Commemorating the Trial and Death of Socrates

Since the trial and death of Socrates was such a famous historical event, scholars put a lot of confidence in any information about it that was included in the Socratic Dialogues. For example, Plato and Xenophon mention that Socrates’s execution was forestalled due to the “Delia” ceremony during the month of Thargelion: the sacred Ship of Theseus would sail to the island of Delos, ceremonies would be performed in honor of Apollo, and then the ship would return to Athens (see Crito 43d-44a). Plato states that the trial was held a day after the ship of Theseus departed [my one bit of guesswork is that the ship left the day after the new moon was sighted, which would be the first day of Thargelion] (see Phaedo 58a-c) and Xenophon states that the trip took 31 days in 399 BCE (see Memorabilia 4.8.2). Thus, Socrates was in prison for 30 days and then executed at sunset the day after the ship arrived (this is dramatized in Plato’s “Phaedo”). Lastly, it helps to know that the Attic calendar was lunisolar: the months start on each new moon but the year starts on the first new moon after the summer solstice (linking the lunar months with the solar year). This is important because we know that the month of Thargelion would start the day after the 11th new moon of every year, which takes place NOW starting in April or May and extending as far as June.

So when would Socrates be tried, imprisoned, and executed if we commemorated it this year in 2019?

Well, the summer solstice was on June 21st, 2018. So, the lunar month of Thargelion would start on May 6th, 2019 (the day after the new moon was sighted). I am assuming that the ship of Theseus would have departed on that day. If so, the trial of Socrates would have taken place on MAY 7TH, 2019. As I write this, Socrates would have been in prison for about 24 days now — doing philosophy with his friends and trying his hand at some poetry. The ship of Theseus will have returned on June 5th and — at sunset the following day — Socrates will have ingested hemlock and died. We can commemorate this event very precisely: THURSDAY, JUNE 6TH AT 8PM — mark your calendars.

You can commemorate this event by reading some of your favorite passages from Plato or Xenophon, or maybe reading the account that Diogenes Laertius gives of Socrates in his “Lives of Eminent Philosopher”.

NOTE 1: I say “around 8pm” even though sunset is at 8:02pm in Los Angeles. This is because it didn’t seem like Socrates waited for the sun to hit the actual horizon. In Plato’s “Phaedo,” it’s mentioned that the sun was still as high as the mountains when Socrates requested the poison (maybe 30 min. before sunset?)…  but then it took a while for the cup to be brought and put in his hands… then it took a moment for the poison to take full effect… So I say “about 8pm.”

NOTE 2: We also know that Socrates’s best friend, Crito, visits him either A) the day before (what would be June 6th) or B) two days before (June 5th) before sunrise (4 or 5am?). We’re not sure exactly because although Crito claims that the ship of Theseus is expected to arrive soon (evidence for Option A), Socrates has a prophetic dream of sorts that assures his friend that they have one more day to spend together (evidence for Option B?). Part of their conversation is dramatized in Plato’s “Crito.” It’s a sweet interaction and probably the most intimate portrait of the great philosopher that we have. It’s a short work, so perhaps you can commemorate the event by reading through it on June 5th.

NOTE 3: You might have noticed that the month of Thargelion, in which we are commemorating Socrates’s trial and imprisonment, coincides with Ramadan this year (the difference being that the Muslim wait to see a crescent moon, which appears a day or two after the new moon). This won’t always be the case though. The Islamic Calendar is purely lunar and so Ramadan starts 10 or 11 days earlier every year. Next year, Ramadan will start on April 24th… NOW, if I did my calculations correctly (counting 11 new moons from the 2019 Summer Solstice), then Thargelion will start on April 23rd in 2020 and coincide with Ramadan yet again… but that’s the last time the two month will overlap for long while. The start of Thargelion will stay in April for another year whereas Ramadan will continue to move backwards through the Gregorian calendar.

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