THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SOCRATES
Philosophy was both serious and dangerous, Socrates chose to ignore both. Ignoring the first made him one of the most engaging of all philosophers, ignoring the second was to cost him his life. He was born in a middle class home in Athens, in 470 BCE. His parents were Phaenarete and Sophroniscus. His mother had a reputation for her patient and intuitive skill in delivering babies in and around the neighborhood. The latter, his father was a craftsman, stonecutter by trade.
As a young boy, Socrates was teased in school about his appearance, and often would prey to the Gods to make him beautiful both inside as well as outside. He was known for asking many questions as a child, because he was very curious about things, what they were, what importance they had? Crito noticed that Socrates in a way was beginning to think as a philosopher, always looking for the meaning of things.
As Socrates gradually began to mature and grow older, he did not see much of his friends. They would always be down at the gymnasium working seriously at the outdoor exercises. He did not like to work out like his friends or be a stonecutter like his father because he knew that sort of thing was not for him. He thought about everything in a more abstract way.
The Gods during Socrates time seemed to be further away from humanity, they did not disguise themselves as humans to help or punish them anymore (1). He only knew of them from old stories, myths, and Homer. He had a voice in him that stopped him from doing certain things as he was about to, and he thought that that was gift from the gods. He knew that goodness was the very mark of the gods and that is why he tried his best to be just towards everything and everybody.
As a teen Socrates talked and studied with many other accomplished scientists and philosophers, whose names are not known. Later, from when he was eighteen to twenty-four he was in the military in the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Along with, the rest of the army, he walked fourteen miles in one day to make it to Athens on time. In the tents, he always won the philosophical arguments between his friends, for he had pondered the subjects himself many times. If it had not been for Pythion, an experienced guide of Greece, they would probably not have made it to Athens on time.
After the long march, Socrates first military adventure, he again comfortably settled in Athens. He and his father along with many other people, including prisoners, foreigners and the unemployed had taken up a public contract to build the Acropolis. The Athenians were proud mostly of Pericles, because he was the one who founded and organized it. Anaxagoras, a scientist nicknamed “the mind”, who walked around Athens daily, had found a rock that had fallen from the sky and had concluded that there were no gods, but that the sun was hot metal and the moon earth. He was put on trial by the majority, who was religious, but Pericles sent him away to Asia Minor where he lived to the last of his days in peace. Socrates agreed with Anaxagoras, but wanted more answers and explanations. He listened to many other scientists and philosophers, but when Anaxagoras book came out in writing, he read about the “Mind” and that it was the control of all living things, everything else was a “mixture”. Socrates read on to many other writings, but soon found himself confused in all the abstract concepts. Then, he understood that he had to ask himself the question “why” instead of how, which developed his philosophical view and style.
At the time when Socrates was reaching his late thirtys he became more prudent about life. Chaerephon, one of his friends, went to the Oracle at Delphi to ask it if Socrates was the wisest. The Oracle said he was. When this news reached Athens many people in high offices felt hatred against Socrates. However, Socrates himself said that God was the wisest and next to him, the man who thinks that, God is the wisest and not himself.
Socrates was serving the army again, and one day when they were taking a rest, he awoke early in the morning and stood in the mud across his tent on and high hill, his feet planted, for a whole day. He did not say a word, until the next morning, when he gave a prayer to the sun and resumed his normal activities. No one asked why he had done that. Upon return to Athens he gave up stonecutting completely and invested his money and regularly, as if by set hours, he went to the gymnasium to talk to passerbys about many different reflective concepts. Crito once said “Socrates is the only one of all Athenians who knows where he is going and is all packed up, ready to go.”
Socrates asked himself why he “was” and concluded that he was on a mission given to him by God. His mission was to find someone wiser than himself, but soon he realized that he was in a way wiser than the Sophists, who were considered extremely sensible, since he himself admitted that he was not smart, but had been ignorant until now. He decided that the experts in goodness were not those who taught it, but those who possessed it. Socrates questioned many people, yet he never found a “universal truth” for every situation or thing.
Socrates, as mentioned many times, walked the streets of Athens daily. On one occasion, he met Alcibiades, a higher-class boy somewhat arrogant and spoiled. Consequently, they met regularly at the Acropolis and spent many hours together meditating on ideas. When they went to war together they fought and rested together. Alcibiades saw beauty inside Socrates he had never seen anywhere else before. He did not choose to go to Socrates “city”, a place were the wise, the good, and the philosophical people ruled, for he would be a mere slave by his way of life in Athens. Because he chose to be the center of attention by deciding to go into politics, which to Socrates was the worst lifetime career a person might take on, due to the fact that in politics one must lie and be self-governing. Socrates was blamed when Alcibiades mimicked sacred rituals of Athens and was put on trial. He fled from Athens to Sparta, helping them win a war against Athens, but afterwards came back to Athens pardoned, but committing another crime against the state fled to Persia, where he was killed.
Socrates married Xanthippe, a very educated woman in his neighborhood, because he wanted children and she married him for security and his kindness. During this time, the Sophists were saying crazy and outrageous things almost to the point of exile. Socrates was forced into politics and both times, it almost cost him his life. The first, was the trial of the six generals, who while arguing did not save sinking ships, in result they were brought to trial with Socrates speaking on their behalf. The outcome was unjust in the eyes of Socrates. He was almost killed and the generals were hung. The second, was when Athens was forced to surrender to Sparta along with the thirty coming to power. They chose Socrates as one of the five men compelled to arrest Leon, a rich and honest man, in order to take his wealth. Nevertheless, he survived all this, returning to his wife and three sons safely.
About four years after the wars Socrates was called to trial. His chances of winning were minimized by the presence of Anytus on the prosecution. By Socrates words it was “principle and intelligent faith, against ignorant conservatism and fear”, the latter representing majority of Athens. Socrates was charged with impiety, the corruption of the youth, and the undermining of religious beliefs. Meletus was the one who brought the idea of a trial of Socrates forth. He spoke on the behalf of the poets, Anytus on the behalf of the craftsmen, and Lycon on behalf of the rhetoricians. Meletus starts off by saying that Socrates corrupts the minds of his fellow friends and is “the poet or maker of gods, and that he makes new gods and denies the existence of old ones.” Socrates had a habit of pouring himself out to everybody and would even pay for a listener; this is why everyone knew of him and became tired of him. After the prosecution told more lies and false charges, he was called to the stand for his own defense or Apology.
Socrates first asked to talk philosophically (the way he talked on the Agora to the passerbys). He said that he had ancient and new enemies. One of the ancients being Aristophanes, who he called a liar for creating a character named Socrates in his play and making him say false things. As for his new enemies, he denies in a sophisticated way their charges by talking about his ancient ones by saying:
“I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not let
yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They
ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were
sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed
my deficiency; they certainly did appear to be most shameless
in saying this, unless by force of eloquence they mean the force
of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent.”(2)
After this speech those on the jury who thought they would give him another chance, now wanted him dead, without question. His new enemies headed by Meletus restate that he is a doer of evil, the sole corrupter of the youth in all of Athens, and he does not believe in the gods of the state and has other new divinities of his own. They then said that he was an absolute atheist. To this Socrates said Meletus did not know what he was doing, for he would never alter his ways even if he had to die multiple times, adding on that he was a gadfly sent down by God to teach and awaken the people from a nap of neglect of truth in the universe.
Socrates recalled when he was a Senator he had the choice to tell the truth or save his seat he told the truth. He did not teach directly he said, he used the Socratic method of question and answer. He told the jury that he would not bring in his family in for sympathy and gain acquittal, because that would discredit him and the state. The result of the vote was that thirty more people found him guilty than not. To this his response was along the lines that he did not deserve anything, for he had done no wrong and was afraid of death by Meletus hand due to the fact that he did not know if that was good or bad.
Socrates turning to his “friends”(those who did not condemn him) that death is either a state of nothingness or unconsciousness or a passage of the soul to another world. His last words to them were:
“The hour of our departure has arrived, and we must go our waysI to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”(3)
After he was condemned, he had to wait for about a month, because a ship was sent to Delos, the island where Apollo was born. This was a yearly ritual and anyone on death row would have to wait until it came back. However, the ship encountered some difficulties on the way back, taking it a whole month to reach Athens. Socrates had a dream two days before his death. In the dream, he was told by a woman in white the same that Achilles said when he was thinking of escaping Troy, he would arrive home on the third day. Socrates took this to mean as to three days after the ships arrival he would die.
Socrates was offered escape a very well planned escape from his friends (they even had the warden bribed), but he refused it. On his last day his friends were let in early to talk to him. They talk about the deportation of the soul from the body and immortality until sunset. When Socrates asked for his poison, they gave it to him hesitantly. When he started drinking it all his friends were weeping, but Apollodovus yelled out uncontrollably by accident. To this Socrates said, ” What is this strange outcry? I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not offend in this way, for I have heard a man should die in peace.” The poison took a few minutes to circulate through his body, when he did not feel his legs any more he said his last words, to his best friend, “Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the dept?” Crito nodded and two minutes later his heart stopped. “He was the wisest, fairest, and best of all men ever known.”(4)
“Socrates had traits of body and soul that distinguished him from other sophists-philosophers, Athenians or strangers, and he didnt care much for his city or its laws.” (5)
His trial was very similar to that of Jesus. Both were long ago, without certain verifications and detailed facts and only known because of their pupils. Plato and Xenophone portrayed Socrates as a man of the greatest practical wisdom greater than that of the poets and an unrivaled master in judging human beings and in handling them. Aristophanes depicted him as a person who is used by the people between the lower and higher classes, along with his Socrates character saying in his play “Heaven is a stove and men are charcoals.”(6) These are the writers from which most of the information about Socrates was collected. Each of their works does not contain the complete truth about him. They either idealize or defame him in some way or another.
Socrates trial was a great mistake. The ignorant citizens of Athens and arrogant leaders caused it. The people condemned him and the prosecutors wrongfully accused him. At the time of the trial he was about seventy, which was comparatively old in those times. He just had a few more years to live. Mainly the sudden hatred and rage against Socrates might have been cause by political mayhem (rule of the thirty) from the last few decades.
Socrates was accused of impiety and the corruption of the youth. Firstly, he was never impious, for since he was a little boy he had learned of the myths of the gods on Mt. Olympus. Only because he swayed away from this belief when he matured, because it seemed ridiculous to him, does not mean he was ungodly. He believed in his own god without any influence on others. As long as he did not teach his beliefs, he was safe. He never did, for he used the Socratic dialogue, which did not teach anything new to the other person(s), but analyzed what they already knew.
Secondly, Socrates never corrupted the youth. He taught and developed it more than anything. Simply because a couple of his students or “listeners” committed treason against the state it did not mean that he was corrupt.
Socrates train of thought was and is different from that of many people. He was a gifted human who having been killed instinctively by the people, because one kills or is afraid of that which is greatly different from him/her. Socrates was to civilization as virtue is to the soul.
In a passage in Crito, there is a debate between Socrates and his friend. His friend says “in war and in court and everywhere, you must do whatever the statecommands, persuade her that otherwise is right.” Socrates here could have said, “How can I persuade her if free speech is shut off?” This would probably have caused some surprise from his defamers. He also could have gained acquittal had he not be so audacious in court.
Essentially, Socrates was a good citizen who committed no great or serious crimes against the state. He was illegitimately accused and killed. James Hulse has a quote by Soren Kierkegaard of Socrates, “one may say of Socrates that just as he journeyed through life constantly between caricature and ideal, so he continues to wander between them after his death.”(7) Had this trial taken place in 1998 in the United States there would have been many objections to it and the outcome, since there is free speech and free choice of belief this trial would not have lasted a day in court. Unfortunately, it did not take place in 1998, and was a mistake from the beginning. Nevertheless, everyone learns from his or her mistakes eventually.
“Most portraits represent Socrates as the great ironist of philosophy. He knows but ironically denies that he knows. He teaches but ironically denies that he teaches. He claims that knowledge is identical to virtue, ironically disclaiming the one yet implying that he possesses the other. Even when he is on trial for his life, he is what he says he is not and is not what he says he is. He is perpetually masked in order to stir up in those he examines a fertile and productive search for virtue. (8)
1Cora Mason, Socrates: The Man Who Dared To Ask (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1957) 22-27.
2Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates: Four Dialogues (New York: Dover Publications, 1992) 20-25.
5Leo Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes (New York/London: Basic Books Inc., 1966) 311.
7James W. Hulse, The Reputations of Socrates (New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 1995) 0.
8C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Platos Apology of Socrates (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989) 184.