When the new coronavirus hit, I started teaching Plato’s Phaedo. The dialogue—which narrates the final day of Socrates’ life, including his death by hemlock—allowed us to raise two questions. First, what does Socrates mean when he says that, for us, philosophy is a preparation for dying, or practice for death? Second, during the pandemic, when death is all around, how do we do philosophy in relation to others?
The first question allowed us to see that philosophy is not just an academic discipline like any other. Although there is much to know and much knowledge to be attained (about ideas, the soul, epistemology), the task is not simply knowing. Rather, it is a kind of living, a way of being. And like a memento mori, what the pandemic made concrete is living with death, or living while dying, or life as living-and-dying, right now, in the present, at one and the same time. For death is not simply something to come, like some kind of future event; it is here and now, what we are doing and what is being done to us; it is what is continuously happening.
If philosophy prepares us for death, it is not a preparation for that which will come to pass, for our passing, or the passing of friends and loved ones, or strangers and estranged ones. On the contrary, philosophy prepares us for death by showing us how to live, by allowing us to practice living and dying. For philosophy studies how to think and to speak, to act and to be while living-dying. Indeed, this is the philosophical life: taking care to think and speak, act and be, in such a way as to gain awareness of how we are both living and dying. It is not just living well or ill because we could die at any moment, or because we will die in the future, or because it is certain that everyone dies eventually, and that death looms large on the horizon. Rather, as a way of living now, in the present, as dying, philosophy is a preparation that completes itself, a practice that actualizes itself in the doing: it is done in the doing.
And the doing of philosophy is, first and foremost, thinking and speaking about philosophy, that is, giving “little thought to Socrates, but much more to the truth,” before philosophy can start thinking and speaking about anything else (as in the arts and sciences). The doing of philosophy is acting and being philosophical prior to acting and being in some other way (whether sheltering in place or seeking a vaccine, caring for the sick or not caring at all, preferring to act like asses or ants, bees or wasps, wolves or hawks). This is how Socrates spends his last day: living while dying, dying while living, and so, doing philosophy. And this is why he insists that it is just like all the rest. For he has been practicing his whole life the doing of philosophy, which is why, when asked what he wants on his final day, for his last wish, Socrates says: “nothing new,” just the old, what he has been thinking and saying, doing and being, every day, as he has been living and dying. And this is why, if we want “something new,” now in the times of the new coronavirus, under lockdown or opening up, it is because we have failed to practice dying, because, as far as we are concerned or unconcerned, we are not living the philosophical life.
This line of thought allows us to raise the second question about how those of us who are alive, living while dying in a pandemic, can do philosophy in relation to others. And here, Socrates’ final words are a clue: he reminds his friends that they owe a cock to Asclepius, the god of healing, so they should not neglect the debt, but take care of paying it. Plato himself was ill and could not be with Socrates on his last day, or when he took the hemlock. But Socrates’ words show that he cares about Plato’s life at the very moment of his death. Even more: Plato’s words—for he is the author of the dialogue—speak of what Socrates could not have known, namely, that Plato has recovered, and so the debt is due. In other words, the one who has been absent throughout the text, the ill Plato, comes to presence in the plea of the dying Socrates. The author asserts himself as having been present all along, as putting words into the mouths of his characters. Thus, the end of the dialogue shows how those who are absent are also somehow present, or present as absent, and those who are here are not all that is there.
Just as death is not simply absent from life—at least for those doing philosophy—, so, too, the author is not merely missing from the work. Plato is not simply outside the dialogue. Others are not just other than us. On the contrary, the author is there, in the work, all along. Plato is in the dialogue, present though absent, taking part in the text by not taking part, or speaking by being silent. Others are also us, just as we are them. And even the dead Plato is not simply dead. Or, more precisely, as the pandemic brings home: the dead are never just absent and the living are never merely present. Instead, the dead and the living are neither just here or there, but both.
This is obviously self-contradictory: the dead as alive, and the living dying, alongside the presence of an absent Plato. No reasonable person believes in ghosts, or that ghosts are how the dead come back to life. No philosophical practice—even during the coronavirus pandemic—could prepare us for dying while living or for the presence of the dead in the lives of the living.
Luckily, Plato suggests a way out. At the very beginning of the dialogue, Phaedo is asked whether he was present on the day Socrates drank the poison in prison, or whether someone else told him about it. He answers: “I was there myself.” Or, rather, Phaedo simply says: “Myself.” It is perfectly acceptable to imply the “I was there.” Just as the verb “to be,” being is often merely implied in Greek and in many other languages, such as Hebrew or Russian. But this kind of speech is not just a manner of speaking, since implying means, precisely, neither saying nor not saying, neither speaking nor remaining silent, just as being is neither there nor not there in Phaedo’s reply.
In the very structure of his words, Plato demonstrates how to imply: to be neither present nor absent, but merely implied. That is how the dead are, how they are: implied—albeit neither alive nor dead—in the lives of the living. This is, also, how we are implicated by others, and they by us. And this is, finally, what philosophy allows us to practice: a thinking implication, speaking by implying, implicated in what is done and undone, being implied… Which is why I taught Plato’s Phaedo in the time of the pandemic.