Death of Socrates
In ancient Greece, a friend of Socrates,
once consulted the Oracle at Delphi,
asking if any man was wiser than
Socrates. The Oracle replied that there
was none. Upon being told this QuickTime™ and a
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answer, Socrates maintained that this
implied that he, alone, had this claim
to wisdom – only because he fully
recognized his own ignorance.
The Death of Socrates by
From then on, Socrates sought out Jacques-Louis David
people who had a reputation for
wisdom and, in every case, revealed that their reputations were not justified. Socrates regarded
this activity as a service to God and decided that he should continue to make efforts to improve
people by persuading and reminding them of their own ignorance.
What we now call the "Socratic method" of philosophical inquiry involved questioning people on
the positions they asserted and working them, through further questions, into seemingly inevitable
contradictions, thus proving to them that their original assertion had fatal inconsistencies.
Socrates refers to this "Socratic method" as elenchus. The Socratic method gave rise to
dialectic, the idea that truth needs to be approached by modifying one's position through
questionings and exposures to contrary ideas.
Socrates did not involve himself in the political life of Athens because he felt that he would
inevitably face compromises of principle that he was not prepared to make. As a prominent
citizen, however, he was called upon to fulfill minor political roles. One time, his sense of
principle put him in some personal danger when he held out alone against the unconstitutional
condemnation of certain generals. And later he refused to participate in the arrest of an innocent
man that had been ordered by a corrupt body of "Thirty Tyrants" who ruled Athens, in the wake of
her defeat by Sparta. This refusal might have cost Socrates his life except that the Thirty Tyrants
were overthrown and democracy was restored.
This restored democracy was, however, markedly traditionalist and reactionary in its religious
views. It regarded Socrates, as a teacher of novel (“new”) ideas of morality and justice, with
disfavor. Socrates had also alienated many powerful men with his relentless questioning which
caused them to face their personal ignorance or own up to shortfalls in office.
In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of "impiety," and "neglect of the Gods whom the city worships
and the practice of religious novelties," and the "corruption of the young". Socrates’ trial, last
days, and death are related in several works by Plato. These works are known as the Apology
(i.e., Defense Speech), Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo.
In his Apology, Plato relates the trial and sentencing of Socrates. His sentence was death by
drinking a fatal poison. Under most circumstances Socrates would have been obliged to submit to
execution within 24 hours. It happened, however, that executions were traditionally suspended
while a certain sacred ship made an annual voyage to the Island of Delos. Because this ship
happened to be on the seas, Socrates was allowed a stay of execution.
Plato relates the last days of Socrates (after his trial) in his Euthyphro. In the Euthyphro the
reader is also presented with an example of the Socratic method of inquiry.
Plato's recounting of Socrates’ last days continues in Crito, which deals with the arrival of the
sacred ship back from its voyage to Delos. Crito visits Socrates in prison and finds him apparently
untroubled by the prospect of his imminent demise. Socrates tells Crito of a dream he had had, in
which a fair and comely woman clothed in white had advised that he, Socrates, had only three
days of this life remaining before "to Phthia (death) shalt thou go." Although Socrates' friends
offer him a sure escape to Thessaly, Socrates insists that he cannot return evil for evil. He has a
duty to respect the due process of the Law in the city that had nurtured him.
The final episode in Socrates life is related in the Phaedro.
In Crito, Socrates makes an important point as to why he must stay in prison and accept the
death penalty rather than escape and go into exile in another Greek city. In the text, Socrates
personifies the Laws of Athens, and, speaking in their voice, explains that he has acquired an
overwhelming obligation to obey the Laws because they have made his entire way of life, and
even the fact of his very existence, possible. They made it possible for his mother and father to
marry, and therefore to have legitimate children, including himself. Having been born, the city of
Athens, through its laws, then required that his father care for and educate him. Socrates' life and
the way in which that life has flourished in Athens are each dependent upon the Laws.
Importantly, however, this relationship between citizens and the Laws of the city are not coerced.
Citizens, once they have grown up, and have seen how the city conducts itself, can choose
whether to leave, taking their property with them, or stay. Staying implies an agreement to abide
by the Laws and accept the punishments that they mete out. And, having made an agreement
that is itself just, Socrates asserts that he must keep to this agreement that he has made and
obey the Laws, in this case, by staying and accepting the death penalty. Importantly, the contract
described by Socrates is an implicit one: it is implied by his choice to stay in Athens, even though
he is free to leave.
QUESTIONS FOR CONSIDERATION:
1. What are Socrates’ most compelling reasons for staying in Athens and facing death?
2. What are his least compelling reasons?
3. Would you have made the same decision as Socrates? Explain.