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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Trial of Socrates

Socrates (circa 470399 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher who is widely credited for laying the foundation for Western philosophy, and is held as its most influential practitioner. The most important source of information concerning Socrates is Plato. Plato's dialogues portray Socrates as a teacher who denies having disciples, as a man of reason who obeys a divine voice in his head, and a pious man who is executed for the state's own expediency. Socrates disparages the pleasures of the senses, yet is excited by beauty; he is devoted to the education of the citizens of Athens, yet indifferent to his own sons.

The trial and execution of Socrates was the climax of his career and the central event of the dialogues of Plato. According to Plato, both were unnecessary. Socrates admits in court that he could have avoided the trial by abandoning philosophy and going home to mind his own business. After his conviction, he could have avoided the death penalty by escaping with the help of his friends. The reason for his cooperation with the state's mandate forms a valuable philosophical insight in its own right, and is best articulated by the dialogues themselves, especially in his dialogue with Crito.



The Socratic problem

Forming an accurate picture of the historical Socrates and his philosophical viewpoints is problematic. This issue is known as the Socratic problem.

Socrates did not write philosophical texts. The knowledge of the man, his life, and his philosophy is based on writings by his students and contemporaries. Foremost among them is Plato; however, works by Xenophon, Aristotle, and Aristophanes also provide important insights. The difficulty of finding the “real” Socrates arises because these works are often philosophical or dramatic texts rather than straightforward histories. Aside from Thucydides (who makes no mention of Socrates or philosophers in general) and Xenophon, there are in fact no straightforward histories contemporary with Socrates that dealt with his own time and place. A corollary of this is that sources that do mention Socrates do not necessarily claim to be historically accurate, and are often partisan (those who prosecuted and convicted Socrates have left no testament). Historians therefore face the challenge of reconciling the various texts that come from these men to create an accurate and consistent account of Socrates' life and work. The result of such an effort is not necessarily realistic, merely consistent.

Plato is frequently viewed as the most informative source about Socrates' life and philosophy. At the same time, however, many scholars believe that in some works Plato, being a literary artist, pushed his avowedly brightened-up version of "Socrates" far beyond anything the historical Socrates was likely to have done or said; and that Xenophon, being a historian, is a more reliable witness to the historical Socrates. Parsing which Socrates—the "real" one, or Plato's own mouthpiece—Plato is using at any given point is a matter of much debate.

However, it is also clear from other writings, and historical artifacts that Socrates was not simply a character, or invention, of Plato. The testimony of Xenophon and Aristotle, alongside some of Aristophanes' work (especially The Clouds), can be usefully engaged in fleshing out our perception of Socrates beyond Plato's work.

Trial and death

Trial of Socrates

Socrates lived during the time of the transition from the height of the Athenian hegemony to its decline with the defeat by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens sought to stabilize and recover from its humiliating defeat, the Athenian public may have been entertaining doubts about democracy as an efficient form of government. Socrates appears to have been a critic of democracy, and some scholars interpret his trial as an expression of political infighting.

Claiming loyalty to his city, Socrates clashed with the current course of Athenian politics and society. He praises Sparta, archrival to Athens, directly and indirectly in various dialogues. But perhaps the most historically accurate of Socrates' offenses to the city was his position as a social and moral critic. Rather than upholding a status quo and accepting the development of what he perceived as immorality within his region, Socrates questioned the collective notion of "might makes right" that he felt was common in Greece during this period. Plato refers to Socrates as the "gadfly" of the state (as the gadfly stings the horse into action, so Socrates stung various Athenians), insofar as he irritated some people with considerations of justice and the pursuit of goodness. His attempts to improve the Athenians' sense of justice may have been the source of his execution.

According to Plato's Apology, Socrates' life as the "gadfly" of Athens began when his friend Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates; the Oracle responded that none was wiser. Socrates believed that what the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. He proceeded to test the riddle by approaching men considered wise by the people of Athens—statesmen, poets, and artisans—in order to refute the Oracle's pronouncement. Questioning them, however, Socrates concluded that, while each man thought he knew a great deal and was wise, in fact they knew very little and were not wise at all. Socrates realized that the Oracle was correct, in that while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all, which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he was the only person aware of his own ignorance. Socrates' paradoxical wisdom made the prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish, turning them against him and leading to accusations of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role as a gadfly until the end: at his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggests a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spends as Athens' benefactor. He was, nevertheless, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of "not believing in the gods of the state", and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.

According to Xenophon's story, Socrates purposefully gave a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead". Xenophon goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and how Socrates would be glad to circumvent them by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates also wished to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."

Xenophon and Plato agree that Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. He chose to stay for several reasons:

  1. He believed such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has.
  2. If he fled Athens his teaching would fare no better in another country as he would continue questioning all he met and undoubtedly incur their displeasure.
  3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his "social contract" with the state, and so harm the state, an act contrary to Socratic principle.

The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of the Crito.

Socrates' death is described at the end of Plato's Phaedo. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his legs felt numb. After he lay down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before his death, Socrates speaks his last words to Crito: "Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, 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 adds another interpretation of Socrates' last words. He suggests that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes. In this view, the token of appreciation for Asclepius would represent a cure for the ailments of Athens.

In the visual arts

For the salon of 1787, Jacques-Louis David exhibited his famous Death of Socrates, it now hangs at the MET in New York.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Socrates" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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