A Good Way to Die

A Good Way to Die April 25, 2013

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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