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The Death Of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson

Alan Brody considers whether Socrates really was a philosophy hero.

In his dialogues, Plato depicts Socrates as not only a great philosopher, but a saintly heroic figure. I can briefly convey some of the details along the following lines. Socrates believed that he was given a divinely-inspired mission to make his fellow men aware of their ignorance. Socrates’ consciousness-raising mission led him to question people about the meaning of the fundamental concepts they use to guide their lives: What is beauty/knowledge/virtue, etc? In particular, ignorance of what constitutes virtue (human excellence) impedes knowledge of the best way to live. But by living a philosophically-examined life men could come to recognize their ignorance, realize what is true and good, and discover the best life to live. Since people naturally value doing what they think is in their best interest, if they really knew what was best they would do it (if not prevented). In this way to know the good is to do the good. To live the life most worth living one must put the virtue of the soul above all other concerns. To live such a virtuous life one must in particular refrain from harming others simply because one has been treated unjustly: it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one through retaliation, Socrates held.

During the Peloponnesian war Socrates refused to support the illegal practice of collective trials. When an oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants afterwards ordered the arrest of an innocent man, Socrates refused to sanction it, putting his own life in jeopardy. In 399 BCE, because of political intrigue, Socrates was accused of impiety and corrupting the youth. As before, he refused to abandon or compromise his holy mission and principles of truth and justice, but this time he was tried and put to death by drinking hemlock. Thus Socrates died fighting a heroic saintly battle, while acting as a moral and intellectual gadfly aiming to awaken in his fellow citizens a desire to live the most virtuous life, and thus obtain for themselves the most worthwhile kind of life.

Emily Wilson teaches Classics at the University of Pennsylvania. In this book she questions the accuracy of Plato’s reverential depiction of Socrates. Her doubt follows from her arguments that Socrates (1) never seriously calls into question his own beliefs, (2) neglected his family, (3) needlessly condemned his family to be without a husband and father, (4) died for unwarranted if not superstitious beliefs, (5) was arrogant, dishonest and infuriating in his dealings with others, (6) was not a good teacher, (7) was put to death for reasons that might have been justified, and (8) did not die in a really admirable manner. Wilson also traces interpretations of the meaning of Socrates’ death throughout history, considering philosophical, religious, literary and artistic works. Socrates’ character and philosophy are thus subject to further evaluation, and competing assessments of Socrates as a noble hero are presented.

Wilson also examines Socrates’ views on knowledge, ethics, psychology and happiness, and offers us evaluations of his positions. For example, she thinks it’s absurd to hold that knowing the good means doing the good, since people frequently don’t do what they regard as best. She suggests that the Socratic view might seem plausible only if we regard such individuals as deceived about what they think they know. This kind of self-deception preoccupied Socrates’ inquiries too, but he might have been onto another issue: the problem that when someone acts voluntarily, that is, in accordance with how they desire to act, how can they knowingly fail to act for their desired greatest good? – since the person would then be acting both for and against what is desired.

Wilson does not tell us what she takes a heroic saintly figure to be, and readers will need to come to their own understanding of what it is when judging her evaluation of Socrates: perhaps the reader will clarify for him- or herself what a saintly heroic figure is by engaging in a Socratic search for the meaning of those terms… But it’s important to note that one might embrace Wilson’s criticisms of Socrates and still accept the admiring Platonic depiction, agreeing with Albert Schweitzer that one does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint.

Important issues remain unresolved, but this provocative and challenging work serves as a gadfly to enliven and deepen thought about the life of Socrates.

© Dr Alan Brody 2009

Alan Brody holds a PhD in philosophy and is a licensed psychotherapist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson, Profile Books, 2007, $19.95, £15.99, 247 pages, ISBN: 978 1 86197 762 5.

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