Death's Essay: I wrote this paper in 2007 for a Philosophy Course I was taking. I think that I made some point along the way. I also included my sources as well
The topic that I have chosen for my essay is a subject that every one of us will deal with, which of course is death. Like taxes, there is no escape from it. There are many views on the subject of death. I have chosen to write about death based on the views of these two people. First is Socrates, the great Philosopher from Athens and the second viewpoint is from the writer, Simone De Beauvoir who wrote the book A Very Easy Death.
As we know, Socrates was one of the greatest philosophers of all time. His belief on the subject of death was that the soul was trapped in the body and death was the next level of learning. This belief is likely the reason that when Socrates was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, he had no fear of it. Socrates' death is described at the end of Plato's Phaedo. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his limbs felt heavy. After lying down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before dying, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito saying, "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." 1Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and it's likely that Socrates' last words were implied to mean that death is the cure, and freedom, of the soul from the body.
According to Xenophon's story of Socrates' defense to the jury, Socrates' purposefully gives a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead." Xenophon's explanation goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and how Socrates will be glad to circumvent these by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates not only wished to avoid the pains of old age, but also to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."
His belief of a greater plain of existence gave his the courage to face his death and go beyond.
Simone De Beauvoir's book; A Very Easy Death, tells the story of De Beauvoir's own mother and her journey to the end of life. The story begins when De Beauvoir is contacted by a family friend informing her that her elderly mother had fallen and been taken to hospital. It is later discover that she has cancer and that she is in the terminal stage, because it was discovered too late. The mother is not afraid of death. She too, has a belief in a higher level of existence after death. But she is not ready to go just yet as she states, "Death itself does not frighten me; it the jump I am afraid of."2
It is a story about old age and a slow drawn out journey to the end of life that can be very heart-breaking for those who have to deal with it. Old age and disease takes its toll on people. It is a slow and relentless killer that shows no mercy.
I find that I was very conflicted on De Beauvoir's point of view. Having worked in healthcare for 30 + years, I have seen all manner of death, and old age and cancer is not easy or pleasant. It is both long and painful and there is nothing easy about it. De Beauvoir tries to convey the stages that her mother went through at the very end. She goes on to tell her daughter, "Don't leave me in the power of the brutes."3 Meaning the doctors and nurses. In her last request, she asks for only "a simple funeral. No flowers or wreaths, but a great many prayers."4
There are several points that are similar in both these tales. Both Socrates and Madam De Beauvoir had belief that death was not the end of the journey. Madam De Beauvoir with her belief in Heaven and God leans toward the Judeo-Christian beliefs of our times of what the afterlife is all about, while Socrates who believed that the soul was the source of all truths.5 His belief was the soul was trapped in the body as a prisoner, waiting to escape to a higher plain of existence. Also neither character, had fear of death, Madam De Beauvoir, having lived a long life wanted release from her pain, and Socrates having been given the choice or death or exile from Athens for his beliefs, chose death by Hemlock.
Several very clear differences was that Socrates having chosen death, actually went quickly and somewhat painlessly, as opposed to Madam De Beauvoir's slow and quite painless slide due to old age and the cancer which ate her inside. As stated in an earlier part of this essay, Socrates points out to Xenophon that he has escaped the rigors of old age, while Madam De Beauvoir did not.
I have seen the sort of death that Madam De Beauvoir went through many times in both a personal and professional level. I saw my father and grandfather die very slow and lingering deaths, my grandfather with cancer and dementia, and my beloved father with COPD and emphysema. It became very personal to me recently when I too was diagnosed with COPD. So slow and lingering diseases have a very strong emotional tie to me at this point in time.
But having said that, this is where I would argue with the points with both Socrates and Madam De Beauvoir. In our times meaning the 20th and 21st century, Madam De Beauvoir held to the lifestyle that she was brought up in. I'm sure that the thought of taking her own life to escape the pain to this obviously very devout woman would no more have occurred to her then it would have for Socrates in his time to take the bus to get across Athens.
Madam De Beauvoir did not choose death itself or the type of death she had. Socrates on the other hand chose the way and manner of his death. He felt that first that the soul was trapped in the body and needed to be free to reach the higher level of existence, and with his death his teachings and views would go on, and he was right. Madam De Beauvoir did not believe that the soul was trapped in the body, but that there was a higher level of existence "Heaven" and that was the next step after her mortal life on Earth was done.
I based this essay on two different points of view on the same subject, namely Death. The view of Socrates of the city of Athens and of Simone De Beauvoir of our times. In discussing both of these stories I believe that I have brought both points of view into focus, Socrates whose teaching and views brought him into conflict with what we would call the establishment, and Simone De Beauvoir who related in detail the last days of her mother dying of cancer and old age. Both stories had good points. Socrates died for what he thought was correct and Madam De Beauvoir who had reached the end of her life, dealing with a deadly disease. Each subject brought their stories to a clear point, Madam De Beauvoir did not want to be left to the mercy of the doctors and have her suffering dragged out, and Socrates did not want to face exile from his beloved students and his home. Both stories drove their point home with clarity, and I hope that I have been able to convey these points to you in a clear manner.
Looking at Philosophy, Donald Palmer
Great Dialogs of Plato, Plato
A Very Easy Death, Simone De Beauvoir
1 Pg.521 Great Dialogues of Plato: Plato
2 Pg. 15 A Very Easy Death: Simone De Beauvoir
3 Pg.94 A Very Easy Death: Simone De Beauvoir
4 Pg.101 A Very Easy Death: Simone De Beauvoir
5 Pg.54 Looking at Philosophy: Donald Palmer.