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6.2: Philosophical Perspective and the Fear of Death

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    See 486a-b. “And do you imagine that a thinker who is high-minded enough to look at all time and all being will consider human life to be a very important thing?” asks Socrates. “He couldn’t possibly,” replies Glaucon. “Then he won’t consider death to be a terrible thing either, will he?” “Not in the least.” It is a little puzzling why Socrates supposes there is a connection between studying the forms and studying “all time and all being.” Particularly puzzling, perhaps, is the notion of studying “all time.” Forms may or may not be, strictly speaking, timeless (outside of time – a view that has been defended off and on in the history of philosophy), but forms are clearly supposed by Socrates, here in the Republic as well as in other Platonic dialogues, to be unchanging. What it is to be beautiful, what it is to be green, what it is to be three in number, what it is to be a knife – these sorts of things remain, on this view, precisely and completely what they are, always. How then is study of the forms a study of “all time”? Perhaps the idea is that, when one knows the forms, one is equipped to recognize instances of the forms – the various particular things in time and space. Unlike some journalists who focus their concern specifically on political developments in the Middle East or historians who make the American Civil War their specialty, the philosopher, Socrates may be saying, studies the general characteristics of things, and in this way is able to contemplate and understand all particular instances of these general characteristics. (This of course is not to say that the same person cannot, in principle, be both journalist and philosopher, or historian and philosopher.) But what would it be like to have this sort of understanding, to be able to grasp the essence of the nature of things? Socrates hints at part of an answer in the passage quoted above. A person given to such a perspective would be freed from the fear of death. Why? Because they would see beyond the transient details of human life to higher and greater things.

    • Is it conceivable that there are greater things in reality than humanbeings?

    • Is it possible, by coming to understand certain things, that one can transcend the perspective of humanity? Would achieving this be desirable?

    • Is the kind of understanding Socrates has in mind what people ordinarily mean by “being philosophical about death”?

    This page titled 6.2: Philosophical Perspective and the Fear of Death is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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