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Theodicy and The Left Behind Series

Theodicy and the Left Behind Series

There has been a series of theodicies that have been put forward during the past two thousand years. Currently, academic theologians tend to prefer some version of what is called the Irenaean theodicy, first developed by St. Irenaeus, Father of the Church, in the first centuries of the current era. In this theodicy the world is seen as a vale of soul making, a testing ground and “school”, in which physical and moral evil are permitted to exist in order to test and educate souls in their journey toward God. The American theologian-philosopher John Hick is the most prominent proponent of this version of theodicy. He argues, embracing Darwinian evolution as a template, that humanity is in process of growing toward a collective and individual goodness it has not yet achieved, and he even suggests that God is doing something like the same thing. Thus if this is not now the best of all possible worlds it is tending in that direction and we can predict a gradual reduction in both moral and natural evil as humankind progresses.
Irenaean theodicy traces evil to two sources. God permits or even arranges natural evils as a way to temper and teach the soul how to be holy. The assumption here is that suffering is a form of moral education, as well as an examination of character. Second, human evil is a function of free will, which in Irenaean theodicies is tempered by the idea that earlier versions of humanity had less self-understanding and therefore less freedom of choice. Freedom, like everything else, develops in this theodicy.
This inherently developmental theodicy that sees evil as phase rather than as a permanent feature of the world’s history, and which therefore sees evil as provisional and entirely eliminable, is countered by two theodicial models that offer a more fixed sense of both good, God and evil. In Augustine’s theodicy, which appeared somewhat later than Irenaeus’ and has been considerably more influential in theological circles, Augustine argues that the ultimate source of both natural and moral evil in the universe is free will. The heart of Augustine’s argument is that creation as it came from the hand of God was essentially good. It had to be good because God is both good and perfect and a perfectly good Being cannot create what is not good. But this account leaves evil out of the explanation. Augustine reintroduces evil by arguing that it is not part of creation at all and therefore not a divine product. Rather, evil is a sheer absence of goodness, a form of non-being, pure ontological negation.
At the same time, however, Augustine makes the picture more complicated and the waters muddier by asserting that the ultimate source of this negation lies in the human will. As the story of Adam and Eve suggests, it was the perverse desire of our first parents to become gods, their sheer negating of the way Being is, that created both physical suffering and death, on the one hand, and moral evil on the other. We note the paradox. God created free will, and it is good. In Augustine’s view, which is a commonplace in philosophy until recent centuries, the will has a natural tendency to will the good. But, somewhat mysteriously, this will whose nature it is to will the good can also choose not to will the good. It can will the apparent good, or the good that seems good in the short run. In so doing it can will against the very structure and meaning of Being. It can, that is, act in defiance of God and the order of His creation. It can sin.
Of course such negative acts cannot ultimately undo the order of the world. Evil always loses and is eventually banished. But it can never be obliterated once it begins, and so Augustine’s justification of the ways of God to man includes at or near its center the idea that there is a completely unpredictable “sport” element in the Creation, in it but not of it, an element that can appear at any time to throw things temporarily off course.
If this element did not exist neither would the human ability to choose to obey God and to accept His gifts. And if this element did not exist there would have been no Fall, no sin, and no alienation of humankind from God, no Covenant, no Incarnation, and no Resurrection. The entire histories of Judaism and Christianity and by extension Islam depend on the existence of this negation. It is from this that Jesus saves humankind.
In Augustine then it is not really a question of justifying God’s ways to man, except for the crucial explanation of evil as privation and non-being, characterizations that absolve God of any responsibility for evil.
But we note, as we said above, that this theodicy presumes that good and evil are fixed meanings that do not evolve and that, on the contrary, human history began when Adam and Eve, who were innocent and pure and therefore better than us, fell from this blessed state. Augustine’s is an anti-Darwinian view of things, more consistent with the degenerative historical models of the ancient world than with evolutionary ideas, and this is one reason why Augustine’s scheme has fallen out of favor in the last century.
Leibniz’ theodicy differs from Irenaeus’ in that Leibniz account of the origin and meaning of evil has no developmental component. The meaning of the world, the way it will be structured, are determined from eternity and, even if this world appears to follow an evolutionary trajectory, that trajectory is the visible representation of a perfectly calculated plan all of whose lineaments have always already been laid out. Leibniz differs from Augustine in refusing to make sin the central explanatory category in his system. Leibniz presumes human innocence, to some degree, and in that context asks how God can allow, cause or sustain suffering among these innocents.
Leibniz’ answer is, to put the matter perhaps too crudely, a static, much more logically rigorous version of Irenaeus. He argues, in effect, that there is evil in the world, both natural and moral, because in crafting a world that incorporates the greatest possible perfection in being in the inter-relation of its parts and in each part severally, and in making that world as various and law like as possible, God is constrained, by His very nature as all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, to build some of what looks to us like evil into the grand plan. He must do this because in creating God is introducing finitude into His scheme, and finitude (here Leibniz reminds one of Augustine) has inherent limitations, an element of Augustinian non-being or disorder. God chooses the best possible combination of beings to make this world – He must – and therefore this must be the best of all possible worlds. What seems evil in our small perspective really is evil to us. But in the bigger picture, which we cannot clearly see because of our local position in the whole, this is not really evil but an element that works for the greatest possible good.
But do note the word “possible”. This is not a perfect world, in a non-contextual sense. Only God is perfect. Each element is perfect in its kind, and the combination is the best possible, but the world falls short of perfection because it is finite. But what matters most for my purposes is that Leibniz never attributes the existence of evil in the world to a sport element, but to ignorance of the larger picture.
We note that in all these theodicies, whatever their real differences, there is a kind of rough ontological economy. In the last analysis things are going to work out. Humanity will evolve to a general condition of holiness; evil will be defeated and good vindicated; this world will keep being the best possible world. In none of these accounts is there any final asymmetry, no excess of evil that needs to be fought, and no necessary catastrophe to set things back on balance. Even though the covenant on Sinai, if one is a Jew, or the incarnation and resurrection if one is a Christian, constitute major interruptions in human history, occasions when God miraculously intervenes to set things back on track. A good Irenaean has to read such events as elements in the evolution of the species, as did Teilhard de Chardin. A good Augustinian sees these interventions as necessary countermeasures to Adam’s sin that is as ways to reinstate the intended trajectory of human history that was derailed by Adam and Eve. And Leibniz would read these events as entirely non-interruptive. They had to have been planned from all eternity, or they would not have happened, and thus are not interruptions at all.
This background is important because in the LB series there are echoes of all these traditional theodicies but none of them is used as a final template. And the whole question of theodicy, that is, of justifying God’s ways to men, has a different twist because in the LB series God’s relationship to men is a paradoxical mix of solicitude and vengeance, both of which will be justified by LB’s authors.
The LB theodicy, pieced together from statements in the novels and from ancillary interpretive work by Tim LaHaye (see below), begins by looking indistinguishable from a mix of Augustine and Leibniz. From Augustine LaHaye and Jenkins draw the idea that the world as God created it was good and that it was human sin that introduced both moral and natural evil into human affairs. But in the LB authors there is no suggestion that evil is a mere privation, an ontological lack. One gets no hint of a felt need on the part of the LB authors to account for the presence of evil, perhaps because of the Leibnizian, shall we say more accurately, the Calvinist, strain in their thinking? Evil is a privation in Augustine because in his view of the world there is no proper room for defects. God is perfectly good and had to create a good universe. Augustine is not clear about just how good such a universe must be, but he does know that it cannot contain anything evil as a constitutive part.
But in Leibniz’ view of things, a more holistic one, there cannot be elements of sheer non-being in the great chain of being. Every ontological “chink” has to be filled, and has to have been filled entirely from eternity. Therefore if there is what appears to be “evil” it must really be a building block of the whole structure, an inevitable part of a totality whose perfection is specified not to be absolute but to be relative to its status as a creation, as something essentially derivative. Thus evil is not a privation, an exception, but a part of the whole.
One would imagine that this view of evil would not be compatible with a traditional Christian view of the world as a place corrupted by sin. Sin and Augustinian definitions of evil as pure privation seem to fit well together. But LaHaye and Jenkins are also Calvinists. They believe that the course of history, and by extension the history of sin and evil have always already been foreordained by divine will. It is not clear, in the LB books, whether God necessarily wills the way history will go, and how men will act, or whether he chooses this route from among others. But one does get the sense that the way the world proceeds emanated as a necessary consequence from the very mind of God. Thus evil, even though it has the negative effect of alienating people from God, is also a necessary component of the order of things rather than a mere privation.
The high status that evil enjoys is indicated by a significant way in which the LB theodicy deviates from both the Augustinian and Leibnizian versions. While Augustine allows that the original sin introduced suffering and death into the world, and thus that human evil changed nature, he does not go so far as LaHaye and Jenkins, who firmly believe that Adam and Eve’s sin not only changed nature for the worse but delivered the natural world over into the hands of Satan, to rule until the Second Coming of Christ. Far from being a mere privation, evil in LaHaye and Jenkins, in the person of Satan, occupies and controls the natural world and the hearts of most humans. And, unlike Leibniz, the part that evil plays in the system of the world is not ultimately unifying but disremptive. The reign of evil creates the conditions for ultimate chaos and destruction, and for the very ending of the world and the universe. In Leibniz the world is and remains a well-ordered ontological machine, ticking along in a steady state. In LaHaye and Jenkins the evil that is necessary for the order of the world is such that it finally contributes to the destruction of that order and the dismantling of the world.
The evil that is necessary to the order of the world is also, in LaHaye and Jenkins, a force that condemns a high percentage of God’s creatures to eternal torment, an outcome that Augustine might find acceptable but one that Leibniz could not abide. Even Augustine, and certainly the preponderance of later Catholic theology, would find something both morally repellent and ontologically skewed in the idea that a good and loving God would craft a world, that He knew, from eternity, would be one in which most of His creatures would reject him and be lost forever. But this is precisely the world, that LaHaye and Jenkins argue God made, not accidentally but from eternity, as the only world that there would or could be. Evil as sheer destruction and tendency to non-being, evil as Augustinian privation, is built into the LB world as kind of Leibnizian building block: into the best of all possible worlds then is built the worst of possible materials – the seeds of that world’s destruction.
LaHaye and Jenkins also rejoin Irenaeus. They too believe that events in the world, especially natural ones, can be used to teach people where their best interests and choices lie. They agree that suffering is a great teacher. But they reject the idea that humankind is progressing toward greater goodness, tutored by suffering. Rather, LaHaye and Jenkins stand firmly in the camp of those who see the modern world as a breeding ground for everything they hate and oppose – secular humanism, moral relativism and the idea that human beings can find happiness and salvation by their own wits and actions. Today’s world, precisely because it offers more tools for exercising power over the world, draws people away from their sense of dependence and makes them less willing to place their fate in the hands of a saving God. So they reject the idea that this world is a progressively more advanced vale of soul making and argue instead that people today are at least as evil as people ever have been.
On the other hand advances in technology do not put off LaHaye and Jenkins. Clearly, the invention of corporate jets, satellite phones, high-speed internet-ready laptops and advanced weaponry do not strike LaHaye and Jenkins as bad things. It is the intellectual pride and snobbery of the modern world, its unwillingness to accept and obey Jesus, that worries them, not advances in electronics and micro processing, all of which they seem to embrace as Good Things when they are employed by the right people. Clearly, the world was not entirely corrupted by Adam’s sin. Men retained enough intelligence to produce extraordinary things, and the Trib Force uses all such technologies happily and effectively. In fact the members of the Force are all highly skilled technocrats and gear heads: pilots, computer wizards, high-level managers and executives, and disguise artists, as well as professional soldiers. There are no poorly educated or unskilled Tribulation Saints who play a large role in the series. Here we have a distinct echo of the Augustinian idea that creation is good, if currently flawed. LaHaye and Jenkins are by no means Luddites or the sorts of Christians who believe that a simple life is the best life.
But if LaHaye and Jenkins do not see progress toward moral self-awareness in human history, this does not mean that they do not believe that soul making can go on in the individual. Even though they are clear that human beings can do nothing to merit their salvation – in this they are pure Reformation thinkers – they also seem to believe that coming to belief is not a simple process, nor is it based on simple trust in God. In this regard they are closest to Leibniz. Both Leibniz and the LB authors believe that there is a grand plan for the universe. Augustine also believes this, of course, as did Irenaeus and as does anyone else who makes theodicies. But LaHaye and Jenkins are closest to Leibniz in that both he and they think that the plan can be known, if not in its entirety, then at least in some detail and in its larger logical outlines by human beings, sinner or not.
In fact this might be the real key to understanding the attitude LaHaye and Jenkins take toward the problem of evil. They believe that the truth about human history is clearly outlined in Scripture read as prophesy. The things that prophecy foretells can be understood through a close hermeneutical analysis of the texts, and one need not be saved to get the right answers. This is proven by the fact that the Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah, who later becomes the principal theologian and scriptural scholar for the Tribulation Force, uses Scripture as evidence in coming to the conclusion, after several years of study, the Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. During the time he was crafting this conclusion Ben-Judah was a Jew, still technically a sinner and damned. But even under those circumstances his reason was not sufficiently impaired to keep him from discerning the truth. Of course, Ben-Judah needed to have the truth offered to him in Scripture. Had he studied any other books, no matter how well founded in evidence and experimental testing, he could not have come to the conclusion to which he was led by Scripture. So in this sense he was Go
At the same time however Ben-Judah’s reasoning powers were sufficiently acute that he was able to get the truth when it presented itself to him. The Rabbi, trained in the eristic traditions of Talmudic scholarship, used every logical device at his command to generate counterexamples and competing hypotheses to eliminate the claim that Jesus was Messiah. And he failed, partly because of the compelling logical picture painted by prophecy, partly because he was intelligent enough to understand that picture, and partly because a loving God was guiding him. But what ultimately matters here is that Ben-Judah can convince himself on the basis of reason that the Jesus proposal best fits the traditional rabbinic characterizations of the Messiah, as well as the prophetic literature of the Bible.
The point here is that for LaHaye and Jenkins God has laid out his plan for history in some detail in the Bible, and it is available there for any intelligent reader who takes the time to sort carefully through the text. The plan for the seven-year Tribulation and the Glorious Appearance of Jesus is even more clearly laid out in the book of Revelation and in several Old Testament prophetic texts. What counts here is that close readings and good hermeneutics will reveal the plan and make the act of faith not only beneficial but also eminently reasonable. And if one is not endowed with the intelligence or time to study prophetic texts with sufficient care to make them yield the truth, then all one need do is listen to those who do have the time and skill, then apply one’s own perfectly good reasoning powers to their arguments. The plan of history is always already there for the seeing, so that no one need be left out, and none remain unsaved.
In the work of both Spinoza and Leibniz, no matter how it differs in other ways, one finds the idea that if one studies ones position in the scheme of things with sufficient care one can find out one’s moral place in the grand scheme of the world and do the right thing. The same is true of their predecessor Calvin, with the caveat that in Calvin’s grand scheme it is not always easy for the believer to tell whether he or she is among the saved. In this regard LaHaye and Jenkins, lovers of reason and technology that they are, are much closer to the spirit of the great rationalists. They, like Leibniz and Spinoza, believe that human beings – all human beings -- can, with proper attention and reflection, figure out where they stand in the scheme of things and act accordingly.
Under this description their apparently cruel theodicy makes more sense. If every human being has both the reasoning powers and the texts to show him or her precisely what God is planning as well as what He requires then there is really no good reason why anyone should not have committed his or her life to Christ. The technology of the Tribulation period reinforces this idea: in that period no one on earth could possibly not have heard the message being broadcast by the Tribulation saints, and so no one is left out of the picture. Whether people in the past had sufficient chance to hear the Gospel and study prophecy is another issue, one on which LaHaye and Jenkins either remain silent or to which they give facile answers that do no persuade. But for their Tribulation period no one can honestly claim that he or she is not a follower of Jesus because the message has not been available.
Under these circumstances God’s vengeful wrath and His murderous attacks on humanity might make more sense. If people still keep rejecting God’s mercy even when they know exactly what it means and how to accept it, then they could be seen to be guilty of a form of disobedience that under the circumstances of the End Times might make them liable to divine sanctions. Still, the brutality and terrorist sensibility that sends world-wide earthquakes, boils, stinging insects and seas turned to blood, that dims the sun and plunges the world into darkness, that makes human life miserable, nasty, brutish and short, seems like a strange over-reaction to human truculence and bad hermeneutical habits. If God really were all-powerful, why would it so offend Him to be discounted by His puny creations? Yet for LaHaye and Jenkins this point is hardly worthy of discussion. It is only in the eleventh novel of the series, which takes the reader almost to the second of Jesus’ Glorious Appearance, that serious and oddly unanswered questions get raised about the justice of damning otherwise good people who do not happen to have become believers.
More pointedly, Rayford Steele, the most prominent of the novels’ protagonists, questions why God would not let Shelley, the secretary at Anti-Christ’s home office, who helps the Trib force with crucial information, be saved. She knows that the Christian/post-Christian proposal is true and yet cannot embrace it because she has taken the mark of the antichrist and this forbids her from choosing Jesus. For reasons that remained unexplained God will not allow those who have taken the Antichrist’s mark to freely choose Jesus, even though other people who have survived the Tribulation without the mark, recalcitrant Muslims and Jews and survivalists, can still embrace the Lord and be saved. Shelley is a good person. She helps the right side, risking her own life. And yet Rayford can offer her nothing but the hope of a painless death. He knows that no matter what she does, no matter how good she is otherwise, and no matter that she now believes that Jesus is the answer, Shelley is going to Hell. This gives Rayford pause. He never questions his own belief, or even God’s ultimate goodness. He just wonders, and is uneasy, and understands that this is the way things must be even if he cannot fully understand them. Divine wrath must be satisfied with the blood of countless millions and with their damnation.
We close by noting something that hints at, rather than directly reveals, LaHaye and Jenkins’ take on God and evil. At the close of the eleventh novel, Armageddon, which takes us to the moment right before Jesus reappears in Jerusalem, LaHaye and Jenkins kill off every one of their main characters, the heart of the original Tribulation Force! The resourceful Albie, an Iraqi Muslim turned believer, is shot dead while trying to strike a deal to help believers trapped in Babylon, the Antichrist’s city. Chloe Steele is captured and publicly martyred by guillotine; Rayford Steele is thrown off his ATV by a bomb blast, even in the protected city of Petra where believers are thought to be immune from attack. The bomb does not harm Steele but, rolling down a steep slope because of the concussion, he sustains fatal head injuries. Both Buck Williams, Chloe’s husband and the editor of the underground Trib Force news ‘zine, and Tsion Ben-Judah, chief thinker and preacher for the Force, are shot and killed in the battle for Jerusalem, between Global Community forces and die-hard Orthodox Jews.
LaHaye and Jenkins live in a world in which God kills even His most loyal servants moments before they can embrace their Savior. Of course Chloe and Buck and Rayford and Albie and Tsion are instantly united with Jesus in their deaths, and will return with him to Jerusalem, but it reflects LaHaye and Jenkins’ sensibility that their God will withhold the small favor of allowing His best to avoid the humiliation and pain of death. They too must suffer, no matter how much they have given. Perhaps LaHaye and Jenkins see these deaths as offering these people the chance to be martyrs; that they see death in this way suggests what might be the secret driving force of their theodicy: they believe that humans, qua humans, deserve death at God’s hands, no matter the merits of those killed. Here we get the hint, and it is admittedly only a hint, of a dark truth: perhaps LaHaye and Jenkins believe that God has every right to murder His entire creation, because they have, after all, and despite His saving acts, been a spectacular failure that must be erased to reassert God’s power over His universe.


Philosophy and the Figurative


The opening of the Phaedo is as complicated as that in any of Plato’s dialogues, including Symposium. Symposium’s opening has been carefully analyzed , but even though at least five book-length treatments of Phaedo have been published during the past 20 years , no thoroughgoing analysis of the opening was part of any of these works. I believe that the opening offers fascinating, even indispensable information about how to read the dialogue and also tells us important things about what Plato thought about the activity of philosophy and the subject of the dialogue, dying and the fate of the soul.
What I choose to call the “Prologue” (57a -61c) has at least three sections: the journey motifs (57a –b); the opposing theories about the relationship between pleasure and pain (58e–59b; 60b–60c); Socrates’ self-description (60d-61b). This paper concentrates on the first part. There are three (or four) of what I call “journey motifs”: Phaedo’s journey from Athens to Elis, which combines themes of homecoming and liberation; the “accidental” journey of the theoroi from Athens to Delos in Theseus’ ship to honor Apollo; Theseus’ trip from Athens to Crete and then into the Labyrinth to slay the monster Minotaur. My claim is that each of these journey motifs foreshadows key themes in the dialogue -- the fate of the soul and the nature of philosophy – and offers the reader/listener figurative templates for thinking about various aspects of both philosophy and dying. All three motifs suggest that both philosophy and dying are kinds of journeys, or are like journeys. The three templates suggest, in turn, that dying and philosophy are forms of homecoming and liberation, that they can be forms of pilgrimage that offer prayer and thanksgiving, and that they are journeys to the underworld to do battles against “monsters.” The affining of both dying and philosophy with the thematic of the journey is also an implicit rejection of the skeptical position that neither philosophy nor dying take one anywhere, that they are not journeys at all, or in any way. The multiplicity of journey templates, and the fact that all three are figures that dying and philosophy are like, and with none of which either is identical, suggest further that even though the piece clearly wants to suggest that both dying and philosophy go somewhere worthwhile, Plato understands perfectly, as Rosen among others have suggested, that humans can have no dependable knowledge about what happens to us after death. The best we humans can produce are likely stories about the fate of the soul and the value of philosophy, and the three journey motifs affirm this limitation, and begin the series of likely stories of which this dialogue is composed.

The First Journey Motif: Phaedo Heads Home

Phaedo is a dialogue that begins on the run, on the road about halfway between Athens and Phaedo’s native Elis, a city on the west coast of the Peloponnese. It also begins not only in the middle of a journey but also in media res, with a peremptory question and a reflexive pronoun: “Autos!” Inflected Greek allows this pre-positioning of the pronoun. It has the effect of stopping Phaedo’s journey by calling out to him, by challenging him: “You! – Phaedo – were you yourself present when Socrates drank that poison in the jail?” The peremptory, challenging interrogator is one Echecrates, a Pythagorean who might have migrated from Italy, and who was said to have been a student of Greece’s greatest Pythagorean, Philolaus.
We find ourselves on the road – somewhere – in an immediate, tenseless narrative present. We know from the question that Socrates must already be dead. We know who Phaedo is (because we know, or can now know, that we must be savvy Athenians who would know such a thing) – that devoted follower of Socrates. And we also know, or can be presumed to know, that Echecrates is who we just said he was. We soon learn that we are in the little city/town of Phlius. Echecrates makes clear that “no one ever goes to Athens from here anymore, and no Athenians have visited for a long time.” (Phaedo, 57a-b).
Echecrates’ peremptory question aside – we will return to it in a moment – another question hangs in the metaphoric air. What in the world are we (by “we” I mean the putative audience, both for the Phaedo-Echecrates interchange, and for the dialogue, and/or for both) doing in Phlius? Plato rarely sets his works in far-away places. The only dialogue that happens further away from Athens than Phaedo is the Laws, and Socrates is absent from this work, as are his Athenian “cronies”. Phaedo is unique in taking Socrates (or, to be more accurate, some version of Socrates) out of his home area. Theaetetus carries Socrates, in written form, to the nearby city of Megara, and Phaedrus takes him outside the city walls under the plane tree. But only in Phaedo does some iteration of Socrates venture far from Athens, farther than he ever ventured in life.
So here we are, far from Athens, and clearly far outside Athens’ sphere of influence, in a city that has no important connections with Athens, and almost no human connection with it. This setting cannot be accidental , even though Phaedo’s presence there seems like an accident. He just happens to be stopping on his way home, in one of those towns that any traveler finds on a long trip, a wide place in the road that comes along just as night is falling. Phaedo is not in Phlius to do anything. His “visit” is not really a visit at all but a stopover. We can imagine Echecrates, whose questions indicate a serious interest in Socrates and philosophy, hearing that a traveler from Athens, said to be a known close associate of Socrates, is passing through town. We can imagine Echecrates seeking Phaedo out and introducing himself. Perhaps they had mutual philosophical friends (no such person is mentioned), but they had, at any rate, a shared interest in Socrates. And we can imagine Echecrates prevailing on Phaedo to tell what he knows about the death of Socrates.
All this is plausible – but consider. The dialogue whose subject is the all-important story of what Socrates said and did during the final hours of his earthly life only happens at all because Phaedo, with other things on his mind, happens to meet up with a curious and half-informed Pythagorean in the out of the way town of Phlius. And we, whoever we are, happen, mirabile dictu, to be along for the ride! If Phaedo had arrived in Phlius earlier in the day might he have pressed on to the next town and missed Echecrates entirely? Would there have been another Echecrates in that town? What if Phaedo had decided to take a ship along the Gulf of Corinth and then out into the Ionian Sea, so that he never made landfall and never had such a conversation? What if he had met with an accident along the road and never gotten to Phlius? What if Echecrates had been out of town when Phaedo came through, or was rushed and had no time to talk? These and any number of other possible scenarios would have cancelled this fortuitous meeting, and if it had never happened would the story ever have been told? There is no way for us to tell because so far as we know that narrative, the one in which the story of Socrates’ death never gets told, or gets told differently, or by another person, does not exist. We have only this narrative in which, amidst the implicit anxiety provoked by the idea that this event need never have taken place, it does take place.
The first level of sense in Phaedo’s journey home is that journeys are inherently contingent. They need never happen, and nothing in the deep order of the world makes them happen. Once they are initiated, chance proliferates. They can go this way or that way, quickly or slowly, on track or off. Journeys are a continual temptation to divagation and happenstance. Is Plato suggesting something here about philosophy, and about dying? Is he perhaps beginning to hint that philosophy itself is an optional activity, that it might or might not be practiced, and as important, that it might or might not be remembered and preserved? Philosophy could just stop being, perhaps, if a certain man took the wrong turn on a certain day.
It might also be the same with dying. Dying as separation of soul from body seems to be just something that befalls us and over which we have no ultimate control. But if dying is conceived as a kind of journey, as a planned path one takes from one locale – this life – to another – that life – then this sort of dying, over which we do seem to be able to exercise some control (especially if we are philosophers), might, like any journey, and like philosophy itself, either happen or not.
Under this description Phaedo’s “accidental” appearance in Phlius and his “accidental” meeting with Echecrates take on a different coloring. Perhaps they might not have happened but in this narrative, which Plato creates and entirely controls, the appearance and the meeting will happen. Of course, Plato might not have written Phaedo, but this “chance” is always already obviated when we pick up a copy and begin reading. Plato did write the thing and because he wrote it Phaedo will always show up in Phlius and Echecrates will always be there to meet him. However accidental the meeting seems, its contingency is a function of the narrative, and is raised there so that we will feel some anxiety and raise the sorts of questions I just raised – if we are very careful readers.
But why Phlius? This question has not yet been answered. Aside from questions of accident and contingency there is the more pointed question of location. Could it be that Plato is sending philosophy-as-story on the road because its putative home city, Athens, is no longer fit to be its site? Could there be a trenchant political commentary here to add to the philosophical reminder about the contingency of the enterprise? Doesn’t any old town, even an obscure Phlius, “deserve” to be the site of an all-important telling of an all-important dialogue because in killing Socrates Athens orphaned philosophy, abandoned it, and in that sense set it free to wander the roads of Greece looking for a home? Is philosophy being asked to survive hand-to-mouth as a wanderer, like Eros in Symposium? And is Phlius then Anytown? Has philosophy been oddly universalized in being rejected by Athens? Is its “exile”, or voluntary departure, both a judgment on the city and an opportunity for philosophy to flourish in more salubrious climates? If, finally, philosophy might or might not have survived, it is clear that the only place it could survive was in Phlius, for which read, non-Athens.
These two ruminations on place and this dialogue also remind us that the readers/listeners are Athenians, who are still either practicing philosophy or hearing about it, in Athens, and who therefore know that philosophy still resides there in some way. Thus the exile/departure of philosophy from Athens has both happened, narratively, and not happened, because in the narrative philosophy returns to Athens in the sense that the story of its non-Athenian exile is being told in Athens, and in the second sense that the setting of the last dialogue is in Athens even if the tale itself is being told in Phlius. At the same time, this narrative Athens, the Athens of Socrates’ jail cell, has also been displaced to Phlius, so that in the end the anxiety about contingency is reborn as an anxiety about where philosophy really is, and where it belongs.
Finally, some of the listeners/readers could well be individuals who had been there in the jail on that day with Phaedo and Socrates, and whom Plato had not chosen as the one to tell this crucial tale, though he could have chosen any of the fourteen named people present. It would appear that Athens’ culpability for killing Socrates and thereby “killing” or banishing philosophy, or, alternately, for allowing it to leave (for Elis?) extended to Athenians and their near-neighbors even if those Athenians had been loyal devotees of Socrates. Apparently no one too closely affiliated with the guilty city could tell Socrates’ tale, and could certainly not tell it in Athens, which brings us to an examination of the person whom Plato did choose to tell the tale – Phaedo.
Phaedo’s displacement of philosophy from Athens and the subsequent unsettling of the question of where it is now to be found raises issues about who Phaedo might be, as well. First, we are on the road with Phaedo at all because Phaedo is not an Athenian (and how telling that Plato chose the single non-Athenian, non-close neighbor, to tell the tale!) and he has no reason to stay in Athens, because he has no reason to love Athens.
Classical sources tell us that Phaedo was born to a noble family Elis. He was taken prisoner in an obscure war that involved Athens and Elis but that was not part of the larger Peloponnesian War then raging throughout Greece. Phaedo was taken to Athens as a captive/slave and “employed” as a male prostitute, a catamite, in an Athens brothel. The story is that he heard Socrates conversing in the Athenian agora or on the street and was captured by what he heard. He began to sneak away from the brothel to become part of Socrates’ circle. Socrates was said to have noticed him and, having learned of his situation, prevailed on Crito or Alcibiades to persuade their wealthy friends to purchase Phaedo’s freedom, which was done.
After his freedom was purchased Phaedo devoted himself full-time to learning how to become a philosopher. While he lived Socrates represented freedom to Phaedo in a double sense. First in a more literal sense he owed Socrates his physical freedom. In a more figurative but powerful sense Phaedo also owed his freedom from the unwanted desires of his clients, and his own freedom from his body, to the purification that philosophy offered.
But when Athens killed his mentor Phaedo had two reasons to hate the city: it had made him a slave and it had killed his master and guide. He was neither citizen nor metic, and so when Socrates died Phaedo left. The remaining circle of philosophers left behind, of whom Plato was one, were clearly not enough to keep Phaedo in the city.
Something interesting happened. When Phaedo left the city he took someone with him. Plato imposes a heavy narrative/dramatic burden on this homeward bound ex-slave. As a prostitute he took on bodies against his will. Now, willingly, he bears another body, that of the dead Socrates, not in the form of his corpse but in the shape of his story, which Phaedo carries along with him on his journey home. Socrates is dead. His corpse, we can be sure, is buried in Athens, perhaps in the Kerameikos district on the road leading into the city. But the speaking Socrates, Socrates-as-soul, the essential Socrates, has disappeared. Perhaps his psyche has already migrated to the next world to be with the gods. Socrates cannot be found in the city that he refused to leave. But here, in Phlius, in the person of Phaedo, in Phaedo, Socrates can still be found in the world in the “person” of a nearly perfectly remembered conversation. In this remembered (re-assembled) conversation the essential, speaking Socrates can be resurrected into a timeless narrative present. Whenever Phaedo chooses to open his mouth, the missing Socrates comes back to life.
It is appropriate that Phaedo should carry Socrates, and by extension philosophy, and by further extension the death for which philosophy is said to prepare one, inside himself. Phaedo is a philosopher in training who knows enough about the activity to be able to remember what was philosophically significant in Socrates’ conversation about dying. But he is better able to carry Socrates around inside himself because, unlike his aristocratic rivals for the function, Phaedo has suffered exclusion, humiliation, imprisonment and a kind of death (being torn from his native surroundings). Even in the Socratic circle Phaedo was an inveterate outsider – a foreigner, from a faraway city, with the dubitable “pedigree” of having been what is now called a “sex worker” and a slave. He knows what it means to be marginalized, and this set of experiences affine him with a Socrates who, despite being a native Athenian and entirely loyal to his city, ended his life as a shackled convict, rejected by the laws of the city he loved so well. Phaedo the alien unfortunate is in a better existential position to preserve his master’s message than anyone else – even, ironically, the Plato who gives Phaedo the privilege of bearing this precious tale, and this precious memory. We belong in Phlius with Phaedo because Phaedo is Socrates’ most apt witness.
But not only is Phaedo the best witness because he is an outsider who has suffered unjustly. Phaedo is also the one whose departure speaks of liberation, and of something new and exciting that is happening to philosophy. As Phaedo leaves, shaking off Athenian oppression, he shatters the putative Athenian hegemony over philosophy. It is no longer an Athenian monopoly but can be made portable, and revealed to any Greek who cares enough to listen and participate, be that individual a Phliasian or an Elian. With Phaedo philosophy goes on the road, becomes broadcast, leaves the confines of that fatal jail. And with Phaedo goes Socrates. The dead Athenian master, too, goes on the road – and that is the only place where you can “see” him.
This liberating homeward journey in which Phaedo carries “Socrates” (his psyche?) around inside him as an invisible gift aligns Phaedo even more deeply with Socrates. Just as, in Symposium (215b), Alcibiades compared Socrates to a statue of Selenos that, when broken open, fell away to reveal that it hid images of the gods, so, too, is Phaedo now like Socrates/Selenos in the fact that, when he is “broken open” by Echecrates’ peremptory question, he too reveals inside himself the hidden images of the divine Socrates and his godly secret, philosophy. Phaedo has become the Socrates who is like Selenos, but the “gods” Phaedo hides are Socrates himself and his philosophical activity. Extending the likeness we can also affine Phaedo with the satyr Marsyas, cited in the same passage in Symposium. If Socrates is like Marsyas in Symposium, (216a) he is even more closely allied with music and enchantment in Phaedo (61e, 77e, 84d – 85b, 114d). In Phaedo Socrates soothes the childish fears of death, represented by the female vampire figure of Mormolykeia (also known as Lamia) by “singing” consoling if less-than-perfect arguments about the soul’s immortality. Phaedo, in replicating these same consoling arguments in Socrates’ voice, also becomes Marysas, “singing” his master’s song and enchanting audiences all over Greece.
We can maintain a connection with Symposium by suggesting, further, that Phaedo’s trip away from Athens, carrying Socrates as a hidden god and a song, is also readable as Phaedo carrying the “verbal child” that Diotima identified as the proper issue of a philosophical union/marriage. (209 b-e) Phaedo is “pregnant” with the story of Socrates’ death: ironically, he can keep giving birth to the death narrative and to the dead Socrates, who is now not only an image of the gods but a kind of philosophical newborn.
A final way to characterize Phaedo and the “things he carries” is that he is also like a living sarcophagus, or “flesh-eater”. He has “eaten” (taken in, remembered) or introjected the all-important final conversation about death, and when his “lid” (his mouth?) is opened by the right questions he disgorges, or less colorfully, he reveals, the Socratic “remains”, the last conversation that has now become the lasting substitute for Socrates’ body and has in effect become that body.
The outcast ex-slave is freeing himself from his Athenian imprisonment and taking with him, also away from its Athenian imprisonment, the “body” of Socrates, the tale of his death and transfiguration, which has also now been liberated from its “body”, the Athenian prison, and which has now perhaps become not Socrates’ body but an earthly version of his soul. This body – the body of the remembered discourse – now become a “soul” – the invisible essence of the conversation – is also, like Phaedo, going “home”. Its “home” is now wherever Phaedo is asked the right question. Socrates’ last conversation, and philosophy, which it embodies, has become a “moveable feast”, free from Athenian constraints and at home anywhere and everywhere men have ears, and Phaedo has the leisure to speak.
This reflection brings us to the last thing we need to say about the first journey motif. How did this tale told on the road (we have no idea how many times, or in how many places, by the way) far from Athens and in a town (or towns) Athenians never visit, and from which no visitors come to Athens, make its own journey of “homecoming” back to the Athens from which it had been expelled, and from which it had fled? As far as we know Phaedo went to Elis, became a philosopher, wrote dialogues (mimicking Plato rather than Socrates!) and never returned to Athens. There is nothing in the set-up of the dialogue to indicate that he was the source of the conversation replicated in the piece. Nor do we hear that some philosophically adept and interested Phliasian came up to Athens and repeated this story. In any event, why would a Phliasian bother to carry such coals to an ancient Newcastle? Socrates died in Athens with plenty of witnesses and the last thing these witnesses needed was a second-hand rehearsal of events with which they were already familiar. Traveling to Athens to tell Athenians what had happened there makes no sense.
At the same time there is also no record of an Athenian accompanying Phaedo just as far as Phlius and then turning around and going back to Athens to retell the tale. We certainly have no indication that Plato himself ever traveled to such an unlikely place. And again, there would be plenty of Athenians who could tell the tale just as fully, and so Phaedo’s version of it would not be required.
All these considerations make clear that there were no Athenian witnesses to the event (our “presence” then, as auditors of Phaedo’s performance, becomes entirely mysterious) and no reason for a Phliasian to bear the tale back to Athens. We know that Phaedo never returned. Then, how did we get this tale that begins in media res? The “secret” is that this tale could never have made the journey from Phlius to Athens. There is no doubt that Phaedo left Athens and went home. We have no idea what he did or did not do on the way. But such considerations are irrelevant. What matters is that we have this “report”, this “retelling”, which is clearly a useful fiction. This tale of Phaedo’s wonderful journey home, the tale of his retelling of his tale, the marvelous resurrection of Socrates on the road – it is all just that, a tale, a mythos, a likely story, perhaps an Aesopian fable or cautionary tale.
What does this final caveat make clear? It makes clear that the set-up, the characters, the site, the entire frame are a product of art and not of nature. If there were ever a clearer demonstration of the operation of the principle of “logographic necessity”, that Socrates attributes to well-made writing in Phaedrus this is it. Since this event – Phaedo’s performance of Socrates’ final conversation – could not be have happened or, if it had, could not have been known as directly as the form of the piece implies, we have perfect knowledge that this work is perfectly crafted in the most plausible possible way. The dialogue never did make its journey back to Athens because Plato crafted it entirely in Athens, and putting it on the road must then be a fully self-conscious strategy that gives us warrant for just the sort of overdetermined hermeneutic frenzy that I have just elaborated on it.
There is something else, something more still, to say about this first journey motif. If this is a carefully crafted tale, essentially a piece of fiction designed to tell us the meaning of Socrates’ death, and the significance of both death and philosophy, then why not just get on with the job? Is it economical, aesthetically or philosophically, to delay the conversation itself, and to interpose these motifs, which establish allusive connections between doing philosophy, and dying, and taking journeys? If my read is reasonable at all what Plato is telling us very early in the piece is that doing philosophy, or dying, is like going on a journey home, like being liberated, and that Phaedo is like Socrates, who is like Selenos and Marsyas, just as this reproduced conversation is like an immediate report of something we are directly witnessing. Nothing in this Prologue is anything; there are only likenesses and no identities.
Perhaps we are being introduced to an idea about philosophy: perhaps it can only tell of likenesses, not of identities, even though its longing is to speak of identities. Perhaps it has to keep deferring its explanations along a line a likenesses that is forever receding, because in the face of the question of the soul’s fate philosophy cannot become “metaphysics of presence” . We are being reminded by these motifs and deferrals that philosophy – and Socrates – are both always on a journey homeward, a journey to name Being, but a journey that, at least in this world, always asymptotically approaches home, and perfect liberation, without ever getting there.

The Second Journey Motif: The Voyage to Delos
The second journey that interposes between the reader/listener and the performance of Socrates’ final conversation is the one that “accidentally” deferred Socrates’ execution and therefore made the long final conversation possible. If Phaedo’s journey home was the occasion for the unveiling of the tale, the voyage to Delos is the journey that gave Phaedo a tale to carry home. When Echecrates asks why the execution was delayed so long, Phaedo tells him that it “just happened” (Phaedo, xx-yy) that the priests crowned the prow of Theseus’ ship with a wreath the day before Socrates’ trial. Phaedo explains what this means because this festival might not have been known to a non-Athenian like Echecrates even though the event that it commemorates, Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur, would be well known.
The festival commemorates the assistance that Apollo was said to have given Theseus when he went to Crete to battle the Minotaur. During the time that the ship was en route to Delos, Apollo’s birthplace and the most important religious site in Greece, and on its way home, the city could not pollute itself with executions. Delos lies in the Cycladic island group southeast of Athens. Adverse winds and rough seas could lengthen such a voyage considerably, and Socrates was given the “gift” of this extra time to interpret his dreams, and to versify a hymn to Apollo and some of Aesop’s fables. (Phaedo 61b) It also gave him the “leisure” to lead a lengthy final conversation unpressured by anyone more powerful than his jailer.
The first thing that strikes one, before we address the substance of the journey, is the note of chance that reminds one of the apparent contingency of Phaedo’s performance of the body of the dialogue. Now we hear, explicitly, that the temporal respite that made the dialogue possible at all was also a function of sheer coincidence, thereby redoubling the anxiety: not only might Phaedo never have told his tale, but there might never have been a tale to tell, barring the happy accident that led to the co-incidence of the festival and the trial. The dialogue is doubly contingent.
If we revert to our earlier remarks about logographic necessity the situation becomes more complex and more interesting. On one level there is no question but that there really was such an Apollo festival and that it really did happen just before Socrates’ trial. But in a piece so carefully crafted as this, the fact that Phaedo opens his remarks on this festival with the phrase “It just happened” did not just happen. Plato made that happen, and he introduced, or privileged, this coincidence so he could make something out of it.
What does he make of it? The first thing to note is that there seems nothing chancy, in a religious or spiritual sense, about the coincidence. The festival honors Apollo and Apollo had always been Socrates’ special patron. Apollo gave Socrates’ his philosophical mission – or at least the elenchic elements of it – when the Delphic Oracle, which operated under his direct protection, under his temple at Delphi, announced that Socrates’ was the world’s wisest man. (Apology, 21a) Socrates’ career as a philosopher was thus sanctioned and launched by Apollo’s oracle, the very same Apollo whose hymn we find Socrates reworking in the Phaedo. It is fitting that his temporary reprieve from death, at the very end of his philosophical career, be made possible by the god whose pronouncements began that career. Apollo, it appears, is protecting his philosopher one last time.
But this festival is not supposed to have any reference to Socrates, nor to Delphi and its oracle. The festival involves a trip to Delos, Apollo’s alleged birthplace that he turned from desert to garden. Delphi lies north and west of Athens. Delos lies south and east. Athens stands on the center point of an axis that passes from Delphi to Delos, Apollo’s two earthly homes. So the two Apollonian sites sketch out a world that includes Athens at its center. At one extreme is the place where Socrates’ career began; at the other extreme lies Delos, where, putatively, Socrates has never been. Would it be asking too much of the reader to suggest that this dialogue itself, the “body” of Socrates, or the body of his last conversation, might be one of the gifts of thanksgiving that
Theseus’ ship is bearing to Delos? Might the priests and functionaries be carrying more than a tribute having to do with Theseus? And mightn’t this soften the raw irony of Socrates’ life being spared temporarily by a festival that putatively honors Apollo, and yet that happens as Athens rudely dishonors the god by condemning one of his favorites to death? Mightn’t this whole festival have been narratively hijacked by Plato and transformed into a sacred pilgrimage to Delos honoring Apollo, with Socrates’ last conversation, for all he has done, not for Theseus, but for Socrates?
If we allow ourselves to read Phaedo in this way could we extend our fancy and suggest that the gifts the priests are bearing to Delos, unknown to them, are not only Socrates’ last words but his entire life and work, his philosophical activity, and his dying itself, done in such a way as to honor the god? And is Socrates’ work as a philosopher a gift precisely because he always moved toward the gods, trying to know things as they know them, but always without deceiving himself that he could ever know what the gods know? And doesn’t the manner of his dying reveal that he knows, as he says in the discussion on suicide (Phaedo 61d -63a) that he belongs to the gods, and that he sees philosophy, and right dying, as two interdependent way of drawing closer to them? Is the dialogue itself, and his philosophy as a whole, as well as his dying, taken together a kind of hymn to the god, perhaps the very hymn that he is setting to verse later in the piece? (Phaedo 61b)
Read in this way the dialogue becomes a figure for a pilgrimage towards the god. As we proceed through the arguments and stories that make it up, we are perhaps showing respect to the god but also coming closer to him and to his realm in the other world. Philosophy then can be seen as both the way to the god and as an offering to him.
We refer back now to the first journey motif. If philosophy and dying are both journeys home and journeys of liberation they now reveal themselves, through the second journey motif, as forms of pilgrimage and prayer. Philosophy is both lyrically self-creating and religious, homecoming and pilgrimage.

The Third Journey: Theseus and the Minotaur

Now we arrive at the last and most complicated journey motif, the one “hidden” deepest inside the dialogue, imbedded both temporally and spatially inside the Phaedo journey and the Delos journey. When Echecrates asked what the ship sailing to Delos signified, Phaedo answered that it was the very same ship that Theseus sailed to Crete with the twice seven maidens and young men. (Phaedo, 58 b) Phaedo does not go into any detail about the story, presumably because it is sufficiently well known outside Athens that, unlike the Apollo festival, it required no elaboration. But we, as Athenians, are intimately familiar with all the details of the story (there are many!), and as we will see, in this case it is the details that matter, and that have been universally neglected in all the commentaries.
This last, epic motif is based on the familiar story about Theseus of Athens who accompanies fourteen young Athenians who must be sent each year as tribute to King Minos of Crete. Their fate is to provide food for the terrible monster, the Minotaur, product of the unnatural lust that Minos' wife Pasiphae felt for a bull who was, some say, a god in disguise. When Pasiphae bore the half-human, half-bull monster, Minos imprisoned it in the Labyrinth, a maze crafted by the master inventor/craftsman Daedalus, who was at that time in exile from Athens. The fourteen hapless young Athenians would be let loose into the Labyrinth. They would all be hunted down, killed and eaten by the monster, who would thereby sustain himself.
Theseus' journey is clearly a hero's quest. He goes to Crete expressly to slay the Minotaur, at the risk of his own life. Theseus introduces a whole set of new themes and ideas into the dialogue. He is a great hero, and heroes are people who go on dangerous quests. His journey is not as indeterminate as a homecoming or a fleeing from slavery; Theseus has a job -- to kill the Minotaur. As a hero Theseus also does something specifically heroic: he battles monsters. Monsters are a proper object of attention for heroes because heroes, like the monsters they battle, are marginal humans. If monsters stand on the unclear border between animality and humanity, between bestiality and culture, heroes generally have a strong dose of divine ancestry. Either a parent or a grandparent was a god. In Theseus’ case, myth provides him with both a divine and a human father, Poseidon and Aegeus. Heroes therefore exist at the upper register and limit of human being and are never entirely human. They demonstrate this in more than one way, but one of the ways is to encounter and overcome a variety of monsters.
Monsters stand at the opposite register from heroes. Rather than having divine parents or grandparents monsters are defined by their changeling status: they are part animal, part human. Thus, heroes occupy one margin of the human type, and monsters occupy the other, lower boundary between the human and the animal. But note that both heroes and monsters are marginal figures who are half-human, half something else, unstable composites of two opposing orders of nature and each, therefore, somewhat unnatural.
In any event Theseus does what heroes do. He enters the maze of the Labyrinth, find and kills the Minotaur, in the darkness of this man-created “underworld”, and escapes by retracing his steps using the thread that Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, provides him.
Is Socrates Theseus as well as being Phaedo and a priest of Apollo? Is Socrates a hero? In the dialogue he explicitly likens himself and Phaedo, in an ironic sense, to Herakles and Iolaus, and says that as these figures they will not let the arguments for the immortality of the soul “die”, and that they will defeat the anti-immortality arguments that Simmias and Cebes have advanced. (Phaedo, 89 b-c). The specific reference he is making is to the time when Herakles battled another monster, the Lernaean Hydra. As he was fighting this multi-headed being, the crab, Cancer, was attacking him from the rear. Iolaus helped him at this point, saving Herakles by dividing the labor of fighting two monsters/animals at once. So, Socrates aligns himself with heroes who battle monsters.
It is not surprising then that scholars such as Dorter have linked Socrates with Theseus on this basis, but again most commentators fail to make much out of this affinity. The first question is: what kind of monsters does Socrates have to fight, and how are they like and unlike the Minotaur? Second, if we can establish that Socrates sees himself as fighting monsters, and also sees philosophy as a battle against them, and also suggest that he sees dying as a kind of battle against fear and skepticism, then in establishing Socrates as a kind of hero and therefore like Theseus we can begin to ally him with Theseus who was, after all, once Athens’ king and a great Athenian figure?
The first of these "monsters" is Mormolykeia, the "bogeyman" of death, or of men's fear of death, against whom Socrates must cast charms and enchantments to soothe the child-like fears of his interlocutors. (Phaedo, 77 d–e) Interestingly, however, Socrates does not use heroic language in talking about dealing with Mormolykeia. Rather than killing the fear of death in men, or using martial metaphors to discuss it, Socrates says that he will enchant it away, sing it out of existence with endless reassurances, which might take the form of myths (likely and consoling stories about the afterlife), or poems, or of arguments that are like poems and stories in that they might not stand up to rigorous logical examination but that might console those afflicted with fear, even if they do not fully convince some people. If Socrates is to be seen as a hero, and if philosophy is to be more than the singing of consoling songs, or the weaving of soothing verbal spells, he must face more substantial opponents than the “mere” fear of death.
Indeed the “monster” Socrates must fight as if he were Herakles or Theseus is more like the Minotaur, more of a true monster, then Mormolykeia. The true enemy is Misology, which Socrates describes at length (Phaedo, 89d – 90e) Misology is defined as “hating argument” (Phaedo, 89d), and, says Socrates, “no worse evil can happen to a man” (Phaedo, 89d), than this. The reason misology is so baneful is that it consists in losing faith in arguments, or explanations, because one has used one’s reasoning powers to discern that some arguments are undependable. They seem true sometimes, but then prove false at other times. Misology is a monster because it is an unnatural hybrid between something more human, the ability to make arguments, and something less than human, an unsound or under-developed spiritual condition that makes men incapable of learning the right method of making sound arguments. It is misology, the rejection of the idea that there are any sound arguments that Socrates must fight.
He needs two things. First he needs Phaedo to cover him as Iolaus covered Herakles in the battle with the Hydra and the crab. Socrates, like Herakles, faces two opponents at once – Simmias’ harmony argument and Cebes’ “old coat” argument – both of which Socrates must be reading not as free-standing objections to the claim that the soul is immortal, but as rejections of the soundness of the arguments for immortality that he has thus far advanced. Defeating these arguments will require not only showing that they fail as arguments but much more importantly that there is a rational method of constructing arguments that will show up their insufficiencies.
Phaedo does not literally “cover” Socrates because it is Socrates who copes with both arguments. But Phaedo is Socrates’ Iolaus in a narrative sense, in that he carries on Socrates’ mission against misology after Socrates is unable to do so. This close identification between Phaedo/Iolaus and Socrates/Herakles/Theseus reinforces the identification I urged in interpreting the first journey motif.
Second Socrates needs a weapon to fight misology. Theseus had two; the sword Ariadne gave him and the thread that she had him tie to a pillar outside the Labyrinth. Socrates has his method of argument, given to him in Symposium by his Ariadne, Diotima. Socrates will use this method, dialectic, or logos, or whatever we need to call it, to kill misology and then to safely weave his way back out of the labyrinthine traps it lays for the unwary. One way to see the dialogue is as itself a labyrinth, a set of dark passages through which Socrates wends his sure way using his “thread”, the logos.
So, we can say that Socrates has journeyed into the labyrinth of arguments against the immortality of the soul and into the labyrinth of skepticism that espouses the position that because one argument failed, all must necessarily fail. If this self-contradictory stance convinces anyone, they will suffer a true death because misology makes thought impossible and belief untenable. It is this that the dialogue sees as the genuine enemy. Fear of death can be quieted by an array of arguments, stories and examples from life. But this fear will be unchecked if the people to whom Socrates is singing do not believe the arguments he advances and the tales he tells because they are misologists. So misology more than fear of death must be attacked and slain, as it metaphorically is, not by any single argument in the dialogue but by the total ensemble of arguments, tales and examples.
Fighting monsters, whether physical or logical, allies Socrates with Theseus. But is there a further political subtext here as well, once the identification has been made? Theseus is Athens’ greatest hero. He was a king of the city and fought off many enemies, including the Amazons, and it was said that his spirit appeared to rally the Athenian forces during the Persian invasion, at the battle of Marathon. His bones, a huge skeleton, were found in Scyros, where he died, and brought back to Athens, where their tomb became a refuge for outcasts, a protection for the otherwise unprotected. Finally, Theseus was treacherously driven from power and into exile. He was then, as treacherously, murdered by his supposed host, the king of Scyros.
Is Plato making the outrageous suggestion that the dead Socrates should now be elevated to a status equal to that of Theseus? Is he proposing that Socrates, in his own way, was a kind of philosopher-king of the city, protecting it, not from weapons-wielding physical enemies but from more subtle spiritual and conceptual foes? Does he also mean us to remember that Theseus, too, was rejected by the city he led, that he was exiled, and that his exile led to his murder/execution? Is Plato suggesting that the rejected and “murdered” “hero”, Socrates, should be, or someday will be, rehabilitated as an Athenian hero? And his bones be memorialized as a refuge for outcasts (such as, perhaps, Phaedo?) Or is Plato proposing something even more outrageous, that Socrates’ “bones”, and his monument as well, are precisely these dialogues, that also serve as a refuge for outcasts, a safe haven from the ravages of an untrustworthy city? We cannot say that Plato intended any of these outrageous comparisons, but it is clear that a case can be made that in Phaedo Socrates and Theseus have an interesting, even provocative, connection.

The Three Journeys: Some Tentative Conclusions:
Here then we see philosophy as a kind of combat, a battle against misology, and a journey into the heart of the enemy. If we graft this set of images on to the others we have already accumulated we see three journey motifs: the lyrical personal journey home that is also a journey of liberation from a form of enslavement, a journey in which one carries a gift inside one, in Phaedo's case the gift of Socrates, in Socrates' case the gift of his vision and practice. Under this rubric both death and philosophy are also foreshadowed as kinds of journeys home and as practices of liberation. Second, in the journey to Delos, death and philosophy are also represented as journeys to the gods, to pay homage to them, and to return to them, as well. This is the sacred motif, in which the business of dying and practice of philosophy are both forms of prayer and pilgrimage. Finally, the journey of death and philosophy are also hero quests in which an enemy has to be found and overcome, or else neither death nor philosophy can survive. In this case the two "monsters" to be slain could be the fear of death and misology, but misology, as we have argued above, is by far the strongest candidate.
Lyric, sacred and epic -- three kinds of journeys, three reads on the role and meaning of death and of philosophy, and only two of the journeys, that of Theseus and that of the priests to Delos, have been completed when the dialogue takes place. Phaedo's journey home, his homecoming and liberation, are still in suspense even though misology has been slain and the gods are satisfied. Phaedo is still en route, and the suggestion is that Socrates too, as well as philosophy and death, are also not quite home yet. I mean that in Phaedo there is no final resolution to the question of dying, and the efficacy of philosophy is still in suspense, although one could make a strong case that the manner of Socrates’ dying existentially vindicates both dying and philosophy.
This reading instruction or context setting tells us that both death and philosophy can be understood as kinds of journeys and that in this respect they parallel each other. When Socrates says in Phaedo that philosophy is a preparation for death he means it, in the sense that philosophy properly conducted leads us "home" not to a site in this world but to Ideas that exist somewhere other than this world. Philosophy tends to take one away from the immediate, from the extraordinarily strong pull of the body's desires and the allure of perception, to a world of pure thoughts and deathless ideas. Even if the soul cannot see these things clearly from the perspective of this world, it knows these things are real, and seems to derive some benefits from affining itself with them, whatever they are -- and what they are, we must admit it, is never very clear, in Phaedo or in any other of Plato's dialogues. But lack of clarity, either in Plato's presentation or in the sort of knowledge humans can have in this world, does not mean that Plato ever doubted that whatever these things are, they are real, and a fitting "home" for the human soul.
This affinity is much more pronounced as death approaches because death draws one away from the body even as it reasserts the centrality of the body for most people. I mean that for Plato dying is about getting closer to whatever these things are because one is departing this confusing, intoxicating world for another in which everything will be clearer, if one has lived the right way. And the means of departure is death. But as Socrates says we have to learn how to die because the mere act of dying is not the entrance into a world of pure objects that nurture the longings of the soul. It can be the entrance to a nightmare world of half-existence in which one, dead, longs for the very things, the desires and perceptions that kept one's soul from achieving itself in life. And what is most peculiar is that it is the soul itself, which seems made to know and bask in the higher things, that has a deep hunger for the lower things.
If one does not live the right sort of life -- and to read this piece one is convinced that Plato believed that most people did not lead this life -- one will end up another sort of monster, half-alive, half-dead, hovering on the margin between the two conditions, never properly attached to earthly life or liberated from it, caught in the labyrinth created by one's own unnatural desires.
So, both philosophy and death, in Phaedo, liberate the soul to know higher things. Here, however, death is also a quest and a contest, as is philosophy, to overcome the fear of it and a misunderstanding of it. Misology is a danger around the issue of death in particular because it is in the face of the terrible pressure of death that people tend to become misologists. So much depends on trying to prove that one does not really die that people can become hypercritical in the face of this pressure and if arguments manifest flaws, which they must do in the face of death, whose other side remains unknown, people tend to lose all faith in argument when what is really happening is that arguers are marshalling the best evidence and reasons for believing in immortality, and these reasons and this evidence might not be very good. But losing all faith in arguments because they cannot prove what cannot, in this life, be proven, is a large mistake. One cannot expect more from arguments than they can reasonably give, and so in facing death we must make a journey into the heart of the way arguments get made and vindicate the process in all its limited glory.
Thus the rich tapestry of the journey motifs that are suggested in the opening sentences of the Phaedo. What they collectively suggest is something radical and important – namely that both dying and philosophy are, genuinely, forms of passage, journeys, rather than dead ends. And perhaps even more radically Plato seems to be suggesting that even though there is a religious component to doing philosophy, the passage that philosophy makes beyond dying, the way it transforms death from something that we suffer to something whose meaning we create, is the nub of what make makes being a philosopher worth the effort. Philosophy transfigures death, without godly intervention – which does not mean that we cannot then honor the gods for giving us the nous to achieve our own deaths.
The best instruction about how to read and appreciate these three suggestive motifs, none of which is identical to the other and none of which reduces to any of the others, is to re-read what Simmias says about achieving truth in these matters. After Socrates has presented his first set of arguments for the immortality of the soul, Simmias states that (Phaedo, 85 c-d) when one is faced with such questions as the fate of the soul, which he thinks that it is all but impossible to answer in this world, (Phaedo, 86c) one has only two recourses. As he puts the matter: (Phaedo, 86d)
For he must do one of two things: either he must find out
or discover the truth about these things, or he must take whatever
human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking on it
as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers.

We could read this passage as a striking, lyrically powerful version of a Socratic commonplace, namely that the arguments and positions we ought to accept, as philosophers, are only those that stand up to the most relentless testing. This is the way of the elenchus. But is this what Simmias means in this case? Recall that he has already admitted that such questions as the fate of the soul are all but impossible to answer. So it is not as if he were relying on the elenchus to produce a deductively impeccable argument. What he must be looking for is an argument or arguments that stand up best against attack, not at perfect or wholly conclusive arguments. And in the case of answering a question nearly impossible to answer the arguments might not be very strong at all and might not, strictly speaking, be arguments in the ordinary sense at all. These logoi might, instead, represent an array, a family, in Wittgenstein’s sense, of stories, themes, locales, poems, myths, plausible and consoling fictions, and relatively weak arguments from analogy, or arguments based on debatable hypotheses – which is exactly what one gets in Phaedo. Just as Simmias himself employs an analogical figure (the raft) and a metaphor (life is a stormy sea) to weave a dramatic cautionary tale (one must cling to the best “raft” in life’s stormy sea) to gesture toward, but certainly not to prove, the difficulty of answering the question about the fate of the soul, so he, and by extension Plato, might be endorsing just such an assembly of strategies as legitimate components of a philosophical practice that must persuade a variety of different people about an issue about which no one, including Socrates, can have certainty.
The point is reinforced when, after Simmias and Cebes present their arguments against the immortality of the soul, Phaedo breaks off his performance and shares with Echecrates that the company in the jail were all thrown into a state of anxiety because they had all been persuaded by the first wave of Socrates’ pro-immortality arguments. Now, equally persuaded by the counter-arguments, they did not know what to believe. Echecrates allows that he shared the same feelings. (Phaedo, 88c)
The point here is not that the assembled devotees lose faith but rather that in this matter of the soul no arguments are conclusive, and many are alluring. Plato’s point is that this lack of certainty cannot lead us to lose faith in argument itself and become misologists. Uncertainty must drive us in the other direction, to look for that techné of logoi, the craft of argument making that will best answer the difficult questions philosophy, and life, pose. It is never clear in Phaedo whether Plato believes he has achieved this techné, but what is clear, and is illustrated in the three journey motifs we have analyzed, is that when questions cannot yield certainty every linguistic and conceptual resource can and must be enlisted in assembling the most plausible and persuasive picture of a truth we might not, in this life, ever be able to attain in its unvarnished form. The three journey motifs are, I believe, important parts of that plausible picture.


Death, Lives and video Streams

Death, Lives and Video Streams

Professor Kevin D. O’Neill
University of Redlands
Redlands. California

Running Head: Death Lives

Kevin O’Neill is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Redlands who has
published and presented papers on representations of death from ancient Greece to 21st century America. He has also written about, and participated in, experimental higher education and interdisciplinary studies and done work in adult education.
Kevin O’Neill
6200 Del Valle Drive
Los Angeles CA 90048

Death, Lives and Video Streams

This paper discusses two topics. First, it presents an analysis of the canonical funerary corpse prepared by morticians and discusses how this corpse serves two functions. It tames death by reappropriating the corpse for culture, and it serves as a focus for two kinds of memories: the individual/psychological and the essential/Platonic. But since the mortuary corpse has limits -- it can only help us to remember and offers no information about the afterlife. American culture has supplemented both this corpse and traditional religious accounts with many new forms of immortality, one of which is the second topic of this paper. One of the most interesting is that offered by the Cassity brothers at their Forever cemeteries. There one can ‘live’ on forever in a professionally produced filmed biography that is always available as streaming online video. This new option offers a needed supplement to the memory-bound corpse because the newly immortal filmed individual has the possibility for a post mortem career as a video entity.

In the long run, metaphysics does itself no good
in scorning its own physics.
(Debray, 2001)

The American corpse has a fixed look and a stable identity. It is an icon created by the funeral industry with the complicity of a public that wants its dead to assume a canonical, consoling form. This iconic corpse appears timeless and at peace. It rests without moving in its perfectly fitted casket. It lies face up, hands folded on the lower abdomen. Catholic corpses often have rosary beads twined around their fingers. Protestants sometimes “hold” Bibles. Each corpse is dressed up. Its hair is meticulously combed and its face carefully composed. The eyes are sealed shut, the cheeks built out with special lifts, the lips sewn closed, the rictus of death flattened into a noncommittal line. The face is tilted up slightly so the skin of the neck does not wrinkle or gather, and inside the casket there is a slight elevation up and to the right so that the corpse presents itself more clearly, not sunk too far into the plush fabric that lines the casket. The corpse’s face is made up using special cosmetics. The casket is open so that the corpse’s legs below the waist are not visible.
If the casket is closed everyone present knows how it would look were the casket open. We know that the corpse is dressed in a suit or dress [or however deemed appropriate] and is embalmed and properly arranged. Were we to open the casket we would see the expected object looking its expected way.
Increasing numbers of Americans are being cremated. But even the corpses that disappear into the furnace, even those whose only “appearance” is at a memorial service still pass under the control of professional morticians. The standard funeral, and the mortuary corpse displayed in its casket, remain the type and this “specter” haunts every memorial service. (Habenstein and Lamers, 1990, Laderman, 2003).
This iconic corpse preparation is a response to a fundamental fact that is a challenge: human beings die, and when they die they leave behind corpses. Aries (1980), argues that death presents a challenge to human culture. Death is a “natural kind” (Quine, 1969.) This means that the dead body occurs without reference to cultural encoding. Death happens whether we want it to or not, and we are compelled to provide am meaning for it. It erupts into ordered life and takes whomever it “chooses”, whenever it chooses. Because of this transgressive and disruptive quality, death has to be tamed. Death is wild. (Aries, 1980). And this is a major source of the impulse to create civilizations, city walls and laws. Death must be contained, its lack of meaning remade into significance. Taming death takes many forms. One form is the honorific regard most cultures give to corpses. The American funerary corpse represents such an investment in social order.
In this essay I will accomplish two things. First, I offer an analysis of the taming of death the iconic American copse accomplishes. Second, I note its limitations and present an analysis of a “supplement”, the video corpse, which compensates for the iconic corpse’s shortcomings in a way that replaces or supplement traditional religious narratives. This re-imagining of the afterlife of the dead exploits the representational techniques offered by film, sound recording, and the Internet, but does so in a way that keeps the corpse under the control of funeral professionals and builds a conceptual and emotional bridge between the mortuary corpse and its cinematic iterations.

The Tamed Corpse: Icon of Memory

Is the sword of biological death so sharp
That there is no lingering association between corpse and
(Harrison, 2003, p. 143)

Corpses earn respect because on one hand they are so “short-lived” and at the same time represent a terrible challenge and unsolvable metaphysical conundrum. In the western tradition, when corpses disappear into the ground or vault, they take with them some of our deepest hopes and unanswered questions. The person, now dead, was just conscious, like us. It possessed agency, intention, motives, memory, the capacity to respond, the ability to help or harm. It is often the corpse of someone we loved. Now it seems to have none of its former characteristics. And yet it still looks like the person who it just was
Yet, almost immediately (Nuland, 2000), we know that this is not our beloved but a dead body. The question is – where did all this – the agency, intention, responsiveness, the indefinable something more, -- go ? Is there a place where we can look for it and have a hope of finding it? Or is it just lost? Does it, like the attunement of Simmias’ lyre (Plato, trans. 1999), dissipate when death comes? And if it is lost then are we lost as well?
The agonizing difficulty here is that the only site that we know to look for whatever is lost is the body from which whatever it is, is lost . Western religious traditions would have us look to another world, but that world is frustratingly invisible, and we are left with nothing but the dead body. But that body is the last place where we can hope to find what is lost. It is what it is because whatever made it a person has departed or dissipated, and is deconstructing itself according to well-known physical principles. This unaltered dead body epitomizes Nature’s wildness. It is no longer an expression of anything that belongs to human culture and human expectation. Martin Heidegger (1962) captured this frustration when he wrote, that an individual’s death represents the “impossibility of possibility”. (p.307). A dead person, the corpse, no longer has possibilities. In a culture in which a person’s possibilities count for everything, Heidegger’s characterization captures our problem: what looks like a person, is not any sort of person at all, but the mere appearance of one.
What do we do with this disappointing thing that looks exactly like who the person just was and which can do nothing that persons do? We can reclaim the body for culture, and soften the terrible loss we feel, by making it into what it is not, by “remastering” it as an image of what it cannot be, the once living person. This is what the American funeral industry largely exists to do: to create “memory pictures” (Laderman, 2003 ) of the once living in the form of the mortuary corpse.
Transforming the dead body into an apparently stable and timeless mortuary corpse temporarily tames death by reclaiming the corpse from its otherness, in which it is subject to the laws of decay, and turning it into a site for memories and even future expectations.
This transformation requires a major cultural intervention. The corpse has to be remade from a natural object into a cultural object. It has to be turned from itself into an image of itself. But this image is not exactly of itself as corpse, but of the person, that the corpse no longer is. This is possible because, as Harrison (2003) says the corpse retains some ontological “residue” of the once living person
Making the corpse cultural entails, in standard American funeral practice, that it be embalmed, This treatment insures that even after the corpse is committed to the earth Nature cannot soon take over immediately because the dressed up body in its steel or wood casket, inserted into a concrete vault is temporarily impermeable to natural processes. It is as if, in defiance of the reality that the dead body represents, we insert, into the earth an indigestible cultural object that still looks like the person and the cultural agent that it can no longer be. “We” go into the ground as defiant repudiations of the reality of decay.
This mortuary corpse, prepared as a performance piece by the funeral director is intended to accomplish this ontological sleight of hand by serving as a site for memory of two kinds. First, the prepared corpse, which is remade to look as much as possible like the living individual reminds us of the particularities of the dead person’s life. A corpse that looks “just like” Helen implicitly contests the corpse’s natural tendency to look less and less like Helen as time goes on. It offers a culturally controlled “portrait” or stable image of Helen inscribed directly on Helen’s recalcitrant body. We can then use this fixed image of Helen as she was in life to do what the unreconstructed corpse forbade us to do. We can “find” Helen in the site from which she has departed. The mortician’s arts have paradoxically returned the “living” Helen from her lostness, made her available, not as literal presence, but as image. Morticians cannot bring back the dead. They are not necromancers. But they can reimagine, or literally re-image the dead on the surface of bodies. In doing this they allow us, who loved or cared for Helen, to know her again as a living presence, at least in image and memory.
What we see and remember is a psychological portrait, a representation of Helen in her individuality and privacy. We remember quirky things about Helen, and things she and we did together. In this sense, Helen-as-corpse is like a snapshot, a fragile and fragmented memento mori whose private particularity, whose existential singleness, is here touchingly invoked.
In this sense, the American mortuary corpse honors and ritualizes the modern, secular subject (Foltyn, 1996) the very person whose death so many pundits (e.g., Mitford, 1963; Heinz, 1999) have dismissed as an empty commercialized show. On this level the corpse produced by the funeral industry seems to “work”. Evidence for this is the fact that this corpse has persisted past the criticisms leveled at it from Mitford’s attack to those of the death awareness movement. (Webb, 1997; Kubler-Ross, 1969)
On a second level the funerary corpse provokes a different mode of memory that addresses the metaphysical question of where the person in the corpse, the ‘ghost in the machine’ (Ryle, 1949) “goes.” The funerary corpse, in its putative changelessness, is meant to reveal something more than the historical individual, namely that person as invisible, the essential person of whom the body, while living, was merely an envelope. It reminds us that the embalmed body bodies forth the inner and mysterious invisibility of the Soul that Plato introduced into Western consciousness and that have never left our cultural imaginary.
Just as post mortem photography in the 19th century was touted as a revelation of the true inner person – an idea that Nathaniel Hawthorne used in The House of the Seven Gables (Hawthorne, 1851)- so the funerary arts purport to manufacture a corpse that mysteriously unmasks who Helen really was (Laderman, 2003; Laderman,1998). Whatever it is that “passed” or “departed” still lingers with the corpse and can be gestured toward, by the right embalming job, which draws this hidden essence out of the body’s recesses and makes it visible, just as the soul was visible in the live Helen.
The great virtue and also the inherent metaphysical limitation of the funerary art is that it captures this Platonic identity, the hidden core of a person, as well as the historical individual whom that soul enlivened, but does so only in the register of memory. It allows those left behind to re-call (call back, re-invoke) the Soul that is now departed, and to re-member (or re-assemble) it, but nothing about the mortuary arts has power to help that Soul toward its new life, or to connect the living with that still-living Essence. The representation of the soul remains a representation. Morticians practice a metaphysics of absence, or, of provisional, representational presence, not one of presence. There is always already a Derridean slippage (Derrida, 1974) between the looks of a corpse and the absent essence to which that look purports to refer.
When Americans shared a religious metanarrative (Lyotard, 1979), the Platonic essence represented by the embalmed corpse had a secure Christian path plotted out after death. But as Americans moved away from this shared vision, narratives about what happened to the invisible Soul proliferated. In this shift in belief, the secular nature of the embalmed corpse was a hidden strength, because as representation of inner soul it was neutral as to either the continued existence or particular religious provenance of what was represented. Americans create and sustain their own versions of the soul, and the mortuary corpse does not by itself tell us any single story about the soul’s future fate. (Heinz, 1999; Barol, 2000).
In the USA, there are several post-Christian answers to the limitations of the mortuary corpse: mediumship, crionics, New Age ceremonies, borrowings from Eastern religions, gay and feminist ceremonies and rituals that draw on Native American beliefs. (Webb, 1999) There is a Christian response to the corpse – the Rapture , which promises that the bodies of believers will be taken directly to Heaven without suffering death. (LaHaye, 1999)
Each of these answers addresses, the questions: what was lost and where did it go? How do we contact whatever left, and what relationship can we have to it? Each answer corrects the failure of the mortuary corpse to offer anything more than a site for memories, and each does so by postulating a distinctive post mortem “career” for the dead.
The Virtual Dead
One new option is what I call ”virtual immortality” a new narrative about the fate of the soul that is a direct extension of the mortuary arts. It is controlled to some extent by morticians and offers a virtual immortality that is in some ways entirely new and in other ways a reference to both film history and much earlier traditions of post mortem photography.
The Cassity brothers, Brent and Tyler, purchased Hollywood Memorial Park in 1998 for $375,000. The 60-acre cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, which contains within its walls the small Jewish cemetery, Beth Olam, was originally opened in 1899 and is Hollywood's oldest burial ground. It was solely owned for many years by the controversial figure Jules Roth, from whom the State of California purchased/took over the then-derelict cemetery in the mid-1990s. Roth had looted the cemetery's endowment and when ownership was transferred the site was making more money from disinterments than from new burials (Lyons, 1998; Spindler; 1998; Cloud, 2000). The Cassity brothers were allowed to buy the place because they pledged to invest several millions of dollars in improving and maintaining the property (Lyons, 1998 Spindler, 1998, Kramer, 1999; Barol, 2004; Resting Place, n.d.).
The brothers, from a Missouri family that had owned funeral homes and cemeteries for two generations, came to the business of reviving Hollywood Memorial with definite ideas. Tyler Cassity, who directly manages Hollywood Forever, the new name for the cemetery, holds a degree in English literature from Columbia University and dreamed of becoming a novelist. This interest in creating narratives is reflected in the cemetery's online self-description:
We believe it’s time cemeteries offered more than a name and date etched in stone. That's why Hollywood Forever Cemetery is a "Library of Lives" with thousands of interactive Life Stories made from film clips, photos, and written and spoken words.
We believe everyone has a life story that deserves to be shared and preserved for future generations.
Our professional LifeStory specialists are dedicated to helping you gather photos and film clips, audio recordings and documents, all captured and stored permanently in our unique Life Story Theaters. (Cassity, n.d.)
As one navigates the site, of which the Hollywood Forever site is a part, one finds examples of these LifeStories, which include, as the blurb above indicates, film clips, photographs, family trees and music as well as audio.
These LifeStories are only the most elaborate and best produced of a welter of memorial sites online. Companies such as,,, Last and all offer low cost space to set up memorial web sites. The companies not only offer locations, but also provide simple software so that people with little computer savvy can set up and maintain such sites. These companies compete with millions of individual memorial sites, which are in turn parts of larger Web Rings, such as the United States Marine Corps Webring and the God Bless America Webring. (Howington, n.d.) There are also several sites, such as the Memorial of Love Webring, dedicated exclusively to ongoing memorials to and discussions of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. (loveatchristmas, n.d.)
These sites have provisions for leaving email messages for the dead and for the bereaved family and friends; some are linked to chat rooms and message boards and strangers often visit memorial websites and leave encouraging messages. New film and photos and text can be added at will. As a Washington Post article relates, people keep adding new material so that these sites take on a life, or afterlife, of their own (Noguchi, 2006).
This theme of a "second life", or of virtual immortality, is reinforced at Hollywood Forever because their post mortem offerings go well beyond the relatively haphazard assemblages of sounds and images that characterize most memorial websites. Each Forever cemetery has its own studio on the grounds of the cemetery. This is a separate enterprise called Forever Studios, and, as various commentators note, especially in Hollywood there is no shortage of well-trained and underemployed film editors, sound specialists, and producers to help craft coherent "second life" narratives for the dead. (Forever Studios, n.d.; Alm, 1999; Barol, 2004) As the prose on the website says, the Forever "Biographers" work with friends and family to create LifeStories from "photos, spoken descriptions, text, video clips, old film reels, awards or other memorabilia." (Cassity, n.d.) All this information is transferred to digital format and put first onto hard disks and CD-ROMS or DVDs, then online.
This can be a sophisticated process: film reels and video clips as well as photographs, whether film or digital, sound recordings and written text are all integrated into a single digitally mastered streaming video in which old photographs and film clips are edited, enhanced and cropped as necessary, and in which grainy sound is purified. People who purchase the high-end Platinum package will receive professionally conducted and shot interviews hosted and produced by the Forever Biographers, as well as the services of a Forever editor, and the taping of a remembrance party for the deceased, or for the person who will someday be deceased. (Forever Studios, n.d.; Hampel,1998 ; Cloud, 2000).
One can watch sample videos and see that the deceased are not simply memorialized after the fact. The Platinum level LifeStories typically contain first person videos of the deceased talking reflectively, from beyond death, about their lives, and inviting their loved ones to come over when they are ready to join them in the afterlife. Such videos are shot as scripted interviews. Technicians from Hollywood Forever serve as sound and film experts and the cemetery provides an interviewer, as well as scene dressers. People make the videos before they die, sometimes years before the event when they are pain free and entirely coherent.
Such self-presentations are integrated into biographical “documentaries” that have been compared to televised A&E biographies (Forever LifeStories, n.d.; Cloud, 2000), and include photographs, sound bites from children and friends, bits of video, text, and pictures.
Every LifeStory is "preserved as a permanent part of the Forever Memorial Archive." "maintained by the Forever Endowment Care Fund." (Forever LifeStories, n.d.) These LifeStories “live” on optical drives and the Worldwide Web. Like the embalmed corpse -- or even better than the embalmed corpse -- they are "preserved" as a permanent part of a public record available on line. The dead have become effectively ‘immortal’ (Alm, 1999; Cloud, 2000, Barol, 2004) not purely on the Internet, but anchored to their earthly “homes” in real cemeteries where real corpses, the familiar mortuary corpses, along with the equally familiar urns filled with ashes, serve as stable referent and necessary ground for this new immortality.
The most modest as well as the most elaborate of the LifeStories are always playing at the "Forever Theaters", which are both virtual theaters found on the website and also "real" theaters spotted around the grounds of the Forever cemeteries. One writer describes them as looking like ATM machines. (Seay, 1998) They are touch screen computer outlets that permit visitors to access videos of any of the dead interred at a Forever cemetery anywhere in the country. This author has tried them at Hollywood Forever and can attest that they are eminently user-friendly.
The Cassity brothers have branched out from creating post mortem streaming video of the dead, offering immortality to the living as well. The Studios will track a child through his or her education, recording voice and video each year from kindergarten to college.(Forever On Campus, n.d.) They create no cost video packages that can be sent overseas to loved ones serving in combat zones (Forever Veteran Stories n .d.) They have even initiated a program at the University of Missouri, of which Brent Cassity is a graduate, to memorialize alumni For a price (Mizzou Alumni Association News, 2004).
All this pre-mortem footage can be tastefully integrated into a post mortem LifeStory at the proper time. Tracking one's whole life in video, from cradle to grave, and doing so self-consciously, will create much better and more coherent material for the post mortem biography than could possibly be generated from random digital photos and jerky minicam sweeps. And if Forever professionals either make or direct the making of the images, so much the better.
Here we get a glimpse of a new sense of life, one lived as a kind of performance in order for it to look good on film., a life lived as a series of "photo ops", rather than as a series of spontaneous events. Here we approach Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal: “real” life will be that which appears on video, and the best life will be that lived over and over on the Moebius strip of a streaming video loop. (Baudrillard, 1988). Shades of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return! (Nietzsche, 1999 , Sontag, 1977)
The reappropriation of the dead into biopics and photomontages rescues them from the immobility and transience of the funeral scene, and frees their memories from the undependable confines of the individual mourner’s consciousness. No matter how well laid out the corpse might be all that will be left is the internal memory, or, in rare instances, a photograph of the corpse. In the Cassity biopics, the images are all externalized and objectified, and arranged in consequential sequences that overwrite the memories of those left behind and replace them with undying representations of the “real” dead person. The dead return to life in a virtual sense and live or relive a new life in their biographical films.
A more powerful and subtler redemption is also going on in the production of the biopic. Individuals remembered in snapshots and home movies are inevitably surrounded with that sense of isolation and melancholy that both Roland Barthes (1982) and Susan Sontag (1977) find in all photographs. Photographs are intensely private and intensely ephemeral. Few artifacts suggest the contingency of an individual life in the way that photographs do. They reek of loss and impermanence. All the concrete details of fashion, hairstyle, cars, and the ways in which people hold themselves, refer to a specific time and place and to nothing else save the fact that this time and place are irretrievably lost.
One reason why individual photographs are so poignant and heartbreaking is that they occur in no context other than their sweet Otherness. What is missing is a meta-narrative, the sense of the photo as one moment in a stream of other moments that, taken together, make up a consequential narrative. Photographs ordered in a series that tell a story lose much of their poignancy because now we see where this or that isolated scene is leading, we understand that this moment is not self-contained. And this [what?]is precisely what happens in the Cassity brothers’ biopics.
An individual life, which might really be a series of discontinuous images that taken together do not add up to a compelling story, is assimilated to the strong narrative convention of the biographical film. Such films, like life, have an internal order – a beginning, middle and end. Making a film of a life presupposes that that life had a story in it that was worth filming, just as a 19th century oil portrait presupposed that its subject had a presence worth painting.
The relocation of the dead from the grave and urn to the Internet, as moving images, opens possibilities that the Cassitys have not yet exploited. According to Mr. Bill Obrock, a Forever employee, the dead will soon be able to be remastered as holograms and might some day engage in “live” conversations with the living, giving responses consistent with their in-life personalities. (Seay, 1999) There is even discussion of depositing samples of DNA at the Forever sites (Seay, 1999) so that people, or their descendants have the option to produce clones in the future.
These possibilities raise questions about the identity of the dead. Who lives on in the biopic? Do the dead become quasi-fictional characters whose identities are produced by the editorial “spin” they or their loved ones put on their biographies? Obituaries already do this. How much powerful when actual images and film clips are edited to produce the effect. And if the dead become characters in biopics do they then develop new virtual identities as characters in such online events? Further, do these new manufactured identities, which are crafted from the raw material of film and recording and photograph, then effectively replace inconsistent, fading and fragmentary memory? Are the Cassitys creating a new “species”, the changeless, fictionally produced dead with whom we the living can interact, thereby changing both their identities, and ours?
If all that I wrote comes true, won’t the dead, to use media theorist Thomas de Zengotita’s provocative term, be mediated beings, creations of the media but who assume “lives” of their own on-screen, lives for which new chapters can be written as they interact with the living and “star” in post mortem SIMS games? Mightn’t the edited biopics, and the simulated afterlives, be even better than the real lives, so that, fulfilling a Western Christian hope, the afterlife really will be better than earthly life, but in ways no Christian Father ever dreamed (de Zengotita, 2005)?

The video dead supplement the mortuary corpse, while “critiquing” it. These dead supplement it by using it as a point de départ that they both require and get beyond. Without the iconic mortuary corpse to represent both individual memories and a timeless soul, virtual versions of the corpse, the ForeverStories, would not be shaped to produce life narratives that represent the Platonic self, or to build these narratives from the individual fragments of sound and image that everyone in our culture leaves behind. The virtual dead journey to places the iconic mortuary dead can never go, but they can be traced back to the mortuary corpse as extended expressions of its ability to provoke memory of the inner and outer person.
But in an age of virtual representation, who are the real dead? In a consumer culture blessed with technology and personal freedom, death, and the corpse, are always troped, available to be reworked into a new shape that will always attempt to cover over death’s irresistible and ultimately undeniable wildness.


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