Influential Past Teachers

‘The Death of Socrates’

by Emily Wilson

Introduction: The Man who Drank the Hemlock

‘The more I read about Socrates, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.’

Why should we still care about a man who did little in his life except talk, and who drank poison in an Athenian prison in 399 BC – over 2,400 years ago?

Some stories shape the ways people think, dream and imagine. The death of Socrates has had a huge and almost continuous impact on western culture. The only death of comparable importance in our history is that of Jesus, with whom Socrates has often been compared. The aim of this book is to explain why the death of Socrates has mattered so much, over such an enormously long period of time and to so many different people.

[the death of socrates]Courtesy Harvard University Press

The death of Socrates has always been controversial. The cultures of Graeco-Roman antiquity remain relevant not because we share the beliefs of the ancients, but because we continue to be preoccupied by many of their questions, worried by their anxieties, unable to resolve their dilemmas. The trial of Socrates is the fi rst case in recorded history when a democratic government, by due process of law, condemned a person to death for his beliefs. Athens, one of the world’s earliest democracies, raised Socrates, educated him and fi nally sentenced him to death, having found him guilty of religious unorthodoxy and corrupting the young. The trial and its outcome represent a political problem with which all subsequent democratic societies have struggled: how to deal with dissent.

Socrates is, for many people in the twenty-fi rst century, a personal, intellectual and political hero, one of the most obvious “good guys” of history. His death is often considered a terrible blot on the reputation of democratic Athens; Socrates is seen as a victim of intolerance and oppression, a hero who struggled and died for civil liberties. We look back to John Stuart Mill’s classic argument for toleration, On Liberty (1859), which uses the death of Socrates as the first example of the damage that can be done by a society that fails to allow full freedom of speech, thought and action to all individuals. Martin Luther King declared on two separate occasions (in 1963 and 1965) that “academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practised disobedience’. It is tempting to imagine Socrates on trial as precursor to a series of great heroes who stood up for their religious or scientific beliefs, and for conscience, against unjust governmental oppression and restriction. We may be in danger of forgetting that it is possible not to admire Socrates.

Socrates comes to us mediated through the work of others. He may be the most famous philosopher in world history, but he wrote nothing – except some versifications of Aesop’s fables, while waiting in prison for the death sentence. He did not write a word of philosophy. The twentieth century French theorist Jacques Derrida defined Socrates as “the man who does not write’. Plato’s Phaedrus implies that Socrates had theoretical objections to writing philosophy, since writing is always less truthful than the direct medium of speech. Socrates probably never gave official public lectures or founded a philosophical “school’. He seems to have imagined philosophy as something close to conversation. The fact that we cannot read Socrates is one of the main reasons for his enduring fascination.

To us, the most familiar ancient accounts of the life and death of Socrates are by Plato, Socrates’ student and friend. We also have the Socratic works of another student, Xenophon, whose version of Socrates is very different (as we shall see). Both Xenophon and Plato wrote Socratic dialogues – imaginary or semi-imaginary conversations between Socrates and other real people, on philosophical topics. These dialogues bring Socrates to life with almost novelistic detail and intimacy. Plato tells us that Socrates compared himself to a gadfly, whose stings are necessary to keep a sleepy horse awake. The image is so familiar that we may fail to notice that it is fundamentally self-justificatory. A tiny gadfly could never seriously harm the horse it provokes, though the horse may, in annoyance or by clumsy inadvertence, squash the fl y or throw the rider. By analogy, Socrates suggests that he provides helpful stimulation but no actual threat to the city.

If we accept Plato’s image of Socrates as a mere gadfly, we must also share his view of Socrates as harmless – and ultimately beneficial – to the community that chose to kill him. Plato emphasises the devastating, tragic grief suffered by the master’s followers at “the death of our friend, who was the best and wisest and most just man of all those of his time whom we have known’.

But not everybody in Athens at the time was a friend or student of Socrates. Many people surely felt that the jury reached the right verdict. The earliest book ever written about the death of Socrates was not a homage by a friend, but a fictionalised version of the case for the prosecution: the Accusation of Socrates by Polycrates, composed only six or seven years after the trial (393 BC). This work is lost, so any account of it must be speculative, but Polycrates seems to have denounced Socrates as an enemy of democracy, a man who – as the original prosecution had claimed – “corrupted the young’, taught his pupils to question the existing government and tried to overthrow the laws and customs of Athens. For Polycrates, Socrates was something much more dangerous than a gadfly. He was a hostile parasite, or – to use a more modern simile – a virus, tainting the whole body politic. He represented a massive threat to democracy and all civil society. Modern visions of Socrates might be very different if more work by his enemies had survived.

Many writers and thinkers in the twentieth century have tried to disentangle the supposedly good, liberal, individualistic Socrates from the distorting lens of his wicked, mendacious pupil Plato, who has often been seen as a totalitarian, an enemy of free speech and a proto-fascist. A book published in Britain at the beginning of the Second World War (R. S. Stafford, Plato Today, 1939) implied that siding with Plato over Socrates would be like fighting for Hitler’s Germany: “It is Socrates, not Plato, whom we need.” To attack Socrates came to seem, in the twentieth century, like a political heresy. It was equivalent to defending fascism, or attacking democracy itself.

But this vision of Socrates as a martyr for free speech is very different from the ways in which he has been viewed in earlier ages. My task in this book is a kind of archaeology in the history of ideas. I hope to show where the modern vision of Socrates came from, and how it differs from other stories which have been told about him. I do so on the understanding that the presence of multiple voices, including dissenting ones, including the voices of the dead, can only make our whole intellectual community stronger. If gadflies are to be beneficial, we must be able to feel real pain at their bite. I will argue that even Socrates’ admirers – including Plato himself – have almost always articulated doubts, distance and irritation as well as love for their dead master. The dying Socrates is multi-faceted in a way unparalleled by almost any other character, either fictional or real. He was a new kind of hero, one who died not by the sword or the spear, but by poison, without violence or pain. His death embodies a series of paradoxes. It is a secular martyrdom, representing both reason and scepticism, both individualism and civic loyalty. This new story about how a hero should die was provocative to the ancient Greeks, and should continue to challenge and puzzle us today.

When I contemplate this death, I find myself torn between enormous admiration and an equally overwhelming sense of rage.

I revere Socrates as a man who spoke truth to power, who was fearless of his reputation, who believed in a life devoted to the search for truth and who championed the idea that virtue is integral to happiness. In a world where prejudices seem to be taking ever firmer and firmer root, I respect Socrates as a man who left no traditional idea unchallenged, and felt that asking intelligent questions is valuable in itself, regardless of what conclusions one draws – if any. I believe strongly in the importance of Socrates as a reminder that the majority is not always right and that truth matters more than popular opinion. I am inspired by Socrates as an example of how the life of the mind can be playful, yet not frivolous.

But then doubts, resentment and annoyance begin to set in. Socrates’ self-examination – at least as depicted by Plato – was conducted by questioning other people. Having been told by an oracle that he was the wisest of men, he tested those around him who seemed to be wisest – and discovered that they were even less wise than himself, because he was at least conscious of his own ignorance. Socrates seems to stand one step outside his own investigations. His own beliefs are never called into serious question.

I find Socrates’ family life – or lack of it – particularly difficult to admire. It is hard to respect a man who neglected his wife and sons in order to spend his time drinking and chatting with his friends about the definitions of common words. When Socrates chose to risk death by the practice of his philosophy, and when he chose to submit to the death sentence, he was condemning his wife and young children to a life of poverty and social humiliation. From this perspective, his willingness to die starts to seem not brave but irresponsible.

Socrates died for truth, perhaps. But he also died in obedience to his own personal religious deity. He died for faith, even superstition. I am suspicious of the Socrates who believed in an invisible spirit – a daimonion – that whispered in his head.

Socrates’ false modesty – in Greek, his “irony” or eironeia – may be the most annoying thing about him. He was – it often seems – both arrogant and dishonest. I am infuriated by the Socrates who pretended it was all free discussion but always had an unstated goal – to prove the other person wrong. I wonder whether it is really admirable to die so calmly, so painlessly and, above all, so talkatively. One of the deepest niggling anxieties about the death of Socrates, which runs through the tradition from the time of antiquity, is that he was always too clever by half.

My mixed responses to the death of Socrates reveal my own preoccupations. As a teacher, academic, would-be intellectual and aspirant to a good life, I am interested in whether I can take Socrates as a model. I wonder whether I should, like Socrates, put the quest for the truth before everything else – including my family, my material well-being and the wishes of my community.

I sometimes wonder whether Socrates was even a good teacher. The question hangs on whether the central goal of education in the humanities is to prompt students to examine their own lives, or whether we have a responsibility to teach students some specific things – skills, facts, a canon or curriculum. Socrates claimed that he never taught anything, because he did not know anything of any value. But if a student asks for factual information, it is unhelpful to say, with Socrates, “What do you think?” I suspect that a weak version of the Socratic method has become all too common in university classrooms.

I sometimes feel that Nietzsche was right when he blamed the decadent dying Socrates for the later decline of western civilisation. We still live in the shadow of what Nietzsche called Socrates’ “naive rationalism’. Perhaps Socrates has held sway over our culture for far too long.

You, the readers of this book, will bring your own special interests to the contemplation of its subject. I hope it will help you to understand the death of Socrates as a historical event that happened a long time ago. But I also hope it will show you how this event has been recycled, reinterpreted and re-evaluated by generation after generation. You too must find your own vision of Socrates.

Some scholars – such as Alexander Nehemas – have claimed that the death of Socrates took on cultural importance only in the eighteenth century, when it became an image of the enlightened person’s struggle against intolerance. Others – most notably the Italian scholar Mario Montuori – have claimed that, up until the eighteenth century, the dying Socrates was always viewed sympathetically: he was “the just man wrongly killed’. Only the development of academic historical method – it is claimed – allowed scholars to recognise that the Athenians might have had good reason to want him dead.

In this book, I will argue against both these positions. There have always been people who thought Socrates hardly died soon enough; and Socrates’ death, for good or ill, has played an essential role in the stories told about him. Plato makes the hemlock central to Socrates’ character and philosophy. He describes Socrates as a man who can control even the ending of his own life, who understands his death even before it happens.

Ever since Plato, the hemlock has represented Socrates. Writing at the end of the fourth century ad, John Chrysostom alluded to Socrates without feeling the need to name him. “People will say that among the pagans also, there have been many who despised death. Such as who? The man who drank the hemlock?” Socrates does not need to be mentioned by name, any more than we need to name “the man on the Cross’.

Many other Athenian prisoners must also have been executed by this means. But the hemlock is so important in the story of Socrates that it has become his symbol, his identifying mark.

We have descriptions of Socrates’ life, death and philosophy from two pupils: Plato and Xenophon. Both present Socrates’ death as not merely the end but the culmination of his life. Socrates said, according to Xenophon, “I have spent my whole life preparing to defend myself.” In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates claims that, “Those who pursue philosophy properly study nothing except dying and being dead. And if this is true, it would be strange to desire only this one’s whole life long, but then complain when that very thing which they longed for and practised for so long has finally arrived.” Socrates claims that he was born to die, in precisely this way. Socrates’ life and death were dominated by two oral activities: talking and drinking. Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Drinking Song” is a hilarious celebration of the philosophical greats – Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and others – not for their thought, but for their capacity to down large quantities of alcohol.

Heidegger, Heidegger, was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.

In most of the stanzas in the song, the idea of the boozing philosophers is funny because it is absurd: Nietzsche was more or less teetotal, and in the wine-drinking culture of ancient Greece, Plato would presumably not have had access to “half a crate of whisky every day’, even had he wanted it. But Socrates stands out in this group, a climactic figure who is mentioned emphatically both in the middle and in the end:

Yes, Socrates himself is particularly missed,
A lovely little thinker,
But a bugger when he’s pissed.

Socrates is different from all of the rest not merely because he was the first ethical philosopher in the western tradition, but also because he really is famous for drinking as well as for thinking.

Plato’s Symposium or Drinking-Party presents Socrates as the heaviest drinker of all, but the one who is best at holding his liquor: he keeps talking cogently even when almost all his friends have gone to sleep. As Socrates’ friend and admirer Alcibiades comments, “The amazing thing is that nobody ever saw Socrates drunk’.

Hemlock, just like alcohol, seems hardly to affect him, however much he knocks it back. An epigram on Socrates’ death by the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius (third century ad) celebrates the hemlock as only the most literal of Socrates’ many drinks:

Drink now, O Socrates, in the kingdom of Zeus.
Rightly the god declared that you are wise,
Apollo, who himself is perfect wisdom.
You drank the poison which your city gave,
But they drank wisdom from your god-like voice.

The poem suggests that there was an intimate connection between Socrates’ oral philosophy – the “wisdom” that he gave to the city – and the poison by which he died. The means of Socrates’ death defined the meaning of his life. On a mundane historical level, we might be tempted to say that the philosopher died by hemlock simply because he was a white-collar criminal who had some rich friends. In Athens in the late fifth century BC, the most common means of execution was so-called “bloodless crucifixion’. (The term “crucifixion” is used for any kind of death where the victim is strung by the arms to a post, tree or stake.) In bloodless crucifixion the prisoner was strapped down to a board with iron restraints round limbs and neck, and strangled to death as the collar was drawn gradually tighter. The advantages of this method were that no blood was spilt (and thus no blood-guilt was incurred), and it was much cheaper than hemlock, because the same materials could be recycled again and again.

Hemlock, a natural plant-based poison, had to be imported from Asia Minor or Crete; hemlock was not native to Attica. The prisoner or his friends may have had to pay for his own dose. Plato – whose family was rich – may have been the author of Socrates’ death in more senses than one. One obvious advantage of hemlock over other methods, including those popular in modern societies (such as hanging, beheading, knifing, stoning, shooting, the electric chair or lethal injection), is that it felt clean – even more so than bloodless crucifixion. Hemlock poisoning hardly looks like execution at all. The prisoner brings about his own death: he kills himself, but without committing suicide. This final paradox becomes an essential element in the myth of Socrates’ death.

For most of us, death is something that comes upon us. We cannot predict the day or the hour when we will die. Socrates, by contrast, died in complete control, and his death fitted perfectly with his life. If Socrates had been crucified, then the whole later history of western philosophy and religion might have looked very different.

Socrates was, we are told, delighted that he had the opportunity to die by hemlock. According to Xenophon, he cited at least three advantages to dying this way. “If I am condemned,” said Socrates, “it is clear that I will get the chance to enjoy the death which has been judged easiest or least painful (by those whose job it is to consider these things); the death which causes the least trouble to one’s family and friends; and the death which makes people feel most grief for the deceased.” Socrates avoided all of the indignity usually associated with death. He died at the peak of his powers. His friends did not have to see him convulsed or racked by agonising pain. They did not have to empty bedpans, mop up vomit or nurse a senile old man. He left only good memories behind him.

Socrates – surrounded by a group of friends – drank the poison in prison. Plato gives us a detailed and tear-jerking description of what happened as the hemlock took hold of him.

He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him, and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said, “No’; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it, and do not forget.” Crito said, “It will be done. But see if you have anything else to say.” To this question, he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And when Crito saw it, Crito closed his mouth and eyes.

This was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most just man.

The manner of Socrates’ death fits perfectly with the life he has chosen to live. The numbness which overcomes him is presented as a gradual liberation from bodily life. Socrates dies with all his faculties intact, talking all the while, in no particular physical discomfort. The body need not intrude on the final work of the soul as it prepares to depart. Although the friends are all finally reduced to tears, Socrates remains calm, his attention devoted to philosophy until almost the last minute of life. This is the image of the death of Socrates which has most deeply influenced later generations.

Several late-twentieth-century scholars argued that Plato’s account of the death of Socrates cannot possibly be accurate. It seemed too good to be true. Hemlock poisoning, they claimed, produces drooling, profuse sweating, stomach pains, headache, vomiting, rapid heart rate, dry mouth, fits and convulsions. A passage from an ancient didactic poem about poisons and their remedies (the Alexipharmaca of Nicander, from the second century BC), describes these horrible symptoms:

A terrible choking blocks
the lower throat and the narrow passage of the
the extremities grow cold, and inside the limbs the
strong though they are, get contracted. For a while he 
like somebody swooning, and his spirit sees the land
of the dead.

This does not sound much like the death of Socrates according to Plato’s Phaedo. If Plato sanitised the real symptoms of hemlock poisoning, this would suggest that his version of Socrates’ death is largely fictional, albeit based on a real event.

But the sceptical view has been convincingly challenged in a brilliant article by Enid Bloch. She shows that Plato gives a perfectly accurate description of Socrates’ medical symptoms in the last hours of life. The hemlock family of plants is a large one, including water hemlock, poison hemlock and “fool’s parsley” or lesser hemlock. They all look almost identical. Whereas water hemlock attacks the central nervous system, producing seizures – as described by Nicander – poison hemlock works on the peripheral nervous system. Consequently, those who take it are affected just as Plato describes: they go gradually numb and then die – painlessly – once the paralysis affects the respiratory system or the heart.

The effects of poison hemlock are relatively unfamiliar to the modern medical profession, but they were much studied in the nineteenth century, when it was hoped that hemlock might offer a cure for cancer. One case closely paralleled the medical symptoms described in the death of Socrates. In 1845 the children of a poor Scottish tailor called Mr. Gow kindly made a sandwich for their hungry father. They used what they thought was fool’s parsley growing wild. But they had gathered poison hemlock by mistake. The man grew gradually numb, losing the use of his legs, then his other limbs. His intellect remained unimpaired up to the very end. A few hours after eating the fatal sandwich, he was dead.

Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) still grows wild in parts of Europe and many states of North America, such as Ohio and Wyoming. It continues to cause difficulties for farmers, who have to try to keep their sheep and cattle from enjoying a Socratic death.

The Greeks did not have separate words for these botanically distinct plants, and there is no way of knowing, a priori, whether poison hemlock or water hemlock would be meant by the Greek koneion, or Latin cicutum. In any case, Plato avoids using a specific term: in the Phaedo, he always calls Socrates’ poison simply to pharmakon, the “drug’, the “poison” or the “medicine’. The Athenians often mixed their poisons: it is quite possible that Socrates took some strain of poison hemlock cut with crushed opium from poppies, which would have increased the sedative effects of the poison. There is, then, no reason to doubt the medical facts of Plato’s description of Socrates’ last hours. But even if true, it is still a good story. Thanks in large part to Plato, Socrates’ death by hemlock has come to seem not merely the means by which he happened to be executed, but essential to the meaning of his life.

Overview of This Book

In the first chapter, I describe Socrates’ philosophical teaching. I show why his beliefs seemed so dangerous to his contemporaries – and why his philosophy remains challenging for us today. I suggest that the Athenians may have had good reasons to put this strange, radical thinker to death. But Socrates’ philosophy cannot give us a complete explanation for his execution. I turn, in the second chapter, to the social context of the trial. In order to make sense of Socrates’ death, we need to know about the history of his time, his friends, his family, his enemies and his lovers. Socrates was killed not only for his beliefs, but also because of the people he knew.

In the third chapter, I move back to the question of sources. All our knowledge of Socrates is filtered through the words of others: we can have no unmediated access to the event itself. It is through his pupils Plato and Xenophon that the death of Socrates became a legend.

In the remaining four chapters, I evoke the later reception of the death of Socrates, showing how this pivotal cultural event has been linked with significantly different sets of problems at different moments of our history. First, I discuss the Romans and Greeks living under the Roman Empire. For them, the most pressing question raised by the death of Socrates was whether imitation of his calm, philosophical death was either possible or desirable in a world of violence and imperial power. Some Romans suspected that Socrates was just a Greek show-off, and many in this period wondered whether intellectuals have the moral right to cut themselves off from political engagement. In the fifth chapter, I concentrate on parallels between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus. This comparison has been made repeatedly, throughout the Christian tradition. But the analogy was particularly important at two turning points in Christian history: in the second and third centuries ad, when the new cult was first establishing itself as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and in the Renaissance, when humanist scholars began to revive “pagan” learning. At both these moments, debates about the relative moral values of paganism and Christianity were articulated through comparisons between Socrates’ peaceful, painless, confident death, unblessed by Christian revelation, and Jesus’ agony on the Cross.

The eighteenth century is a climactic moment in the story of this book. It was a period of particularly intense interest in the death of Socrates. The philosopher who talked to his friends as he sipped hemlock seemed to resemble a fashionable French intellectual or philosophe discussing the issues of the day in his salon or the coffee house. The death of Socrates became an image of the shared life of the mind, and provided a locus for debates about the power and limitations of reason.

My final chapter takes the story into modern and postmodern times, describing the persistent contemporary interest in this ancient story. I suggest that there was a radical shift in perceptions of Socrates’s death after the Enlightenment. It now represented not the pleasures of intellectual friendship, but the solitude of the intellectual who resists social conformity. In the twentieth century, Socrates facing his judges was viewed through the lens of modern totalitarianism. At the turn of the twenty-first century, our perspective seems to have changed again. The dying Socrates is assumed to be a hero for our times, but he is often found acceptable only in a radically simplified guise. Contemporary responses often show particularly deep discomfort with his actual death.

For example, Ronald Gross’s Socrates’ Way: Seven Keys to Using Your Mind to the Utmost (2002) provides a “step-by- step” programme for self-improvement and worldly success, through such “keys” as “Know Thyself” and “Speak the Truth” – mottoes supposedly inspired by Socrates. But the book deliberately underplays the end of its hero’s story. Presumably people who are searching for greater success with colleagues and friends are not often willing to risk death to get it. One Amazon review of Gross’s book warns us that Socrates failed to observe his own “precepts” properly, “as his ultimate demise demonstrates’. All the more reason to hurry up and master those seven “keys” as quickly as possible: otherwise you too could find yourself in a dank prison cell, sipping hemlock. In our times, a Socratic death seems to have become not something to aspire towards but something to avoid for as long as possible.

The relative lack of interest in Socrates’ death in the past generation or so may be a symptom of our increasing discomfort with death in general. We no longer look for models of the ideal death. We hope, ideally, not to have to die at all. Failing that, we would rather not think about it. Our society may also be increasingly suspicious of ideology in general, as well as of many of the “-isms” with which the dying Socrates has been associated – including rationalism, liberalism, individualism and secularism.

This is all the more reason to turn back to the tradition and think again about why the death of Socrates has mattered in the past, and what meanings it might still hold for us today.

Throughout the book I aim to evoke the diverse, multiple voices of those who have struggled with the dying Socrates. I imagine all these voices as participants in an ever-growing set of new Socratic dialogues or conversations which are not over yet.

Excerpted from The Death of Socrates by Emily Wilson, with the permission of the President and Fellows of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2007 Emily Wilson. All rights reserved.


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