Death, Wisdom, and Fear: The Things They Carried and the Apology of Socrates

This week’s readings included The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien and the Apology of Socrates by Plato. While one story tells us about the trauma and experience of war another cites the duties of man and the virtues of good and evil. Although these stories are unique and vastly different from one another, they have dual reoccurring themes. These include the concept of death, fear of the unknown, and the ideas of knowledge and wisdom. By addressing the themes found within these two stories, one can better understand human nature and the manner in which fear of the unknown, and the impact that death has on the individual.

The Things They Carried is a narration by Tim O’Brien in which he recounts his experience as a solider in Vietnam. O’Brien speaks of the death of his friends, the death of the Vietnamese, and his feelings about war. The concept of the book is drawn around the title. Throughout the first chapters he tells the reader about the things troops carried with them throughout the war. From pictures of women and the bible, to the feelings of fear, trepidation, and listlessness, the soldiers of war are forced to carry these things. The items they carry relates to their individuality and personality. In addition, the things they carried represent their war experience. Through these accounts of war, specific things can be identified which include the idea and fear of death. Death covers the soldiers on every march they endured in the bush. Most of all, the reader can distinctly identify with O’Brien as he searches for understanding. This includes understanding of war as well as death that coincides with it. “When a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause, you can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead” (O’Brien 40-41). From this we see that O’Brien understands the finality of death as he seeks for wisdom and understanding to accept and live with the fear and death he experienced.

In, The Apology of Socrates, Socrates attempts to defend himself in court. He is charged with false teachings and leading the youth to believe differently from beliefs recognized by the Athens. For this, Socrates is forced to defend his life. Throughout this piece he is observed arguing with his accuser and acknowledging his great wisdom. From this speech, Socrates makes statements that evoke thought, clarity, and understanding. Many of the concepts O’Brien struggled with throughout his narrative. This includes fear, death, and understanding. Much of this is brought about when Socrates learned that he will be put to death for his actions. “A man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong- acting the part of a good man or bad” (Apology 28b). During this time, Socrates justifies his actions. He indicates that he did not corrupt the youth due to his good intentions and the knowledge that he holds and teaches.

Although these are things that Socrates knows and understands though his wisdom, this is something that O’Brien searches for throughout the narrative. By the end of the book O’Brien wants desperately to admit to his daughter that he killed people in war. In addition he is plagued by nightmares of his fallen enemy. Later he sees disgust in things that he and others did in war like taking things and appendages from dead enemy soldiers. However in the middle of the story we observe a different O’Brien. The reader observes a promising young man in college drafted to war. He questions the war, he questions going to war, and is consumed with fear. He is afraid of dying as well as what his family would think. He is also afraid of the possible outcome of his life if he were to enlist or escape to Canada. Socrates is much different from O’Brien. From Socrates teachings, he found that understanding comes with knowing that everything was with good intentions, O’Brien understands that, he and others like him went to war “the things men did or felt they had to do” (O’Brien 25). In this way, O’Brien is able to better understand war with knowing that he had no other choice.

In war, O’Brien faced death in almost every chapter. The people around him died as well as the enemy soldiers. He was plagued by guilt and remorse for killing Vietnamese soldiers.  He was also plagued by the death of his friends around him. O’Brien was also afraid of death himself. Some died in casualties expected in war such as stepping on landmines, others died in unexpected ways. Like Lavender, who died while going to the bathroom. Fearing death was part of human nature and it was felt by the soldiers around him. This was seen when Spunk begged Jensen not to kill him despite their pact to kill the other if one were to become injured. O’Brien understood this fear and terror when he states: “Together we understood what terror was… you know you’re about to die. And it’s not a movie and you aren’t a hero and all you can do is whimper and wait” (154). In this passage, the reader identifies with O’Brien and his fear of death. It is the world of the unknown. In death you are stripped from your loved ones and unable to experience what else life has to offer. Although O’Brien is fearful, he continues to fight and battle in war.

Socrates, on the other hand, does not fear death. As a wise man he views death in a completely different manner. When the court finds Socrates guilty, he asks that he pay a fine and his offense to be treated as a misdemeanor. Instead, Socrates is sentenced to death. He takes this news lightly all the while enlightening the court, the people, and the reader with his knowledge. Knowing that death is near he states, “no one knows whether death, which mean in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good” (Apology 29a). Here, Socrates claims that death is not to be feared. This is because it is a world that no one can account for or verify. No one knows what happens and occurs in death. As a result, there is no testament on if death is a good or bad place. Due to this, death could be a good thing and something to relish and accept. He feels no hatred or anxiety about his sentence. He takes the news matter of factly as he continues to teach and inspire wisdom to his listeners.

O’Brien and Socrates are men who are completely opposite from one another. While O’Brien fears death, Socrates does not. Socrates understands life, death, and the circumstances that arise out of the result of ones actions. This was seen when Socrates explained how he made enemies because he sought wisdom and stated the truth as he saw it. He told men who were considered wise that in fact, they were not. Due to this people became hateful of him. His actions and his teachings is what brought him to court and was the cause of his death. However, O’Brien remains haunted by the horrific scenes that he witnessed and participated in throughout the war. Plagued by these memories O’Brien seeks understanding and ways to live with and cope with his experiences. Socrates takes his experiences in strides and through his wisdom understands them. He knows that his actions were harmless and does not warrant death.

Socrates rightfully defends himself and forces his accuser to justify his accusations against him.  Socrates says that, “I must make my defense” (Apology 19a) when directing himself to the audience. O’Brien in his narration makes no defense for his actions. Instead, by explaining his experiences he rationalizes and tries to understand what happened and why. In war, O’Brien changed into a different man. He was a soldier and a fighter defending his country. For this he saw people get killed and killed others. This is a different person that is observed at the end of the story as he brings the reader back to his present day life. He isn’t wise like Socrates nor does he seek wisdom. He feared death like most men do, he pondered his life and experiences. No longer in war, he was not a fighter nor a killer. He was a human being attempting to understand his feelings. Although O’Brien and Socrates lived different lives during different times, they both expressed the same feelings of life and human nature that includes, fear, death, wisdom, and understanding.


Works Cited

Plato. The Apology of Socrates. New College, Oxford England: F.E Robinson and Co., 1901. eBook. <

O’Brien, T. The Things They Carried. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcout Publishing, eBook. <


About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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