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I have long been familiar with a story about Socrates—that, while awaiting execution, he chose to use his time by learning to play a tune on the flute. An example of this in an article about a university lecture:

Antoni said he chose “Socrates’ flute” as the title of his lecture because the philosopher was a good example of having a passion for life. Antoni told the story of Socrates’ choice to spend his final moments before his execution learning a new song on the flute.

“It’s really the most wonderful example of someone who is staying curious until the very end to learn something new,” Antoni said. “Staying curious is really the key to a wonderful life.”

Yet this account does not appear in the Phaedo, where one would expect, and in fact the only source I can find is the modern Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, in his book Drawn and Quartered (p. 82), quoted in several places online:

While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning how to play a new tune on the flute. “What will be the use of that?” he was asked. “To know this tune before dying.”

I thought that maybe Cioran just imagined it to make a point, but then I found the next sentence, in which he writes,

If I dare repeat this reply long since trivialized by the handbooks, it is because it seems to me the sole serious justification of any desire to know, whether exercised on the brink of death or at any other moment of existence.”

So apparently it’s in “the handbooks”—but I just can’t find any earlier sources. Can anyone help?

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  • Feeling much relieved that I'm on a philosophy forum now and not in some hospital where I should be for a rather nasty-looking lump and a cough that's been with me for the last 2 years. 😄 Me ticket's punched mes amies. Waiting now ... This is an interesting but probably apocryphal account of the last few days/hours of our aesthetically challenged, Greek gadfly.. Recalibrating my instruments ... hey, whaaaat?
    – Hudjefa
    Jun 4, 2023 at 3:50

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Definitely, there is no substantial support for the authenticity of this alleged anecdote. So, in his Why Read the Classics?, does Calvino duly cite Cioran himself for it:

And if anyone objects that they are not worth all that effort, I will cite Cioran (not a classic, at least not yet, but a contemporary thinker who is only now being translated into Italian): ‘While the hemlock was being prepared, Socrates was learning a melody on the flute. “What use will that be to you?”, he was asked. “At least I will learn this melody before I die.” ’

This should be not unexpected at all; our biographical information about the "historical" Socrates is too limited, gathered from the immediate acquaintances of the comedy-writer Aristophanes, his disciples Plato and Xenophon. Additionally, there are some insignificant fragments from several others and the rest of what we have got that we can rely on comes through Aristotle and Diogenes Laërtius.

The phenomenon of fake famous quotes is not new and there have been always so many. For a closer view of the phenomenon, one may visit Gregory F. Sullivan's (under the pseudonym Garson O'Toole) intensive undertaking Quote Investigator.

Pseudo-quotes start to circulate on various motivations. Evidently, an attribution to a famous person relevant in some respect lends more authority to the quote. Also, when unified with that personality (in the present case, Socrates), it conveys a better articulated thought (consider the Socratic dictum "virtue is knowledge" and Socratic ethics in connection with the given quote).

Another quote investigator, Gerald Krieghofer (see his website Zitatforschung) draws our attention to "secondary citation." For example, a biographer of a famous person quotes that person, and then the biographer is quoted, though the quote is most likely invented or built upon a false attribution.

Hence, Cioran might have heard a similar anecdote and reshaped it around Socrates, or seen a fake quote in an educational book (as the translation of "les manuels" in its French original) or else in a similar manner.

All in all, this ought neither to degrade the aphorism involved, nor to obliterate the idea conveyed. Unauthenticated quotes are intellectually much useful; that's why we are fond of them, even though we have doubts about their genuineness.

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    A similar phenomenon pervades quotes attributed to Confucius, where he has simply come to personify wisdom like Hercules accumulated stories & anecdotes involving sttength as a genre.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 3, 2023 at 20:56

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