The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates


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“Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.”

The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates[2], is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.

To fully grasp the significance of The Death of Socrates, one must first understand the historical context around the time of the work’s painting and completion.[3] The 1770s and 1780s saw an increase in the popular and intellectual allure of the ancient world, especially the republican civilizations of Greece and Rome. This was the age of the Grand Tour and saw the publication of the six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. One example of this trend in the artistic world was the Neoclassical style of painting which developed both as a celebration of the ancient world and its artistic merit and as a reaction to the highly ornamental, decorative Rococo style which was in vogue at the time. Neoclassical works were often driven by their meaning and allegory, while Rococo was heavily focused on ornate design at the expense of deeper ideas. The political and intellectual atmosphere of this period was also one driven by ideology and change. Politically, the landscape of 1780s France was turbulent, to say the least. The financial crisis which followed the end of the American War of Independence was extremely damaging to the royal treasury and state finances and resulted in that economic pain trickling down to the regular folk of France. This economic crisis led to a political crisis, as the absolutist state could not raise the taxes needed to buttress national finances without some level of popular consent. The government attempted to gain this popular assent with the calling of an Assembly of Notables in 1787, but this body did not approve the tax package put forward by the King’s finance minister Calonne. The state tried to force tax increases through the nominally independent parlement of Paris, which, shockingly to the King and his ministers, also refused to comply with the King’s diktat. This push against the recognized authority of the King in the service of higher principles and democratic participation was truly an Enlightenment attitude. Idea-wise, the 1780s were the peak of the Enlightenment age, when the ideas of the philosophes were ascendant and salon culture was at its height. Many of the key works of the French Enlightenment had been published, including the writings of Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, and were receiving widespread acclaim – even King Louis XVI had a copy of the Encyclopédie in his royal library. The ancient ideas of Stoicism and republicanism were being rediscovered and popularized in a major way, and the story of Socrates was one of the best examples of these high philosophical principles.

Jacques-Louis David’s contributions to the popularization of the ideas and principles of classical Antiquity were his beautiful and moving works of art. The Death of Socrates was no exception, exhibiting both an artistic splendor in its design and execution as well as a moral message worthy of its physical beauty. When looking at the painting, one’s eye is drawn to the partially-seated figure of Socrates, who is simultaneously engaged in teaching – his face and left hand show his involvement in a philosophical discourse – while also grasping confidently at the cup of poison hemlock held by one of his acolytes. This is a powerful dichotomy, as it visually depicts the principled stand Socrates is making with one hand he is refusing to stop his supposedly criminal activity of ‘corrupting the youth’ with his ideas, while with the other he is reaching out for the necessary consequence of this action, namely death. Socrates, who is shown in a white toga symbolizing his philosophical purity, is surrounded by his students, who universally mourn his fate. These figures are endowed with significant moral weight through their anguished expressions and physical lamentations, from the inability of the man holding the hemlock cup to look in the face of his teacher, to the intense grip of the hand on Socrates’s thigh, to the weeping and bemoaning exhibited by the rest of the men. These students are all depicted in colorful outfits, setting themselves apart from the focus of the image, the white-clad, bathed-in-light Socrates. A curious and interesting aspect of the image is the other man who is shown in white at the foot of the bed – this was Plato, who was not present at the death of his mentor, but whose writings brought the story to the readers of the future. Given the attention to accuracy in the rest of the painting, the inclusion of Plato – as well as his depiction in white clothing like Socrates – is purposeful and meant to stand out. This is supported by the fact that David’s initials are engraved on the seat on which Plato sits the association of the artist with the man who kept the story of Socrates alive shows that David saw himself as bringing the principles of the ancient world to his day and age.

The painting is not only incredibly magnificent in its execution and design, but its deeper meaning says something important about the time in which it was painted and its implications for the coming French Revolution. The major idea depicted in The Death of Socrates is that it is noble and honorable to stand up for one’s principles, especially in the face of state tyranny or oppression. Socrates is presented as the hero of the story, willingly accepting death as the price for his philosophy and the actions consistent therein. This would have been a popular sentiment among French intellectuals at the time, as in 1787 the resistance to the royal government of King Louis XVI was strong and French political consensus was near its breaking point. The courage of the parlementarians – to a man, enlightened nobles steeped in the ideas of the philosophes – to stand up to the King and Calonne was a modern version of the Socratic example. This focus on standing up for one’s principles would be replayed over and over throughout the years of the French Revolution. It is seen in the powerful oratory of Mirabeau, who exhorted his fellow deputies of the Third Estate not to leave the Séance Royale except at the point of bayonets. It recurs in the myriad men who went to madame la guillotine with their heads held high and their principles even higher, and shows up again in Danton’s refusal to go to said guillotine quietly. From the Girondins and the Jacobins to the sans culottes and the royal family, thousands of men and women died for their principles during the French Revolution, on all sides. The Death of Socrates was an expression of the idea that these deaths were not indeed in vain, but instead in service of a greater purpose, that of individual liberty and autonomy in the face of a tyrannical state.

[1] Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, trans. Harold North Fowler, intro. W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). Accessed at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Apage%3D30.

[3] Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates was likely started sometime in the early to mid-1780s and was completed in 1787.


The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates is recounted in several ancient works including Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo” and “The Apology” and in Xenophon’s “The Apology of Socrates to the Jury“.

Socrates death by execution in 399 BC is credited to be a point from which western philosphy can find its origins. The classical Greek philosopher and teacher was put on trial and executed for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. His crimes – to introduce strange gods and for “impiety“, disbelieving in the gods of the state.

In fact, Socrates disagreed with the powerholders of Athens and refused to be silenced. Instead of accepting what he perceived as immorality within his region, he questioned their notion of “might makes right“. His attempts to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice led to his trial and death.

Le Mort de Socrates [The Death of Socrates] , by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Socrates defended his role as a “gadfly” – a small creature that stings but spurs a beast into action.

At his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spent as Athens’ benefactor.

He was, however, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.

Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum

Shortly before his death, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito:

Crito, we owe a rooster to Aesclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.

Aesclepius was the Greek god for health and healing, and it is likely Socrates’ last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body.

Additionally, in Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, Robin Waterfield proposes that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes.

Interestingly, the Rod of Aesclepius, and the symbol of places of healing throughout the Greek world, was a snake curled around a stick. The symbol to this day is associated with health and health care.

Some commentators have linked the symbol to the serpent wrapped around a pole mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:5–9).

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked upon the serpent of brass, he lived.

King Hezekiah, 700 years later destroyed the copper serpent because it was being worshiped (2 Kings 18:4).

The motif appears again as a symbol of healing in the New Testament, this time a messianic symbol found in John 3:14–15.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Fascinating parallels emerge. Socrates, perished, a voluntary scapegoat. His death was to him, and to generations subsequent, a cure, a freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions and false wisdom. Western philosophy has forever been indebted to the iconoclast for his steadfast dedication to inquiry, justice, and the rights of the common man.

At another turning point in history, Christ died, a voluntary scapegoat for the ills of his people. His death too has been for generations subsequent, a cure, freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions, false wisdom and well …….eternal death.


The Death of Socrates

There were heroic lives and deaths before and after, but none quite like Socrates&rsquo. He did not die by sword or spear, braving all to defend home and country, but as a condemned criminal, swallowing a painless dose of poison. And yet Socrates&rsquo death in 399 BCE has figured large in our world ever since, shaping how we think about heroism and celebrity, religion and family life, state control and individual freedom, the distance of intellectual life from daily activity&mdashmany of the key coordinates of Western culture. In this book Emily Wilson analyzes the enormous and enduring power the trial and death of Socrates has exerted over the Western imagination.

Beginning with the accounts of contemporaries like Aristophanes, Xenophon, and, above all, Plato, the book offers a comprehensive look at the death of Socrates as both a historical event and a controversial cultural ideal. Wilson shows how Socrates&rsquo death&mdashmore than his character, actions, or philosophical beliefs&mdashhas played an essential role in his story. She considers literary, philosophical, and artistic works&mdashby Cicero, Erasmus, Milton, Voltaire, Hegel, and Brecht, among others&mdashthat used the death of Socrates to discuss power, politics, religion, the life of the mind, and the good life. As highly readable as it is deeply learned, her book combines vivid descriptions, critical insights, and breadth of research to explore how Socrates&rsquo death&mdashespecially his seeming ability to control it&mdashhas mattered so much, for so long, to so many different people.

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Final thoughts

One could reasonably posit that Socrates argued himself out of the agony of death. But of course, just like all philosophies, the view is not perfect.

What if one enjoyed their physical existence? What if anxieties from death come from the fear of missing out on what more life could offer? What if Socrates’s notions of Hades were wrong? There are many questions one could raise to the Gadfly of Athens.

It’s only natural to fear death. I’m sure in one moment or another, Socrates feared it as well. But he didn’t let it consume him.

I do hope these musings give you comfort in moments of existential dread.


The Death of Socrates

W as Socrates right? The ethical decisions of a figure willing to sacrifice his own life after false accusations of corrupting the youth while establishing his cause as Justice can be difficult to comprehend. The noumenon, however, is not to be found within the action itself but rather in the motivation by which deliberate philosophical investigation can reveal. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates references many justifications for his willingness to accept his fate.

Through close inspection it becomes significantly less difficult to ascertain why in the face of injustice and ill judgment, Socrates chose to accept his condemnation to the grave. For clearly it would be repugnant to the very essence of his moral conscience, the metaphysical ethic imbued by nature itself, instilled within Socrates’ conduct and ideas. This is the first inculcation of the Platonic forms, as Socrates knowledge seems to be derived from the nature of ideas, instilled within the metaphysics of nature itself. If Socrates is to obey his God, as consecrated by the word of Philosophy, he has no other choice than to obey what has been bestowed within his mind, concerning such notions and understanding of the absolute truth. But this alone is merely the fundamental or essential reason and not the only explanation for his fate. For there are many complementary conceptions stated in the Platonic dialogues concerning why Socrates can so willingly and courageously accept his death. The next and most interesting, as stated in the prophecy, is that of an eternal retribution, inflicted upon the jurors for use of ill judgment, a punishment inflicted on one’s own conscience, and a message to all those who may defy justice henceforth. For as Socrates declares in Plato’s apology, “I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice,” (Plato 39) he understands that his submission shall become a call to action, for all of those in silence to speak up in defense of such ideals. Socrates is not a man seeking vengeance but a philosopher aware of such an indemnifying form of Justice, one, which occurs post-mortem and is inflicted upon the jurors conscious for their eternal err.

In a word, this is Socrates’s contrapasso, the moral retribution of all individuals’ ability to ascertain when they have committed injustice against The Good. Socrates’ actions stand as a useful and imperative inculcation of our own remorse for moral misconduct allowing us all the experience of shame, ill conscience or resentment upon our personal err. Socrates is sentenced to death but those who have committed the greater crime are condemned to a life of metaphysical damnation, a psychological penalty as never to avoid the feeling, once considered, of having done so ill. The forms of justice as present within the individual conscience must guide us toward the action of what is right and true. The failure to reify these Platonic Ideas leaves Socrates no other choice but to accept his fate.

Socrates continues this idea of the moral conscience with his own dedication to philosophy, understanding that to remain silent and to pursue something other than his will would be worse than death itself. For given the choice to escape, Socrates cannot bear to live a life without philosophy and ideas. In the Apology, he says, “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the God rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy” (Plato 34). For the will to follow one’s destiny and internal morality can be applicable in all realms of ethical decision-making concerning what is right and wrong. Even if Socrates’ claim were subjectively falsifiable by critique, it can still serve the individual to follow a purpose, calling or inculcation beyond the world of experience for which they can rely. How, “when the God ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others, I had abandoned my post for fear of death or anything else” he wondered (Plato 33). In this way, Socrates cannot compromise on his own moral conscience for understanding that he would be going against his faith. In ethics and philosophy this becomes the only acceptable motivation for the individual or sage alike, because to compromise in moments of peril would be to believe in nothing at all. The lack of courage to die for one’s conceptions form what is often termed the individual’s character, as the inability to compromise for the mere sake of relativity would lead to a world of subjective truth. Socrates believes in a higher duty to himself, and to his discipline of philosophy, which guides him through the tumult that assaults his mind.

Along with this duty to philosophy, Socrates also assumes a duty to the Deity and the Oracle from whom the designation of wisdom was first bestowed: “For what has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. Human wisdom, perhaps. It may be that I really possess this… I shall call upon the God at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such” (Plato 25). One must remember that Socrates does not view himself as wise, but merely as the instrument for a particular manifestation of wisdom, bestowed by philosophy and the Oracle at Delphi for which he owes his gift. By not continuing the journey of contemplation, introspection, and dialectic in order to flee in times of danger would be a disservice to the spirits, and for this, Socrates cannot break his vow to truth.

Additionally, Socrates does not fear death, conceiving that by which he knows not, can be neither good nor bad, for it is possible death remains the final good, for which all men can at once be free. This earnest admission of possibility allows Socrates the ability for peace by not knowing whether his end will be perilous or with grace. Given Socrates devout belief in the Gods, this is an appropriate argument for his time. When it is impossible to ascertain the future outcome of a particular event, one should not fear the momentary retribution. The idea that death is potentially of value allows Socrates the possibility for a tranquil disposition even upon his final hour. Here in death, Socrates may continue his quest for knowledge, questioning the likes of Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer, all whom he would take great joy in accompanying if his vision of the afterlife were true.

The last and most fascinating reason to ascertain the Socratic choice to die is the cyclic nature of his problem. Socrates himself declares that he could not abstain from the practice of philosophy and even if exiled, men and children in a new city would certainly come to hear him speak, eventually repeating the nature of conviction thus again. “For I know very well that wherever I go, they will listen to my talk as they do here” (Plato 41). “If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the God, you will not believe me and think that I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will not believe me” (Plato 41).

The notion that justice is not only for the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, but actually for the correct understanding of what is truly good bears the question of such Platonic forms. Socrates seems to be acting on an ideal as opposed to a circumstantial best for which he allows no room for alteration. Socrates it seems must stand as a prophetic figure of ethics and justice, unwilling to compromise even in the face of death. The reasons at first appeared unintelligible, but through careful investigation his motivation becomes clear. Socrates’ decision is made for a multiplicity of complex personal, emotional and ethical reasons all in the name of The Good. The form of justice as manifest within our moral conscience becomes a universal law to always seek what is right and true. To deny justice as a form realizable through philosophy would ultimately destroy the capacity for good becoming as erroneous as death itself. By admitting that he knew nothing, Socrates became the bravest and wisest man of all.


On the Significance of the Death of Socrates

The Phaedo is the final Platonic dialogue focused on the life Socrates. It details the last hours of Socrates before he pays the ultimate price. Socrates is freed from his chains while remaining confined to his cell. His friends rise early to visit to his prison cell one last time and converse with him before his death.

First, consider the title of the dialogue. Why Phaedo? The dialogue is recalled and narrated by Phaedo, a follower of Socrates. He is asked to recall the last hours of Socrates by a group of Pythagoreans, including one by the name of Echecrates. The Pythagoreans are in exile on Phlius, an island in the northwest of the Peloponnese. Phaedo was on his way home to Elis. Therefore, the dialogue is a framed narrative. Phaedo tells his story far away from the city of Athens. We rely on the truth of Phaedo’s oral recollections, just like the Pythagoreans in Phlius. He describes it as a joy to call Socrates to memory, and the room is brought to pity with the belief that Socrates dies “nobly and without fear” (58e). The link between Pythagoras, or more specifically the Pythagoreans (i.e. the followers of a great philosopher) and Socrates should be fully considered. Pythagoras is long dead by this point, yet his followers remain to perpetuate his school of thought. To what extent can we judge a philosopher based on the activity of his followers? Some of Socrates’s followers carry out terrible acts during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, yet others are simple-minded men, while others are treasonous like Alcibiades.

At any rate, Phaedo recalls the scene of Socrates’s death. A large group of locals were there, all called out by name, including an emotionally overcome Apollodorus. Plato was ill and was said not to be present. The chief portion of the Phaedo dialogue concerns a discussion between Socrates and Cebes and Simmias, both foreigners to Athens.

Notably, the death of Socrates is not a tragedy. Those present describe an unusual mixed feeling of pain and joy sometimes laughing, sometimes weeping. Upon arrival at the prison, they notice that earlier, Socrates had been composing poetry with his lyre, such as a hymn to Apollo and putting the fables of Aesop to musical verse. This is unusual for Socrates, as he is known to criticize the poets, as seen in the Republic and elsewhere. The Phaedo reveals a side of Socrates we do not see anywhere else in the dialogues. He is with a group of his followers, and his wife, Xanthippe, as well as his children who make a brief appearance.

Those present in his cell, express sadness and fear of death, but Socrates, instead, demonstrates courage and fearlessness in the face of death. He reiterates some of his prominent theories: knowledge as recollection, the immortality of the soul, and the rejection of the body. Early traces of ascetic and Christian doctrines can be found in the Phaedo. These Socratic ideas will later be adopted and reformed under Christian doctrine via Saint Augustine in the 5th century.

At the end of his life, Socrates makes some cryptic comments and begins to drink the hemlock. What is to be made of Socrates’s seemingly insignificant final words? As the poison starts to take effect, Socrates begins losing feeling in his legs and chest. While lying on his prison bed, he says to Crito: “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Crito responds in the affirmative, but when he asks if there is anything else, Socrates lies still. Perhaps there may have been something else for Socrates to say to Crito.

There are two pieces of information worth considering in Socrates’s last words. The first is: piety. Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine. Socrates indicates that he has been healed of his earthly ills, namely his body, which is the seat of wayward passions and diseases. To Nietzsche, in writing The Gay Science, this is a rejection of life itself. Nevertheless, Socrates embraces the gods in his final moments, contrary to his accusation of impiety by the Athenian jury, Second to his piety, Socrates is also concerned with paying his debts, a key part of the definition of justice in the Republic. Socrates concludes his life, minding his own business, respecting the laws of the city, while dying courageously for the principles he has stood for – the innate goodness of philosophy for its own sake.

Some further thoughts on the death of Socrates can be found here.

For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.


Politics, Religion, and Philosophy

As we explore the fields of politics, religion, and philosophy, perhaps the most appropriate starting point is the Allegory of the Cave written in Book VII of Plato’s The Republic. In it, Plato speaks to the persistence of human ignorance and the effects that it can have in inhibiting us from seeing things as they truly are. For those of you who haven’t read The Republic or aren’t familiar with the Allegory of the Cave, there’s a great TED-Ed video that you can watch which summarizes it nicely. But before we get to the allegory, let me present a little history of Plato’s Republic.

Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher and student of Socrates. Socrates was not a very well-liked man in his day. At one point in his life, the Oracle at Delphi pronounced Socrates to be the wisest of Greeks. This was paradoxical for Socrates because he believed to know nothing (“One thing only I know and that is that I know nothing.”). So Socrates went around asking prominent Athenians about what they knew (or rather thought they knew). What he found was that those who claimed to know the most, knew the least. Unlike them, Socrates did not claim to know what he didn’t know. This, of course, made the Athenians look foolish and also confirmed that Socrates was the wisest of Greeks. There are 2 things that are true about Athenian politicians that are still true today:

Socrates was put on trial for the charges of “corrupting Athenian youth” and “impiety.” He was found guilty and was sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. He is believed to have died around the year 399 BCE.

Plato, who was around 25 years old at the time of Socrates death, did not take it very well. His friend and mentor was put to death by his own government for the crime of asking questions. It’s not known if The Republic was written as a result of this event or if Plato was writing the dialogue anyway, but either way, The Republic was Plato’s political treatise that explored the definition of justice, universal themes, and different forms of governance. The Republic is divided into 10 books and each book explores a different theme. We’ll discuss some of the other themes in future blog posts, but I’d like to begin with the Allegory of the Cave.

In Book VII, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine a cave where prisoners have been living in a cave their entire lives. They are chained up in such a way that they can only face the back of the cave with the lighted entrance behind them. Every once in a while shadows would be cast onto the back wall of the cave for the prisoners to see. The prisoners believed that these shadows weren’t just representations of beings, but the beings themselves. Then one day, one of the prisoners is freed and he goes out into the world outside of the cave. He is immediately (but temporarily) blinded by the bright light of the sun and of the fires that would cast the shadows into the cave. When people try to explain to him that the objects around him are real and the shadows are just reflections, he didn’t believe them. The shadows were what he knew and they seemed clearer and more real to him than the 3-dimensional objects casting them. But slowly he begins to learn the truth. Eventually he begins to see the actual beings more clearly. Eventually, he even manages to look at the sun and learns that the sun does 3 things:

  1. It gives us the seasons
  2. It gives us light
  3. It is the cause of the shadows that he had grown up believing were real

Eventually, the man returns to the cave, but finds himself blinded and unable to see the shadows. The other prisoners ridicule him for being blind and when he tries to explain to them that the shadows are not real but are just 2-dimensional representations of a 3-dimensional object, they react violently and kill him.

Notice the similarities between the man in the cave and Socrates? Socrates, deemed to be the wisest of all Greeks, tried to share his knowledge (or lack of knowledge) with the Athenians and they reacted violently, killing him. But the Allegory of the Cave has been studied and appreciated for much more than just an analogy for the death of Socrates. It’s a reflection of how people can become so beholden to their own beliefs while living in blissful ignorance. It can be used to describe a person’s belief in god or lack of a belief in god. It can be used as a starting point for questioning whether our own 3-dimensional reality is just a projection of something greater – as if we ourselves are the prisoners in some sort of cave just looking at shadows. It has been used as the influence for films like The Matrix, Dark City, and Room and books like Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland. In The Republic, Plato uses the allegory as a means to illustrate the people are too stubborn and ignorant to be capable of self-rule. You don’t need to look any further than the American political climate for proof of that. We can discuss Plato’s theory of the idealized social structure ruled by Philosopher-Kings in another blog post.

So what can we learn from the Allegory of the Cave? The obvious answer is that we should be open-minded when it comes to hearing ideas that are different from our own. The wise answer is to remember that the only thing we truly know is nothing. But perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Allegory of the Cave is the difference between a person and people. To quote Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” And on a personal note, I’d just like to say how happy I am that I can quote a late-90s sci-fi movie in a discussion on philosophy and the nature of humanity.


The Death of Socrates. Profiles in History

Different generations see the figure of Socrates differently. In Emily Wilson’s book on the reception of the death of Socrates, the reader clearly sees the historical ebb and flow of views regarding Socrates. Wilson has provided an invaluable resource for understanding the role of Socrates in western intellectual and artistic traditions. Moreover, she shows that Socrates’ presence in cultural history is not limited to texts and art of the highly educated but extends to various manifestations of the popular imagination. Although she focuses for the most part on the reception of the death of Socrates, Wilson discusses significant events in Socrates’ life, as well as his inscrutable qualities in order to show how relevant the great man has been to past ages. However, concerning the present, she expresses anxiety. Wilson argues for Socrates’ continuing relevance even as she acknowledges the decline of classical education and its cultural caché. Moreover, while Wilson’s discussions of the major paintings and authors in the reception history are often in themselves tours de force, at other moments the book reads like an annotated list of minor works on the figure of Socrates. In these sections, Wilson’s synthesizing, authoritative voice recedes, perhaps under the pressure of illustrating relevance. Happily though, Wilson is generally effective at synthesizing many works to highlight the preoccupations of various moments in history.

In her introduction, Wilson strikes a personal and scholarly note. Socrates is one of those rare figures about whom, both personal and scholarly examinations flow into each other. Wilson has contemplated deeply the life and death of Socrates, but finds herself “torn between enormous admiration and an equally overwhelming sense of rage.” (p. 5) This and other statements of personal wonder, admiration, doubt, and resentment towards Socrates and his legacy serve to lure the reader into her own exploration of the meaning of Socrates’ death. Wilson exhorts the reader to contemplate Socrates’ death and to become more knowledgeable about the history of its reception. It is effective and leads to her argument against scholars who hold that “the death of Socrates took on cultural importance only in the eighteenth century” as “an image of the enlightened person’s struggle against intolerance.” (p. 8) She claims that Socrates is seen as “a hero for our times,” especially if we leave out the inconvenient story of his death. (p. 18, cf. p. 2) Our contemporary incapacity to acknowledge and integrate death into our own lives, according to Wilson, may propagate this exceedingly rosy image of Socrates. On the other hand, Wilson senses that our exhaustion with Socrates might lie in the various intellectual and political ideologies that have been associated with him. Fair enough. There are many Socrates to recover.

Wilson continues to lay bare the two-sided nature of Socrates in chapter one. The charges brought against him of impiety and corrupting the young spin off into an illuminating examination of Socratic philosophy. Aristophanes’ Clouds of 423 BCE reflects the fame of Socrates the intellectual, examining how the new learning of the sophists and Socrates, whom Aristophanes conflates, threaten society. Although Plato says that the Clouds was a factor in the Athenian condemnation of Socrates, Aristophanes appears to suggest that “those who challenge received wisdom deserved to be lynched.” (p. 23, cf. p. 24) On the other hand, Wilson argues that Socrates was brought to trial because of his radical views on theology and psychology. The Athenian “failed to respect ‘the city’s gods,'” (p. 31) had a “belief in a personal deity,” (p. 33) and questioned “the value of ritual and the power of prayer.” (p. 34) For Wilson, Socrates’ view of religion motivates humans to “independent moral thinking,” but is not a “substitute for it.” (p. 35) Wilson enumerates Socrates’ radical views on “knowledge, ethics, psychology, and happiness.” (p. 35) She focuses on the problem of Socratic irony (“fawning false modesty”) as related to Socrates’ penchant for disavowing knowledge while simultaneously making moral claims. Is Socrates being rhetorical when he claims he has no knowledge or is he merely positing guesses when he asserts a moral proposition? The views of Nozick, Vlastos, Strauss, and Nehemas are invoked as possible answers but Wilson demurs to accept any one view on the matter. In the final section of the chapter, Wilson deftly treats Socrates ideas on morality and happiness, especially the counterintuitive views that “being good and being happy are the same thing” (p. 49) or “sin is more harmful than physical suffering.” (p. 50) Wilson succeeds in portraying Socrates as someone with shocking yet inspiring views.

It may have been these views and their effects on his young followers that got Socrates convicted. Chapter two discusses the possible reasons for Socrates’ death. The last section of the chapter argues that Socrates’ associations, whether friendly, or hostile, got him into trouble—see especially Wilson’s discussions of Alcibiades and Critias. The earlier parts of the chapter explore Socrates’ ambiguous relationship to Athenian democracy and society. On the one hand, some of his “students” appeared to have mutilated herms on the eve of the Sicilian expedition and he was a controversial gadfly, but on the other hand he displayed courage and independence by speaking up for the generals at Arginousae and against the Thirty Tyrants, and he was a faithful soldier (Delium). Wilson sees this ambiguity in the Apology/Crito problem, in which Socrates of the Apology“valued his duty to obey ‘god’ over his ties to fellow citizens” while Socrates of the Crito“insists on conformity with the will of the city.” (p. 63) Wilson concludes that the Apology/Crito problem cannot be solved (in fact, the Crito itself harbors incompatible points of view), but that these texts “provoke hard questions” about one’s choices. (p. 66) Perhaps most intriguing is Wilson’s discussion of Socrates’ identity as an oddball: “His strangeness seemed to present itself as a criticism of the values of ordinary people” and “Socrates was an Athenian who behaved like a foreigner.” (pp. 73, 75) Socrates was considered physically ugly according to Athenian norms he seemed to have a haughty attitude towards others and by appropriating the language of foreigners to question Athenian values, he was seen by many as a traitor to the polis. As an insider and outsider in his own city, Socrates may have threatened Athenian civic identity. At any rate, he certainly established a complicated model of the public intellectual.

The reception history of Socrates’ death shows that a sense of intellectual history has been vital to how, throughout the centuries, individuals and communities have constructed their politics, identities, and definitions of the good life. In chapter three, Wilson distills the questions which Socrates’ death has raised over time: “What counts as a truly good, truly wise man? Can such a person teach goodness and wisdom to others? Should we decide what to do by deferring to tradition or thinking for ourselves? Can we know anything about death before we die? How can we weigh up our conflicting responsibilities to family, friends, religion, work, conscience and ourselves?” and can “bad things happen to good people?” (p. 102) Rather than giving definitive answers to these questions, the creators and inheritors of the Socratic tradition furnish possible responses that originate in their reading of the character of Socrates. Wilson does not get bogged down in the problem of the historical Socrates. Nevertheless she does make significant and provocative claims: that Plato’s Socrates is “the first novelistic character in literature,” and that Plato himself is “the originator, through Socrates, of modern western literature.” (p. 99) The psychological complexity and paradoxical nature of Plato’s Socrates is set against Xenophon’s simply virtuous and ascetic Socrates. For Xenophon, the death of Socrates illustrates Athenian decadence. But Wilson does not tarry on Xenophon, who, she says, presents a banal Socrates, a figure with whom the 21st century appears to be more comfortable because this Socrates allows us to avoid “the terrifying challenges of Plato.” (p. 99) The rest of the chapter treats the “tragic tetralogy” of Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, for the last of which she reserves most of her commentary. Regarding the famous death scene of the Phaedo, Wilson advances a compelling interpretation. Socrates has appropriated for himself, and as a result subverted, two of the most important and traditional roles of women in Greek society: the care of the dead and childbirth. “Socrates gives thanks to Asclepius. . .because he has succeeded. . .in giving birth to his own death” (p. 117) Wilson describes the scene of a pot-bellied Socrates walking around a room full of his closest friends, the numbness of the poison traveling to his lower belly, and finally his death. Socrates’ death, far from being exclusively a masculine death of rationality and calmness, is portrayed by Plato as ambiguously gendered. Socrates takes on the powers of women as he maintains the qualities of men. Wilson is at her best here, interpreting the last scene of the Phaedo with insight and daring.

Chapters 4 and 5 take the story of the reception of Socrates’ death from late republican Rome through the end of the 16th century and Montaigne. The two dominant ideas are the Romans’ preoccupation with Socrates’ death as a standard for living and dying well and European Christianity’s oppositional and appropriating attitudes toward Socrates. In these chapters and the two that follow, Wilson constructs an intellectual historical tour, making interesting observations as she navigates through an ocean of reception history. Paintings, sculptures, poems, histories, and other cultural productions—though some of the artists and authors may be obscure to the target audience—argue for the centrality of Socrates to the western sense of the self, the intellectual, and the citizen.

Wilson observes that the Romans’ emphasis on rhetoric and military training—as opposed to the Greek penchant for philosophy and athletics—is central to the Romans’ near disregard for Socrates’ philosophy. Instead the Romans focused more on whether Socrates lived and died well. The deaths of Cato, Cicero, Seneca, and Thrasea (a Stoic condemned under Nero) furnish variations on this theme. The stage-managed death of Seneca contrasts with Thrasea’s final moments in which he is doing philosophy and, unlike Socrates, caring for the future of his family. Cicero was not allowed to take his own life, but nonetheless died with dignity. He fancied himself a man of action, which explains his admiration for the way Cato the Younger died. For Cicero, Cato’s death was a glorious deed, distinguished from the death of Socrates who is remembered only for his teachings and for his prattling against the traditions of his home city.

For early Christians, Wilson argues that the death of Socrates provides a comparison with martyrs and others for the presence or absence of pain in death. Moreover, beginning with Paul, Christians recognized the parallel between Jesus and Socrates, that both appeared to lead a life of weakness and foolishness but in fact lived strongly and wisely. Theologians like Justin Martyr could admire both figures, though by the fourth century, with the precedent of Tertullian, it became difficult for a Christian to argue that Socrates possessed any knowledge of death or suffered real pain. The Christians of the Middles Ages saw Socrates in a less controversial light, since, as Wilson adeptly points out, his legacy was mediated through the Roman sources of Cicero and Seneca. Wilson cites Boethius whose imprisonment was compared to that of Socrates. In the high and later Middle Ages Socrates becomes a monotheist, a proto-Christian, and a representative sage whose secular rationality is something to be integrated into a Christian worldview. Wilson speeds along through the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-reformation, concluding the chapter with an excellent section on Montaigne. Ficino and Erasmus are great admirers of Socrates, so much so that the latter credits him for the doctrines of “turn the other cheek” and the immortality of the soul Luther thought this too flattering, and Milton seems to have understood that Socrates’ legacy is fungible, available to whomever for whatever purpose. Montaigne saw Socrates’ death as “ordinary” and “easy” rather than “tragic” or “exalted.” According to Wilson, Montaigne sees Socrates’ life and death as a quest for self-knowledge, reflective of 16th and 17th century views of Socrates as a model for self-knowledge, doubt, and scientific inquiry.

Between the 1st and 17th centuries, reception of Socrates’ death (and life) correlates with the development of Christianity and its declining presence in political and intellectual life. In chapters 6 and 7, which cover the 18th to the 20th centuries. Wilson is concerned with the relevance of Socrates to intellectual, artistic, and political culture. She argues that in the 18th century, the French Enlightenment and Revolution, as well as the reemergence of Xenophon and Diogenes Laertius, fueled a popular and ubiquitous Socrates. In fact it is hard to pin down only one or two themes that sum up the use of the death of Socrates. Wilson gives a series of views and interpretations of Socrates’ life and death as: the triumph of rationalism “an image of the social life of the intellectual” (p. 173) a secular pietas a classical forbear of a revolutionary a more important philosopher than Plato or Aristotle (in the words of Voltaire, “the apotheosis of philosophy”) and even the death of antiquity and rise of modernism. The titans of the enlightenment, Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire exhibit one or several of these views, but Wilson mentions two other figures: Moses Mendelssohn, who tried to reconcile Socrates with Judaism and Christianity, and Nicolas Fréret, who argued that Socrates’ death was purely political and far from an ideal martyrdom. Mendelssohn’s view was discredited by a controversy whipped up by Johann Kaspar Lavater in1769, resulting in a supersessionist conclusion that “Socrates—and perhaps the whole legacy of the classical antiquity—belonged only to the Christians.” (p. 189) Wilson posits as another turning point David’s influential painting of 1787 in which Socrates’ death becomes emblematic of a “solitary individual who stood up against the will of the masses and who was destroyed by them.” (p. 190) And finally, Wilson concludes that the aftermath of the French Revolution (1790’s) with its terror seemed to preclude a philosophical death, which Socrates’ final moments had established. Of these three moments in history, the latter two, according to Wilson, determined the poles, between which the modern reception of Socrates’ death moved.

Wilson’s final chapter builds on chapter 6’s conclusion by arguing that Socrates’ death is an “iconic moment in the formation of modernity.” (p. 192) In the 19th century, Socratic thought as crystallized in his death was understood as the beginning of modern political and ethical thought: For Hegel, the conflict of the rights between the state and individual for Kierkegaard, the inseparability of spirituality and morality for Nietzsche, the insufficiency of rationality to explain death and life. In the 20th century, Wilson highlights the views of Benjamin, Renault, Popper, Anderson, Rossellini, Stone, and Brecht, among others—all writers, artists, and scholars who take Socrates’ death to represent either the tragic downfall of the talkative, rational person or the locus classicus of the conflict between the state and the individual. Derrida and Foucault depart from this well-worn scheme. Derrida views Socrates’ death as a window into understanding the origins of Platonic metaphysics, i.e., as a result of Plato’s guilt over his master’s death and Foucault interprets Socrates’ death as an instance of the care of the self, a moment in which the self fully becomes itself. In the last nine pages, Wilson concludes her tour of the 20th and 21st centuries with a flurry of references to Satie, Cage, de Botton, Mosley, Disch, Levinson, and Verly. Like de Botton, Wilson sees reflection on Socrates’ death as an opportunity to be morally serious. Yet it is frequently a missed opportunity for us in the 21st century, since we are bombarded with the relentless marketing of youth culture and vulgar pleasures.

In chapter one Wilson stated this dilemma in a different way. She calls attention to the Socratic assertion that wisdom cannot be taught and Socrates’ refusal to take money from his pupils. (p. 45) Today, students (and many educators) seek value for the educational dollar by applying various measures to the acquisition of knowledge. The thinking is that “cultural or intellectual capital” guarantee success and, more importantly, material wealth. (p. 46) But Wilson reminds us of the uniqueness of an education. It can only be evaluated retrospectively, one cannot fully “examine the product before we buy” it. (p. 45) And further: “You may be able to buy social advancement, political connections, or better job prospects for your children by sending them to [elite schools], but you cannot buy them access to the truth. . .Wisdom is not a commodity.” (p. 46)

Wilson is painfully aware that the recognition and understanding of Socratic ideals is in decline today. She gives reasons: Socrates is not popular in our age of gender equality (p. 215) we are suspicious of reason, especially as a vehicle for understanding death (p. 209) we see Socrates as a loner who had little concern for his friends and family (p. 205) most major contemporary writers, philosophers, and artists “have paid relatively little attention to Socrates” (p. 214) and classical education has declined. But it is plausible to assert an even more cogent reason for Socrates’ increasingly minor role in our culture. I would argue that the idea of the past as crucial to the understanding of the present has been in decline. The current crisis may be modifying this mentalité and furnishing an opening for humanistic studies. A grounding in the humanities, which has traditionally taken up the task of educating students on the uses (and abuses) of the past, is central to recognizing “in advance the things that will happen” which, “in retrospect, prove to have been obvious.” (G. G. Harpham, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, March 20, 2009)

With their treatment of minor artists and thinkers who refer to Socrates’ death, Wilson’s final pages reflect her (our) own anxiety over the future of humanities and the liberal arts. And this is not solely because of a wish for a world in which the liberally educated populate the realms of business, law, medicine, government, and education. Rather, it is an anxiety over the prerogatives of the humanities in providing the first principles and critique of these human institutions. The success of these institutions resides in the possibilities presented to each one of us by our historical and ethical development. In times of crisis it is the humanities which can explain why things went wrong and can expose our excesses and blindness and it is the humanities, which is vital to the reconstruction of values and principles for how we should live. We can only hope that Socrates and other figures that awaken our memories and imaginations will play a role in this discussion so that the possibility of our progress is always on the horizon.


The Death of Socrates - History

Socrates, revered founder of the Western philosophical tradition, is better understood as a mythic philosopher than as a historical figure. He lived in Athens, from 469 until his execution in 399 BCE. He never wrote a word -- our knowledge of the philosophy of Socrates depends absolutely on the records of his students and contemporaries. Socrates was certainly a strange, eccentric personality: he wandered about in old, dirty clothes, without shoes, and played the part of the destitute vagrant. By all accounts, he was considered rather ugly. Though enormously respected by students and admirers, he also had powerful enemies, who accused him of two weighty crimes: atheism and the corruption of the youth.

"Euthyphro," the first episode in Plato's Trial and Death of Socrates, takes place outside the courthouse in Athens. On his way to trial, Socrates encounters Euthyphro, a confident Athenian preparing to sue his own father. Naturally, Socrates stops to question Euthyphro regarding the nature of piety.

In Plato's dialogues, Socrates draws out seemingly simple discussions, always in search of true forms. What is Socrates asking for then, when he asks "what is piety?" Or in the words of JAY-Z, Is Pious pious 'cause God loves pious? How would you characterize Socrates' method of seeking the truth?

In "Apology," Socrates speaks before the jurors of Athens. Whilst confronting the charges brought against him by Meletus, Socrates embarks on a famous discussion on the nature of wisdom.

What is human wisdom? How is Socrates wise?

In "Crito" and "Phaedo," Socrates and his disciples grapple with the jury's verdict. Faced with the opportunity to flee Athens and escape execution, Socrates discusses his relationship with the state.

Why does Socrates reject Crito's offer?

The life and death of Socrates are enshrined in the works of Plato, Socrates' pupil. Plato lived in Athens from 429 to 347 BCE, where he founded his Academy. Plato, in turn, trained another major figure of the Western Tradition: Aristotle. Teacher and student are depicted above, in Raphael's iconic The School of Athens. (Perhaps this setting looks strangely familiar). In his countless dialogues, Plato expresses an extraordinary fascination for forms -- the eternal, essential abstractions underlying all earthly objects.


Watch the video: The Death of Socrates: How To Read A Painting