Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David

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Few individuals have affected the history of Western thought as profoundly as did the Greek philosopher Socrates, mainly through the writings of his student, Plato. The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said, "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato"--and by extension, Socrates. Four of Plato's dialogues--the Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo--give information that helps us understand what happened in the trial and death of Socrates.

And few paintings capture the impact of Socrates on his followers (and, ultimately, on us) more than the 1787 work of French painter Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates.

In the painting, Socrates is sitting up on a bed, gesturing with one hand (still teaching!) as he reaches for a cup with the other. The person holding the cup is turned away and covering his face in grief.

Because the cup, you see, is filled with poison, and Socrates is drinking it as a form of execution by the state.

He had been tried and convicted on two charges: corrupting the youth of Athens, and impiety (worshipping false gods and not those of the state). The first charge resulted from his criticizing the leaders of Athens, and encouraging the youth to "question authority." Socrates denied that this was his intention. The second, which he freely admitted to in his trial, was because he deemed the gods, not like humans in nature, but more like concepts.

What had happened was this: a friend and follower of Socrates, Chaerephon, had gone to the Oracle at Delphi, and asked if Socrates was the wisest of men. The Oracle answered that no man was wiser than Socrates. When told this, Socrates doubted it, and began asking questions of prominent men in an effort to find one wiser than he was.

Alas, no one stood the test. Furthermore, the idle youth of the city began following him around and witnessing the disgrace of the leaders, which led to the charge that Socrates was "corrupting the youth."

Interestingly, in David's painting, Socrates is surrounded by grieving students (while his family waits outside in a hallway). Plato, anachronistically depicted as an old man, sits alone at the foot of his bed, while most of the others are crowded around the head. Their attitude stands in contrast to the confidence of Socrates, who had scolded them for their "womanly" signs of grief.

The man who has lived a moral life, he told them, had nothing to fear from death.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. anachronistically
  2. convicted
  3. corrupting
  4. deemed
  5. depicted
  6. disgrace
  7. idle
  8. impiety
  9. oracle
  10. prominent
  1. found guilty
  2. leading astray; make immoral
  3. considered; thought (to be)
  4. not working; hanging around
  5. important
  6. in the wrong time period; here, at the wrong age
  7. shame; loss of respect
  8. shown; portrayed
  9. lack of respect for sacred things
  10. a kind of fortune teller

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What is in the cup Socrates is about to drink from? Why must he drink it?
  2. What were Socrates's "crimes," according to the government?
  3. What did Socrates think of the gods?
  4. How did Socrates cause the youth of Athens to question authority?
  5. What did Socrates think of death?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Why do you think Socrates doubted that he was "the wisest of men."
  2. Do you think a teacher should be punished for causing young people to ask questions about their societies' leaders?
  3. Do you agree with Socrates, that a good person doesn't need to be afraid of death?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. F; 2. A; 3. B; 4. C; 5. H; 6. G; 7. D; 8. I; 9. J; 10. E

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)

    1. Socrates is about to drink poison, because he is being executed by the state.
    2. According to the government, Socrates corrupted the youth of Athens, and he worshiped false gods (not those of the state).
    3. Socrates didn't think gods were human-like, but instead were something like ideas or concepts.
    4. Socrates asked the leaders of Athens questions, trying to find one wiser than he was. He couldn't find such a person, so the leaders lost the young peoples' respect.
    5. Socrates felt that if you had led a good, moral life, there was no reason to fear death.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").