Our Numbered Days
Certain Death & the Last Lectures of Socrates & Jesus
Let me say first off that the idea of a “last lecture” series—in which the speaker is expected to answer the question, “What would you say if this were the last lecture you would give in your life?”—is a good one; indeed, it has had a long and noble tradition within philosophy. Yet when I was first invited to give a “last lecture,” I demurred, for two reasons.
First, I associate such lectures with death. And although I’m getting a bit creaky in the joints, I’m not ready to pack it in just yet. But then, upon reflection, I realized that death can come to anyone at any time. So perhaps all of us—including me—ought to be ready to deliver our “last lecture” at any moment if called upon to do so.
The other, more important reason I was uncomfortable with the thought of delivering a “last lecture” is that I have always assumed that such a talk should be delivered by someone wise. And sadly, I am not. But then I realized that, although I am not especially wise, I know some people who are. So I decided that, instead of giving my own “last lecture,” I should talk about the last lectures of two particularly wise and important men: Socrates and Jesus Christ.
Two Questions to Ponder
The first of these—indeed, what we might call the “Platonic ideal” of the last lecture—was given by the Greek philosopher Socrates after he had been arrested and tried on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and encouraging disrespect toward the gods of the city. Though he mounted a spirited defense of himself, it was not entirely effective; indeed, it got him the death penalty. But before his execution, he engaged in a last lecture of sorts with his students, and it constitutes the basis of one of Plato’s dialogues called the Phaedo.
In the Phaedo, we are told that Socrates spent his last hours doing what he had always done during his day-to-day life—namely, talking with his friends and fellow citizens about some of the fundamental questions of human life: What is truth? What is the nature of the human person? What makes us happy and what is a good life for man? What about death?
It is interesting to think of a man who chooses to spend the last hours of his life doing what he had always done. It suggests a man who has truly found his vocation. It also suggests two sorts of questions well worth asking—and not just when you get old or are facing death.
The first is: Would you spend the last days and hours of your life doing what you do every day? If not, why not? What would you do instead, and why aren’t you doing that sort of thing right now? If your answer is: “I’m preparing myself to do what I really want to do,” then ask yourself whether there is really any connection between the things you are doing now and the things you would be doing if this were your last day on earth. Have you, like Socrates, found your vocation?
The second question focuses more squarely on “the hour of our death”: What would you do with your time if you were told you had two years left to live? Or two months? Or two days? What sort of “preparing” would you do then? It’s one thing to think about how we might live more fully now; it’s quite another to consider whether the things we do now might have ramifications after we’re dead.
Randall B. Smith is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.
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