A Good Way to Die

Candida Moss on the death of Socrates:

Roman writers, early Christians, medieval theologians, and Renaissance thinkers all trumpeted Socrates as a model of conduct for their audiences. There’s no doubt that Socrates was influential, not least in the work of his student Plato. It’s ironic, though, that for all of his notoriety and reputation as the world’s wisest man, Socrates is famous largely for the manner in which he died. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, for instance, alludes to Socrates’s death when he describes him as an ideal philosopher, a witness to truth, and one who refused to betray his principles. For Epictetus, Socrates’s death tells us something important about his character. To us, it is entirely unclear whether Socrates would have been as well respected by later generations if he had not died nobly. During his lifetime he was ridiculed as a pedant and a morally ambiguous sophist. Aristophanes’s depiction in The Clouds (ca. 423 BCE ) of Socrates debating arcane details, such as how far a flea can jump, paints a very unflattering picture of the great philosopher. Perhaps, if he had not accepted death, Socrates would have been remembered in this way rather than as an ideal philosophical martyr.

That’s an interesting point. I’m used to thinking of the Socratic Method and Plato’s Socratic Dialogues as the source of Socrates’ fame. But Moss makes the point that the ancient readers were most interested in the way Socrates died, and that honorable death was what made them interested in what he said during his life.

The model of Socrates’ death influences the way that martyrs are depicted throughout history. Socrates was stoic in the face of death and true to his ideals until the end. Philosophers, Jewish martyrs and Christian saints are all depicted in this way.

As an aside, it’s actually startling how much the martyrdom of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark does not resemble this model. Jesus grieves, begs his disciples to stay awake with him, calls out, asks that the cup pass him by, etc. But Luke returns Jesus to the proper philosophical form.

Moss’ point means that Paul was wrong; the cross is not a stumbling block. If Socrates taking the cup was actually the source of his glory, then Jesus riding into the lion’s den of Jerusalem is the guarantee of his legacy.

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  • The Vicar

    Well, duh. Socrates, even in Plato, is portrayed as a jerk, although the translations usually don’t convey this. Look at the Apology, which is where Socrates goes on trial and contains the stuff we’re supposed to consider noble. Put in more colloquial language, and summarized, it goes something like this:

    Prosecutor: Socrates, your students turned out to be a series of traitors and tyrants. And you claim to hear voices.
    Socrates: Oh, chill out. My students were No True Philosophers. Why, when I was sent off to kill people by the absolute orders of my student-turned-tyrant, I failed to carry out his orders, although I certainly didn’t question him to his face and I got off scot free because I Have Connections. As for the voices, well, yeah, man, there’s a little voice which tells me when I’m doing something wrong. That makes me a special guy, unlike you lumps.
    Prosecutor: That’s wildly unconvincing, and in any case many thousands of other people managed not to produce murderers and tyrants while claiming to be the greatest teacher in the world, without hearing voices to boot. Tell you what, though, we hate killing people, and a lot of rich people are fond of you, so we’ll let you suggest an alternate punishment.
    Socrates: Whoa, Dude? I get to choose my rewa– punishment? Well, in that case, everyone in town should be forced to hold a party for me, ’cause I’m such a special guy, loving wisdom and all, unlike all you idiots.
    Prosecutor: Are you fucking kidding me? You’re a jerkwad and a waste of resources. You’re gonna die, asshat.
    Friend: Pssst! Socrates! I can sneak you out of town, and they won’t bother following you because, frankly, they don’t care enough about you to worry as long as you just go away.
    Socrates: Hmph. This is my city, and I’m gonna show my devotion to justice by letting the city I claim to love carry out a punishment I consider unjust. Besides, leaving would be admitting I was wrong about everything. Ain’t gonna happen.
    Prosecutor: Oh, hey, here’s your poison. Drink up.
    Socrates: Great. Oh, hey, buddy, please pay my back medical bills, will ya? (*glug glug glug*) (*dies*)

    Not exactly the admirable character he’s chalked up to be.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Recommended: The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone
    ISBN-13: 978-0385260329

  • FO

    At the beginning, Socrates struck me as an arrogant jerk.
    He goes tell everyone that they don’t know shit while he’s the wisest.
    Why? Because he knows that he doesn’t know.

    Then I realized he was exactly right.
    Maybe he could have tried a gentler delivery, but he was INCREDIBLY FUCKING RIGHT.

    If you realize the limits of your knowledge and understanding, you are going to understand so much more.
    This is the very basis of science.
    I end up winning every rational debate because of this, it prevents me from doing stupid assumptions and it allows me to see the other’s stupid assumptions.
    It allows me to change idea whenever reality requires it.

    The n1 problem with humanity, right now, is that we are oblivious to our own ignorance.
    We don’t know shit and we arrogantly think we do.

    Maybe Socrates was a poor communicator, but still a genius, and his idea is terribly actual.

    • The Vicar

      Okay, a few points:

      1. Socrates, according to Plato, says that he knows nothing — except that that’s false. He knows he’s Socrates, he lives in Athens, he knows the laws of Athens (he says so right in the Apology!), he knows what actions he is taking, and he knows the immediate results of those actions. (And yes, his denial that he knows anything denies even such trivial knowledge as this, at least in context.) In short, he is intellectually dishonest.

      2. One of the many things Socrates does NOT know is how to reason reliably. If we are to take Plato’s word for it — and a point many historians have made is that Plato was Socrates’ student and may have indulged in any amount of historical revisionism; we have exactly zero of Socrates’ thought as written by himself; he could even have been illiterate and we wouldn’t know — then Socrates’ syllogisms employ undistributed middles left and right. Start parsing them closely, and you’ll encounter statements like (and I’m making this one up, but it’s typical) “well, either you like the temperature to be a comfortable 22 degrees C, or else obviously you want to set yourself on fire.” Even his conclusion that nobody knows anything is based on this sort of false reasoning. “I’m able to play word games” — which is what a some of his stuff is; there are parts of Plato/Socrates which don’t work very well in translation because they rely on Greek puns, essentially — “which confuse people into contradiction, therefore their knowledge must not be real”.

      3. Socrates, most damningly, was unwilling to observe the real world and learn from what he saw. Plato, of course, was an intellectual snob who thought that a true reasoner could deduce the entire world from pure logic, but was too stupid to recognize his own cultural biases and limitations (and Aristotle was drastically worse), which brought him to all kinds of ridiculous conclusions. If we are to believe what Plato wrote, he got this from Socrates. Nothing could be further from the scientific spirit than to say “I don’t care what the results are in the real world, I have my perfect reasoning which says otherwise and I’m going to stick with that.” In point of fact, a large portion of the Apology boils down to “yes, okay, everyone who took classes from me turned out to be either a tyrant or a traitor to the state, but I’m not going to admit that my methods might be faulty.” What a jackass — and what sort of idiots philosophers are for admiring such a jackasss.

      • Reginald Selkirk

        And when you are presented with a counter-argument you can’t handle, change the topic and start talking about horses.

      • FO

        1. Word wankery. You must be a philsopher.
        2. More word games and iron bonus.
        3. Are we talking about Plato or Socrates?

        • FO


        • The Vicar

          1. The word games are Socrates’, not mine. (Or, at least, appear in the original Plato.) Socrates leads people into contradictions, often using wordplay to create syllogisms which are not logically valid but which Plato presents as impeccable (because Plato was, apparently, either an abject fool or had so little imagination that he could not see the flaws in the arguments). He then concluded that, since he could get to a contradiction from anyone’s assertions using these tactics, nobody knew anything, including him. (Although if you read the actual primary sources, you will find that the presentation is much more arrogant. There’s a distinct feeling of “oh no, I’m not going to give you a chance to do to me what I just did to you, so I’m going to claim to know nothing”.)

          This denial of all knowledge really IS presented as extending to everything, including trivia, but then Socrates acts on the admittedly-trivial knowledge which he has denied knowing. I’ve actually read some of this crap in the original Greek, and it’s every bit as arrogant and silly as I’ve been saying. Most translators kind of gloss over this stuff.

          2. Would you like me to present some holes in Socrates’ logic (as provided by Plato)? It isn’t hard at all. As I recall, just about every other logical step he presents is deeply flawed, along the lines of the example I provided which you claim is “word games” because, apparently, you can’t be bothered to read or parse carefully. Centuries of philosophers apparently failed to notice the flaws.

          3. Well, let’s see, FO, I said “If we are to believe Plato, he got this [attitude] from Socrates. … What a jackass — and what idiots philosophers are for admiring such a jackass.” If you only knew how to read, you could have answered your own question!

          • FO

            1. Fair.
            2. Fair.
            3. You studied a lot of philosophers, but can’t recognize a rhetorical question?

            • Reginald Selkirk

              3. You studied a lot of philosophers, but can’t recognize a rhetorical question?

              Was that a rhetorical question, or a declarative statement ending in a question mark?

          • kessy_athena

            While I cannot comment on how Socrates himself viewed the issue, nor on the original context, to me the idea of knowing that I know nothing and the Socratic method are invaluable tools to demonstrate the inherent uncertainty and tentativeness in all human knowledge.

            I’d like to point out that there is no contradiction between Socrates being a genius who made important contributions to philosophy and him being an arrogant jackass who also sent us down some blind alleys. Each of his accomplishments should be judged independently, on its own merits. After all, we all make mistakes, no matter how good we are at what we do.

            I’m wondering if you are judging Socrates and the quality of his logic by the standards of his time or ours? And this is a serious question I do not know the answer to. Many of the tools of modern analysis are not obvious, and were only developed long after Socrates lived.

  • Brian K

    Sorry, FO….I thoroughly disagree.

    I think this philosophical insight is trite and trivial.

    His political beliefs and the arrogance on which they are based is actually more Newt Gingrich or The Donald (or maybe, to put it in your context, Berlusconi). We don’t know nothin’ there are no rules, so I’m just gonna grab what I can. plus, being from an aristocratic family, I and mine deserve to steal from the peasants”

    • FO

      Honestly, I have no clue how Socrates got there and what he used that for.
      I’m taking only the idea that “knowing that you don’t know” gives you a solid advantage over those who assume they know.
      You do take part in online arguments, and I am sure you are painfully aware how we usually speak from ignorance.
      Assuming that I don’t know about a certain subject helps me to:
      1) Keep my mouth shut rather than spewing shit.
      2) Figure out where my ignorance lies and fix it if I am interested in the subject.
      3) Not rely too much on ideas I didn’t verify through.
      4) Not taking myself seriously.

      I still find the idea very disruptive.
      An arrogant prick had it? He’s still a genius, especially 2400+ years ago.

  • kessy_athena

    I’m with FO on this one. Knowing that you know nothing may not be the most complex bit of philosophy, but it’s very important in the real world. Confirmation bias is a part of human nature, as is the tendency to reach for certainty. And most of the time, we aren’t even aware that we’re doing it. As Douglas Adams said, “Assumptions are the things you don’t know you’re making.” Even if you’re extremely vigilant about doing it yourself, it’s still all too easy to fall into it.

    If you look around at the world, an awful lot of our problems come from people who Know the Truth. Why do fundies act the way they do? Because they Know they’re right. Why is there still a political debate about climate change? Because the deniers Know it’s all a fraud. Why do we have austerity programs that are actively harming the economy instead of stimulating it? Because people Know that government is always the problem. Or look at history – how often are the most terrible events brought about by people who Know they’re right?

    Certainty is an insidious trap, and sometimes a deadly one.

    • The Vicar

      Ah, but as I just pointed out above in reply to FO, nobody was more certain of things which were counter to reality than Socrates and his students. Their hallmark was to declare that some particular notion — arrived at by Socrates’ tremendously flawed reasoning methods — was The Truth, and then keep trying to force that Truth on the world by whatever means were at hand, including force. Hell, the reason Socrates was on trial in the first place is that his student Critias (the same Critias who shows up, IIRC, in the Symposium) became a “Philosopher King”, which Socrates claimed was the best form of government, and it was a horrible disaster for pretty much everyone else. But like Libertarians today, Socrates’ response to this was the No True Scotsman fallacy; instead of saying “gee, my ideal has been put into practice and it turns out to be horrible, maybe my ideal was a bad idea and I should reexamine my ideas”, he doubled down with “well, okay maybe my student was acting exactly as I suggested he should in advance, but the problems are either his fault for being No True Philosopher or else they’re your fault, everyone else, for not going along with it.” It’s no coincidence that Aristotle, considered to be the root of what held science back for centuries, was Socratic.

      • kessy_athena

        I was commenting on the philosophical point, not on Socrates’ character. As I never met him, I don’t really feel I have a solid basis to do so. ;) In any event, if he failed to live up to his own ideas, that doesn’t make the ideas wrong, that makes Socrates human.

        I will certainly agree that classical Greek culture does seem to have been overly fond of pure logic and sometimes veered off from reality into rather strange realms.

        • The Vicar

          Not really; but Socrates and his students certainly fit that description, and they are the ones who later philosophers decided were worth celebrating.

          Archimedes (who was, I admit, a bit later) was one of the greatest mathematicians in history according to most modern reckoning. For centuries, it was considered that he must have reached his formulae by pure logic alone, more or less because the Socratic/Platonic/Aristotelian school of thought says math is the greatest, most detached form of knowledge. It was only in the 20th century that a letter from Archimedes to a pupil/correspondent was discovered in which he said, basically, the best way of discovering mathematical truth is by observing physical truth and looking for underlying mathematical patters which explain it. In other words: the greatest classical mathematician (and also engineer, although not necessarily the greatest one) achieved his results by doing exactly the opposite of what Socrates and crew thought would work. Which group did more for humanity? Well, I suppose all the chin-rattling from philosophers has played a certain role in keeping people warm in winter, but the Archimedan Screw is used in all sorts of industrial processing even today, and for centuries it was the best way to get water out of a well in large portions of the world.

      • FO

        Again, are you talking about Socrates, Socrates as described by Plato, Plato, or Aristotle?

        • The Vicar

          Since we know nothing whatsoever about Socrates other than what we get from second-hand sources, mostly Plato, I can’t possibly mean Socrates himself except by inference (i.e. that all his students were traitors to the state, tyrants, or hot-air sources like Plato).

          But all the rest, yes. As I believe I said a couple of times, had you actually read what I wrote.

          • FO

            I could complain about YOU not reading what I wrote.
            Much easier to be arrogant while explaining how others have been arrogant.
            Again, it seems that philosophers go for the cheap kill.

            What if instead than pumping your ego by showing how superior you are because you can destroy every reasoning with cheap rhetoric (just like Socrates, at this point) you try and understand what others are trying to say?
            The irony meter is exploding.

            Let’s do something constructive.
            Don’t be scared, normal people does it all the time.
            Can you suggest me some influential thinker that strongly pushed the idea that we, as humans, are unaware of our ignorance?
            (No, THIS is not a rhetorical question, I am genuinely curious).

  • Bob Jase

    Ed: That’s no way for a man to die.
    Frank: [being blunt] Ah, you’re right, Ed. A parachute not opening… that’s a way to die. Getting caught in the gears of a combine… having your nuts bit off by a Laplander, that’s the way I wanna go!

    Best line in the movie!

  • C.J. O’Brien

    The depiction by Aristophanes should be undestood in the context of the genre Athenian Old Comedy, in which it was expected for notable contemporary figures to be lampooned. The tone should be considered closer to the kind of affectionate ribbing that takes place at a “roast” than to any serious polemic. And in a sense, you knew you had arrived as a notable in Athenian civic society when a towering figure like Aristophanes devoted some lines to you, however unflattering they were on their face (the dramatic arts were competitive activites and Aristophanes was a superstar).

    • The Vicar

      Or, at least, that’s the narrative which has traditionally been handed down. It’s based largely on the fact that a lot of Aristophanes’ work survives, relatively speaking, and, basically, he mocked Socrates*. We don’t actually know if it’s true.

      *Which is circular reasoning. We know Socrates was a major figure because Aristophanes mocked him. Why? Well, we know that Aristophanes mocked major figures because he mocked Socrates.

      • C.J. O’Brien

        You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about. Socrates is hardly the only figure lampooned in The Clouds alone, never mind the entirety of Aristophanes’s work or Old Comedy generally. Mocking notables is the most salent marker for placing a dramatic work in the genre, and Socrates is just incidental in the context of that distinction.
        A list, via the Wiki entry on The Clouds, of the contemporary Athenians who appear:
        Hieronymus, son of Xenophantus
        Philoxenus, Amynias, Melesias

        Not all of these figures are known to posterity, but clearly a number of them are, prominently, for example, Cleon, who was a power-broker and populist politician, well known from other sources, and Pericles, one of the most famous Classical figures there is. So no, you’re just wrong; there is no circularity in my assertion. Socrates was known to contemporary Athenians before his death as the philosopher-about-town par excellence.

        • The Vicar

          Okay, here’s an exercise to try: go down your list and find primary sources other than Archimedes’ plays for the importance of each one. You will be astonished at how many of those names represent known personalities today only basically only because they showed up in Archimedes’ plays and we assume that he didn’t make them up, occasionally because other sources mention people with the same names in passing but say nothing about them (because, of course, every single name used in Athens was required to be unique, and playwrights were forbidden to use the names of real people, right?).

          • C.J. O’Brien

            This is just bluster, but in the service of what, I cannot fathom. I honestly do not know what you are arguing, or what you were hoping to acheive by pretending you know what the results would be of your fatuous “exercise” and their effect on my state of mind.
            I will say, though, if it was intended as a demonstration that you do so know what you’re talking about, blithely typing “Archimedes” three times in the space of about a hundred words when we were discussing Aristophanes was counter-productive.

  • http://www.kahan.pl autokary krakow

    As far as I know all the 4 gospels depict Jesus suffering in a very similar way. Am I wrong?

    • Bob Jase

      Yes, you’re very wrong. As Christian theology evolved from Mark to John each gospel has Jesus suffering less than the previous one.