December 03, 2008

Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius

An ingenious article from Colin Wells in Arion has just come to my attention. When the Greek philosopher Socrates died, he turned to his companions and in his last words, said 'Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius, see to it' and then died. Socrates died because he had been commanded to drink poison by the state of Athens- and he died quickly and quietly according to Plato. His words though have been a subject of controversy for a long time- most like Neitzsche argue that what Socrates was doing was unfurling a philosophical thesis- proclaiming a message at the moment of his death. Colin Wells though suggests an alternative explanation for the last words of the sage.

What he suggests is that Socrates was behaving as a normal conventional Greek would. He takes us through the moment of Socrates's death- first he drinks the hemlock, then he asks if someone has a drink so they can pour a libation, finding that noone in the room did he prays and then he makes this comment to Crito and dies. The sequence is interesting and suggestive. What Wells argues is that Socrates in reality was doing what all Greeks did when beggining a venture- imploring the success of the Gods for its continuance. Just as you might with a war pray to Ares, so when taking poison, you would pray to the God of medicines and poisons that he would help you die swiftly and smoothly. The sequence suggests that Socrates moved from one adequate form of offering- the libation- to an inadequate expedient- the prayer- and then settled on asking a friend to perform another adequate offering- the sacrafice. Its ingenious as an explanation and its also interesting.

Wells may well be right- I lack the expertise in Greek religion to comment. But if he is, it is suggestive that he is right and that for so long, scholars have misunderstood these words. It is a classic case of the way that we can read ourselves into the past- and read out the historical characters of a given time, read the Greeks out of ancient Greece, read Socrates out of Socrates. What this instance displays, if Wells is right, is the danger of abstracting people from the past out of their context- by reading that phrase, 'we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius' and knowing enough to know that Asclepius was the God of medicine, we can come to any number of suggestions about what Socrates was saying. It is only when we understand a bit more the function of prayer and offering in Greek society that we can get closer to what the philosopher was actually saying- as opposed to what we would like him to say (some argument about life being a disease or quip to the same effect).

Wells discusses briefly the famous question of Socratic irony in the essay- whether we take the statement as ironic is a different matter (it is always difficult to infer irony in people who we have never met and Socrates has been seen as the ultimate in sincerity before- by no less an authority than Montaigne!) but we cannot even recover the irony, if we cannot recover the meaning and this is one more incident, where a deeper knowledge of context can bring a deeper knowledge of the particular act of an intelligent and important thinker.

3 comments:

Dave Cole said...

One of the problems in looking at the character of Socrates is that we don't have any direct record of his thoughts. They come either from his supporters - Plato - or his opponents - Aristophanes, perhaps.

Firstly, Socrates was not behaving as a normal Greek. It would have been normal for an Athenian of Socrates' standing to have gone into exile and Crito's bribing of the guard wouldn't have been unusual. Indeed, the point Socrates was making on the social contract differentiated him from the norm at the time.

Socrates' final words are sometimes rendered as 'Crito, I owe a cock to Ascelpius', suggesting that it is for an earlier debt or, perhaps, for his life.

Wells is adding to the millenia-old Socratic Problem; it is an interesting addition.

I'd add, on a biological note, that Socrates had just ingested hemlock, which contains a neurotoxin that causes death by respiratory paralysis, and was perhaps not on top of his game.

xD.

Sean Jeating said...

There are quite a few dots in this post worth to focus on, Gracchi. I take the naive part.
Whatever Socrates did and said according to what we are made to 'believe' have been his contemporaries; whatever later scholars, thinkers, philosophers interpreted: and aware of that we should not be too sure that history in a way is not unlike the old (children's) game 'Chinese whisper': Isn't it fantastic that 2407 years after a man (allegedly) drank 'his cup of hemlock' there are still some people who'd try to understand what 'this Sokrates' did, or did not - and why?

So far spontaneously the naive part. I'll keep pondering about your post.
Thanks for your thoughts,
from one of the laziest commenters in the blogosphere. :)

Gracchi said...

Dave- Crito as a dialogue is too big for me to focus on- I would agree with some of your points about novelty. But its a topic for another time.

As to the last words- yes its a difficult issue as to what Socrates said. Made more so by the fact that so often our records on him are so disparate- just consider the trial where Xenophon and Plato completely disagree. There was a fascinating In Our Time about Socrates a while ago and for anyone interested I would suggest you listen to it (the link is here)

Sean the evidence problem is huge, as I've just suggested to Dave. I agree with you there is a continual danger with a figure like Socrates of importing our Socrates onto him and then saying that that is the historical figure. Still the speculation is interesting- and one of the things I like about Wells's argument is that it is tied back to actual Greek practice.

No you are not a bad commenter- just compare to me on your blog- all your comments are eagerly awaited and received with pleasure!