February 15: Socrates was sentenced to death on this day in 399 BC, his crime that of irreverence towards the Greek gods. Many commentators interpret the irreverence conviction more politically, seeing it as a reflection of the degree to which Socrates had become an irritant to the power elite and, given the popularity of his philosophical skepticism among the young, even a social threat. Over the years, the attack upon him had been taken up on many sides; the following lines are delivered by the Chorus in The Frogs, one of several plays in which Aristophanes attempts to cartoon Socrates and his followers:
So what’s stylish is not to sit
beside Socrates and chatter,
casting the arts aside
and ignoring the best
of the tragedian’s craft.
To hang around killing time
in pretentious conversation
and hairsplitting twaddle
is the mark of a man who’s lost his mind.
Plato, the most famous of the hairsplitting disciples, describes the drinking of the hemlock in Phaedo, one of the Dialogues:
Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could not longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: “What is this strange outcry?” he said. “I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.