Saturday, February 28, 2015

Socrates' death: suicide or greater purpose?

 My comments are in [  ] "The death of Socrates, as presented by Plato, has inspired writers, artists and philosophers in the modern world, in a variety of ways. For some, the execution of the man Plato called 'the wisest and most just of all men' has shown the unreliability or undesirability of democratic rule. For others, the Athenians' action was a justifiable defense of their recently re-established democracy.[20]
I. F. Stone, an American journalist, wrote a book entitled "The Trial of Socrates" after his retirement, arguing that Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death in order to justify his opposition to the Athenian democracy, and that Socrates felt that old age would be unpleasant anyway.

[ 1. To show his opposition to the Athenian democracy.
  2. To avoid the ills of old age.

If 2 then he committed suicide or self-euthanasia. He might indeed have had enough of his fellow mortals, and the prospect of growing even more senescent might have prompted his actions. Suicide may have been viewed differently in that time. Socrates was already 70, which must have been a ripe old age for that time period (399 B.C.) anyway. 2 doesn't quite sit well with me though. Perhaps I have idealized Socrates.]

The 2008 play Socrates on Trial by Andrew Irvine takes a different point of view. Irvine argues that it was because of his loyalty to Athenian democracy that Socrates was willing to accept the verdict of his fellow citizens. As Irvine puts it, “During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city – even during times of war – is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”[21]

[ 1. Loyalty to Athenian democracy. 
It appears Socrates was fond of the rule of law or laws. ]
Socrates's followers encouraged him to flee (see: Crito), and citizens expected him to do so and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock provided to him. Socrates died at the age of 70. (See: Phaedo).

[I vaguely recall a documentary in which I think it was argued that Socrates basically could have gotten out of being executed. It was surprising even to the Athenian citizenry that he chose that path.

Refusing to flee or lawyering his way out but rather showing his loyalty to his ideals by his actions - this sounds more like Socrates. But I still have reservations about even this. It seems there's more to it than even this. What secret, if any, was he trying to communicate to the people then, and possibly to all future generations. This was an individual with extraordinary mental powers. Perhaps he knew we would be fascinated by it, discuss and argue about it; pursue philosophical inquiry about it, and so produce the kind of beneficence which was the aim of his life.]

 Waterfield, too, argues that Socrates’ death was a voluntary action motivated by a greater purpose. In Waterfield’s version, Socrates “saw himself as healing the city’s ills by his voluntary death.”[3]:204 He argues that Socrates, with his unconventional methods, attempted to resolve the political confusion in Athens. Therefore, he was willing to serve as a “scapegoat,” so that Athens could set aside old disputes and move forward in a new, more harmonious direction.[3]

[  1. Voluntary action motivated by a greater purpose. Greater purpose version 1: Heal the city's ills, resolve the political confusion, be the 'scapegoat'. Set aside old disputes, move forward in new, harmonious direction.

Perhaps. I think greater purpose version 1 he might've foreseen as a beneficial side-effect or consequence of his actions but as to its being his primary motivation we don't know and may never know. He doesn't seem to have spelled it out for his followers all his reasons for doing what he did. Is that why there is all this debate? 

The voluntary action motivated by a greater purpose - this seems like the motivation of a great philosopher. But he was wise. He stated that he knew he didn't know anything. Simplicity. Perhaps he simply wanted to show no one is above the law; and he was no coward ready to flee. There is therefore only one option left to him. It was logical and he was a master logician and a brave human being. 

So, I don't thin it was suicide. It might look that way but no he was executed. People were rotten then, and still are today; though the legal system seems better. ]
In May 2012, amid the unrest caused by the Greek government debt crisis, an international panel of judges and lawyers held a mock re-trial of Socrates in Athens. The split decision of five judges voting "guilty" and five voting "not guilty" resulted in an acquittal. The issue of sentences was not discussed, so as to restrict the discussion only to the facts of the case, but the judges voting to convict indicated they would not have been in favour of the death penalty.[22][2

[I reckon Socrates would have escaped the death penalty in our time. In fact, it looks like the charges would have been dropped. In fact, he might've even have been able to sue for wrongful prosecution or something.

Ah, well, would that we knew more but let's remember in the end we might have to say, with Socrates:

                                                  "  I know that I know nothing. "]

Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates asked Pythia (the oracle of Delphi): "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" The answer was: "No human is wiser." Socrates, since he denied any knowledge, tried to find someone wiser than himself among politicians, poets, and craftsmen. It appeared that politicians claimed wisdom without knowledge; poets could touch people with their words, but did not know their meaning; and craftsmen could claim knowledge only in specific and narrow fields. The interpretation of the Oracle's answer might be Socrates's awareness of his own ignorance.[8]

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

[PS It seems that Socrates had a sense of humour.]
Socrates, after expressing his surprise of the little amount he needed to have been found innocent, jokingly suggested free meals at the Prytaneum, a particular honor held for city benefactors and winners at the Olympic Games,

[What if he was poking fun at a system of laws that resulted in a perfectly legal but totally unjust execution?]

[Right, that's enough philosophizing and wasting time for one night.]

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