Keanu Reeves has a lot to answer for. The entire time I was reading Plato's The Death of Socrates (a Penguin edition collecting Eurythphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo), my Bill and Ted-influenced mind is saying "SO-kraytz." Great.

As you'd guess from the title of the book, this collects Plato's writings about the trial and death of Socrates. Allegedly, Socrates' death is a great tragedy, and I know when I read "Crito" in high school, I was a little broken up about it. Coming to it now, though, I can't help but think that Socrates got what was coming to him. It's not just that he's a smug, cocksure asshole; it's not just that he derides sophists at the same time he's deploying his own questionable logic; it's mostly that he clearly has no interest in pragmatically working within society.

Socrates didn't have to be executed. In any of a dozen ways, many of them perfectly honorable, he could have walked away from his troubles. But no, he'd staked himself out on an untenable ideological position, and wouldn't back down. I've read a lot of texts about Christian heretics in the late medieval period, and reading Socrates verbally dig his own grave was familiar.

More often than not, the Church was highly reluctant to actually kill heretics, and would do everything it could to get them off with a slap on the wrist -- and the sensible heretics took the Church up on the offer. They'd tone down their writings a bit, maybe change a particularly controversial point, and carry on. But there were always the ones who wouldn't moderate their fiery speeches, and eventually the Church would have no choice but to off the stubborn buggers.

The execution of heretics isn't a practice I generally favor, but after a while, I started to sympathize with the Church. I mean, sheesh, given prevailing social norms, what can you do? Well, in the same way, I sympathized with the court that condemned Socrates. When you're given a death sentence and a chance to offer an alternative sentence, you plead for mercy, you idiot; you don't come back with a smug counter-proposal that you be rewarded for your great services to the city.

But I did experience a moment of genuine horror/anticipatory sadness while reading this book. In "Phaedo", Socrates starts talking about the division between the physical and spiritual worlds, and how the Ideals dwell in the spiritual world, and we ought to seek to ignore the physical as much as possible. His speech is, in many ways, the beginning of a narrative thread -- and I've read the later chapters in that story. Socrates' pre-death chat is a prelude to the Cathars, the wasted brilliance of the Scholastics, Creationism, and millennia of misguided thinking; in a whole bunch of ways, the errors that Plato's Socrates started talking about are still haunting our thought today.

The tragedy isn't that Socrates died. It's that he didn't die soon enough.


{{}} said {{timeAgo(comment.datetime)}}