Today marks the 2,421st anniversary of Socrates’ death, which took place on June 15th, 399 BC in Athens.
On May 16th, he defended himself unsuccessfully against charges of immorality and impiety (both considered a kind of sedition against the state) and sentenced to death. That day, he was escorted across the agora one last time and placed in the state prison down the road. Normally, the sentence would have been carried out immediately, but the festival of Thargelia (or, the “Lesser Delia”) just began the day before when the ship of Theseus left the port of the Piraeus to the sacred island of Delos. There was a moratorium on executions while it was away, so the seventy-year-old philosopher waited in his cell… The ship of Theseus would not return for thirty more days.
Here’s Xenophon explaining the circumstances to those that were upset or confused about the events:
[L]et him reflect, first, that Socrates was already so far advanced in age that he would soon have reached the end of his life, even if he had not done so then; and second, that he escaped the most disagreeable part of life, in which everybody’s intellect deteriorates, and instead of this displayed his strength of mind and won distinction by pleading his cause with unparalleled veracity, dignity and integrity, and by facing the death-sentence with the utmost serenity and fortitude.
It is generally agreed that no one in the memory of man has ever met his death more nobly. He had to live on for thirty days after his trial, because the festival of Delos fell in that month, and the law does not permit any publicly sanctioned execution until the mission has returned from Delos. It was evident to his intimate friends that during this time he did not deviate at all from his former way of life—and he had previously been remarkable above all men for the cheerfulness and equanimity of his life. How could anyone die more nobly than this? What death could be nobler than a death most nobly accepted? What death could be more happy than the noblest? And who could be more beloved of the gods than the happiest?Xenophon’s Memorabilia 4.8.1-3 (trans. Tredennick & Waterfield)
What’s remarkable is how Socrates spent the last days and hours and minutes of his life. As Xenophon put it, he died nobly because he died with courage, cheerfulness, and equanimity. It’s a simple but powerful portrait of a good and happy man. For this blog post, I just wanted to take you through these last moments and then reflect the impact they had on what future generations of Stoics.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the titular character is narrating to Echecrates the pythagorean what happened on Socrates’ last day in prison.
Among the local people there was Apollodorus, whom I mentioned, Critobulus and his father, also Hermogenes, Epigenes, Aeschines and Antisthenes. Ctesippus of Paeania was there, Menexenus and some others. Plato, I believe, was ill … [Also present were] Simmias from Thebes with Cebes and Phaedondes, and from Megara, Euclides and Terpsion.Plato’s Phaedo 59b-c
Socrates and his friends quickly enter a philosophical discussion about death and the soul and how philosophy is “practice” for dying (67e).
An important digression occurs when Simmias and Cebes insist on objecting to Socrates’s hypothesis that the soul is immortal. There seems to have been an awkward silence among the Athenians (88c) and Socrates takes time to assure them that engaging in rational discourse is always welcomed and that they should not distrust it even if it is used improperly:
[W]e should not become misologues, as people become misanthropes. There is no greater evil one can suffer than to hate reasonable discourse.Plato’s Phaedo 88d
The rest of the dialogue promulgates Plato’s Theory of “Forms” (ideae), which is not in keeping with Stoic philosophy (Stoic physics insists that particular entities—not universal ‘forms’—enjoy the highest ontological status). So, it would be best if you skipped to section 115 of the text where the discussion ceases and Phaedo continues his narration.
Here are the last passages which describe the final minutes of Socrates’ life. It is not yet sunset (when the execution was scheduled), but Socrates asks for the cup of hemlock anyways. Now that the conversation with his friends is over, he has taken a bath to “save the women the trouble of washing the corpse” (115a) and he is now ready to die:
“When Socrates saw [the man who was to administer the poison, carrying it made ready in a cup] he said: “Well, my good man, you are an expert in this; what must one do?”—”Just drink it and walk around until your legs feel heavy, and then lie down and it will act of itself.” And he offered the cup to Socrates, who took it quite cheerfully, Echecrates, without a tremor or any change of feature or color, but looking at the man from under his eyebrows as was his wont, asked: “What do you say about pouring a libation from this drink? It is allowed?”—”We only mix as much as we believe will suffice,” said the man.
I understand, Socrates said, but one is allowed, indeed one must, utter a prayer to the gods that the journey from here to yonder may be fortunate. This is my prayer and may it be so.
And while he was saying this, he was holding the cup, and then drained it calmly and easily. Most of us had been able to hold back our tears reasonably well up till then, but when we saw him drinking it and after he drank it, we could hold them back no longer; my own tears came in floods against my will. So I covered my face. I was weeping for myself, not for him—for my misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade. Even before me, Crito was unable to restrain his tears and got up. Apollodorus had not ceased from weeping before, and at this moment his noisy tears and anger made everybody present break down, except Socrates. “What is this,” he said, “you strange fellows. It is mainly for this reason that I sent the women away, to avoid such unseemliness, for I am told one should die in good omened silence. So keep quiet and control yourselves.”
His words made us ashamed, and we checked our tears. He walked around, and when he said his legs were heavy he lay on his back as he had been told to do, and the man who had given him the poison touched his body, and after a while tested his feet and legs, pressed hard upon his foot and asked him if he felt this, and Socrates said no. Then he pressed his calves, and made his way up his body and showed us that it was cold and stiff. He felt it himself and said that when the cold reached his heart he would be gone. As his belly was getting cold Socrates uncovered his head—he had covered it—and said—these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget.”—“It shall be done,” said Crito, “tell us if there is anything else.” But there was no answer. Shortly afterwards Socrates made a movement; the man uncovered him and his eyes were fixed. Seeing this Crito closed his mouth and his eyes.
Such was the end of our comrade, Echecrates, a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most upright.Plato’s Phaedo 117b-118a (trans. Grube)
Socrates thus died either from respiratory failure or heart failure due to the paralysis induced by the hemlock poisoning. The muscle pain and burning sensations would have been very painful, but from the extant accounts of his death, Socrates died without complaint. His last words were a request that a rooster be sacrificed to Asclepius, the god of medicine. This was usually done as a sign of gratitude for relieving a patient of a serious illness.
Immediately after Socrates’ death, the ancient world saw a resurgence of philosophical activity by his students. The “Socratic dialogue” became a popular genre and we still retain examples of these by Plato and Xenophon. Schools of philosophy were established in Athens and abroad. And a hundred years later, the school of “Stoicism” was founded by Zeno of Citium and his followers who all considered them the spiritual successors of Socrates.
And the spirit of Socrates lives on as long as there were Stoics to sing him praise. Below are some references to the death of Socrates by the later Roman Stoics who lived over four hundred years after the death of Socrates and whose writings we are still lucky to have.
SENECA (1st Century)
Can you find any city more wretched in any way than the Athenians’ city when the thirty tyrants tore it apart? . . . Yet Socrates was openly out in public life and comforted the mourning fathers and exhorted men despairing of the state, and reproached wealthy men fearing the consequences of their riches because they came too late to regret the dangers brought on by their greed; he bore himself as a mighty example for those willing to imitate him, walking as a free man among the thirty masters. But Athens herself killed him in jail, and liberty did not tolerate the liberty of the man who had safely provoked the horde of tyrants; you learn from this that even in an oppressed state there is a chance for the wise man to put himself forward, and that in a flourishing and happy state envy and a thousand other evils dominate. So, however the government presents itself, however fortune allows, we shall either expand ourselves or shrink ourselves in such a way that we shall, at any rate, be taking action, not paralyzed or strangled with fear. In fact, that man will be a hero who, when dangers threaten on all sides and weapons and chains clash all around, will not crush or conceal his virtue. For burying oneself is not a form of salvation.— On Tranquility of Mind 5.1-4
In your judgment, was Socrates badly treated because he swallowed that publicly mixed potion no differently than a tonic of immortality and discussed death right up to death? Was he badly done by because his blood congealed, and the coldness creeping in little by little brought the vigor of his veins to a standstill? How much more ought we to envy him than those to whom wine is served in a jeweled cup, or for whom a male sex slave, who has been taught to endure all things and whose manhood has been cut off or is ambiguous, melts snow floating in a cup of gold. They will measure back out in vomiting whatever they drank, reluctantly re-tasting their own bile. But Socrates will gulp down poison joyfully and willingly.— On Providence 3.12-13
“Every age supplies [examples to strengthen you with]. Wherever you direct your powers of recall, amid civic or external affairs, individuals will come to mind who were either morally advanced or exceptionally bold… Socrates lectured while in prison, and although there were people there to arrange an escape, he refused to leave; instead, he stayed, meaning to do away with humankind’s two greatest fears: death and imprisonment.— Letters 24.4 (trans. Graver & Long)
“Socrates could have starved himself to death, choosing lack of food over the poison. Yet he spent thirty days in prison waiting for death, not because he thought that anything might still happen (as if such a long time had room for many possible outcomes), but so that he might submit to the laws and give his friends the benefit of Socrates’ last days. To despise death but fear poison: what could be more foolish?”— Letters 70.9
“If you need a model, take Socrates, a very patient old man. He suffered all kinds of hardships, but he was overwhelmed neither by poverty (which his domestic troubles made more onerous) nor by the physical work he had to endure, including military service. He was hard pressed at home, whether we think of his ill-mannered wife with her shrewish tongue or his ineducable children, resembling their mother rather than their father. Outside the home, he lived either in war or under tyranny or in a freedom that was more cruel than war and tyrants. The war lasted for twenty-seven years. After it ended, the state was subjected to the harm caused by the Thirty Tyrants, many of whom were personally hostile to Socrates. Finally, he was charged with the most serious offenses. He was accused of undermining religion and corrupting the youth by inciting them against the gods, their fathers, and the state. After this came prison and the hemlock. All this had so little effect on Socrates’ mind that it did not even alter his facial expression. What remarkable and unique distinction! Right up to the end, no one ever saw Socrates any more or less cheerful than usual. Amid the extreme changes of fortune, he was always unchanged.— Letters 104.27-28
EPICTETUS (2nd Century)
“What is the downside for those who refuse to accept [our circumstances]? To be just as they are. . . . ‘Throw him in jail.’ What jail? The one he is in already, since he is there against his will; and if he is there against his will then he is imprisoned. Conversely, Socrates was not in prison because he chose to be there.”—Discourses 1.12.23 (see also Phaedo 98e-99b)
“Court and prison are two places, one high, the other low. Your character, however, can be kept the same in either place – if you decide it should. We will rival Socrates when we can spend our time in prison composing hymns. But considering our attitude up to now, I wonder if in prison we could even stand someone else offering to read us his own compositions. ‘Don’t bother me; don’t you realize the problems I’ve got? You think I can listen to poetry in my position?’ ‘Why, what is it?’ ‘I’m sentenced to death!’ ‘And the rest of us aren’t?’”—Discourses 2.6.25-6
“And how did he behave when it was time to drink the poison? Given the opportunity to save himself, with Crito urging him to go into exile for his children’s sake, did he look upon this as the lucky pretext he needed to stay alive? Hardly. He reflected on the right thing to do, with no thought or regard for anything else. In his own words, he didn’t want to save the body, he wanted to preserve the element that grows and thrives with every act of justice, the element that is diminished and dies by injustice. Socrates does not save his life at the cost of dishonour – Socrates, who resisted the Athenians’ call to bring an illegal motion to a vote, defied the tyrants, and spoke so memorably on the subject of virtue and character. Such a man is not saved with dishonour; an honourable death, not flight, is his salvation. A good actor preserves his reputation not by speaking lines out of turn but by knowing when to talk – and when to keep quiet. . . . Even now, long after Socrates’ death, the memory of what he did and said benefits humanity as much as or more than ever.”—Discourses 4.1.162-69
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them. Death, for example, is nothing frightening, otherwise it would have frightened Socrates. But the judgement that death is frightening – now, that is something to be afraid of.— Enchiridion 5
MARCUS AURELIUS (2nd Century)
“… It is not enough that Socrates [performed admirable deeds]… No, what we need to investigate is the nature of Socrates’ soul. We should ask whether he was able to be content with a life of justice shown to men and piety to the gods; neither condemning all vice wholesale nor yet toadying to anyone’s ignorance; not regarding anything allotted to him by the Whole as misplaced in him or a crushing burden to endure; not lending his mind to share the poor passions of the flesh.”— Meditations 7.66
You can tell a lot about someone’s character by examining the manner by which they face death. The Roman Stoics admired Socrates for the courage and equanimity that he displayed. They also seemed to admire the patience and compassion that he showed his friends. The ancient Stoics also admired Marcus Cato the Younger for the brave death he underwent when he lost to Julius Caesar. I myself admire Cicero and Seneca for similar reasons.
We should admire anyone who demonstrated exemplary virtue and wisdom in their final hours. Who would you put on your list?
I must emphasize one thing before I finish this post… Think about the character traits displayed by someone you admire in moments when others may have given into fear or may have otherwise compromised their moral integrity. These character traits are what your role model had already—they were what made their life worth living before they came to the end of it… Good character is most visible in the face of hardship, but it can only be relied upon in times of hardship if it is already internalized—fostered and integrated into one’s disposition long before it’s called upon. Good character cannot be exhibited in an isolated event―it cannot be called upon from nowhere at the last moment in the face of death or danger, but must be cultivated and maintained in the midst of life. My point is simple: if you want to face death with courage and equanimity, start now. Face life with courage and equanimity, as Socrates did.