a1 Seminar für Klassische Philologie der Universität Heidelberg
In any list of famous last words, Socrates' are likely to figure near the top. Details of the final moments of celebrities tend anyway to exert a peculiar fascination upon the rest of us: life's very contingency provokes a need to see lives nevertheless as meaningful organic wholes, defined as such precisely by their final closure; so that even the most trivial aspects of their ending can come to seem bearers of profound significance, soliciting moral reflections apparently not less urgent for their being quite unwarranted. From earliest times, this fascination with last moments has come to be concentrated in particular upon last words: situated at that most mysterious of borders, between life and death, they seem to look backwards and forwards at once, judging the speaker's own past life from the vantage-point of a future realm he is about to attain and hinting at the nature of what awaits us all from the perspective of that past life he still – however tenuously – shares with us. A moment earlier, and there is no reason to privilege any one discourse of the speaker's above another; a moment later, and his lips are sealed for ever. Only in that final moment can he seem to pass an unappealable judgement on himself, to combine in a single body two incompatible subjectivities, the one suffering and extremely mortal, the other dispassionate and transcendent. If he is a thinker or a man of action, this is his last chance to summarize a lifetime's meditation or experience in a pithy, memorable aphorism.If he is a celebrated poet, he can be imagined to have composed his own epitaph; if he is a Hellenistic poet, he may even in fact have done so.
* For discussion and criticism I thank Graziano Arrighetti, Albrecht Dihle, William Furley, Herwig Görgemanns, Alan Griffiths, William Harris, Hubert Petersmann, Barbara von Reibnitz, and the anonymous referee for this journal, and for bibliographical assistance, Mauro Tulli.