Cancellation of Socrates: how the great philosopher sealed his fate with comedy | Theater

Did Socrates “cancel” himself? At his trial in Athens in 399 BC. J.-C., deliberately incense the jury with an outrageous comic speech to ensure that they sentence him to death?

Socrates was accused of denying the existence of gods and of inventing new ones, and of corrupting youth. In reality, Socrates was deeply religious and it was a tough fight to accuse him of sacrilege. But the powerful had had enough of him. A scruffy 70-year-old man hanging out in public places surrounded by adoring students, teaching that an unexamined life is not worth living but one must learn that one knows nothing, corroded certainties. And certainty was what the city craved.

The uncompromising voice of Socrates in a dangerous time resonates with our own “age of rage”. After Tom Littler, artistic director of the small but mighty theater in Jermyn Street, suggested a play by Socrates, I drafted a scene based on Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro – a hilarious encounter between Socrates and an honest Athenian citizen outside the courts. Socrates came across as mischievous, empathetic and provocative, great fun to write. Then his wife and the mother of their two sons, Xanthippe, and her lover Aspasia, the only powerful woman in Athenian politics we know of, took over the next scene. The play was on.

Socrates never wrote anything, although in prison he composed poems based on Aesop’s fables. Or Plato says he did. And therein lies the problem: the four dialogues we have describing the trial and execution are alive, laced with humor and drama, but they are suspect, distorted by Plato’s worldview. There is another account of Socrates’ speech by Xenophon but it is a boring read and has nothing in common with Plato’s. Plato is effectively our only source.

Euthyphro, Defense of Socrates and Crito are thought to have been written around the time of the execution. A fourth dialogue, Phaedo, is obviously much later: Plato makes Socrates believe in reincarnation, of which there is no trace in the early works – but his extremely moving description of his teacher’s death and his enigmatic last words ring true. So turn the glass from side to side and a very real Socrates emerges.

Athenian democracy in 399 BC. AD was fragile. There had been a brutal coup by oligarchs in 411 BC. AD, which collapsed after a year. There was a second coup when Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC. Democracy was restored but national pride was deeply hurt. The economy was threatened: farms had been burned down by Spartan troops and there were epidemics of plague. People were angry, exhausted and wanted to blame someone – in bad times, chopping down tall poppies was an Athenian sport.

And Socrates was a very big poppy. He was the most famous man in town, but not universally popular. He exercised only one public function, for one day, as President of the Assembly. He used his vote to try to block the execution of six generals as the whole town cried out for their blood, arguing that their trial was illegal. He had a long, passionate relationship with his pupil Alcibiades, a war hero who defected twice, first to Sparta and then to Persia. He was extremely popular with young people, and parents feared he would lead their sons astray.

The 501 jury was probably just there to clip his wings, narrowly convicting him in a first vote. The law allowed Socrates to propose an alternative sentence – exile or a large fine – which the jury would accept and everyone would go home. But he did not ask for exile or a fine; instead, he asked to receive free dinners for life from the state – an honor given to national heroes. Furious, the jurors voted overwhelmingly to uphold the death sentence. Then, in prison, he refused to escape, arguing that fleeing would destroy his reputation, and that he should honor the laws of democracy, even if it was perverted by enemies.

Was he testing the state to destruction by destroying himself? Or was it the culmination of a deep question: does the soul survive death? The relevance of big stories can go far beyond the immediate moment.

About Leslie Schwartz

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