It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’...
It might have been May 19, 399 BCE* — and if not, we’re in the neighborhood — that the original gadfly** philosopher Socrates obeyed a death sentence from his native Athens and quaffed a cup of deadly hemlock. It’s one of the most famous executions in history, and arguably one of the most consequential.
Socrates left no original writings that survive for us. Posterity sees him via the works of his students Xenophon and especially Plato, but he was a well-known figure to contemporaries in the polis.
For decades, the man with the method and the familiar daemon had been philosophizing around town. Socrates comes in for mockery in an Aristophanes play lampooning newfangled intellectual trends in the 420s BCE
“Like Ozzy Osbourne, [Socrates] was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young.”
The weird and unsatisfying corrupting-the-young and impiety charges which putatively caused the man’s trial and death sentence have been much-debated in the centuries since. It seems clear that at some level the “real” crime in the eyes of the hundreds of fellow-citizens who judged Socrates had to do with the students who weren’t reverential successor-eggheads, but toxic contemporary politicians. Socrates tutored the treacherous demagogue Alcibiades, who convinced Athenians to mount a catastrophic invasion of Sicily that cost Athens the Peloponnesian War; he rolled with Critias, one of the notorious tyrants of Athens during the 404-403 Spartan puppet dictatorship that resulted from losing that war.
All the while, Socrates had openly preached a dim view of the Athenian democratic system. Again, we don’t have the master’s direct words here, but something like the dialogue presented by the Socrates character in Plato’s allegory of the cave — in which non-philosophers are a lot of purblind morlocks — is difficult to square with anything but an elitist take of civilization. There’s a reason this could be a bit of a sore subject in a city that had just seen the glories of its late imperial apex possessed by Spartan hoplites, especially when espoused by a guy who rubbed chitons with the tyrants themselves.
Even so, Socrates was only narrowly convicted. Once convicted, the legal game had both the prosecution and the defendant propose a punishment, and the jury select one.
Were this system still practiced somewhere, game theorists would have a field day with it. But Socrates just opted out of the match by proposing that he be “punished” with a public pension for his services to the polis. There’s being a gadfly, and then there’s telling your jury to go take a long walk off a high rock: he was death-sentenced by a larger margin than had voted to convict. Plato makes this a much more martyr-like scene than Xenophon; the latter emphasizes that the septuagenarian chin-waggler didn’t much mind being excused from the frailties of advancing age.
Plato used Socrates repeatedly in various dialogues, and it goes without saying that these are cornerstones of the literary canon. The dialogues of most relevance† for his execution specifically are:
the Apology, Plato’s account of the defense Socrates mounted at trial: it’s in this text that Socrates is reported to utter the words, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
Crito, a conversation between a wealthy guy of that name and the condemned Socrates in which the philosopher expounds his theory of citizenship and social contract in refusing Crito’s blandishments to escape before execution.
the Phaedo, in which Socrates argues for the immortality of the soul, and then gets down to the business of swallowing his fatal draught.
Soon the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven, entered and stood by him, saying:—To you, Socrates, whom I know to be the noblest and gentlest and best of all who ever came to this place, I will not impute the
about 15 hours ago