Le Mort de Socrate

On the eve of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David painted the Death of Socrates [Le Mort de Socrate]. The oil on canvas work completed in 1887, focuses on the scene from Plato’s work Phaedo in which the philosopher, convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock.

He was given the choice of exile or death, and he boldly chose death.

Socrates actions taught his pupils that a true philosopher neither fears nor flees death, but rather faces it with the same calm he applies to life. The scene, while capturing a moment of tragic end, in fact also depicts the moment of the birth of western philosophy.  Socrates death signalled the end of the reign of superstition and dogma in Greece, and the birth of rationalism and individualism.

Is it not ironic that the very men who accused Socrates of “introducing new gods” and “corrupting the youth of Athens”, by executing him, essentially killed their own traditions and saw the birth of what they feared, a radical new ideology that would transform their nation and the world.

What power is there in one man’s death to bring down his enemy’s legacy and give ascendancy to his own?

It is as though “ideas” are one’s true power, [the pen, rather than the sword?], and one’s true immortality?


Aslo on the eve of the French Revolution, Voltaire, aka François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), died at the age of 84. He was an enlightenment writer whose wit and word frequently targeted intolerance, religious dogma, and other French institutions of his day.

He did not die for his beliefs, but rather ten years after his death of old age the French Revolution [1789-1799], broke out, turning France on its head. The blood thirsty rise of the common people in France saw the overthrow of the aristocracy and the institution of a republic, the abolition of slavery in French colonies, and the establishment of the French motto ‘liberty, brotherhood and equality’ [liberte, fraternite, egalite].

Interestingly,  while in Socrates case, the ruling elite secured their own demise by killing the philosopher they opposed, in Voltaire’s case, the ruling elite secured their demise by ignoring the philosopher poet and his disciples, finding instead angry bourgeois with gunpowder, torches and ploughshares at their doors, and guillotines and prisons awaiting them.

The French Revolution

Moreover, while Socrates ideas defeated his enemies ideas costing his life, one life, Voltaire’s ideas defeated his enemies, costing them their lives, thousands of lives.

What is mightier then, the power of the sword, or the pen?!

Well one may ask, what ideas bring life? One must better ask, what ideas bear good fruit, generations after they are germinated in a philosopher or poets teachings ?

Perhaps as in all legacies, time is true decider.

As written about in an earlier Bear Skin post, Jonathan Ralston-Saul’s incisive work “Voltaire’s Bastards” gives a critical analysis of the legacy of Voltaire’s writings.

Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, subsequent society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.

Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodology is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational structures” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directionless state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.

Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, … has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.

Ralston-Saul called for a pursuit of a humanism in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.

The death of Socrates show us so powerfully, that ideas give or take life. Socrates did not fear the loss of his own life, because he knew that there were power and truth in his ideas, ideas which would long outlive him. In contrast, Voltaire’s ideas while enlightened, gave birth to a range of ‘children’, among them bloodshed, individualism and management as proxy for leadership, the pursuit of rational structures and of power pursuits.


The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates is recounted in several ancient works including  Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo” and  “The Apology” and in Xenophon’s “The Apology of Socrates to the Jury“.

Socrates death by execution in 399 BC is credited to be a point from which western philosphy can find its origins.  The classical Greek philosopher and teacher was put on trial and executed for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. His crimes – to introduce strange gods and for  “impiety“, disbelieving in the gods of the state.

In fact, Socrates disagreed with the powerholders of Athens and refused to be silenced. Instead of accepting what he perceived as immorality within his region,  he questioned their notion of “might makes right“. His attempts to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice led to his trial and death.



Le Mort de Socrates [The Death of Socrates] , by Jacques-Louis David (1787)


Socrates defended his role as a “gadfly” – a small creature that stings but spurs a beast into action.

At his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spent as Athens’ benefactor. 

He was, however, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.

Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum


Shortly before his death, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito:

Crito, we owe a rooster to Aesclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.

Aesclepius was the Greek god for health and healing, and it is likely Socrates’ last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body.

Additionally, in Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, Robin Waterfield proposes that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes.

Interestingly, the Rod of Aesclepius, and the symbol of places of healing throughout the Greek world, was a snake curled around a stick. The symbol to this day is associated with health and health care.

aesclepion          rod_of_asclepius

Some commentators have linked the symbol to the serpent wrapped around a pole mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:5–9).

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked upon the serpent of brass, he lived.

King Hezekiah, 700 years later destroyed the copper serpent because it was being worshiped (2 Kings 18:4).

The motif appears again as a symbol of healing in the New Testament, this time a messianic symbol found in John 3:14–15.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Fascinating parallels emerge. Socrates, perished, a voluntary scapegoat. His death was to him, and to generations subsequent,  a cure, a freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions and false wisdom. Western philosophy has forever been indebted to the iconoclast for his steadfast dedication to inquiry, justice, and the rights of the common man.

At another turning point in history, Christ died, a voluntary scapegoat for the ills of his people. His death too has been for generations subsequent, a cure, freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions, false wisdom and well …….eternal death.

The Ring of Gyges

Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.

Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.

In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.

Gyges protested but the king insisted.

ring of gyges 2

The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.

Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.

By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.

ring of gyges 5

Plato, writing in the 5th century,  recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.

Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.

Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.

ring of gyges 4

In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.

Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.

Glaucon posits:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
— Plato’s Republic, 360b–d. 

Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)

ring of gyges 3

Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.

Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.


myth of gyges

In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.

Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.

What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?


Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.

It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.

And allow peace and reason to reign again.


There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.

The Myth of Thamus and Theuth

In the writings of Phaedrus, Socrates tells his disciples this story.

Among the ancient Egyptian gods, there was one called Theuth who discovered “number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, as well as the games of draughts and dice, and above all else, writing” (Phaedrus, 274d). One day, Theuth visited Thamus, King of Egypt, urging him to disseminate the arts around Egypt. For each art that Theuth presented, Thamus offered his praise and criticism. When it came to writing, Theuth said:

O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom. (Phaedrus, 274e)

But Thamus replied that, as the “father of writing,” Theuth’s affection for writing had kept him from acknowledging the truth about writing. In fact, Thamus asserted, writing increases forgetfulness rather than memory. Instead of internalizing and understanding things, students will rely on writing as a potion for reminding. Moreover, students will be exposed to many ideas without properly thinking about them. Thus, they will have an “appearance of wisdom” while “for the most part they will know nothing” (Phaedrus, 275a-b).

myth of theuth 3

Socrates used the illustration to point out that writing alone has no understanding of itself and “continues to signify just the same thing forever” (Phaedrus, 275d-e). Nor does it discern its audience nor offer self explanation. Socrates instead favoured conversation, “the living, breathing discourse of a man who knows, of which the written one can be fairly called an image” (Phaedrus, 276a). Socrates praised dialectic:

The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows . . . Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be. (277a)

As a lover of good writing and an advocate of literacy as key to community development and human emancipation, I find this conversation  interesting for a few reassons.

  1. First, it comes to us via text. We enjoy it and think about it purely because it is recorded in writing.
  2. Second, Socrates highlights that “meaning” is the soul of communication, and the rendering of the human heart and mind, its greatest good. The absence of human interaction, leaves a vacuum, giving space for the empty pursuit of knowledge, disconnection of thought from feeling, and the subjectification of meaning altogether.

myth of theuth 2

Much like contemporary complaints of electronic forms of communication “killing conversation”, we can view first hand an ancient discussion of the same problem. The key it seems, is that humans must talk “to” each other and not “about” each other.  Reading “about love” is not the same as “behaving lovingly”.

Nevertheless, the power of this analogy even today, shows that writing has its place. Phaedrus accused Socrates of inventing the myth to support his point and Socrates did not disagree.  Word pictures, poems and stories particularly have an ability to capture timeless truths, and carry meaning throughout the ages.

A good poem helps to change the shape and significance of the universe,
helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him
—Dylan Thomas

When all is said and done, nothing beats human relationships, dialogue, discourse, dialectic and discussion. Turn off our e-devices, close the books and have a chat.