Occasionally history gifts us an individual compelled by the type of genius that influences our civilization for centuries to come. Socrates, who lived in Athens, Greece approximately 2,500 years ago, was one such individual. What we know about Socrates mostly comes from Plato, one of his students.
Socrates was a controversial figure. Many who talked to Socrates personally could not resist loving and respecting him, but he would come to be hated politically and was eventually condemned to death. Who was Socrates, and how might his life offer us wisdom today?
Socrates, the Wisest
After defeating Persia, Athens became the most powerful city-state in Greece. Led by Pericles, Athens began to excel militarily, politically, and culturally. In a very short period, Athens would create a culture that would be remembered for millennia.
One of the most important features of Athens during this time was the free flow of ideas, encouraged by Pericles, and Athens pursued and embodied an ideal of free speech. Socrates, after serving in the Athenian army, would benefit from this freedom of speech as he would dialogue with some of the greatest thinkers of his time, and would question many Athenian citizens in pursuit of wisdom.
For Socrates, the only thing that mattered was ethical virtue. He believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that questions concerning ethical virtue—not preconceived and absolute notions—are the beginning of human wisdom. Socrates presumed that he knew nothing, and this presumption led the Oracle of Delphi to confirm that Socrates was the wisest person in Athens. The Oracle’s declaration prompted Socrates to begin a life of philosophy.
Socrates also credited any wisdom he had in part to his “daimonion”—what Cicero would translate into a “divine something”—who accompanied Socrates since he was a child. Socrates describes his daimonion in Plato’s “Apology” as “a sort of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing, but never urges me forward.” The daimonion served as an ethical guide for Socrates, and always prevented him from acting in ways that might cause harm.
Socrates walked the streets of Athens and engaged its citizens in ethical dialogues featuring questions such as: “What is Freedom?” “What is Justice?” “What is Courage?” Many of these dialogues would end with the interlocutors opposite Socrates having to change their preconceived answers because of Socrates’s line of questioning, which often exposed their lack of wisdom.
Socrates Corrupts the Youth
Many who possessed the leisure to engage with Socrates were young, wealthy men. Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles, was a promising young man; he was handsome, rich, politically ambitious, and was elected as one of the generals of Athens. Socrates learned of his political ambitions and sought to dialogue with him; Socrates wanted to show Alcibiades that he was not ready to fulfill his ambitions until he deeply considered and reflected upon the essence of justice.
In 1776, French artist François-André Vincent painted Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates. On the right side of the composition, Vincent depicts a middle-aged Socrates accompanied by his daimonion, who waits to prevent Socrates from saying or doing anything harmful. Socrates speaks to Alcibiades, positioned on the left side of the painting. Dressed in an elegant general’s attire, Alcibiades appears to listen to Socrates—he stares directly at Socrates—but his body turns away.
Alcibiades’s shield is hanging on the wall in the background, and his left hand appears to conceal his sword from Socrates. Does Alcibiades move to conceal his sword to indicate his promise to consider justice in achieving his ambitions? Or is his attempt to conceal his sword indicative of his political ambitions absent justice?
Alcibiades did indeed pursue his political ambitions without the deep consideration of justice that Socrates asked of him. He planned to conquer Sicily, but religious statues were mutilated before he set sail, which was considered by the masses to be a bad omen. Alcibiades’s political opponents linked him to these acts of blasphemy and demanded that he stand trial. To avoid this fate, he decided to not return to Athens and instead sided with Sparta, which incurred tremendous damage to Athens.
It wasn’t long before Alcibiades was condemned by the Spartans for having an affair with the Spartan queen. He eventually fled to Persia, and aided them as an enemy of Greece. Before being assassinated in Persia, Alcibiades had fought on three sides of the same war. Alcibiades seemed less concerned about justice and more concerned about what was politically expedient.
Is this why the painting depicts his body turning away from Socrates? Does this body language suggest a lack of full attention from Alcibiades? Socrates would later be blamed for impiety toward the gods of Athens and for corruption of the youth. One of these corrupted youths, though never mentioned by name, was presumed to be Alcibiades. Socrates would be tried and condemned to death for these offenses.
The Trial of Socrates
The Athenians had pride in their ideal of free speech. The abilities to freely express and exchange ideas were paramount to Athenian culture and success. After the small Spartan army defeated Athens, however, many Athenians began to admire the dominant and militant power structure of Sparta.
Socrates was called to trial shortly after the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused of failing to acknowledge the gods of Athens, introducing new divinities, and, of course, corrupting the youth. His accusers brought up his daimonion, which wasn’t one of the acknowledged gods of Athens, and pointed out that many of the people that attacked Athenian democracy were, at least at one time or another, youths associated with Socrates.
Socrates defended himself, stating that these accusations were untrue. Why did so many Athenians believe them to be true, then? Why did so many Athenians hate him? Socrates made the case that the reason Athenians came to despise him despite his best efforts to serve them was because of the media. The play “Clouds” by Aristophanes, for instance, depicted Socrates as an impious buffoon who corrupted the youth and was not to be taken seriously.
Socrates admitted that he pursued wisdom through inquiry with those who would listen—mostly young, wealthy men who would practice a similar line of inquiry with him in pursuit of wisdom. He argued that this was not corrupting but benefiting the democracy of Athens.
As a democracy, the ruling majority forces its vices as well as virtues upon the citizens. It takes a dedicated few, not the many, to pursue ethical virtue and pass it to the next generation. This, of course, requires questioning the very vices the majority believes to be absolute truth.
Socrates also argued that he was not impious; he had devoted his life in obedience to the god at Delphi and to his daimonion, who ethically guided him throughout his life as he attempted to serve the Athenian public. He wanted others, as well as himself, to come to an ever-deeper understanding of virtue so that Athens could reach its full potential and thrive.
The trial of Socrates was an instance in which an Athenian was prosecuted for the alleged harm indirectly caused by the exchange of ideas—for freely speaking. The people of Athens, who once valued the ideal of free speech, required him to denounce his beliefs or die by way of poison. Socrates chose poison.
The Death of Socrates
The Death of Socrates was painted in 1787 by the neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). It depicts the moment in which Socrates, surrounded by his followers and family, is handed a chalice of hemlock to drink—which he willingly accepted since his daimonion did not try to stop him from doing so. Socrates not only accepts the chalice of hemlock, but points to the heavens and discourses on the immortality of the soul before he drinks. He is shown in a white robe and with the musculature of an ideal youth, which suggest his strong and pure character. Of all the figures depicted, he is illuminated most by the light emanating from the top of the composition.
Socrates discussed ideal forms that existed behind the surface forms we see in everyday life. He suggested that there was a greater truth that illuminated all other things, and that this truth was only accessible to those—the “philosopher kings”—who lived their lives in accordance with higher truths.
In the famous “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates suggests that reality for us is like being chained in a cave and being made to watch a wall on which shadows are cast by a flame behind us. We all mistake the shadows for the truth of reality, not realizing that the actual truth begins with the flame behind us, and that there is another, truer world beyond this one.
The “philosopher king” becomes the one who frees themselves from the cave and sees the flame as the source of the shadows, and the reality of the world beyond the confines of the prison. The question remains: How many of the previous prison inmates could accept the truth of the cave while still being shackled within?
In the painting, David has depicted Socrates as the philosopher king who escaped the shackles that kept him confined to the shadows of the cave wall; we can see the shackles on the ground. Socrates saw the truth, tried to communicate that truth, and was punished with poison.
In the upper left corner of the composition, there is an oil lamp that has almost run its course; an extinguished oil lamp is often used in art as a symbol of the ephemerality of life and imminent death. David depicted the oil lamp as the only object that casts a shadow upon the wall—which aligns with Socrates’s final discourse, in which he states that the soul is immortal and death is an illusion.
There is also a lyre on the bed next to Socrates, who was often thought of as an exemplar of logic and reason, but he had a recurring dream that encouraged him to make music. He thought the dream was referring to the music of philosophy, and it was only after the trial that he considered that the dream was referring to actual music, and he attempted to learn a melody as he waited to die.
There’s speculation that Socrates’s turn to music at the end of his life suggests that logic and reason are not absolute and can only take us so far in understanding what it means to be human. The complete human experience requires both science and art as well as freedom of discourse in search of the true essence of both.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).