One of my favorite philosophical readings is Plato’s Phaedo, the renowned Socratic dialogue depicting the days leading to the death of Socrates. In the dialogue Socrates offers, among other things, arguments for the soul’s immortality. His musings on the soul begin as mere reassurance to his friends and students. Although he has just been sentenced to death, the implication is that death will not be the end of him. In order for Socrates’ arguments to even be considered valid, one must first believe in the idea of a soul (I do) and then believe that soul is a separate substance from the body (I do). With that concept in mind, we can better comprehend the idea of immortality that follows.
People often understand immortality to mean living forever, never dying or decaying. That is surely what Socrates had in mind when discussing the undying soul. In this sense throughout literary history, as well as general history, humans have made great efforts to achieve immortality. The search for El Dorado, Shangri-la, The Holy Grail, or the Fountain of Youth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even reconstructive plastic surgery to name a few of these efforts. While physical immortality has so far proven to be unobtainable there does exist some sort of indestructibility through the enduring recognition of ones accomplishments, experiences, or ideas. History itself, a record of the past, has a way of making the long deceased or ostensibly forgotten quite relevant and tangible in the present.
Socrates, a self-proclaimed gadfly in the city of Athens, lived roughly four-hundred years before the documented birth of Jesus Christ. Yet, regardless of his physical existence in time, I have chosen a dialogue depicting his words written by his student Plato to be the inspiration for this piece of writing. There must be some value placed within the idea that Socrates and all things garnering historical merit have achieved a status or degree of immortality.
I will never forget the moment of enlightenment that occurred as I listened to my Literary History professor analyze a John Donne love sonnet. Like many of Donne’s sonnets, the poem expresses emotions brought on by the authors repeated advances toward a female subject. The repetition of these advances was a consequence of Donne’s unrequited love. In spurning the author’s love, the female created a feeling of worthlessness embedded so deep within Donne that it was all he could write about.
My enlightenment came not from the sonnet, I don’t especially care for love poetry, but instead from the deeper reading explained by my professor. He pointed out to our class that Donne was consciously aware of his poetry’s ability to combat his worthless feelings and outlast both the unwilling female and himself, as the author correctly states that he shall have the last word. And so, hundreds of years later in a classroom across the ocean from where Donne was born, his name and his word lived on while the woman who once pushed him away remained silent, unable to communicate her own story.
Socrates, like Donnes’ ghostly voice, is able to defend his legacy long after the destruction of his physical body, albeit through the sometimes-controversial perspective of Plato. Never-the-less, had Plato not written his Socratic dialogues then the man many believe to be the father of Western Philosophy may only be remembered as a criminal charged with corrupting the youth, or worse not remembered at all. The act of writing, whether it was on Plato’s stone tablets or Donne’s parchments, has allowed for the immortality of their respective ideas. With these ideas the minds or souls responsible for their creation also remain undying.
We find ourselves in a digital world where immortality through a preservation of thoughts and ideas seems even more appealing. The advent of file sharing, smart phones, cloud computing, and social networking have allowed for the rapid and widespread dissemination of thought. Not only can ideas now be shared across vast audiences, but they can also be saved, stored, or archived in databases creating a library capable of recalling the most trivial to the most significant. This blog, created as a way for six friends to share ideas, stories, and life will eventually (hopefully) make its way into the minds and souls of other readers. That transaction of thought, my thoughts or our thoughts, is what will endure well past the physical duration of life.
When a member of the Cheyenne Tribe dies it is customary to say “Nothing lives long, only the Earth and the Mountains.” This is an announcement of realization that our physical lives are brief, a fraction of a pixel on the universal timeline. However, the Cheyenne and other tribes have a practice of oral tradition. They tell stories of long ago, about creation and cosmology much like the myths of Socrates’ Greece. I doubt Socrates was thinking about his teachings persisting like myths when he was describing the immortality of the soul to his friends. Though I would like to believe that preservation of thought is a good start toward achieving some semblance of immortality.