Socrates’ Obscene Last Words

20 May 2010

The Silenus-like Socrates (Louvre)

I recently made a remark on this blog that Socrates‘ last words were obscene, to which Mr Steven Saylor replied that he liked me to elaborate on it. I gladly do so, because Mr Saylor is the author of several nice novels (here‘s his website).

The story is told by Plato and can be found in the Phaedo (118a). Socrates has drunk from the poison cup, walks around to make the venom do its work, sits down, and the executioner touches him, telling him that his body will become stiff; when this stiffness will reach his heart, he will pass away.

Now when the stiffness reaches the lower part of Socrates’ torso (ἦτρον), Socrates “uncovers himself”. The now naked part of his body is not mentioned, but there is no reason to assume that it was his head, as nearly all painters represent this scene. (The custom to cover one’s head when one senses one was going to die, was Roman.) With at least one part of his body uncovered, Socrates’ final words are, “We owe a cock to Asclepius”. The Greek word that Plato uses, “ἀλεκτρυών”, has the same meaning as the English “cock”.

Being touched, stiffness, the lower part of the body, uncovering oneself, a cock: Plato offers no less than five signal words, and the listener must have understood what Plato did no say, that the dying Socrates had, to use the medical phrase, a “terminal erection”. Socrates’ last words, fitting for a man whose portrait is modeled on Silenus, were a joke.


Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus (1985)