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Society and the Death of Socrates -- What We Can Learn From Socrates' Demise

Updated: Apr 9

A philosopher writing a paper and holding a glass of wine.

Examining Socrates' Fate

Socrates' execution remains a philosophical, troubled event. Did he deserve death? The answer hinges on perspective. Socrates himself, by the way, justified his own execution, due to several, theoretical reasons:

  1. "Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death, to justify his philosophic opposition to the Athenian democracy of that time" -- I. F. Stone.

  2. "Because of his loyalty to Athenian democracy, Socrates willingly accepted the guilty verdict voted by the jurors at his trial" -- Andrew Irvine.

  3. "Socrates, with his unconventional methods of intellectual inquiry, attempted to resolve the political confusion then occurring in the city-state of Athens, by willingly being the scapegoat, whose death would quiet old disputes, which then would allow the Athenian polis to progress towards political harmony and social peace.” -- Robin Waterfield.

One viewpoint upholds the Athenian legal system. Socrates revered the law, prioritizing it even over his life. Following societal norms, his self-sacrifice for order seemed noble. According to Socratic ethics:

If private individuals can disobey and nullify laws when they please, the Laws will no longer have any effect or any importance, and so the State will fall into chaos. The State is only held together by the Laws, and the Laws are only binding if they hold no matter what the circumstances.
If Socrates should suggest that the State has committed an injustice against him by making a faulty judgment at his trial, he imagines the Laws would reply that he had agreed to abide by whatever judgments the State should make. After all, the Laws are not to be accepted piecemeal, but either entirely or not at all.

We still revere those who die for their nation, including many real-life one-man-armies, who defeated many enemies on their own. We do not regard them as mass shooters but as war heroes. Yet, a disquieting question arises: Does society prioritize its own survival over its members' well-being?

Socrates was a critic of Athenian Democracy as he criticized democracy in general. He believed that democracy would only work if the citizenry were skeptical and well-informed enough to elect the right candidates for the governing positions. Otherwise, they may elect those who are too unfit. As such, for his loyalty to the law and to its importance, he might as well accepted the same fate if he was a member of the fictional Galactic Empire, known for its total absence of democracy.

Conversely, what was Socrates' crime? According to Xenophon, Socrates' apprentice, in "Memorabilia"

"Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young."

He fostered critical thinking and self-reflection among Athenian citizens. Can these be considered corrupt acts, as the charges claimed? Perhaps they were deemed threatening because they challenged established beliefs and encouraged independent thought over blind obedience.

A Lesson in Duality

Either way, this is an extreme example of the social risks involved in being a philosopher -- in certain time periods and nations this can mark your death.

This is precisely why I hesitate to fully engage with society, preferring to largely quarantine myself from it. Societies are often self-centered, prioritizing their own interests. They glorify sacrifice for the collective good, while ostracizing those who deviate from established norms, rejecting them as either "klumniks" or straight-up insane.

Socrates' punishment reveals society's two faces:

If society is manipulative and is unwilling to be inclusive, why devote ourselves to a system that prioritizes its own ego and undermines our independence and individuality?

Society's hypocrisy lies in condemning individual egoism while simultaneously glorifying its own ego. We're led to believe that serving society's ego (under the guise of altruism) is noble, even at the expense of our own lives. But should we really serve those who lack the empathy to not regard us as sacrificial pawns?

Socrates wouldn't have died had he embraced conformity, despite his loyalty to the Athenian city-state. His contributions would have been lauded by the very those who sentenced his death. Those who glorify the social machine are themselves glorified in exchange, via the basic carrot and stick method.

Socrates' death exposes the dark side of societal structures. They manipulate us to surrender independence for the sake of an order that deems individuality a threat on its rule. Socrates' death wasn't necessary. It was the societal consciousness that needed transformation, not the man who dared to question.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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