The Death of Socrates

A brief examination of Socratic ethics.

The Death of Socrates — Jacques-Louis David

Was Socrates right? The ethical decisions of a figure willing to sacrifice his own life after false accusations of corrupting the youth while establishing his cause as Justice can be difficult to comprehend. The noumenon, however, is not to be found within the action itself but rather in the motivation by which deliberate philosophical investigation can reveal. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates references many justifications for his willingness to accept his fate.

Through close inspection it becomes significantly less difficult to ascertain why in the face of injustice and ill judgment, Socrates chose to accept his condemnation to the grave. For clearly it would be repugnant to the very essence of his moral conscience, the metaphysical ethic imbued by nature itself, instilled within Socrates’ conduct and ideas. This is the first inculcation of the Platonic forms, as Socrates knowledge seems to be derived from the nature of ideas, instilled within the metaphysics of nature itself. If Socrates is to obey his God, as consecrated by the word of Philosophy, he has no other choice than to obey what has been bestowed within his mind, concerning such notions and understanding of the absolute truth. But this alone is merely the fundamental or essential reason and not the only explanation for his fate. For there are many complementary conceptions stated in the Platonic dialogues concerning why Socrates can so willingly and courageously accept his death. The next and most interesting, as stated in the prophecy, is that of an eternal retribution, inflicted upon the jurors for use of ill judgment, a punishment inflicted on one’s own conscience, and a message to all those who may defy justice henceforth. For as Socrates declares in Plato’s apology, “I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice,” (Plato 39) he understands that his submission shall become a call to action, for all of those in silence to speak up in defense of such ideals. Socrates is not a man seeking vengeance but a philosopher aware of such an indemnifying form of Justice, one, which occurs post-mortem and is inflicted upon the jurors conscious for their eternal err.

In a word, this is Socrates’s contrapasso, the moral retribution of all individuals’ ability to ascertain when they have committed injustice against The Good. Socrates’ actions stand as a useful and imperative inculcation of our own remorse for moral misconduct allowing us all the experience of shame, ill conscience or resentment upon our personal err. Socrates is sentenced to death but those who have committed the greater crime are condemned to a life of metaphysical damnation, a psychological penalty as never to avoid the feeling, once considered, of having done so ill. The forms of justice as present within the individual conscience must guide us toward the action of what is right and true. The failure to reify these Platonic Ideas leaves Socrates no other choice but to accept his fate.

Socrates continues this idea of the moral conscience with his own dedication to philosophy, understanding that to remain silent and to pursue something other than his will would be worse than death itself. For given the choice to escape, Socrates cannot bear to live a life without philosophy and ideas. In the Apology, he says, “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the God rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy” (Plato 34). For the will to follow one’s destiny and internal morality can be applicable in all realms of ethical decision-making concerning what is right and wrong. Even if Socrates’ claim were subjectively falsifiable by critique, it can still serve the individual to follow a purpose, calling or inculcation beyond the world of experience for which they can rely. How, “when the God ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others, I had abandoned my post for fear of death or anything else” he wondered (Plato 33). In this way, Socrates cannot compromise on his own moral conscience for understanding that he would be going against his faith. In ethics and philosophy this becomes the only acceptable motivation for the individual or sage alike, because to compromise in moments of peril would be to believe in nothing at all. The lack of courage to die for one’s conceptions form what is often termed the individual’s character, as the inability to compromise for the mere sake of relativity would lead to a world of subjective truth. Socrates believes in a higher duty to himself, and to his discipline of philosophy, which guides him through the tumult that assaults his mind.

Along with this duty to philosophy, Socrates also assumes a duty to the Deity and the Oracle from whom the designation of wisdom was first bestowed: “For what has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. Human wisdom, perhaps. It may be that I really possess this… I shall call upon the God at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such” (Plato 25). One must remember that Socrates does not view himself as wise, but merely as the instrument for a particular manifestation of wisdom, bestowed by philosophy and the Oracle at Delphi for which he owes his gift. By not continuing the journey of contemplation, introspection, and dialectic in order to flee in times of danger would be a disservice to the spirits, and for this, Socrates cannot break his vow to truth.

Additionally, Socrates does not fear death, conceiving that by which he knows not, can be neither good nor bad, for it is possible death remains the final good, for which all men can at once be free. This earnest admission of possibility allows Socrates the ability for peace by not knowing whether his end will be perilous or with grace. Given Socrates devout belief in the Gods, this is an appropriate argument for his time. When it is impossible to ascertain the future outcome of a particular event, one should not fear the momentary retribution. The idea that death is potentially of value allows Socrates the possibility for a tranquil disposition even upon his final hour. Here in death, Socrates may continue his quest for knowledge, questioning the likes of Orpheus, Musaeus, Hesiod and Homer, all whom he would take great joy in accompanying if his vision of the afterlife were true.

The last and most fascinating reason to ascertain the Socratic choice to die is the cyclic nature of his problem. Socrates himself declares that he could not abstain from the practice of philosophy and even if exiled, men and children in a new city would certainly come to hear him speak, eventually repeating the nature of conviction thus again. “For I know very well that wherever I go, they will listen to my talk as they do here” (Plato 41). “If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the God, you will not believe me and think that I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will not believe me” (Plato 41).

The notion that justice is not only for the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, but actually for the correct understanding of what is truly good bears the question of such Platonic forms. Socrates seems to be acting on an ideal as opposed to a circumstantial best for which he allows no room for alteration. Socrates it seems must stand as a prophetic figure of ethics and justice, unwilling to compromise even in the face of death. The reasons at first appeared unintelligible, but through careful investigation his motivation becomes clear. Socrates’ decision is made for a multiplicity of complex personal, emotional and ethical reasons all in the name of The Good. The form of justice as manifest within our moral conscience becomes a universal law to always seek what is right and true. To deny justice as a form realizable through philosophy would ultimately destroy the capacity for good becoming as erroneous as death itself. By admitting that he knew nothing, Socrates became the bravest and wisest man of all.

Works Cited

Plato. “Apology.” Trans. G.M.A Grube. Ed. John M. Cooper. Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hacket, 2002. 21–45. Print.

Hi, I’m Colin! A 21-year-old philosopher, artist and aspiring entrepreneur currently studying philosophy, physics and neuroscience at NYU.

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My philosophy and interests lie within the history of ideas, the reification of philosophy through art, metaphysics, ethics, phenomenology and the nature of consciousness, governance and the social contract, post-capitalist economics, utopia, Greek, Roman and medieval literature, theoretical physics, and human potential. I am primarily concerned with the nature of education as a path toward enlightenment, the philosophy of pedagogy and perennial erudition.

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