The Death of Socrates Reconsidered

Socrates is often considered the father of Western philosophy. He taught Plato and influenced Aristotle, pioneering aspects of intellectual instruction and philosophical enquiry. No writings in his name survive. Instead, the life of Socrates is held to demonstrate greatness. Plato viewed his mentor as the ideal philosopher, a model of how a thinker should act and live. The memory of the man surpasses his works.

An essential part of this memory is the manner in which Socrates died. He did so by drinking hemlock at the command of the Athenian polis. In the celebrated painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates reaches for the poison-containing vessel with determination, a finger elevated as he makes one last forceful intervention. His body, which, in life, was old and featured a pronounced paunch, is idealised and muscular. His gaze is steely and resolved. His followers despair, mourning a great man in advance.

This is one of the great images of western art and it surmounts a perception of Socrates which is central to the West’s intellectual tradition. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle represent a secular trinity, three men whose influence on thought from medicine to politics, from metaphysics to literary theory, has been incalculable.

Plato wanted to portray Socrates not just as a great philosopher, but as an exemplar of the craft, his life a paragon and a model. Socrates’ life story is part of a story told about philosophy itself. It is a creation myth, of a sort. And Socrates’ death, more even than his life, is central to this story and to the effect it has had on the subsequent millennia.

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Socrates was condemned to death in 399 BC after he was found guilty of impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens. When this sentence was decided upon, Socrates failed to act in his own interests and present a credible alternative to the death penalty.

Socrates was put to death not only because he had attracted a reputation, mostly deserved, for being a social nuisance, but also because he let it happen. In this sense Socrates is not the primary author of his fate, but becomes a willing participant, culpable himself for the events which led to his enforced suicide.

When Socrates was tried, Athens was in a state of turmoil. The Peloponnesian War, fought between Sparta and Athens for the leadership of the Greek world, had ended only a few years earlier. This was a war that changed the way the world was seen by Athenian eyes. Athens was defeated. The Athenian Empire was traduced, the city garrisoned, democracy briefly forfeited. The Thirty Tyrants, oligarchs sponsored by Sparta, ruled a post-democratic polis.

This chaotic situation created tension and drama. When democracy was restored in Athens, the wounds of war and oligarchy could not be expected to heal quickly. Socrates was associated with those who opposed Athenian democracy. Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants, was Socrates’ disciple. So too was another: Charmides.

Robin Waterfield, in his book Why Socrates Died, goes so far as to suggest that Socrates’ association with, Alcibiades, another character of this sort, and a general ‘aristocratic milieu’, was enough to prompt Socrates’ being put on trial. This seems a sweeping judgement. But it is not entirely unfounded. For Athenian democrats, there were legitimate reasons to try Socrates.

In the two near-contemporary narratives we have of Socrates’ trial, Plato’s and Xenophon’s, there is no suggestion that the ordeal was entirely unwarranted or inexplicable.

The crimes of which Socrates was accused were not reached unreasonably. He did spend a lot of time with the young men of the city, especially the children of rich families. He did teach them new and revolutionary ideas – about philosophy, about government, about argument and intellectual inquiry. These ideas can be seen in later writings, made manifest in Plato’s intellectual achievements, for one.

The newness of these ideas could legitimately be considered a kind of corrupting influence, if one saw the overthrow of the old ways as a process of intellectual and moral corruption. The facetious suggestion that Socrates corrupted the youth by teaching them to disobey their parents, as echoed in a contemporary satirical play, The Clouds by Aristophanes, is also invoked by Xenophon. It is not a strong argument. But it would have seemed reasonable to certain Athenian minds.

Xenophon, in his defence of Socrates, stresses Socrates’ lack of physical corruption, his modest tastes, his endurance of adverse conditions, his personal poverty. This was a diversionary tactic. The question was less whether he led youth astray into a life of dissipation than whether he led them in lives of moral and intellectual discontinuity. The evidence against Socrates includes the fates of many of his students.

Their actions stood as testament to the anti-democratic and personally ambitious attitudes that Socrates engendered or encouraged. Xenophon’s defence of Socrates’ lack of ambition is counterintuitive. Socrates himself is meant to have said, when challenged by a sophist, Antiphon, that participation in politics is nothing compared to training men who can themselves participate. His work with Athens’ youth was inherently political.

Plato’s defence of Socrates includes a logical problem rather than a legal argument. Plato’s Socrates declares that though the youth imitated him in questioning authority, they did not mean harm. But this questioning of authority was why Socrates was thought a corrupting influence.

On the charge of impiety, Socrates could assemble a better defense.

Both Plato and Xenophon have him stressing his piety with sincerity. Plato portrays Socrates as having sought an answer from the oracle at Delphi, and acting upon this advice faithfully. The oracle gave justification for Socrates’ questioning of the knowledge of others, a doctrine more suited to the philosopher ideal which Plato wished to propagate than a legal defense.

Xenophon has Socrates argue that the world must have been designed by a higher power. He has him list the beneficial aspects of the human condition and body. All of this demonstrates piety, but does not disprove impiety.

Impiety in Athens was broad. It included those who introduced new religious ideas while still believing in the old gods. Socrates did believe in a different god to everyone else, one which, in the form of his ‘divine sign’, his daimonion, assisted him in directing his course of life.

Aristophanes, in his play, was less charitable. He has Socrates worshiping disembodied entities, the titular Clouds. This amounts to an accusation of near-atheism. The play was performed 26 years before Socrates’ trial. Such things would have seeped into the Athenian consciousness.

Socrates was not an atheist, but he was associated with the Sophists – like him, teachers of young men, some of whom were atheists. Plato has Socrates deflect this comparison, but not enough. Socrates allowed such a perception to take shape in the years before Aristophanes’ play and his own trial. In such circumstances, the charge of impiety is not unreasonable.

Both charges against Socrates were merited when judged by the standards of the time.

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But this is only half of the question. It matters also how Socrates responded in court. Moses Finley, in his essay “Socrates and Athens”, notes that Socrates may not have been an effective orator. His style was more about dialogue, discussions in small groups.

Convincing an Athenian jury, comprising hundreds of his peers – some of them poor and uneducated, some of the politically active in a way Socrates was not – to doubt these accusations would have been difficult in any case. But the manner in which he mounted his defense appears to have made things worse.

Plato’s Apologia, which purports to be Socrates’ speech in his defense, is a remarkable document. By turns beautiful, profound and witty, it is a remarkable triumph of oratory, philosophical logic and literary flair. It glistens and shimmers. But elegance alone is not enough.

This Socrates uses abstruse logic, philosophical reasoning, and suggests, rather arrogantly if prettily, that he is wiser than all of those present because he knows the depth of his ignorance.

This is stimulating reading for modern observers. But it would not have helped him in an Athenian court. Even as presented by Plato and Xenophon, both advocates, Socrates’ defence could not have saved his life.

Socrates’ defence failed and the jurors voted him guilty. The essential moment of the trial arrived. Socrates could have chosen many courses of action. He could have paid a fine; he could have asked to be banished. He could actively have done a number of things to spare his life.

But Socrates did not, instead asking, per Plato, for his punishment to comprise eating free meals for life at the expense of the city. Another vote was called and the result of this arrogance was clear. Many more jurors than voted to convict him balloted to punish Socrates with death. He left them no other option.

There is an attractive image of Socrates, derived largely from the cool, ironic display of the character depicted in Plato’s Apologia – a man unjustly accused holding firmly to his pride. This is a story of a philosopher going to his death for the sake of maintaining his intellectual posture. As an idea, it is everywhere in Plato’s narrative. It must be treated seriously.

As Gregory Vlastos suggests in his essay “The Paradox of Socrates”, we must, at least in part, embrace the idea of Socrates which Plato presents: a man all irony and all paradox.

But practically, such pleasant versions mattered little. They did not influence Athens’ jurors. Socrates did not displace any of the negative impressions of his life and character, which he had allowed to become part of the collective culture.

Under reasonable circumstances, Socrates failed to win his case – not because of injustice, but because he did not do enough to repudiate the charges laid against him.

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Once the jury settled on his punishment, Socrates accepted the verdict and went to his death easily. He did not resist, or try to bargain, or attempt escape. The latter may have been possible. Athens’ prisons were not impregnable, and he had many supporters and allies in powerful families. Had he wanted to, Socrates could have escaped, even at the end.

This was unlikely to happen, but it is worth appreciating why. Socrates did not want to become an exile on practical grounds. But there is also a philosophical point. Intention and willingness matter. Socrates clearly wanted to die as the court ordered in the service of certain ideals. This was, in a sense, fatalism.

The fatalism of Socrates is connected to the attitude which Plato has him express. It is an almost fond view of death; an idea that death represents one of two alternatives, each of which are positive. As Plato has it, Socrates says, ‘There is great reason to hope that death is a good’.

This clarifies Socrates’ behaviour. His fatalism was not inherently suicidal, but it rationalised death and sacrifice. If Socrates felt he could die in the service of his philosophy, it would be worth it. Perhaps this is why he made no effort to save his life, either at the end or in the course of his extraordinary trial.

Had Socrates not cultivated an image which was so dramatically out of the ordinary; had he not taken a group of devoted young followers, some of whose actions were deeply counter to the interests and wishes of their fellow Athenians; had he actively defended himself rather than relying on philosophical logic and abstract principle; had he chosen to bargain to avoid the death penalty; and had he escaped prison rather than accepting and awaiting the end – in any of these cases, Socrates would have avoided death.

But he would not have been remembered. He would not have been a visionary. His memory would not have been cherished and frequently invoked and kept green.

Socrates was great man rightly convicted of two unfortunate charges and put to death as a result. The responsibility for Socrates’ death is attributable to the decisions he made and the stances he adopted. Socrates did not deserve to die. But nor did he have to. When the time came and the choice was his, Socrates decided on one path and ensured that it was followed. His death provided the close of philosophy’s creation myth. It was a myth of his creation.

This piece was originally published at Arc Digital.

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