Wednesday, February 15, 2012

“I know that I know nothing” and the Death of Socrates

Bust of Socrates (Roman?)
Although no one knows the exact date, February 15, 399 B.C.E., is recognized by many as the date when a jury of 500 Athenian citizens over the age of 30, by a vote of 280 to 220, convicted 70 year-old philosopher Socrates (469 B.C.E. – 399 B.C.E.) of the crime of not believing in the Gods recognized by the State, and that Socrates’ teachings had corrupted Athenian youth. Of course Plato, a student of Socrates, witnessed both Socrates' trial as well as his death and wrote that during his defense Socrates related how the Oracle of Delphi had asked him if anyone was wiser than he (Socrates), and how Socrates related:
“…neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not that I know what I do not know.” (See Plato’s Apology, p. 19).

Engraving of Socrates on trial

Of course this passage is famously viewed as Socrates' philosophical statement that, “I know that I know nothing;” which appears to mean that the wise man knows that one cannot know anything with absolute certainty, but can feel secure about knowing certain things.

In writing of the trial, Plato also related how Socrates discussed his sentence and rhetorically asked why he could not simply live a quiet life and in response, that “Life without investigation is not worth living” or more popularly how, “An unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology, pp. 42-43).

Socrates suggested that, “If, therefore, I must award a sentence according to my just deserts, I award this, maintenance in the Prytaneum” (that is, food and wages paid to him by the state for the rest of his days). As we know, that didn’t go over so well and by a vote of 360 to 140, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.  Having been told his sentence and in his final statement to the jury, Socrates said:
“For my own part I bear no grudge at all against those who condemned me and accused me, although it was not with this kind intention that they did so, but because they thought that they were hurting me; and that is culpable of them.

However, I ask them to grant me one favor. When my sons grow up, gentlemen, if you think that they are putting money or anything else before goodness, take your revenge by plaguing them as I plagued you; and if they fancy themselves for no reason, you must scold them just as I scolded you, for neglecting the important things and thinking that they are good for something when they are good for nothing. If you do this, I shall have had justice at your hands, both I myself and my children.

Now it is time that we were going, I to die and you to live, but which of us has the happier prospect is unknown to anyone but God”
See: Plato's Apology, Crito, and Phaedo

In Phaedo, Plato wrote of Socrates's death and how: 
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: ‘You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed.’

The man answered: ‘You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act.’

At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: ‘What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god?’

‘May I, or not?’ The man answered: ‘We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough.’

‘I understand,’ he said: ‘but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world—even so—and so be it according to my prayer.’

Socrates drinks Hemlock (from 1907 Edwardian engraving)
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 no 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:  
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates, 1787
‘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.’

When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, ‘No;’ and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: ‘When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.’
He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said:

‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’

‘The debt shall be paid,’ said Crito; ‘is there anything else?’

There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Giambettino Cignaroli’s The Death of Socrates (c. 1759?)

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”
(See: Plato’s Phaedo, pp. 173-174).

It is interesting to note that when Socrates said that he owed a debt (a cock) to Asclepius and that Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine and healing.  Socrates last words would then seem to imply that death is the cure to life.

See: Plato's Apology, Crito, and Phaedo


  1. I think Bill and Ted summed this up quite accurately:

    Bob says, "Check it out."

    1. Dust...Wind...Dude! Very nice I say. Very nice indeed!

  2. Lyrics, man.

    Oh, BTW, he's under "so crates."