Not remembering a thing about Socrates, I wanted to read something about him. A good site for exploration is our college library databases, so to EBSCOhost I went. Sam Silverman’s article quickly surfaced, in which he offers a “holistic re-examination” of Socrates’ death. Socrates has always seemed iconic, despite all of my memory lapses. Silverman’s analysis is scholarly and well documented while at the same time making Socrates’ decision to die more pragmatic and perhaps less noble in tone than I expected.
The argument basically centers on the 70-year-old Socrates who has run his course and is ready to give up life. Silverman mentions Socrates’ unpopular political views—antidemocratic and elitist—which didn’t fit well in an Athens that had overturned the efforts of Sparta to undo democracy in Athens. Socrates frankly did not believe in democracy; people are in the main incapable of governing themselves and need experts to lead them. Further, Socrates didn’t put up much protest at the violent slaughtering of many Athenians when Spartan forces were briefly in power before being ousted by Athenian democratic forces.
Silverman has an interesting discussion of Socrates’ marriage late in life, viewing it as a marriage of convenience to a younger woman whose father was concerned that his daughter was not eligible and therefore would leave him without an heir. In exchange for marrying Xanthippe, Socrates got modest material security—helpful to an itinerant philosopher who for decades had aggravated people with his knotty, confrontational approach. Silverman points out Xanthippe’s well-known hideous temper, plus Socrates’ demonstrated lack of interest in his marriage and children.
So why did Socrates choose to die? Silverman says that at age 70, he had no real family life and could go out quickly in good health, avoiding the slow deterioration of aging and the likelihood of its diseases. Silverman also puts forward that Socrates had aged and his looks were losing any appeal to the young men that he was attracted to, plus “… Socrates, at least by this time of his life, has learned self-discipline and avoids physical contact” (80).
Silverman then says, “In recent years a syndrome called “suicide by cop” has been identified, in which someone whose scruples or fear or whatever prevent him from killing himself, sets up a situation where he provokes the police, by, for example, brandishing a weapon at them, providing them with a reason for killing him…” (82-83). He wanted to die, not even proposing an “alternative sentence, such as banishment” (83).
Law Professor Douglas O. Linder says the same thing about Socrates’ lack of any real defense at his trial. He tells how Socrates antagonized jurors instead of seeking leniency. Linder says, “Socrates gave a defiant–decidedly unapologetic–speech. He seemed to invite condemnation and death.” This sounds crazy, but Linder at least conveys a nobler tone regarding Socrates by ending his article this way: “The trial of Socrates, the most interesting suicide the world has ever seen, produced the first martyr for free speech.”
Socrates’ legacy depends mostly on the two who wrote about him, Plato and Xenophon. Apart from those two, historians have to piece together a lot by context. Silverman’s approach is more pragmatic, whereas Linder keeps some spice in the proceedings of Socrates’ closing days. It’s always tough to interpret.
Linder, Doug. “The Trial of Socrates.” umkc.edu/faculty/projects. Web. 12 Feb 2014.
Silverman, Sam. “THE DEATH OF SOCRATES: A HOLISTIC RE-EXAMINATION” Omega: Journal of Death & Dying. 2010, Vol. 61 Issue 1, p71-84. 14p. EBSCOhost. Web. 12 Feb 2014.