Socrates' Last Tale


Al suo aspetto tal dentro mi fei

Qual si fe' Glauco nel ustar dell' erba

Che il fe' consorto in mar degli altri dei.


DANTE, Paradiso 1.67


WHAT A MAN has to say in the last hours of is life deserves attention. Most especially if that man be Socrates, awaiting execution in his jail and conversing with Pythagorean friends. He has already left the world behind, has made his philosophical will and is now quietly communing with his own truth. This is the close of the Phaedo (107D-115A), and it is expressed in the form of a myth.


Strangely enough, innumerable commentators have not taken the trouble to scrutinize it, and have been content to extract from it some pious generalities about the rewards of the soul. Yet it is a thoughtful and elaborate statement, attributed to an authority whom Socrates (or Plato) prefers not to name. It is clothed in a strange physical garb. It is worth accepting Plato's suggestion to take it with due attention. Socrates is quietly moving into the other world, he is a denizen of it already, and his words stand, as it were, for a rite of passage:


"The story goes that when a man dies his guardian deity, to whose lot it fell to watch over the man while he was alive, undertakes to conduct him to some place where those who gather must submit their cases to judgment before journeying to the other world; and this they do with the guide to whom the task has been assigned of taking them there. When they have there met with their appropriate fates and waited the appropriate time, another guide. brings them back here again, after many long cycles of time. The journey , then, is not as Aeschylus' Telephys describes it: he says that a single track leads to




the other world, but I don't think that it is 'single' or 'one' at all. If it were, there would be no need of guides; no one would lose the way, if there were only one road. As it is, there seem to be many partings of the way and places where three roads meet. I say this, judging by the sacrifices and rites that are performed. here. The orderly and wise soul follows on its way and is not ignorant of its surroundings; but that which yearns for the body, as I said before, after its long period of passionate excitement concerning the body and the visible region, departs only after much struggling and suffering, taken by force, with great difficulty, by the appropriate deity. When it arrives where the others are, the unpurified soul, guilty of some act for which atonement has not been made, tainted with wicked murder or the commission of some other crime which is akin to this and work of a kindred soul, is shunned and avoided by every­ one, and no one will be its fellow-traveller or guide, but all by itself it wanders, the victim of every kind of doubt and distraction, until certain periods of time have elapsed, and when they are completed, it is carried perforce to its appropriate habitation. But that soul which has spent its life in a pure and temperate fashion finds companions and divine guides, and each dwells in the place that is suited to it. There are many wonderful places in the world, and the world itself is not of such a kind or so small as is supposed by those who generally discourse about it; of that a certain person has convinced me."


"How do you mean, Socrates?" asked Simmias. "I too have heard a great deal about the world, but not the doctrine that has found favour with you. I would much like to hear about it."


"Well, I don't think it requires the skill of a Glaucus [n1 Whoever this (unidentified) Glaucus is, he has nothing to do with it. the Glaucus of Anthedon mentioned in the epigraph, a fisherman who on a eating certain plant was overtaken by a transmutation and threw himself into the sea where he became a marine god.] to. relate my theory; but to prove that it is true would be a task, I think, too difficult for the skill of Glaucus. In the first place I would probably not even be capable of proving it, and then again, even if I did know how to, I don't think my lifetime would be long enough for me to give the explanation. There is, however, no reason why I should not tell you about the shape of the earth as I believe it to be, and its various regions."


"That will certainly do," said Simmias.


"I am satisfied," he said, "in the first place that if it is spherical and in the middle of the universe, it has no need of air or any other force of that sort to make it impossible for it to fall; it is sufficient by itself to maintain the symmetry of the universe and the equipoise of the earth itself.




A thing which is in equipoise and placed in the midst of something symmetrical will not be able to incline more or less towards any particular direction; being in equilibrium, it will remain motionless. This is the first point," he said, "of which I am convinced!" [n2 Thus far, this is Anaximander and his Principle of Sufficient Reason. But we cannot draw further conclusions: Socrates is, here, deep in his own myth already, and far beyond Ionian physics which, in his opinion, ought not to be taken seriously.]


"And quite rightly so," said Simmias.


"And again, I am sure that it is very big," he said, "and that we who live between the Phasis river and the pillars of Hercules inhabit only a small part of it, living round the coast of the sea like ants or frogs by a pond, while many others live elsewhere, in many similar regions. All over the earth there are many hollows of all sorts of shape and size, into which the water and mist and air have collected. The earth itself is a pure thing lying in the midst of the pure heavens, in which are the stars; and most of those who generally discourse about such things call these heavens the 'ether.' They say that these things I have mentioned are the precipitation of the 'ether' and flow continually into the hollows of the earth. We do not realize that we are living in the earth's hollows, and suppose that we are living up above on the top of the earth—just as if someone living in the middle of the sea­bed were to suppose that he was living on the top of the sea, and then, noticing the sun and the stars through the water, were to imagine that the sea was sky; through sluggishness and weakness he might never have reached the top of the sea, nor by working his way up and popping up out of the sea into this region have observed how much purer and more beautiful it is than theirs; nor even heard about it from anyone who had seen it. That is exactly what has happened to us: we live in a hollow in the earth, but suppose that we are living on top of it; and we call the air sky, as though this were the sky, and the stars moved across it. But the truth of the matter is just the same—through weakness and sluggishness we are not able to pass through to the limit of the air. If anyone could climb to the air's surface, or grow wings and fly up, then, as here the fishes of he sea pop their heads up and see our world, so he would pop his head up and catch sight of that upper region; and if his nature were such that he could bear the sight, he would come to realize that that was the real sky and the real light and the real earth. This earth of ours, and the stones, and all the region here is corrupted and corroded, just as the things in the sea are corroded by the brine; and in the sea nothing worth mentioning grows, and practically nothing is perfect—there are just caves and sand and indescribable mud and mire, wherever there is




earth too, and there is nothing in any way comparable with the beautiful things of our world; but those things in the upper world, in their turn, would be seen far to surpass the things of our world. If it is a good thing to tell a story then you should listen, Simmias, and hear what the regions on the earth beneath the sky are really like."


"We should certainly very much like to hear this story, Socrates," said Simmias.      I


"In the first place, then, my friend, the true earth is said to appear to anyone looking at it from above like those balls which are made of twelve pieces of leather, variegated, a patchwork of colour, of which the colours that we know here—those that our painters use—are samples, as it were. There the whole earth is made of such colours, and of colours much brighter and purer than these: part of it is purple, of wondrous beauty, and part again golden, and all that part which is white is whiter than the whiteness of chalk or snow; and it is made up of all the other colours likewise, and of even more numerous and more beautiful colours than those that we have seen. Indeed these very hollows of the earth, full of water and of air, are said to present a kind of colour as they glitter amid the variety of all the other colours, so that the whole appears as one continuous variegated picture. And in this colourful world the same may be said of the things that grow up—trees and flowers and all the fruits; and in the same way again the smoothness and transparency and colours of the stars are more beautiful than in our world. Our little stones, these highly prized ones, sards and jaspers and emeralds and so on, are but fragments of those there; there, they say, everything is like this, or even more beautiful than these stones that we possess. The reason is that the stones there are pure, and not corroded or corrupted, as ours are, by rust and brine, as a result of all that has collected here, bringing ugliness and diseases to stones and to soil, and to animals and to plants besides. The earth itself, they say, is ornamented with all things, and moreover with gold and silver and all things of that sort. They are exposed to view on the surface, many in number and large, all over the earth, so that the earth is a sight for the blessed to behold. There are many living creatures upon it, including men; some live inland, some live round about the borders of the air as we do on the coasts of the sea, while others again live on islands encompassed by air near the mainland. In a word, what the water and the sea are to us, for our purposes, the air is to them; and what the air is to us, the ‘ether’ is to them. Their climate is such that they are free from illnesses, and live much longer than the inhabitants of our world, and surpass us in sight and hearing and wisdom and so on, by as much as the pureness of air surpasses that of water, and the pureness of 'ether' surpasses that of air.




"Moreover they have groves and temples sacred to the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and utterances and prophesies and visions of the gods; and other such means of intercourse are for them direct and face to face. And they see the sun and moon and stars as they really are, and their blessedness in other respects is no less than in these.


"This is the nature of the earth as a whole, and of the regions round about it, and in the earth, in the cavities all over its surface, are many regions, some deeper and wider than that in which we live, others deeper but with a narrower opening than ours, while others again are shallower than this one and broader. All of these are connected with each other by underground passages, some narrower, some wider­bored through in many different places; and they have channels along which much water flows, from one region to another as into mixing-bowls; and they have, too, enormous ever-flowing underground rivers and enormous hot and cold springs, and a great deal of fire, and huge rivers of fire, and many rivers also of wet mud, some clearer, some denser, like the rivers of mud that flow before the lava in Sicily, and the lava itself; and they fill the several regions into which, at any given time, they happen to be flowing. They are all set in motion, upwards and downwards, by a sort of pulsation within the earth. The existence of this pulsation is due to something like this: one of the chasms of the earth is not only the biggest of them all, but is bored right tbrough the earth—the one that Homer meant, when he said that it is 'very far off, where is the deepest abyss of all below the earth.' Homer elsewhere-and many other poets besides-have called this Tartarus. Now into this chasm all the rivers flow together, and then they all flow back out again; and their natures are deter­mined by the sort of earth through which they flow. The reason why all these streams flow out of there and flow in is this, that this fluid has no bottom or resting place: it simply pulsates and surges upwards and downwards, and the air and the wind round about it does the same; they follow with it, whenever it rushes to the far side of the earth, and again whenever it rushes back to this side, and as the breath that men breathe is always exhaled and inhaled in succession, so the wind pulsates in unison with the fluid, creating terrible, unimaginable blasts as it enters and as it comes out. Whenever the water withdraws to what we call the lower region, the streams flow into the regions on the farther side of the earth and fill them, like irrigating canals; and whenever it leaves those parts and rushes back here, it fills the streams here afresh, and they when filled flow through their several channels and through the earth, and as each set of streams arrives at the particular regions to which its passages lead, it creates seas and marshes and rivers and springs; and then, sinking back again down into the earth, some encircling larger and more numerous regions, others fewer and smaller, these streams issue back into Tartarus again




—some of them at a point much lower down than that from which they were emitted, others only a little lower, but all flow in below the place from which they poured forth. Some flow into the same part of Tartarus from which they sprang, some into the part on the opposite side; and others again go right round in a circle, coiling themselves round the earth several times like snakes, before descending as low as possible and falling back again.


"It is possible to descend in either direction as far as the centre, but not beyond, for the ground on either side begins to slop upwards in the face of both sets of streams.


"There are many large streams of every sort, but among these many there are four that I would mention in particular. The largest, the one which flows all round in a circle furthest from the centre, is that which is called Oceanus; over against this, and flowing in the opposite direction, is Acheron, which flows through many desert places and finally, as it flows under the earth, reaches the Acherusian lake, where the souls of most of the dead arrive and spend certain appointed periods; before being sent back again to the generations of living creatures. The third of these rivers issues forth between these two, and near the place where it issues forth it falls into a vast region burning with a great fire, and forms a marsh that is larger than our sea, balling with water and mud. Thence it makes its way, turbulent and muddy, and as it coils its way round inside the earth it arrives, among other places, at the borders of the Acherusian lake , but it does not mix with the water of the lake; and having coiled round many times beneath the earth, it flows back at a lower point in Tartarus. This is the river they call Pyriphlegethon, and volcanoes belch forth lava from it in various parts of the world. Over against this, again, the fourth river flows out, into a region that is terrible and wild, all of a steely blue-grey colour, called the Stygian region; and the marsh which the river forms as it flows in is called the Styx. After issuing into this marsh and receiving terrible powers in its waters, it sinks down into the earth, and coiling itself round proceeds in the opposite direction to that of Pyriphlegethon, and then meets it coming from the opposite way at the Acherusian lake. The water of this river likewise mixes with no other, but itself goes round in a circle and then flows back into Tartarus opposite to Pyriphlegethon; and the name of this river, according to the poets, is Cocytus.


"Such is the nature of the world; and when the dead reach the region to which their divine guides severally take them, they first stand trial, those who have lived nobly and piously, as well as those who have not. And those who are found to have lived neither particularly well nor particularly badly journey to Acheron, and embarking on such vessels as are provided for them arrive in them at the lake.




"There they dwell and are purified; paying due penalties, they are absolved from any sins that they have committed, and receive rewards for their good deeds, each according to his merits. Those who are judged incurable because of the enormity of their crimes, having committed many heinous acts of sacrilege or many treacherous and abominable murders or crimes of that magnitude, are hurled by their fitting destiny into Tartarus, whence they never more emerge . Those who are judged to be guilty of crimes that are curable but nevertheless great—those, for example, who having done some act of violence to father or mother in anger live the rest of their lives repenting of their wickedness, or who have killed someone in other circumstances of a similar nature—must fall into Tartarus; but when they have fallen in and stayed there a year, the wave casts them forth—the murderers along Cocytus, those who have struck their fathers or mothers along Pyriphlegethon; and when they are being carried past the Acherusian lake, they shout and cry out to those whom the have murdered or outraged, and calling upon them beg and implore them to let them come out into the lake, and to receive them; and if they can prevail upon them, they come out and cease from their woe, but if not, they are carried again into Tartarus, and from there once more into the rivers, and they do not stop suffering this until they can prevail upon those whom they have wronged, for such is the sentence that the judges have pronounced upon them. Lastly, those who are found to have lived exceptionally good lives are released from these regions within the earth and allowed to depart from them as from a prison, and they reach the pure dwelling place up above an live on the surface of the earth; and of these, those who have sufficiently purified themselves by means of philosophy dwell free fro the body for all time to come, and arrive at habitations even fairer t an these, habitations that it is not easy to describe; and there is not time to make the attempt now. But for these reasons, Simmias, which we have discussed, we should do all in our power to achieve some measure of virtue and of wisdom during our lives, for great i the reward, and great the hope.


"No man of sense should affirm decisively that all this is exactly as I have described it. But that the nature of our souls and of their habitations is either as I have described or very similar, since the soul is shown to be immortal—that, I think, is a very proper belief to hold, and such as a man should risk: for the risk is well worth while. And one should repeat these things over and over again to oneself, like a charm, which is precisely the reason why I have spent so long in expounding the story now.


"For these reasons, then, a man should have no fear about his soul, if throughout his life he has rejected bodily pleasures and bodily adorn­ments, as being alien to it and doing more harm than good, and has




concentrated on the pleasures of learning, and having adorned his soul with adornments that are not alien to it, but appropriate—temperance and justice and courage and freedom and truth—continues to wait, thus prepared, for the time to come for him to journey to the other world. As for you, Simmias and Cebes and all you other, you will make your several journeys later, at an appointed time; but in my case, as a character in a tragedy might put it, Destiny is already sumoning me; and it is almost time for me to go to the boat. I think it is better to have a bath before drinking the poison, and not to give the women the trouble of washing a corpse." [n3 R. S. Bluck trans. (1955), pp. 128-39.].



The end has an invincible beauty, calm and serene, already shimmering with immortality, and yet preserving that light skeptical irony which makes "a man of sense" in this world. It puts the seal of confidence on what might otherwise be really an incantation that one repeats to himself in his last moments.


Readers who are insensitive to this magic will be tempted to dismiss the story as so much poetic nonsense. If Socrates, or rather Plato, is really talking of a system of rivers within the earth, then he obviously does not understand the first thing about hydraulics, and he has only let his fancy run wild. But looking again at the setting, one begins to wonder if he is referring at all to the earth as we understand it. He mentions a certain place where we live, and it looks like a marsh in a hollow or maybe like the bottom of a lake, full of rocks, and caverns, and sand, "and an endless slough of "mud." The "true earth," which is like a ball of twelve colored pieces, is above us, and one may think instinctively that Plato refers to the upper limits of the stratosphere, but of course he has never heard of that. He is dealing with "another" world above us, and although there are some fantasies of lovely landscapes and animals and gems, it is in the "aether" as the Greeks understood it. It is above us, and centered like "our" place, whatever that is, on the center of the universe. There, the celestial bodies have become clear to the mind, and the gods are visible and present already. If they have "temples and houses in which they really dwell," these look very much like the houses of the zodiac. Although some features are scrambled for keeping up an impression of the wondrous, one




suspects that this is heaven pure and simple. Then comes the unequivocal geometric countersign.


That world is a dodecahedron. This is what the sphere of twelve pieces stands for: there is the same simile in the Timaeus (55C), and then it is said further that the Demiurge had the twelve faces decorated with figures (diazographon) which certainly stand for the signs of the zodiac. A. E. Taylor insisted rather prosily that one cannot suppose the zodiacal band uniformly distributed on a spherical surface, and suggested that Plato (and Plutarch after him) had a dodecagon in mind and they did not know what they were talking about. This is an unsafe way of dealing with Plato, and Professor Taylor's suffisance soon led him to grieve . Yet Plutarch had warned him: the dodecahedron "seems to resemble both the Zodiac and the year."


Is their opinion true who think that he ascribed a dodecahedron to the globe, when he says that God made use of its bases and the obtuseness of its angles, avoiding all rectitude, it is flexible, and by circumtension, like globes made of twelve skins, it becomes circular and comprehensive. For it has twenty solid angles, each of which is contained by three obtuse planes, and each of these contains one and the fifth part of a right angle. Now it is made up of twelve equilateral and equangular quinquangles (or pentagons), each of which consists of thirty of the first scalene triangles. Therefore it seems to resemble both the Zodiac and the year, it being divided into the same number of parts as these [n4 Quaestiones Platonicae 5.1, 1003C (R. Brown trans.), in Plutarch's Morals, ed. W. W. Goodwin (1870), vol. 5, p. 433.].


1n other words, it is stereometrically the number 12 also the number 30, the number 360 ("the elements which are produced when each pentagon is divided into 5 isosceles triangles and each of the latter into 6 scalene triangles")—the golden section itself. This is what it means to think like a Pythagorean.


Plato did not worry about future professional critics very much. He only provided a delectable image, and left them to puzzle it out. But what stands firm is the terminology. After the Demiurge had used the first four perfect bodies for the elements, says the Timaeus, he had the dodecahedron left over, and he used it for the frame of the whole.




There is no need to go into the reasons, geometrical and numerological, which fitted the "sphere of twelve pentagons," as it was called, for the role. What counts here: it was the whole, the cosmos, that was meant. Plato had stood by the original Pythagorean tradition, which called cosmos the order of the sun, moon and planets with what it comprised. As a free-roving soul, you can look at it "from above." (Archimedes in the Sand-reckoner still uses the term cosmos loosely in that sense, at least by way of a concession to old usage.)


To conclude: the "true earth" was nothing but the Pythagorean cosmos, and the rivers that flowed from its surface to the center and back can hardly be imagined as strictly terrestrial, although with that curious archaic intrication of earth and heaven which has become familiar and which makes great rivers flow from heaven to earth, it is not surprising to find oneself dealing with "real" fiery currents like Pyriphlegethon connected with volcanic fire. But where is Styx? Hardly down here, with its landscape of blue. And the immense storm-swept abyss of Tartaros is not a cavern under the ground, it belongs somewhere in "outer" space.


This is all the world of the dead, from the surface down and throughout. It localizes as poorly as the nether world of the Republic. The winding rivers which carry the dead and which go back on their tracks are suggestive more of astronomy than of hydraulics. The "seesaw" swinging of the earth (N.B.: it has to be the "true earth") might well be the swinging of the ecliptic and the sky with the seasons. There is no need now to go into the confusing earthy or infernal details of the description except to note that Numenius of Apamea, an important exegete of Plato, comes out flatly with the contention that the other world rivers and Tartaros itself are the "region of planets." But Proclus, an even more important and learned exegete, comes out flatly against Numenius [n5 See F. Buffiere, Les Mythes d'Homere et la Pensée Grecque (1956), p. 444.]. Enough is known, indeed more than enough of the welter of oriental traditions on the Rivers of Heaven with their bewildering mixture of astronomical and biological imagery, which culminated in Anaximander's idea of the "Boundless Flow," the Apeiron, to see whence early Greece got its lore.




It can be left alone here. But Socrates is citing an Orphic version, whence his restraint in naming his authorities, and its strange entities, such as Okeanos and Chronos, deserve attention. What is meant here is not Kronos, Saturn, but really Chronos, Time. As concerns Okeanos, even Jane Harrison, who could hardly be accused of a tendency to search for the gods somewhere else than on the surface or in the interior of the earth, had to admit: "Okeanos is much more than Ocean and of other birth." [n6 J. E. Harrison, Themis (1960), pp. 456f.]. In her eyes he is "a daimon of the upper air." An important concession which may lead a long way.


We bypass for the moment the imposing work of Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt (1910), an inexhaustible lode but one which provides more information than guidance. Onians' Origins of European Thought offers a more recent appraisal [n7 P. B. Onians: The Origins of European Thought about the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate (2d ed. 1953), pp. 249ff.]. He compares Okeanos to Achelous, the primal river of water that "was conceived as a serpent with human head and horns." He goes on:


The procreation element in any body was the psyche, which appeared in the form of a serpent. Okeanos was, as may now be seen, the primeval psyche and this would be conceived as a serpent in relation to procreative liquid. . . Thus we may see, for Homer, who refers allusively to the conception shared by his contemporaries, the universe had the form of an egg girt about by "Okeanos, who is the generation of All" . . . We can perhaps also better understand... why in this Orphic version [Frgs. 54, 57, 58 Kern] the serpent was called Chronos and why, when asked what Chronos was, Pythagoras answered that it was the psyche of the universe. According to Pherekydes it was from the seed of Chronos that fire and air and water were produced.


The great Orphic entity was Chronos Aion (the Iranian Zurvan akarana), commonly understood as "Time Unbounded," and in "Aion" Professor Onians sees "the procreative fluid with which the psyche was identified, the spinal marrow believed to take serpent form" and it may well be so, since these are timeless ideas which still live today in ophidic cults and in the "kundalini" of Indian Yoga. But Aion certainly meant "a period of time,' and age, hence




"world-age" and later "eternity," and there is no reason to think that the biological meaning must have been prior and dominant. It is known that for the Orphics Chronos was mated to Ananke, Necessity, which also, according to the Pythagoreans, surrounds the universe. Time and Necessity circling the universe, this is a fairly clear and fundamental conception; it is linked with heavenly motions independently from biology, and it leads directly to Plato's idea of timeless as "the moving image of eternity."


It would be helpful if historians of archaic thought would first present straight data, without pressing and squeezing their material into a shape that reflects their preconceived conclusion that biological images must come first in "primitive" psychology, like all that is concerned with generation.


If one wants psychology, one can go back to Socrates in a very different phase of his life, where he is really talking psychology in the Theaetetus (152E): "When Homer sings the wonder of 'Ocean whence sprang the Gods and Mother Tethys,' does he not mean that all things are the offspring of flux and motion?" The question arises, would the ocean be an image of flux except for the tides? But Socrates' Aegean had no tides. The image comes to him from Hesiod's description of Okeanos (Theogony 790ff.): "With nine swirling streams he winds about the earth and the sea's wide back, and then falls into the main; but the tenth flows out from a rock, a sore trouble to the Gods." That dreaded tenth is the river of Styx. Jane Harrison was right. Okeanos is "of another birth" than our Ocean.


The authority of Berger can reconstruct the image [n8 E. H. Berger, Mythische Kosmographie der Griechen (1904), pp. 1ff.]. The attributes of Okeanos in the literature are "deep-flowing," "flowing-back-on-itself," "untiring," "placidly flowing," "without billows." These images, remarks Berger, suggest silence, regularity, depth, stillness, rotation—what belongs really to the starry heaven. Later the name was transferred to another more earthbound concept: the actual sea which was supposed to surround the land on all sides. But the explicit distinction, often repeated, from the "main" shows that this was never the original idea.




If Okeanos is a "silver-swirling" river with many branches which obviously never were on sea or land, then the main is not the sea either, pontos or thalassa, it has to be the Waters Above. The Okeanos of myth preserves these imposing characters of remoteness and silence. He as the one who could remain by himself when Zeus commanded attendance in Olympus by all the gods. It was he who sent his daughters to lament over the chained outcast Prometheus, and offered his powerful mediation on his behalf. He is the Father of Rivers; he dimly appears in tradition, indeed, as the original god of heaven in the past. He stands in an Orphic hymn [n9 83.7 (ed. Quandt, p. 55): terma philion gaies, arche polou.] as "beloved end of the earth, ruler of the pole," and in that famous ancient lexicon, the Etymologicum magnum, his name is seen to derive from "heaven."




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