the first philosopher
True philosophers make dying their profession.
They were young and free, and did not like to think of him in prison.
They had visited with him until late the previous evening. Then, before the sun was up, they gathered again near the courthouse at the foot of the Acropolis and stood shivering in the predawn gloom.
The jail porter greeted them with a solemn face. Their hearts sank as he said:
“The Eleven”—those were the Athenian judicial officials—“are taking off his chains, and giving orders that he is going to die today.”
Grief-stricken, the young men stumbled down the damp stone steps to their teacher’s cell. Inside was a small, strongly built squat man with a white beard, bald pate, and pug nose. He was sitting on his narrow bed, rubbing his legs where the shackles had been. Despite his impending death sentence, he looked calm and collected. In the opposite corner of the cell was his wife. She was surprisingly young, with a small boy on her knee. It was the prisoner’s son, even though the prisoner was seventy years old.
His name was Socrates.
When the younger men appeared, the woman sprang to her feet. On the verge of hysteria, she blurted out: “Oh, Socrates, this is the last time that you will converse with your friends, or they with you.” Then she burst into tears.
The squat old man spoke calmly to the leader of the group and he gestured toward his wife, Xanthippe.
“Critias,” Socrates said, “let someone take her home.” One of Critias’s slaves took Xanthippe away as she wept unconsolably.
Watching her leave, Socrates smiled with a serene expression that amazed Critias and the others. They were struck with how “the Master seemed quite happy,” as one of them said later, and how he seemed to face certain death “nobly and fearlessly.”
His students knew Socrates had been convicted by a jury of his peers of blasphemy and “corrupting the youth of Athens.” But they also knew that the charge had been politically motivated and the conviction a foregone conclusion. They knew Socrates’s real crime had been daring to think for himself and convincing others to do the same.
All the same, his calmness—his cheerfulness, almost—in the face of death made them uneasy. When they finally asked why he was so relaxed, Socrates gave them his answer.
“The real philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die,” he said, especially since “he has the desire for death all his life long.”
They asked what he meant. So he told them.
It was a story some had heard from Socrates many times before. It was about how if a man freed himself from the distractions and false pleasures of the body, and dedicated himself single-mindedly to the pursuit of truth, he must eventually find his elusive quarry.
It was a story about how everything that exists in the world we see, taste, feel, and hear is only an imperfect copy or reflection of a much higher reality, a realm of perfect standards of all the virtues, including manliness, health, strength, and beauty, and absolute justice and goodness as well.
These absolute ideal standards constitute “the essence or true nature of everything,” Socrates told them. They shared a perfection with our own soul. All the same, grasping that higher reality is not easy.
By now his disciples had found seats around the cell or leaned against the wall, eager to hear more.
“When using the sense of sight or hearing or some other sense,” Socrates explained, “the soul is dragged by the body into the realm of the changeable, and wanders and is confused.” However, when the soul returns to reflect upon its own nature, “then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives. . . . And this state of the soul,” he concluded, “is called wisdom.”
It was this wisdom, he went on, that made possible the practice of courage and self-control and goodness, because in this state the soul rules the body just as the gods rule the lives of men. For, Socrates pointed out, “the soul is the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and indissoluble and always good, while the body is the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and multi-form and changeable, and prone to evil.”
This meant that no soul, including his own, could achieve the highest wisdom and virtue as long as it was encumbered by its physical body.
Therefore, this life “is a sort of pilgrimage,” Socrates had told the jury of his fellow Athenians before they sentenced him to death. On that journey, the “soul is a helpless prisoner,” Socrates now told Crito and the others, “chained hand and foot in the body, compelled to view reality not directly but through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance.”
Now that he was about to die, Socrates said, he could look forward to meeting the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as they really were, in the invisible world of perfection. Just as the jailer had released the shackles that bound his legs, so death would free his soul from its body altogether. Finally he would find the knowledge he had sought all his life as a lover of wisdom, or (literally in Greek) as a philosopher.
Outside the cell, the dawn had heaved itself into day. Normal life in Athens had begun. Farmers were gathering in the marketplace to sell their olives, figs, and other produce; goats and small boys were running underfoot; fishermen were hauling out their baskets of fish down at the harbor of Piraeus. Beneath the Acropolis and the temple to Athena, men and women were setting out their wares outside shop doors and artisans’ studios. Litigants were running to present their cases to the law courts; priests were preparing their sacrifices at the Parthenon and other temples on the Acropolis mount. Wealthy citizens walked arm in arm, trying to decide how to amuse themselves for the day; and old men found seats for themselves in the shade to escape the noonday sun.
Inside Socrates’s cell, however, all was dark and silent as they contemplated a wisdom beyond this world and a life beyond death.
Still his disciples were astounded. How could a man like Socrates, the wisest and gentlest and happiest they had ever known, accept the end of life so willingly? Surely he knew, they protested, that he had been wrongly prosecuted, that he was the innocent victim of a vendetta directed at a ring of pro-Spartan collaborators, including his former student Alcibiades, once the glamour boy of Athenian politics and now disgraced as a traitor. His friend Crito had even told him they were ready to bribe his guard and get him out of prison to escape a death sentence he knew was unjust.
But Socrates had just smiled and shook his head. To break the law, he told Crito, even a law that he knew was unjust, would be wrong. As he told his disciples many times, “one must not do wrong even when one is wronged.” By doing wrong, a man did injury to his soul. Doing right, by contrast, makes his soul healthy and strong. A life of virtue is a life without compromise, Socrates believed, in which the goal is perfection according to an eternal standard.
Besides, “do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and be turned upside down, if the legal judgements which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?” A true philosopher knows that one’s country is to be valued and held more holy than any father or mother or ancestor. Its laws must be treated as sacred.
No, Socrates concluded. A man who had devoted himself to freeing his mind and soul from the distractions of the body, who had labored to “deck his soul with self-control, and goodness, and courage, and liberality, and truth,” was bound to wait for death not with fear, “but with pleasure. Fair is the prize, and hope great!”
The disciples had listened with quiet attention. They had listened so long, in fact, that they failed to notice that the sun had nearly set. The moment they dreaded had come.
“We shall try our best as you have taught, ” Crito finally blurted, “but how shall we bury you?”
“Any way you like,” Socrates joked, “but you must get hold of me, and take care that I do not run away from you,” meaning that his soul was about to depart for a higher and better world.
Socrates wandered into an adjacent room to take a final bath so that his body would not have to be washed before burial, as was the Greek custom. When he returned, he found his jailer waiting for him.
The man had come to say good-bye and to apologize for Socrates’s incarceration. “I have come to know during this time,” he said with great emotion, “that you are the noblest and gentlest and bravest of all men that have ever come here, and now especially I am sure you are not angry with me, because you know who is responsible.” Then the jailer burst into tears and walked away.
Socrates was moved and turned back to the others, many of whom were also on the verge of tears. “How generous of him to shed tears for me,” he exclaimed with genuine pleasure. “But now, Crito, let us do as he says. Someone had better bring in the poison, if it is prepared.”
Then the man in charge of administering the poison, made from the juice of the hemlock plant, appeared. This was a standard form of Athenian execution; jars of hemlock were even kept at the ready at the courthouse, in case some passerby decided to take his own life.
The man handed Socrates the lethal dose in a cup.
“You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy,” he said, “and then lie down, and the poison will act.”
Socrates took the cup “quite readily and cheerfully,” one of the disciples remembered, and drained it in a single motion.
Now his visitors, who had held back their tears, exploded in a flood of wails and lamentation. “What is this strange outburst,” Socrates admonished them. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way. Be quiet, then, and have patience.”
This calmed his disciples, and the tears and cries ceased. Socrates matter-of-factly walked up and down the room for a few minutes, then stopped.
“My legs are heavy,” he announced, then lay back on the bed.
The man with the hemlock cup pinched Socrates’s foot hard. He asked if Socrates felt anything.
“No,” Socrates said. Then he slowly pulled his sheet over his face.
From time to time, the man checked to chart the poison’s progress. When the numbness had spread to his waist, Socrates uncovered his face and said:
“Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius. Will you remember to pay the debt?”
Crito swallowed hard. He knew this was Socrates’s final gesture of contempt for death. Asclepius, the god of medicine, normally received a sacrifice from those who had been suddenly cured of disease. It was Socrates’s way of announcing that he had finally been cured of life, meaning life in a world filled with lies and illusion.
The world that had sentenced him to death.
Crito asked if Socrates wanted anything, but there was no answer. After a few minutes, he pulled back the sheet. Socrates’s eyes stared back, unseeing. Slowly Crito closed his beloved teacher’s eyes and mouth, and replaced the sheet.
A few days later, one of Socrates’s friends asked Phaedo, an eyewitness: “Who was actually there?”
Phaedo, still shaken, pulled himself together and listed the names, including Crito and Apollodorus and half a dozen others. The friend asked about two more, Aristippus and Cleomdorus.
“No,” Phaedo said, “they were said to be in Aegina.”
“Anyone else?” the friend asked.
“I think that’s about all.”
There was one name he did not mention. A disciple who was not present when the great Socrates died, on a summer day in “the year of Laches” in 399 before the Christian era. Someone who for reasons of illness missed the last dramatic moments of the “bravest and also the wisest and most upright man we knew in our time,” as Phaedo put it, but who would spend the rest of his life making that man immortal.
His name was Plato.
Plato made Socrates into the single most influential thinker in history. The Socrates we meet in Plato’s dialogues is indeed the first philosopher, the man who, as the Roman statesman Cicero said three centuries later, “pulled philosophy down from the heavens and sent it into the cities and homes of man.” Socrates is why we still praise the power of reason in human affairs today: a power we praise more than we practice. And the fact is, we know a lot more about Socrates as a historical figure than about his famous disciple.
We know, for example, Socrates was born in Athens in 470 BCE, nine years after Athens and the other Greek city-states decisively smashed the Persian invasion of their homeland at the battle of Plataea. We know he was the son of Sophroniscus, a man of considerable stature in his deme or district of Athens (the old story that Socrates was the son of a stonecutter seems to be largely untrue), and a woman of good family named Phaenarete, whom Plato says in the dialogue Theaetetus enjoyed fame as a midwife.
By every account, Socrates was a typical Athenian in habits and outlook. He obeyed its laws; he attended its religious festivals; he voted and served on trial juries (in Athens a jury might number in the hundreds). He married an Athenian woman, Xanthippe, who bore him a son and two children who were infants in arms when he died—perhaps surprising for a man approaching seventy. He was also intimate with some of Athens’s most blue-blooded families, a fact that ultimately sealed his doom.
Still, for all his learning and intelligence and sophisticated circle of friends, Socrates remained a hometown boy. Athens was all the world he needed to see and experience. As he tells us in the Crito, he had never left the city’s environs, not even to visit Delphi or attend the Olympic games, until in middle age compulsory military service in the Peloponnesian War took him to northern Greece.8
In Socrates’s day, Athens was Greece’s largest city. It was rich, sophisticated, and commercially active. After the defeat of the Persians, it became the deadly rival of fellow Greek city Sparta. Like Elizabethan England or Gupta India, Athens in the fifth century BCE witnessed intellectual ferment and pathbreaking creativity in the arts—but also great violence and ruthless conquest. It was the home of dramatists Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus, as well as the statesman Pericles and the sculptor Phidias, principal decorator of Athens’s temple to its patron goddess, Athena, the Parthenon.
From the Hardcover edition.