I suppose that represents a challenge of sorts. But the problem I have with death is that other people die. Whatever trouble my own death poses is but dull afterthought to more potent longings against loss. Where one wants help with this, one must look elsewhere, to poets, memoirists, or novelists. If one wants a philosopher, though, best look to China. There one finds philosophers who feel the trouble of graves.--Amy Olberding "Philosophical Undertakings" [HT Dailynous]
I was halted in my digressions by the first two, fiery lines of the quoted passage from Olberding's essay. One may wish to paraphrase its polemical intent (and Olberding is polemical) of these as follows: Socratic Philosophy -- in the broad sense of the philosophical practices that can be traced back to the claim that “the true philosophers practice dying, and death is less terrible to them than to any other men" (Phaedo 67e)* -- , fails to confront other people's death. The problem is not, as Nietzsche charges, that philosophy is life-denying, rather the problem is that philosophy is unwilling to face honestly the possibility of the most valuable loss. And the main problem is not loss of one's own life, but loss of relationships and (one may add) practices that make life worth living due to other people's deaths.
But to speak in terms of loss, I fail to do justice to Olberding's treatment, which calls attention to the "helpless, hopeless, and most important desire that" the dead could come back. Olberding treats this "wish" as "one of the more exquisite human facts, the felt power of our longings to go on a little longer with those we love." I think with 'love' she also means to include our friendships and our partners in crime (this becomes clear from the rest of the essay). Olberding understates the problem; for when beloved others die, our lives get diminished and, after a certain age, start circling in on themselves with each passing death. I suspect that one reason why our senior faculty dislike the idea of retirement -- which releases them from the tedium of administration and grading -- is that they are aware that university campuses are a tremendous place to keep meeting new interlocutors.
So, one way (and this is not the focus of her piece) to understand Olberding's charge against Socratic philosophy is that it misunderstands the significance of our deaths--if we have lived well, our deaths are not so much a loss to ourselves but a loss to our friends (and community,) and loved ones. Saying you'll miss me when I am gone, may well undermine the relationship or remind the audience of a popular tune, but it may well be the most truthful thing one can say about one's own death.
Olberding's essay suggests that the tradition of Socratic philosophy is useless on offering therapeutic guidance for grief. Some of my friends will not care about the charge; they may well think that grief is best left for the self-help section or the bio-chemical industry. Philosophy is not about the art of living, it's about truth, explanation, the generic metaphysical facts, logical form [pick your favorite entry], etc. I am not so sure about Olberding's suggestion (Montaigne, Adam Smith), but about that another time more.
For, even if philosophy is not in the therapy-wisdom-wellbeing practice(s) anymore, I have come to recognize that Plato's choices, including ones on areas of thought we find of little interest now, have created certain enduring constraints on philosophical reflection in the tradition inspired by him. (No need to nod to Heidegger, just see my posts on rustic wisdom here, here, and here; or for more scholarly treatment, Rachel Barney on Gorgias's Encomium.)
Because Plato takes friendship very seriously (Phaedrus, Symposium, etc.) after all, I went back and re-read the Crito. The key passage is early (in the short) dialogue:
No, no, by Zeus, Socrates, I only wish I myself were not so sleepless and sorrowful. But I have been wondering at you for some time, seeing how sweetly you sleep; and I purposely refrained from waking you, that you might pass the time as pleasantly as possible. I have often thought throughout your life hitherto that you were of a happy disposition, and I think so more than ever in this recent misfortune, since you bear it so easily and calmly. Crito 43b...
Too clear, apparently. But, my dear Socrates, even now listen to me and save yourself. Since, if you die, it will be no mere single misfortune to me, but I shall lose a friend such as I can never find again, and besides, many persons who do not know you and me well will think I could have saved you if I had been willing to spend money, but that I would not take the trouble. And yet what reputation could be more disgraceful than that of considering one's money of more importance than one's friends? For most people will not believe that we were eager to help you to go away from here, but you refused.
Socrates: But, my dear Crito, why do we care so much for what most people think? Crito, 44b-c
Plato clearly recognizes Crito's perspective that the death of Socrates would be a great loss to Crito: he shall be bereaved [ἐστερῆσθαι]. What I had never noticed before is that Socrates never engages with this would be loss. Rather, the conversation turns very rapidly to Crito's other problem: that the many will think that he did not use his wealth to find Socrates an escape from jail/execution. (In re-reading, I also noticed that the dialogue starts with a clear allusion to Crito's ability to bribe Socrates's guards.) This is not to deny either that the impact of Socrates's death on some of his social roles (as a parent, citizen, teacher, etc.) nor that the would-be-effects of Socrates's death on Socrates are treated throughout the dialogue. But Socrates fails to address Crito's loss.
I think Plato intends us to notice Socrates's failure to engage with Crito's loss. (In part, by showing us a Crito that fails to pay attention to all kinds of details.) To recognize limitations in Socrates the man or Socrates's philosophy is not to be avoided (that is, Plato is not writing about a Stoic sage).
Perhaps, it's too much to ask the dying, not to mention the exemplary would-be-dead (Socrates, Cato, etc.), to be busy teaching their interlocutors that when they are gone there will be huge desiring holes in the hearts of their companions. Olberding suggests that "if we are not to be false to this more important fact [that we long to continue or revive the conversation], we need somewhere to go with it, to give it its due, and the rooftop seems as good a place as any." This inspired a closing reflection:
By his own lights, Plato is undoubtedly superior to Crito in lots of ways (assuming that Crito was not a philosopher), but it is not too far-fetched to see that in articulating Crito's wish to continue the conversation, he is also articulating his own--all-too-human-longing-to-go-on-a-little-longer-with-all-to-human-Socrates. And, one may well say, with considerable justice, that nearly all of Plato's surviving writings testify to his desire to give this longing its proper due.