Sometimes the purpose of a question is to learn something about ourselves. And sometimes that question comes in the form of a painting.
It was on the second floor of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that I was first transformed by a painting. I’ve always been drawn to representational art that tells a story, and this one told an intriguing one.
An old man sits on a bed, stripped to the waist, talking to a group of friends. His hand is outstretched, reaching for a drink. But something is strange.
This isn’t a drinking party. The people around him clearly do not look like they are enjoying themselves. And the location is dark, surrounded by stone walls, as if they were in a cellar or prison.
What’s going on here?
The gallery label read: The Death of Socrates. Closer study revealed that all of the great philosopher’s friends and colleagues are in various stages of agitation, shock, grief; even the man handing Socrates the cup seems to be doing so more out of a forced sense of duty than anything else; but what seemed strangest of all was Socrates, himself. He’s sitting upright, proud even, resolutely making some philosophic point while reaching for the cup of poisonous hemlock.
Socrates had been condemned to death by a jury of Athenian citizens. But why was a philosopher being put to death? What had this man possibly have done? Lie? Steal? Kill some important official?
Socrates’ crime was questioning the status quo.
During much of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, Athens was arguably the center of philosophical thought in the Greek-speaking world, and Socrates – through his greatest disciple Plato – was known perhaps as the wisest, believing that “the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.” But Socrates also believed that “true knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing,” but, ”…in knowing that you know nothing, that makes you the smartest of all.”
Sounds like an episode of Seinfeld, doesn’t it?
Socrates’ life was a quest for wisdom, specifically knowledge of what he referred to as “the good.” Socrates believed that “to know the good is to do the good.” He believed that ethical truth was absolute and understandable, much like the truths of mathematics; that if we taught these truths, people would then “…do the good.” At the time, people believed that what was popular was also right. So, the great sage questioned people to see if what was popular also made sense. That’s when he took his particular brand of Q&A to the streets – to poets, carpenters, soldiers, politicians, citizens of all kinds. But after questioning these people, Socrates discovered they weren’t all that wise.
Now Socrates never hurt anybody; he just aggravated the hell out of them by causing them to think. A little bit of thinking, not bad; a lot of thinking – especially about things like which gods people should worship and how they should conduct their lives – too bad …for Socrates.
So, in 399 BC, according to Plato, Socrates was placed on trial for “not believing in the gods the state believes in and introducing different new divine powers, and also for corrupting the young.” There were no lawyers or judges in those days. Individuals brought suits against other individuals, who then had to defend themselves. Athenians seem to have been an especially litigious lot. Schools of rhetoric did big business because citizens had to be trained to defend themselves in court.
The jury for the trial was a staggering 500. The size of the jury shows how much free time upper class Athenians had. Imagine the lunch break chaos!
Speaking in his own defense, Socrates said, “I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private. This is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine, which corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.”
Not exactly Matlock, is he?
But here’s the surprise – the vote was closer than even Socrates would have guessed: 280 to convict, 220, opposed. Unfortunately, close only counts in horseshoes, so Socrates was sentenced to death by lethal drink.
By this time, however, many citizens had second thoughts. Embarrassed that they had condemned to death their most prominent citizen, a group of Athenians conspired to bribe Socrates’ prison guard and allow him to escape. But Socrates reasoned that such an act would violate the law.
In drinking the hemlock with one hand while making a philosophical point with the other, Socrates affirmed two things: his obligation as an Athenian to submit to Athenian justice even if that “justice” was in error; and his conviction for truth over what was popular. “…as long as I draw breath …I shall not cease to practice philosophy, …to point out to anyone …whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth?”
When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he was telling us that only through self-examination can we improve. Each of us is faced with ethical choices: choices involving loyalty, respect, compassion, honesty, fairness, duty; choices that constantly test who we are and what we stand for. It is not enough to say, “Honesty is the best policy;” we have to demonstrate that in our lives. It is not enough to believe that compassion is good for the soul without practicing a compassionate nature.
By questioning others about their beliefs, by challenging their principles, Socrates was telling us that the philosophy was meant as a way of living.
“Not life,” Socrates said, “but a good life, is to be chiefly valued.”