What The Death of Socrates taught me about challenging the status quo
I often write practical case studies about digital marketing or entrepreneurship. Today I want to focus on a story of a man that I admire. Even If I never read anything written by him (apparently he never wrote), we know quite a few things about this man through his disciples. He was one of the most admired people of his times, even though he didn’t have a dime; he didn’t care, and nonetheless, he was the most respected person by the wealthiest men of the ancient western world.
Athens 399 BC: It was a dark day in ancient Greece, under the Olympus hill an old chubby man, with his long white beard, intense brown eyes, and a long white tunic, was standing in front of a popular jury.
The chubby man is an Athenian. He had given everything for his people, yet his fellow citizens had indicted him. Nonetheless, the man looked confident, yet in his mannerism, there was neither hubris nor complacency.
He stood there in the middle of the square, facing the popular jury, ready to give his last speech.
Why was he there? What was happening? How could he turn this in his favor?
A fake democracy
Athens was among the most influential city-states of ancient Greece. Since few hundred years the city had experienced an exponential growth in civilization, wealth and culture. Most of Athens’ political influence came from the formation of the Delian League, comprised of most of Greek city-states.
This league was mainly formed to defend Greece against the attacks coming from the Persian Empire. Thus, Athens became the leader of this union. Yet the money that poured into the league was used by Athens to finance its architectural changes and its political supremacy. Athens ruled the Greek world.
Under the government of Pericles, the city lived a golden age. Yet the undisputed dominion of Athens was soon to be over. Other city-states claimed power. The only city-state able to overturn Athens’ leadership was Sparta.
A military state, which inspired its dominion over sheer force and militarism, challenged the leadership of Athens’ democracy.
In fact, after almost twenty-seven years of war, Sparta eventually succeeded. Sparta subjugated Athens and instituted a government comprised of thirty men, chosen among the Athenian aristocracy, which became known as “The Thirty-Tyrants Government.”
In this political climate, prudence was required. Through the streets of Athens, the citizens of the polis, which for centuries had been used to speak up their concerns, opinions, and ideas were now supposed to voice them up timidly.
In this political climate no man was free but one, which now stood in the middle of the city square, contemptuously looked by his fellow citizens. Three other fellow citizens accused the humble chubby man of three crimes, which were a pretty serious deal in ancient Athens.
It’s not about money
In fact, the chubby man was said to be Atheist as he claimed to listen only to the voice in his head, which guided him in any decision. This led to the second accusation, which meant that the man was trying to introduce a new religion. Which in turn led to the third accusation: youth’s corruption. Indeed, the chubby man used to be the spiritual guide of many young Athenians, belonging to aristocratic families, which freely followed him.
He had never asked for money, neither he made a living through his teachings. While in Athens was the common procedure to get paid for one’s lessons, the chubby man never asked for anything.
Often his wife, Xantippe, enraged by his lack of interest in money and other material things, pressed him. He would swiftly reply, that the word called knowledge or virtue cannot be taught, and even assume that it could be shown how could he, which he knew nothing, sell something that he didn’t have?
Challenging the status quo
Brought in front of the popular jury, the chubby man risked losing his life. Yet everything his fellow Athenians were looking for was an escape goat. All it took for the man was to read the professional speech written by the most famous logographer (speech-writer) of the time, Lysias.
In fact, once a person had been accused he/she had to stand in front of the jury, as there were no professional lawyers in ancient Athens. On the other hand, the indicted could have his defense written by an expert logographer. All he had to do was to read it out loud with some emphasis.
Had the chubby man followed Lysias’ speech, he would have been undoubtedly released from any accusation. In fact, Lysias’ speeches were so powerful that if we have to think of a modern analogy, it was like Jon Favreau (Former Obama’s administration speechwriter) had written a speech for him. In addition, the chubby man was a very powerful orator.
In short, his oratory ability combined with the words on paper written by Lysias would have led to an inevitable victory. Yet the man decided to speak up for himself. Was he insane? Had he lost his mind? Why would he take such a risk?
When death becomes unscary you become fearless
The truth is that the chubby man didn’t care about dying. He was already an old man, in his seventies. He had spent most of his life in total freedom. He didn’t care about customs, religion and what others thought of him. That day he could have decided to play it safe and spend the last years of his life in tranquility, rather than defend the concept of liberty and freedom of speech.
On the other hand, he decided to fight for his ideal even though it meant to pay the price of it through death. In this scenario, he delivered three speeches, which remained for millennia and will remain for millennia to come as the bravest act any man would do for an ideal, such as liberty. Eventually, his citizens sentenced him to drink a poisonous cocktail of hemlock, which practically meant a death penalty.
The old chubby man was ready to execute the death sentence imposed by his fellow citizens. He was surrounded by his disciples and friends, which were in despair. Yet the old man was calm and ready to face death with cheerfulness. He drunk the hemlock and spent his last minutes in a joyful state. When the men around him started to cry the chubby old man readily summoned them,
What are you all doing? I am so surprised at you. I had sent away the women mainly because I did not want them to lose control in this way. You see, I have heard that a man should come to his end in a way that calls for measured speaking. So, you must have composure, and you must endure.
That is how Socrates, history’s greatest badass faced death!
Originally published at fourweekmba.com on October 26, 2017.