All true philosophers die the same death

In his last words in The Apology, Socrates spoke of death, of going to the Isles of the Blessed, where he would meet the gods and the heroes, where he would even meet Homer; the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy could be resolved. Even Socrates wanted to continue his conversation beyond death to find out who really is wise. When Plato dies, however, he does not, like Socrates, seem to anticipate this further conversation. What he seems to anticipate rather is the music, that is, the praise. We should spend our lives “singing, dancing, and sacrificing.” Plato does not, like Socrates, seek among the gods and heroes to find him who is “really wise” and him who “only thinks that he is.” Plato understood the Alcibiades who refused to learn the flute. Plato did not refuse to listen to Socrates, the master flute-player.

Plato taught the Thracian maiden the nomos, the measure. Plato knew the flute. He taught her this measure the evening he died. The Thracian maiden did not laugh at him. He heard her play the flute. He knew the measure, that he was not the measure himself. “God is the measure of all things.” The Thracian maiden learned the measure. Philosophy, poetry, and politics are reconciled. In the Academy of Plato, we can still catch strains of the measure, even in any existing city, but only if we worry, like Socrates, about the demos, about the love that has no order.

In Book Ten of The Republic, after mentioning the old quarrel between philosophy and poetry”, Socrates admits that “if poetry directed to pleasure and imitation have any argument to give showing that they should be in a city with good laws, we should be delighted to receive them back from exile, since we are aware that we ourselves are charmed by them. But it isn’t holy to betray what seems to be the truth. Aren’t you, too, my friend (Glaucon), charmed by it, especially when you contemplate it through the medium of Homer?”

“Very much so.”

“Isn’t it just for it to come back in this way — when it has made an apology in lyrics or some other meter?”

Eric Voegelin was charmed by the death of Plato. Philosophy, Voegelin thought, had fled to the Academy — Plato’s Academy not ours — wherein poetry and the pleasure of music are received back no longer tainted by the polis using them for its own purposes. The apology in lyrics and in meter, in measure, are present in the music of the Thracian maiden playing the flute with the nomos that the dying Plato gave her. Plato died in full tune with the world and with its Measure.

A friend of mine happened to be in the Stanford Chapel at the Memorial Service of Eric Voegelin. My friend did not know who Voegelin was at the time, but he made a tape of this moving service. At this world-famous university only about forty people attended the service for Voegelin. Philosophy has fled even the academy. Voegelin seems to have chosen the music, Schubert, and the readings, from Ezekiel, from the First Letter of John, and from the Gospel of John. In his lovely eulogy of Voegelin, Ellis Sandoz remarked that the last time he saw Voegelin, a couple of months before he died, he had just ordered a new edition of Shakespeare’s works, as the one he had been using was worn out. Voegelin tried to read the complete works of Shakespeare every year. The day before he died (January 18, 1985), Voegelin spent his time correcting some page proofs of his essay, “Quod Deus Dicitur,” a proposition, he remarked, whose “specific form” comes from Thomas Aquinas. The very last word Voegelin ever wrote was “Plato.”

On the day of Voegelin’s death, a Psalm was read as he passed into unconsciousness. The Psalm was the Twenty-fifth. “Oh, keep my soul, O Lord, and deliver me: let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in Thee.” Voegelin died peacefully while this Psalm was being read. As his wife was too weak and anxious, the Psalm was read to Voegelin by his American Indian housekeeper whose name was, with splendid paradox, Hiawatha.

All true philosophers, when they die, die the same death. All true philosophers when they die, die in the same city.



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