“[A] man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death and to be very hopeful that after death he will attain the greatest blessings yonder.”
– Socrates, Phaedo
First, a disclaimer. I’m not writing well, nor am I thinking clearly. That’s because I have a tumor about the size and shape of a large egg in the tentorium cerebelli region of my brain, a layer forming a protective fabric separating the upper portion of the brain from the cerebellum below. The tumor is a meningioma, a usually benign variety of tumors developing from the meninges, the tissues coating the brain and spinal cord. It’s situated near the back of my skull slightly to the
right left and is clearly visible in the provided CT scan. Given my condition, please pardon the inevitable typos and solecisms.
The mass was detected three days ago after I visited the ENT complaining of dizziness, ear pain and headaches. Three weeks prior I had woken in the middle of the night with an excruciating headache and piercing eye pain. The discomfort eventually subsided, but a second attack struck two days later. I had been dealing with headache and neck pain ever since and sought out an ENT with hopes of discovering an ear infection, but I suspected something more serious. The ENT feared worse too and ordered a CT. I received the diagnosis that evening.
Blogging about life-altering episodes strikes me as a little self-indulgent and an unwelcome symptom of our narcissistic age. But as someone who writes for a living in advertising and is accustomed to expressing himself in prose, documenting my ordeal may provide some measure of comfort. If nothing else, it occupies me while I wait for my surgery, scheduled two days from now. I don’t want to report on the technical details of the procedure other than to say that the neurosurgeon aims to resection, or remove, the whole tumor. The prognosis is mostly positive, and I am optimistic that I can resume something resembling a normal life. But I would rather take the opportunity to remark on something more important: immortality, death and the afterlife.
In the dialogue Phaedo, Plato reports Socrates’ last words before succumbing to the hemlock: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget” (118a). Asclepius was the Greek god of curing illnesses, and scholars generally interpret Socrates as meaning that death was a kind of healing from the trials of life for which he owed Asclepius a debt. This interpretation perfectly accords with the rest of the dialogue in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul and the advantages of entering the afterlife. We should, Socrates argues, desire to cast off our physical bodies and behold the truth unmediated, without reliance upon our faulty sense perception. Death isn’t a terrible fate to be scorned, but a passage into final revelation and ultimate knowledge.
Practicing philosophy, Socrates tells us, is “training to die easily” (81). By removing oneself from the distorting influences of the physical world and attuning the intellect and soul to the immaterial realm – the realm of the Forms of the Beautiful and the Good – we make the final separation of soul from body less jarring. Thinking philosophically gains us the nearest proximity in this life to the knowledge we seek, “because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it” (66a). After a pious life of self-denial and continual meditation upon Goodness and Beauty, death finally places the philosopher in “beautiful dwelling places” in the presence of the Forms themselves (114c).
It’s a lovely sentiment, and one I mostly share. Regardless of one’s thoughts about the plausibility of an afterlife, it’s hard to deny that maintaining healthy priorities can ease the difficulty of facing death. If we spend our time coveting material things, we will feel the loss of our physical selves all the more keenly. But the pursuit of virtue, truth, goodness and beauty are otherworldly concerns that fix our gaze beyond the horizon of this life and offer reasons for hope. I have made the pursuit imperfectly, but I remain of “good cheer.”