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Was Socrates right to submit to his death?

Updated on June 23, 2011
Socrates
Socrates

In 399BC Socrates was sentenced to death on account of corrupting the youth of Athens. By this, the authorities claimed that he was teaching youths to question what was commonly taught to them about religion, gods and goddesses. This was coming at the end of the Peloponnesian War which was believed to have been a mark of Athena’s (patron Goddess of Athens) fury at her people. The people at the time believed that Socrates’ teachings would only have angered her further and so they arrested him. Here I am looking at reasons why Socrates should have accepted the death penalty, including looking at the other choices he may have had and whether he was bound by social contract.

From the accounts we have of the trial of Socrates (mainly from Plato) it seems that he was given a choice of punishment, but (according to the Apology) he refuses to take the charges seriously and claimed he was not scared of death and thus was forced to drink hemlock. Socrates accepted his punishment saying that no-one knows what death is like, it may be better than this life and that in death his soul could be free amongst other great souls (he suggested Homer) and he could continue his questioning and search for knowledge there. In the Crito, it is explained to the reader that Socrates is given the opportunity to escape from jail where he could run away to Thessaly and thus escape death, but he turns this down saying that he must stay and face his punishment.

The Death of Socrates by Giambettino Cignaroli
The Death of Socrates by Giambettino Cignaroli
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David

Socrates claims that he is right to submit to his punishment. One reason he gives is that although he has this escape route there would not be a great deal of point. He would be unable to continue his search for knowledge in Thessaly as, firstly, he may face the same charges for corrupting youth there or the Athenian authorities could easily find him there. He thought that people would be more interested in how he escaped from prison than what he actually had to say. I don’t think that this reason alone is enough to justify him submitting to his punishment. Everyone should give their life the highest importance and although he didn’t have much money he would still have had a relatively comfortable life. His argument that death might be better than life may be valid, but death is for eternity, whereas we only have a limited time on Earth. All the things he thought about death would still apply when he died naturally. He should make the most of the time he can spend on Earth.

Another reason Socrates gives for submitting to his punishment is that he has entered into a social contract with the state of Athens that bounds him to accept punishment for his wrong-doings. This appears to present a contradiction. If Socrates cared that much about not breaking his contract with the State then why did he break the law in the first place? At various points Socrates claims that he broke the law because he was obeying a higher purpose than the Athenian law, namely God (or a God). This gives an explanation in part as to why he so willingly accepted his punishment; if he believed that his life’s work was a calling from the Gods. In Crito, Socrates goes to great lengths to explain why he feels he owes the State anything. He says that he has taken advantage of the privileges given to him by the State so it’s only right that he upholds his end of the contract.

The Death of Socrates by Elsie Russell
The Death of Socrates by Elsie Russell

This is not an uncommon view; in fact, many people would say that this is a good reason for him not to escape his death. It could be argued that if Socrates chose to run away from prison when the State has told him he must stay there then there is nothing stopping other prisoners from escaping, and this is clearly not an ideal situation. If this was advocated then we could end up with a situation where murderers were roaming the streets, and it’s to prevent this that they were put in prison in the first place. This is why there is a government in place; they have authority so when they send someone to prison or sentence them to death it is in the best interests of the citizens of the State and they therefore should be obeyed. Conversely to this, Socrates seemed to have been arrested as an example to others and that at other times (e.g. not right after the war) he may have been allowed to continue his teachings. Since the Greek authorities were worried that Athena would be frowning upon Socrates they arrested him. If you believe this to be true then it follows that Socrates should not be worried about keeping his end of a contract with the State because they are not keeping theirs (arresting him unfairly).

I believe that Socrates should have fought for his life and not just submitted so readily to his punishment. The only argument that Socrates gives that really stands up is the idea of a social contract and that he can't disobey the law because he has entered a contract with the state. But this can still be questioned because Socrates himself even said that he thought the charges were unfair, and on top of that the majority of people at the time (probably including the authorities) expected him to escape and really didn’t mind, as long as justice appeared to have been done. Most people would say that it is never right to submit to death when you have the opportunity to continue living (even if your life is not going to be the same as it was before), and that life should be the most important and sacred thing. Therefore, under the eyes of the law he was right to submit to his punishment but it seems wrong to me that he chose death when he could have chosen life.

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      klevifusha 6 years ago

      Read the book "Why Socrates Died" by Robin Waterfield. He gives an insightful, detailed account of the trail, Athenian culture, government and social issues at the time. I just finished reading it and I would recommend it to anyone who is fairly interested on the subject.

    • sanctasapientia profile image

      sanctasapientia 7 years ago

      Thanks for this essay. I have just finished reading the Apology and the Phaedo with my high school students. Most are bewildered that instead of proposing exile as his punishment during his trial, he basically thumbs his nose at his fellow citizens and suggests that he be allow to continue his questioning with public support and a stipend.

      At least he has the courage to stand up for his convictions. He believes he is performing a service that makes the state better and that his work will make Athens better. He seems to believe that this is a ditch worth dying in. He feels claimed by the truth which is in way the heart of an ethical life.

    • profile image

      David99999 7 years ago

      Excellent essay. I agree with your argument that Socrates should have fought for his life. However - in answer to the question you pose, asking why, if he felt so strongly about his "contract" with the state, did he break the law in the first place - Socrates may, simply, have had a change of heart. Remember - he was eccentric. He may have truly believed that he deserved the punishment the state had prescribed.

    • schoolmarm profile image

      schoolmarm 7 years ago from Florida

      Very interesting hub. I really enjoyed it. Thanks

    • cathylynn99 profile image

      cathylynn99 7 years ago from northeastern US

      i heard that socrates submitted because he was beginning to show signs of dementia and didn't want to go on living that way.

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