Why Did Socrates Choose Death?

BrianNot 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.socrates-200x300

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).

hemockLaw 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.


 Works Cited

 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.


2 comments on “Why Did Socrates Choose Death?

  1. kencasey99 says:

    have to disagree strongly with this reading of Socrates–to say Socrates defense is weak and an invitation to suicide–misjudges the issue. It is true that after conviction–he proposes an utterly outrageous “penalty” that offends the jury and probably offends many on the jury of 500. But even the vote on the penalty is close (280/220). Socrates’ says that in conscience he can not do anything unfair (and by that he means even an unfair sentence). What he deserves as penalty is “free meals for life in the Praetorium.” This was the reward that Olympic victors won for their victories–he deserved this rather than death because he has held his position as consistently advocating that Athens start questioning itself, especially on the question of what is virtue. The fact that the vote was still close even after this outrageous suggestion, shows that Socrates had used some skill and preserved his conscience–not that he threw in the towel. Like all good martyrs Socrates does not want to be martyred, but he does wish to testify (that is the root meaning of the word martyr) to the truth.

    I also find a factual error–when he says that Socrates was losing his good looks; Socrates was notorious for being ugly from youth and was often the butt of many “ugly jokes,” When I say ugly–his eyes were compared to horse eyes for being on the side of his head–in other words horse ugly.

    What moral shall we draw from this? I list these for consideration:
    1. Beware debunkers of Socrates
    2. Beware of ebscohost–I say this with all due respect for the library resources.
    3. Beware of how issues are framed–The question “why did Socrates choose death?” has an implicit assumption in it–and so it is very important to look at the framing of the issue. (In my view the claim that Socrates wanted to die is manifestly false.)

    Sorry, but I could not keep quiet on this point; Socrates is a hero in my eyes and has been for many years.

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