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The Death of Socrates

Sócrates is dead. It’s hard to see how anyone could be surprised. It’s also hard not to think that he died because he wanted to, since Sócrates always seems to have done what he wanted to. He smoked incessantly because it gave him pleasure; he seems to have ingested vast amounts of alcohol for the same reason. When people die from alcoholic poisoning — which is in effect what killed Sócrates — it’s usual to speak of their “demons”: he could never escape his demons, he could never conquer his demons, in the end his demons destroyed him. Few will use that language about Sócrates, in part because, according to much testimony, drinking didn’t really change his personality. He drank because he liked it, probably.

He was the anti-Bartleby: Melville’s scrivener went through life saying, “I would prefer not to.” Sócrates went through life saying, “I prefer to.” I prefer to drink; I prefer to smoke; I prefer to back-heel the ball; I prefer to take penalties without a silly run-up. I even prefer to get a degree in medicine, to be Doctor Sócrates. Though occasionally, it must be said, he did prefer not to: for instance, when playing for Corinthians he took no interest in celebrating goals, to the annoyance of the team’s fans, who expected more enthusiasm. Encouraged by the team’s coaches and owner to be more demonstrative, he complied by enacting absurdly over-the-top parodies of joy.

Brian Glanville once wrote of Sócrates that he seemed to be “strolling about the field in samba rhythm – never hurried, always inventive, occasionally breaking into a brisk trot.” The metaphor is too easy and therefore wrong. The samba is rhythmical and collective; Sócrates was fundamentally arrhythmic and idiosyncratic, both on and off the pitch. With his vision, passing precision, and imposing stature, he could control a game when he wanted to; he just didn’t always want to. He understood well his own unpredictability, saying of himself, “I am an anti-athlete. I cannot deny myself certain lapses from the strict regimen of a sportsman. You have to take me as I am.”

It might seem strange that so idiosyncratic a character would have been named the captain of Brazil’s national team, but perhaps because whatever he did or said welled up from some inscrutable interiority, he was believed to be incorruptible, un-shaped by external forces. Such a personality will be either a powerful leader or a completely marginal figure; Sócrates was sometimes one, sometimes the other. When he convinced his Corinthians teammates to rebel against the tyranny of their team’s organizational structure, to insist on Democracia — they wore this legend on their shirts — and they went on to win the state championship in São Paulo, he said that that was “perhaps the most perfect moment I ever lived.”

That’s something an artist might say, not a political leader — which is perhaps why he never ran for President of Brazil, though Muammar Qaddafi encouraged him to. Though he deeply admired Ché, he could never have been Ché, thank God: he lacked the ruthlessness, the libido dominandi. Preference was always more important to him than power. Oscar Wilde famously said that he had put only his talent into his work: it was his life that displayed genius. Surely Sócrates would have said the same for himself, or would have wanted to.

So perhaps he had a demon after all, in the sense that his namesake did: the Greek philosopher famously said that when faced with difficult decisions he took counsel from his daimon, his inner voice that told him what to do. Things always worked out well, he said, when he followed the instructions of that voice. The daimon of the Brazilian Sócrates, though, lacked the consistency and ethical earnestness of the one that drove the philosopher. It might at any moment tell him anything — anything except “Take care,” or “Would that be prudent?”

So as we think of Sócrates, perhaps it is best to think of the last time he was on the soccer pitch in any sort of official capacity: in October of 2004, playing briefly, at the age of 50, for Garforth Town Football Club in the Northern Counties East Division One league. Why did he do it? Because the team’s owner, Simon Clifford, asked him to manage, and he thought it would be worthwhile to teach, and perhaps fun to play as well. So off he went to West Yorkshire, a world away from Brazil but only a few miles from Leeds, trotting about on the pitch in front of a few hundred people. He had obeyed his unpredictable daimon once more, and why not? “It was much faster than the type of football I’m used to. It was a lot more competitive and keenly fought but I really enjoyed it and it was an interesting experience.”

After a few weeks he preferred to return to Brazil, where he smoked, and drank, and talked with wit and intelligence, and then died. Day by day, the daimon offered him the hemlock. So he took it.

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The Death of Socrates

by Alan Jacobs · December 6, 2011

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