Socrates Vs. Gilgamesh Essay, Research Paper
October 11, 2000
Socrates Vs. Gilgamesh
Socrates? view of death in the Phaedo, Crito, and Apology is complex. His argument tries to prove that philosophers, of all people, are in the best state to die or will be in the best state after life because of the life they lead. Socrates? views are sharply contrasted in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In fact, he would probably say that Gilgamesh had not lived the proper kind of life and his views of life, and death would lead to an unsettled existence in the afterlife. Socrates? view of death, from his opinions on the act of dying, the state of the soul after death, and the fear of death, differs from that of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the extent that Socrates would refute every belief about death presented in The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Socrates believes the act of dying to be a separation of the soul from the body. The soul is that which attains knowledge, and the body is that which experiences senses and emotions. In Gilgamesh there is no distinction between the body and soul. In the Phaedo, before Socrates drinks the poison Crito questions him as to how he would like to be buried to which Socrates replies, ?I do not convince Crito that I am this Socrates talking to you here and ordering all I say, but he thinks that I am the thing which he will soon be looking at as a corpse? (Plato 153). By this Socrates means that after death what is left is merely the body and that the self is in the soul, which is no longer part of the body. Gilgamesh does not see things this way. After the death of Enkidu he tells the Man-Scorpion, ?I have wept for him day and night, I would not give up his body for burial, I thought my friend would come back because of my weeping? (Gilgamesh 98). Gilgamesh has the view that the body still encompasses what is the self. Socrates would obviously say that it is nonsense to cling to the body of the dead as if it were the person because the soul has already departed.
In The Epic of Gilgamesh, death is a punishment from the Gods. ?Because they have killed the Bull of Heaven, and because they have killed Humbaba who guarded the Cedar Mountain one of the two must die? (Gilgamesh 89). Enkidu?s death is the consequence of insulting the Gods. Socrates would disagree with the belief that death is a punishment from the Gods for several reasons. In the Phaedo, he claims that the true lover of wisdom, that is the philosopher, ?must escape from the body and observe matters in themselves with the soul by itself? (Plato 103). So, since death is the separation of the soul from the body, only at death can we gain true wisdom. He says, ?Wisdom itself is a kind of cleansing . . . he who arrives [in the underworld] purified and initiated will dwell with the gods? (Plato 106). Evidently, if the soul can only attain wisdom from death and if that wisdom leads to purification, which assures you a place with the gods, then Socrates would disagree with The Epic of Gilgamesh that death is a punishment from the gods. This evidence leads us to a look at the contrasting views of an afterlife.
In the Phaedo, Socrates explains how the soul exists in the afterlife through the use of two main theories, the theory of opposites and the theory of recollection. It is important to note that he also draws a connection between the soul and wisdom as a rationalization for his belief in an afterlife, saying, ?When the soul investigates by itself it passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal and unchanging . . . its experience then is what we call wisdom? (Plato 118). By relating the two he can explain that the soul, like wisdom, is immortal. In The Epic of Gilgamesh there is little evidence that the characters of the story believed there to be existence after life. The only mention of an afterlife is in Enkidu?s dream but he does not expand on what he believes it to be like or if it is something that is truly there. It can be presumed that Gilgamesh and Enkidu do not believe that death will lead to such a serene place as Socrates describes by looking at their view of death. Gilgamesh says after his journey to the garden of the gods ?Now that I have toiled and strayed so far over the wilderness, am I to sleep and let the earth cover my head for ever? (Gilgamesh 100)? Because Gilgamesh does not have an understanding of the soul as a separate entity he believes that he will be nothing more than a corpse after his death. At the end of his journey Enlil tells him, ?You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not you destiny? (Gilgamesh 118). We can take this to mean the everlasting life of the body, and because there is no mention of the soul, we can presume that there was no belief in a spiritual afterlife.
The last and perhaps the most important difference between Socrates and The Epic of Gilgamesh is the fear of death. In the Apology, Socrates states that ?To fear death . . . is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not . . . No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if it were the greatest of all evils? (Plato 34). Later in Phaedo, he asserts that ?Any man whom you see resenting death was not a lover of wisdom but a lover of the body, and also a lover of wealth or honors, either or both? (Plato 105). Gilgamesh and Enkidu repeatedly curse death and show their cowardice toward dying. After Enkidu?s death Gilgamesh says, ?Because of my brother I am afraid of death? (Gilgamesh 101). If we analyze the lives of the two main characters in Gilgamesh we can easily see that they fit into Socrates? idea of one who fears death. Gilgamesh and Enkidu repeatedly go in search of honors, delight in the pleasures of the body, and think they are wise when they are not.
Of these two very different views of death, one could say that Socrates? is the more appealing. To die with the belief that your soul will live on and be reborn is far more comforting than think that death is the end of one?s personal existence. Both views are still common today. Some religious people do not fear death when their time has come, but the majorities are afraid to die. Socrates might say that our society today is full of ignorant, body-loving, cowards.
Epic of Gilgamesh, The. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1972.
Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Trans. G.M.A.
Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 1981.