Death in both The Iliad and The Apology is a driving force behind the actions of the characters. Their actions carry implications to society that then alter their views of death and force them to contemplate life and the society as a whole differently. These views of death are stemmed from their cultural values and their environment. They may consider what put them in this situation to begin with that made them believe what they do about death. Some may argue, however, that these works glorify death and give people the wrong impression on how to live their life in regard to the knowledge and prospect of death. In both The Iliad and The Apology, the recognition of the inevitability of death enables one to live a more courageous and inspired life; furthermore, these ideas shape society overall to be more aware and conscious of this inevitability. The Apology, however, portrays death in a way that is more relevant and persuasive to today’s society.
Within The Apology, Socrates is a polished philosopher who questions everything and is full of wisdom, only in that he knows nothing and desires to learn more. Naturally, his view of death is intricate and stems from his questioning nature. Socrates is being put on trial for a numerous amount of charges, and ultimately, he is sentenced to death by the Athenian council. Upon this sentencing, Socrates says, “I say, gentlemen, to those who voted to kill me, that vengeance will come upon you immediately after my death, a vengeance much harder to bear than that which you took in killing me” (The Apology, 42).
This is a clear indication that he gives no thought to death or its nature because his first thought after being condemned was not of grief or anxiety, but that the deaths of the condemners will be worse than his. He supports this notion when he goes on to state, “What has happened to me may very well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be evil are certainly mistaken” (The Apology, 43). It is evident that while it was thought to have been the worst punishment that could have happened to him, Socrates looks optimistically of his death and questions why others would believe it to be a bad thing if we have no real idea of what it is.
This form of questioning is a very common style of Socrates, who was used to questioning and exploring thoughts and ideas that common people took for granted to be true and did not try to find a deeper meaning. A common person, with this fearful attitude towards death, would certainly be distraught when hearing that they are to be sent to be executed. Given his questioning nature, Socrates looks upon death in a different light which ultimately leads him to be more courageous. This trial and his general nature therefore give context as to why Socrates thinks the way he does towards death and its inevitability.
Like The Apology, The Iliad offers context as to why the characters saw death in the way that they do. The Iliad takes place nine years after the Trojan war and gives perspective on one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the war. After being in war for so long, the Greeks and Trojans both developed diverse perspectives on the prospect of death. As Homer says in Book 4, “While [The Greeks] were attending to Menelaus, / The Trojans came on under their shields, / As the Greeks strapped on their gear, / And reminded themselves of the joys of war” (The Iliad, 50).
After years of war, these men have grown to long for it and desire it. Most people see war as a terrible loss of life and violence, yet these men are excited by it and it brings them joy. They undoubtedly have no regard for death since the sheer idea of going into battle and coming out dead has no impact on their mindsets. In addition to being at war for a long time, these warriors have experienced first hand the brutality of war. In one of the fierce moments of the battle in Book 8, Homer recalls, “…They slammed together shields and spears– / Rawhide ovals pressed close, bronze thoraxes / Grinding against each other, and the groans / Of men being slain and the cries of those slaying / Hung in the air as the earth ran with blood” (The Iliad, 85).
Not only was the war long, but it was especially brutal in nature and unquivering to violence and bloodshed. The longevity and brutality of the war leads to death being integrated into their culture and inspiring the warriors to continue to fight. This perspective of death is different than in The Apology in that there is much more explicit exposure to death, and honorability is a key focus as opposed to a philosophical approach on why we fear death. Like The Apology, however, The Iliad gives us good context as to why characters felt the way they did about death based on past and current experiences. While some may argue that death is looked upon lightly from these works, it is apparent that there were external factors that made these characters in both literary works think of death in their respective manners appropriately.
Characters in The Apology go through a change because of the ideals that are presented. Socrates questions everything that others accept to be true, and one of these truisms is that death is considered negative. These views change Socrates in that he comes to peace of mind with not only death, but also with his life in general. He tells the council, “So I am certainly not angry with those who convicted me, or with my accusers” (The Apology, 44). The views of death discussed previously has led Socrates to be at peace with his life as he is faced with certain inevitability of death.
Some in this situation may be filled with anxiety or regret, but instead he leaves the council with positivity. This shows that one can look forward to death not necessarily in excitement, but they may look to it in positivity and proper perspective. Imparting final wisdom on the council, Socrates leaves saying, “Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the God” (The Apology, 44). This further demonstrates that Socrates is withholding judgment of his fellow neighbors and leaves only with traces of positivity, demonstrating his courage.
In The Iliad, Achilles is the best example of the acceptance of death. Given the circumstances surrounding a violent, extensive war, it is apparent that the best warrior of the entire army would not fear the inevitability of death. In Book 20, Xanthus warned Achilles of his death, but he responded, “I don’t need you to prophesy my death, / Xanthus. I know in my bones I will die here / Far from my father and mother. Still, I won’t stop / Until I have made the Trojans sick of war” (The Iliad, 195). Despite knowing his own fate, Achilles is unwilling to give up battle, and he recognizes and accepts his own fate of death.
Given the brutality of the war and seeing some of his own close friends lost (Patroclus), Achilles shifts from contemplating going home to his homeland and removing himself from the war, to going head on into battle unwilling to escape death. Hector, the leader of the Trojan side, similarly accepted his fate and death. Achilles was chasing Hector through the streets of Troy with the goal of killing him, and finally Hector gave way to fate; “I’m not running any more, Achilles. / Three times around the city was enough. / I’ve got my nerve back. It’s me or you now” (The Iliad, 213).
This symbolizes a similar shift of mindset of many people impacted by the war; from running away from fate and the inevitability of death, to coming to accept it. While it could be argued that Achilles and Hector were destined to eventually come to terms, their decisions to accept their fate are symbolic of a much larger change of attitude that was experienced in mass which inspired others.
Within The Apology, we see that individual characters such as Socrates are impacted as a result of this inevitability. However, in addition, society collectively is equally impacted by these views of death. From these views of death from Socrates comes inspiration and literary works that we are still reading today. When addressing the council before his execution, he warns them that this is not the death of his ideas: “There will be more people to test you, whom I now held back, but you did not notice it. They will be more difficult to deal with as they will be younger and you will resent them more” (The Apology, 42).
This shows that well beyond his death, there will be those who continue his legacy and teachings. Socrates’ views on death, therefore, will continue and inspire future generations. While it could be argued that Socrates’ views on death has no cultural impact because it was just one teaching amongst several works, the general way of thinking that Socrates presents amongst all works applies to several different concepts, and one of those being death. These thoughts on death not only were prevalent in Socrates’ times, but these thoughts and views can still be relevant today.
Societal impacts as a result of these intricate and inspiring views of death impacts not only those in The Apology, but in The Iliad as well. The warriors in the epic are perceived as an elite class, given that they experience divine intervention and some of them are even demi-gods. What truly makes them elite, however, is that they are fearless and immune to the uncertainties and violence of war. So much so, in fact, they will scold those who turn away from the fight. In the beginning of Book 3, Paris was too afraid to fight Menelaus. Hector, his brother, scolded him in front of the army, saying, “Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy! / I wish you had never been born, or had died unmarried. / Better that than this disgrace before the troops” (The Iliad, 29).
This shows that not only were individuals impacted by the prospect of dying with honor, but it also impacted the entire culture and social norms. One may argue that this kind of mindset is barbaric and not reflective of the society, but due to the longevity of the war, their culture and war assimilated into each other. Honorability, due to the war and pioneered by some of the war’s most courageous warriors, spread its views to the culture and thus instilled this new way of life.
One can live a more spirited and encouraged life by recognizing the inevitability of death and coming to terms with it; society, as well is shaped positively from this recognition. Both The Iliad and The Apology had extensive circumstances that explained why characters and society thought the way they did about death. The Iliad, in general, has a view of death that focuses on honorability and leaving a legacy.
The Apology focuses more on why we shouldn’t fear death from a philosophical perspective and explains so with reason. While both sides raise clear and understandable views on death, The Apology is more persuasive and more relevant to today. The U.S is fortunate to not be living in a war-torn state, and so dying with honor, although revered, is not as common place as was in The Iliad.
Honorability is the focus in The Iliad, but the prospect of not fearing what is unknown in The Apology is more persuasive and applicable. This perspective carries positivity and nonjudgmental manners that are good examples for us to be living in our every day life. Having explored both literary works, it is clear both offer a lot to think about regarding death. How death is conceptualized is parallel to our society and to our societal values, and it adapts as we progress through life.