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Dear Socrates

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Dear Socrates

Having traveled from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First Century A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

Your last words in ancient times, as reported second-hand by Plato, were, “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” Did you really say that, and if so, what did you mean?

Yours truly,

Farmer Jones

Dear Jones,

I’m a little hazy after 2400 years, but it sounds close enough. Asclepius was the god of medicine, and I was expressing relief and thankfulness that my illness was about to be cured. That illness was life on the solid surface of the Earth. I was looking forward to shedding my body, just like the skin of the serpent on Asclepius’ staff, and entering a new form of existence, where I might hope to engage in philosophy nonstop, unencumbered by physical needs and limitations.

Since being reincarnated, however, I’ve been exposed to more modern ways of thinking about things; so I no longer view my body as disposable but in fact as essential to who I am and what I can do, even mentally. But I had figured out even in ancient times that how to live in this life is the proper object of our inquiries. So what now intrigues me about my final instructions to Crito is something quite mundane: the sacrifice of an animal.

You will forgive me if I seem squeamish or simply a silly, sentimental, if not senile (!) old man: but I can no longer abide these casual abuses of living creatures. And please don’t tell me it’s all symbolic. To the rooster, having his neck rung or sliced through is not symbolic. One thing that amazes me is that after all these years the human world is still not beyond animal sacrifice. Does that surprise you? You do not observe animals being sacrificed at the altar of a god? Well in a way you moderns have done us one better: you sacrifice humans. And humans are animals, are they not?

But what: you do not see humans beings sacrificed? Then it is only because you sacrifice the gods themselves! You must think I am really showing my superannuated age now. But it is true. When I enter a house of worship today, I am as likely as not to see the whole congregation eating the body and drinking the blood of their God. They insist that they are literally doing this … well, some of them do; but the rest take almost rapturous delight in the symbolism, which I find almost as strange. And they all equally insist that the God was at one time a flesh-and-blood human being, which means, on the modern view, a mammal, and hence, as I began, an animal. So you see, I am not crazy. But … is everyone else?

The story is that Jesus was the lamb of God – the very lamb that God gave to Abraham to sacrifice instead of Abraham’s son Isaac. God gave His son in sacrifice. This is what Jesus then re-enacted when he returned in human form and died on the cross. And human beings killed both – the animal lamb as a sacrifice in honor of God, the human lamb as God’s sacrifice for the sake of humans – in a reciprocal relationship. But there’s nothing in it for the literal lamb!

I am playing a little naïve with you, I admit. In my own times we knew of similar myths, such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her own father to the goddess Artemis, or possibly a deer in her place sent by Artemis. I suppose it does not totally surprise me that their vestiges would be retained in later times. However, I see nothing redeeming about the continued quite literal ‘sacrifice’ of animals on the altar of diet.

You know, that very word ‘diet’ comes from our díaita, which meant ‘way of living’. Since how one should live is still my main concern, I am therefore very much a stickler for the right diet. As I explained to Glaucon when describing the ideal state, meat-eating would be avoided since it leads to the need for increased land for pasturage and hence, inevitably, to war for territory. Today we know that animal agriculture is the leading source of global warming. Besides, meat is simply not one of the necessities of human life and, indeed, makes us more sluggish, even in thinking, as anyone who has tried the alternative knows from his or her own experience. So my contemporary way of advising ‘release from the body’ in order to be a better philosopher would be, not to anticipate death, but rather to lighten the load on one’s own body and mind precisely by not causing the death of others.

Let us not believe, then, that by eating other animals we nourish our body, any more than by eating God we nourish our soul. It is no sacrifice to ‘give up’ somebody else’s life. I choose to show my reverence for the divine creation, therefore, by making a personal sacrifice, and so I have given up eating meat or any animal products. The only true ‘sacrifice of animals’ is to give up exploiting them! Your myth thus nicely describes the beginning blessed state to which we desire to return: “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.” Therefore I hope that faithful Crito was derelict in his duty to me that one time.

As ever,

Socrates

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