The Virtuous Do Not Fear Death:

Why Socrates Was Calm In the Face of Execution

Ancient Philosophy


1,633 Words

Socrates is the philosopher against whom all others are compared, he pioneered philosophical methods, such as elenchus, that are still used today, and his messages are still taught over 2,000 years later. Yet his fellow citizens of Athens felt that his actions were so radical that they threatened Athenian society. Socrates defended his life but in the end he accepted the ruling of the court to put him to death. There are three main reasons why Socrates accepted his death sentence. First, it is better to suffer injustice than to do unjustly. Second, rejecting the sentence of the court would be wrong because it hurt Athens. Thirdly, the soul is immortal and therefore Socrates would be hurt more by acting unjustly then by his body dying.

The most intriguing thing about the trial was that Socrates was defending his actions, not his life. He seemed almost ambivalent to the continuation of his life but instead was concerned with the wisdom of his actions during his life. “You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong (Apology 28b).” Socrates believes that it is a disgrace to back down in the face of danger when he has done the right thing. This is especially true for Socrates because of the charges against him. He refutes all of them and shows that he does believe in the state Gods, that he does not charge a fee for teaching, and that if he pollutes the minds of young people it is of there own free will. His strongest argument is that if he did do wrong he did so unknowingly and therefore should not be punished. He puts this defense in the form of an argument. It went as follows:

1. It is better to live with good men than with wicked,

2. It is better for me to live with good men then with wicked

3. It is better for me to make others good, not wicked.

4. If I make others wicked it is through ignorance.

5. If I make others wicked from ignorance, then I should not be punished, but corrected.

In this way Socrates shows that his actions were considered good by himself and the citizens of Athens who were wise enough to know what is really good should have told him how to act so as not to corrupt the youth. There is an arrogant kind of sarcasm to this argument. He shows that indeed others do not know anything at all but they think they do. In fact this is what made the accusers mad enough in the first place to put Socrates on trial. To Socrates this is wicked because those who are wise know that they know nothing. “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know (Apology 29).” This goes back to his statements that he is only wise in that he knows that he knows nothing, while others profess knowledge about things they know nothing about. Socrates says that he knows nothing of death or the afterlife and therefore cannot fear them.

He goes a step further, not just saying that he is not affected by their ruling but that they themselves would be harmed if they ruled to execute Socrates. This is where the argument that it is better to suffer the injustice then to act unjustly comes into its full fruition. Socrates gives a sense of pity towards his jury for trying him. For in doing so they have injured them selves. “… if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves (Apology 30c).” Wickedness, not death is Socrates main concern, he rather be dead than injure himself by being wicked. Because of this Socrates will not plead for his life, not for his own sake, his families sake, or his friends sake. All that is required is the defense of