Was the Death of Socrates symbolic of the problems we see today ?

“The unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.”

Socrates died as the Golden Age of Athens began to fall apart. His guru-like status for 50 years took a dark turn. Athens was the birthplace for freedom of speech yet it hadn’t found a balance with the freedom to offend. In 399BC, Socrates was accused of “failing to acknowledge the Gods” and “corrupting the Athenian youth.” The trial of Socrates is considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice as it led to him receiving the death penalty. He was offered the chance to live through escaping prison but he refused as he preferred to die with dignity and courage whilst sticking to his beliefs.

Ignoring his friends advice, Socrates decided to defend himself in court. In ancient Athens, there were no solicitors instead you would use a speechwriter. Lysias, who was considered the most gifted speechwriter, had offered to be his speechwriter for free. He presented the idea of how Socrates was a good man who had been falsely accused, but Socrates refused and decided he would defend himself.

‘The Death of Socrates 1787’ by Jacques-Louis David

Many state how Socrates didn’t believe in democracy which isn’t totally accurate. He simply believed that the new democratic system used in Athens would not work and that it would lead to the city hiring false leaders. These thoughts can be demonstrated in Plato’s Republic, where he uses the example of deciding the captain of a ship. Socrates argues with someone whether general people or sailors should be the captain of a ship. Sailors are actually experienced and have knowledge about ships would surely make better judgement. Socrates did not believe in elitism or that only few should decide our leaders but that only people in society who have the knowledge should. He feared that uninformed people would be manipulated to people with ill-intent and misguided motivations.

He uses a doctor and a sweet shop owner as an example. A sweet shop owner could argue that the doctor gives you syrups, cuts your skin, takes your blood and pokes holes in you. A sweet shop owner on the other hand would only give you pleasures with no pain whatsoever. Who would vote for the doctor in this scenario? Demagouge.

Socrates then asks us to picture an election debate between the doctor and sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner could say that his rival has hurt you, orders what you should eat and drink and will never give you the pleasant things that a sweet shop owner could offer. How could the doctor respond to this ? “I will cause you pain and stop you from having your desires so that I can help you in the long-term.” Who is likely to get the vote ?

It is safe to say that society has failed in listening to Socrates’s warnings in relation to democracy. We see democracy as perfect set-up but have not realised that democracy is only as effective as the education system around it. This is why we have elected so many sweet shop owners and few doctors.

In court, Socrates claimed his innocence whilst stating that Athens had benefited from his teachings. A jury of 500 men found Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death with him having to drink a poisonous beverage of hemlock. Here he makes one of the most quoted phrases in philosophy after he is sentenced to death.

“The unexamined life is not worth living for human beings.”

Colombia University

Socrates was sentenced to death for speaking about things that people did not want to hear about but his views on being trialled by the media is still something we see today. I believe that Socrates was made scapegoat as Athens was struggling and being overrun by its enemies. He could be tolerated when the city was strong but when it was struggling, Socrates was seen as a threat.

“It is not my crimes that will convict me,” Socrates said. “But instead, rumour, gossip; the fact that by whispering together you will persuade yourselves that I am guilty.” It is evident that this happens today in the digital age. We should honour Socrates by seeking individual honestly to do what we feel is right and aim to lead a “good life” rather than following crowds. Plato’s portrayal of Socrates prepared to face death rather than abandoning his core philosophical beliefs is an example for us all. We may not face decisions that could result in death but we do face decisions that are easier and more conventional than fighting for reason.

Socrates final words:-

“Men of Athens, you have condemned me to death. To those of you who are my friends and who voted to acquit me let me say that death may be a good thing. Either it is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as some people say, it is merely a migration from this world to another. If it is complete unconsciousness — like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams — then death will be an unspeakable gain. And if it is a journey to another world where all the dead live, then it will also be a great good. For then I can continue my search into true and false knowledge: In the next world, as in this one, I can continue questioning the great people of the past to find out who is wise and who merely pretends to be. So do not be saddened by death. No evil can happen to a good man either in this life or in death.”