• Facebook Apostles

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 10,916 other followers

    • 76,958 Visits
  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

The Trials and Death of Socrates by Christopher Nelson

SocratesThe Trials and Death of Socrates

I am grateful for the opportunity to have reflected on the life of Socrates as I wrote this evening’s lecture. Of course, it’s not every life that is told through the story of its death, but I think this is particularly appropriate in the case of Socrates. I am speaking now only of the Socrates we come to know through the dialogues of Plato, and particularly through the three dialogues concerning the trial and final days of Socrates, theApologyCrito, and Phaedo.

Plato’s Socrates is a local hero to many of us at St. John’s College, a model of radical inquiry, the embodiment of the liberally educated person, and a man who faced his own death well, even beautifully. But ‘hero’ is a strong word, and I mean it to conjure up images of the great trials a hero must face in life, including the final trial we all must face when we see the end approaching. I mean it to remind us of the monsters our hero must vanquish, his monsters and ours. Plato is fond of likening Socrates to the great heroes at the dawn of Greek and Athenian civilization. Socrates too compares himself to some of the greatest: Hercules, Achilles, and Theseus, all of whom faced great trials without fear and slew many enemies, though they died most unhappy deaths.

So, I’d like to open my talk with a walk back to the age of heroes, some 600 years or so before the time of Socrates, and tell you a story about Theseus, the consolidator of Athens and founder of its democracy. It is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and it is referenced by Socrates at the opening of the Phaedo, the dialogue that captures the conversation in Socrates’s jail cell on the day of his death.

Plutarch opened his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans with the Life of Theseus, and I shall use this source for most of what I say about Theseus. It came to pass that Aegeus, the king of Athens, was having difficulty producing a child and this caused him some grief among his closest enemies, neighboring governors and kings, who despised Aegeus for his want of children, they themselves being 50 brothers. While visiting the governor of a small city to the South, Aegeus was persuaded to lie with the governor’s daughter, Aethra. Suspecting her to be with child by him, Aegeus left a sword and a pair of shoes and hid them under a great stone. He commanded Aethra, should she give birth to a son, to send the son to his father only after he had grown to manhood with the strength to lift the great stone and secure the sword and shoes. The son was to show Aegeus these things as proof of his parentage. Sure enough, a son was born, Theseus it was, and he grew to manhood with great strength, bravery, quickness, and force of understanding. We imagine he was 16 or 17 years of age when his mother told him of his true father and showed him to the stone, which Theseus easily lifted and took with him the tokens left by his father, Aegeus.

Instead of traveling the safe route by sea, Theseus undertook the perilous path by land, and defeated and killed many infamous robbers and murderers along the way, fired by a desire to achieve the glory of Hercules, a few years his senior, and by the wish to inflict justice upon the evil men; each wrongdoer underwent the same violence from Theseus that they had inflicted upon others, justly suffering after the manner of their own injustice. He who killed others by tossing them into the sea was himself tossed off a great cliff. He who killed by butting his head against others had his own head broken in pieces. (These early stories have the advantage over even our modem movie producers in their graphic details.) Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: