Socrates’ Swan Song

In the maddening swirl of language, we seldom reflect on the meaning of individual words or phrases.  It is not so surprising then, when we pass by even more obscure idioms and metaphors, although this paradoxically does not prevent us from using them again in turn!

One of these phrases is “swan song”, often meaning the last effort or final production coming from someone in his respective field before retirement, or sometimes, death.  This idea has a long pedigree in Western thought.  It first appears in literature in Aeschylus (Agamemnon, 1444), and has not performed its own swan song in our communal imagination since.  The idea behind the myth was that the swan is silent its entire life save the prescience it is granted of its oncoming death, then the swan pours out the first and final charming melodies from its soul.

Socrates himself alludes to this myth, albeit not without commenting on what he sees as its probable origin:

But I seem to you more common than the swans regarding prophecy, which when they sense that it necessary that they die, they sing in the interval before death, indeed, at that time, especially and most beautifully do they sing, rejoicing that they are about to go to the divine, the very thing they serve.  And men, because of their own fear of death, they both slander the swans and they say that the swans lament their death singing because of pain, and they do not consider that no bird sings when in hunger or cold or during any other pain it undergoes, nor does the nightingale, the swallow, nor the hoopoe, which they say laments singing because of its pain.  But these do not appear to me to sing because they are pained, nor do the swans, but I think, since they are prophetic, being from Apollo, and foreknowing the good things in Hades they sing and rejoice during that day more than in the time before.  I myself think I am a co-laborer of the swans and a priest of the same god, and I have the gift of prophecy from my master not worse than theirs, nor do I think I am freed from a life more melancholy than theirs.

ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν κύκνων δοκῶ φαυλότερος ὑμῖν εἶναι τὴν μαντικήν, οἳ ἐπειδὰν αἴσθωνται ὅτι δεῖ αὐτοὺς ἀποθανεῖν, ᾁδοντες καὶ ἐν τῷ πρόσθεν χρόνῳ, τότε δὴ πλεῖστα καὶ κάλλιστα ᾁδουσι, γεγηθότες ὅτι μέλλουσι παρὰ τὸν θεὸν ἀπιέναι οὗπέρ εἰσι θεράποντες. οἱ δ᾽ ἄνθρωποι διὰ τὸ αὑτῶν δέος τοῦ θανάτου καὶ τῶν κύκνων καταψεύδονται, καί φασιν αὐτοὺς θρηνοῦντας τὸν θάνατον ὑπὸ λύπης ἐξᾴδειν, καὶ οὐ λογίζονται ὅτι οὐδὲν ὄρνεον ᾁδει ὅταν πεινῇ ἢ ῥιγῷ ἤ τινα ἄλλην λύπην λυπῆται, οὐδὲ αὐτὴ ἥ τε ἀηδὼν καὶ χελιδὼν καὶ ὁ ἔποψ, ἃ δή φασι διὰ λύπην θρηνοῦντα ᾁδειν. ἀλλ᾽ οὔτε ταῦτά μοι φαίνεται λυπούμενα ᾁδειν οὔτε οἱ κύκνοι, ἀλλ᾽ ἅτε οἶμαι τοῦ Ἀπόλλωνος ὄντες, μαντικοί τέ εἰσι καὶ προειδότες τὰ ἐν Ἅιδου ἀγαθὰ ᾁδουσι καὶ τέρπονται ἐκείνην τὴν ἡμέραν διαφερόντως ἢ ἐν τῷ ἔμπροσθεν χρόνῳ. ἐγὼ δὲ καὶ αὐτὸς ἡγοῦμαι ὁμόδουλός τε εἶναι τῶν κύκνων καὶ ἱερὸς τοῦ αὐτοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ οὐ χεῖρον ἐκείνων τὴν μαντικὴν ἔχειν παρὰ τοῦ δεσπότου, οὐδὲ δυσθυμότερον αὐτῶν τοῦ βίου ἀπαλλάττεσθαι. ἀλλὰ τούτου γ᾽ ἕνεκα λέγειν τε χρὴ καὶ ἐρωτᾶν ὅτι ἂν βούλησθε, ἕως ἂν Ἀθηναίων ἐῶσιν ἄνδρες ἕνδεκα. Phaedo 84e-85b

One thought on “Socrates’ Swan Song

  1. I set this passage as an unseen on an exam a couple of years ago. Lots of the students seem to think that Socrates was talking about mankind’s fear of swans. Perhaps, like me, they spent many of their childhood holidays in the rainy British Lake District being told that a swan can break your arm.

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