Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.


Glaucon and the Basic and Advanced Polis, Contd.

Yesterday’s post on Glaucon and the preferred forms of the polis for him and Socrates  sparked off an interesting discussion on Facebook with Alex Gourevitch. I’m reproducing it here as Gourevitch’s responses are wonderfully rich and worth responding to carefully.

Here is the sequence of comments on Facebook, followed by my response last.


I still think it’s better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.


Indeed. I’m just not sure the inhabitants of the basic polis are pigs; that description matches the often rapacious, gluttonous inhabitants of Glaucon’s preferred state.


They are pigs because they will eat anything. They are easily satisfied. They lack culture and refinement, which you only have if you are leisured – which is what, I think, the reference to reclining on couches is supposed to be about. It’s not just about having lots of desires to satisfy, but time to reflect on and develop one’s desires. Of course, that requires a social surplus, and someone else to do the work, which is what introduces class relations. We go from being pigs to being wolves. So you must tame the wolves. That is the question of justice, I think, for Plato. But it’s one also defined by the circumstances of justice. Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus set up the problem in such a way that the only way to imagine a surplus necessary to sustain leisure and culture is by conquering others, taking their land, and enslaving them. At the time, that may very well have been correct – Aristotle says the same thing about why slaves are necessary (the tripods of Haphaestus, looms spinning themselves). But one can imagine other ways, like machines/technology, so that everyone can have that leisure to develop their tastes and participate in culture. Note, by the way, that the theory of justice that develops out of the original problem as Glaucon and Socrates set it up is an attempt to restore that natural harmony of the ‘healthy state’ but through rational principles. In fact, Glaucon wants to be convinced of the idea that it is better to perfectly just and perfectly unjust. So even he does not deny that there is something superior to the condition of the pigs to that of living with wolves. Don’t you think?


 Does Socrates’ description of the basic polis really sound like people who don’t have leisure? Sitting by the fire, drinking wine in moderation, roasting nuts? They aren’t eating just anything. They live in peace to old age too. Perhaps they work into their old age rather than retiring. So what? There is a false opposition set up here. If you don’t grant the opposition that Glaucon sets up little remains of the desire for the advanced polis, which as you note, brings war, class conflict, and the problem of justice and law. It is almost as if Glaucon didn’t pay attention to the description Socrates provides. I would agree with him (and you) if the state described by Socrates was indeed pig like: scrounging for roots, eating dirt, the hardscrabble life from birth to death. But that is not what Socrates has in mind.


Very interesting. I see the plausibility of your reading but I think it rests on overstating the hardscrabble life of the pig as the central issue. In Glaucon’s eye the key feature of the pig is not that it scrounges but that it is indiscriminate. I take that to be one of the oldest metaphors about pigs – they eat anything. The connection to leisure is then that in the primitive division of labor of the ‘healthy city’ everyone works, they have an occupation, but there is no leisure, no culture, and indeed no philosophy. It is only the original act of injustice, the primitive accumulation, as it were, that creates the leisured class, sets reflection in motion, and brings about a philosophical attitude towards the human condition. Of course, what we find upon reflection is injustice. And we can retrospectively appreciate what is harmonious and good about the healthy state, but it is still a state of pigs. It is a state of pigs not because they work from dawn until dusk per se but because there is no demand for leisure and culture, and that demand is not there because people are satisfied with what they have. Needs are limited to a ‘natural’ range, to what can be supplied through a very simple division of labor and a few objects. Everyone is happy to do their work and consume what they can. They are indifferent to the limted range of their lives.


I’m not sure the text supports the reading you attribute to Glaucon. He listens to Socrates’ description of the basic polis and calls its inhabitants pigs anyway, seemingly without having paid attention to the leisure that is built into it. Your reading, and his, only works if this ignored. I’m getting stuck on this point, because I’m willing to concede the rest of your points if indeed all that happened in the basic polis was mere adherence to occupations. Thus I don’t see the necessity for the ‘original act of injustice’ or the ‘primitive accumulation’ either. I would also find it strange that Glaucon/you term them pigs when given a description of their working days: Is no reflection possible while at work? Is no reflection possible by being in the moment of one’s daily activities? You identify ‘culture’ with the arts; I think I have a broader reading of culture that is more inclusive of a broader range of human activities, many of which are possible in the basic polis. And thus I don’t buy the ‘limited range’ view of the polis that you have. But perhaps most importantly, it seems to me that we have lost a great deal by preferring a state that includes class conflict and war. There’s something depressingly Nietzschean about this vision, as if war is the inevitable price we must pay for the fine arts.

More importantly, I think there is a fairly convincing argument to be made that Plato finds the basic polis, despite the attention he pays to the advanced polis, a morally superior one. Remember what he terms the life of the philosopher: unconcerned with material acquisition but only with the pursuit of the truth. The basic polis provides this without the temptations of the advanced polis. A frugal life is possible here without evoking our worst instincts; it can give us time for the pursuit of the truth without necessarily owning or consuming the ‘finer things’ that Glaucon thinks are possible in the advanced polis. Indeed, Plato’s philosophers would be unmoved by the material wealth of the advanced polis; the contemplative time provided by the basic polis is enough. The basic polis makes possible a society where laws and government might play a minimal role; it might be the kind of community anarchist political philosophies have in mind.  The rudimentary polis can get along without being  a state; the advanced polis has to be one. And I find it hard to believe that the state represents an advancement on the basic polis.

Note: My arguments above are not original to me. I read them many years ago in David Melling’s lovely little book on Plato, which I’ve often recommended to my students. I stumbled upon the book again recently and was moved to write yesterday’s and today’s posts in response.

Glaucon’s Porcine Preference for the Advanced Polis

I never particularly liked Glaucon. His responses to Socrates‘ description, in Plato‘s Republic (372 (a-d)), of the basic polis are a good reminder of why.

Socrates quoth:

First of all, then, let us consider what will be the manner of life of men thus provided. Will they not make bread and wine and garments and shoes? And they will build themselves houses and carry on their work in summer for the most part unclad and unshod and in winter clothed and shod sufficiently? And for their nourishment they will provide meal from their barley and flour from their wheat, and kneading and cooking these they will serve noble cakes and loaves on some arrangement of reeds or clean leaves, and, reclined on rustic beds strewn with bryony and myrtle, they will feast with their children, drinking of their wine thereto, garlanded and singing hymns to the gods in pleasant fellowship, not begetting offspring beyond their means lest they fall into poverty or war?

What is Glaucon’s interjection?

No relishes apparently, for the men you describe as feasting.

Socrates recovers from the silliness of this and responds, gamely:

True, I forgot that they will also have relishes—salt, of course, and olives and cheese and onions and greens, the sort of things they boil in the country, they will boil up together. But for dessert we will serve them figs and chickpeas and beans,  and they will toast myrtle-berries and acorns before the fire, washing them down with moderate potations and so, living in peace and health, they will probably die in old age and hand on a like life to their offspring.

Glaucon’s response:

If you were founding a city of pigs, Socrates, what other fodder than this would you provide?

The ever-polite Socrates responds:

Why, what would you have, Glaucon?

The real ‘pig’ in all of this, Glaucon, respond:

What is customary; they must recline on couches, I presume, if they are not to be uncomfortable.

Waddaprick. The basic polis sounds pretty nice, especially when you consider that the kind of polis envisaged by Glaucon requires–as he admits a little later in the dialogue (373 (d-e)–the introduction of the doctor and the soldier. (Healthcare and the Military! Sound like budgetary problems to me.) The first occupation addresses the rash of diseases that will be caused by the ‘richer’ lifestyle of the more advanced polis–Socrates’ argument for the need for doctors in the advanced polis is an interesting anticipation of modern thinking about diseases of affluence. More perniciously, the advanced polis results inevitably in a desire for territorial expansion: the standing army with its budgetary demands and its endless conscriptions, its creation of wars, the scourge of human history, is a function of the mode of organization of the state it defends.

Glaucon disdains the frugal nature of the basic polis, seemingly unaware that the richer polis he has in mind is the one that will actually encourage porcine behavior.

Excerpted from: Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969. Available online at the Perseus Digital Library.