Commemorating Socrates

Spring marks that time of year when Socrates was brought to trial by Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon; defended himself against charges of religious impiety and political subversion; was found guilty by a jury of his peers; and was sentenced to die by hemlock.

We know that this all took place in May and April 399 BCE because Plato says that the trial started the day after a particular holiday began, Thargalia. In Athens, this holidays begins when the eleventh new moon after the summer solstice is seen. Using Astronomical info to determine when the solstice occurred in 400 BCE and when each new moon might have been ‘seen’, we can make an educated guess about when the trial of Socrates took place (if the Ancient Greeks were using the Gregorian Calendar): April 25th over a nine-to-ten hour period. We also know from Xenophon that Socrates was in prison for 30 days before his sentence was carried out. So, we can make an educated guess about the date of his death: May 25th at sunset.

Socrates was certainly one of the most influential figures in human history. He seemed to hold special significance to the Greek and Roman Stoics. The following are some points made by Donald Robertson in his article called “The Stoic Socrates”

  • We’re told that Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was inspired to become a philosopher after a chance reading of Book Two from Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.
  • Zeno’s student Sphaerus reputedly wrote three volumes about Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawmaker, and Socrates.
  • Posidonius in his book on Ethics would point to the moral progress made by Socrates, Antisthenes, and Diogenes the Cynic, as evidence that virtue exists and presumably can be taught.
  • Musonius Rufus refers to Socrates several times, in the surviving lectures, as a suitable role model for Stoics and this perhaps helps to explain the emphasis placed on Socrates’ example by Musonius’ famous student Epictetus
  • Epictetus refers to Socrates often. He twice tells his students to go and read the Symposium of Xenophon and he makes several references to Plato’s “Apology” and “Crito” (see below).
  • Following Musonius and Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius refers to Socrates often (he probably had access to all eight books of the Discourses in which Epictetus makes more references to Socrates) and makes references to some scenes in Plato’s “Apology” (again, see below).

Robertson helpfully collects all the references that the Roman Stoics made to Socrates. When perusing his article, keep in mind that the extant writings we have represent only a tiny fraction of what was actually written. Robertson’s article also excludes Seneca, but just read his Letters to Lucilius #64 if you want evidence of his admiration of Socrates.

So we know that Socrates was influential. But why? And why should we commemorate him? I hope we can have an ongoing conversation about this and come to appreciate first-hand his influence on Stoic philosophy. To do this, we should read some early writings about Socrates. Since we’re commemorating specifically his trial and death, the following texts are centered around these powerful events…

The Trial of Socrates

The texts below relate the conversation Socrates had the day before his trial (with Euthyphro) and the trial itself. Plato and Xenophon give two accounts of Socrates’s “apology”—that is, the defense speech he gives to his accusers, the jury, and the Athenian public. They are both stylistically different but they were written only a few years after the event itself. Scholars don’t think the authors would deviate far from the truth when there were still witnesses alive who could refute them.

The Imprisonment of Socrates

As opposed to his “Apology,” which portrays Socrates’s most public exchange, Plato’s “Crito” is perhaps Socrates’s most intimate and private dialogue. Crito visits Socrates in prison before dawn and makes one final plea to his oldest friend. Socrates refuses his offer to help him escape and meets his fate the next day.

The Death of Socrates

The holiday of Thargalia has come to an end and state executions can commence at sunset. The link below will direct you to an excerpt of Plato’s “Phaedo.” This dialogue was written much later than the “Apology” and “Crito” and so the preceding discussion that Socrates has with his visitors may reflect Plato’s views moreso than the actual Socrates. The narration of Socrates’s death, though, is poignant and powerful.

Appendix: The Image of Socrates

If time allows, it is helpful to read this work by Aristophanes, which plays an important part in Plato’s “Apology.” Socrates cites this as one of the reasons why public opinion has turned against him. The “Clouds” was put on in Athens in 423 BCE—24 years prior to the trial of Socrates… plenty of time for a parody (perhaps not totally unfair at the time) to be inherited by the next generation uncritically and used to inform their opinions of the accused.