Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson

By Emily Wilson

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It was the prosecution, not Socrates, who had behaved badly. It was they, then, who suffered from his trial and execution. Wrongdoing harms the perpetrator more than the victim. Socrates suffered condemnation, imprisonment and death. But he suffered less than his prosecutors, because he died without doing anything wrong. Death could not threaten his integrity or his virtue. This is why it hardly mattered to Socrates whether he was executed or not. He declared to the jury, ‘Either acquit me or do not acquit me, but do so in the knowledge that I will never behave differently, not even if I were going to die many times over’ (Plato, Apology 30b–c).

But if the sophists do not really know the things they profess to teach, and if wisdom is not really the kind of thing that one person can teach another, then the whole enterprise of sophistic education is wrong-headed. Socrates rejects the idea that wisdom can be gained through commercial exchange. socrates’ philosophy 45 Plato describes Socrates discussing wisdom at a party with a pretentious tragic poet called Agathon. Socrates says: Oh, Agathon, it would be wonderful if wisdom were the kind of thing that would flow from us, from the fuller one to the emptier, if we just touch one another, like water which runs from a fuller cup to an emptier one on a piece of wool.

The Athenians expelled him from the city and sent a herald round to collect up all copies of the book, burning it in the marketplace. The lyric poet Diagoras was supposedly condemned as an atheist; he too perhaps went into exile. Anaxagoras is said to have been exiled. But none of these people was actually killed. And it is quite possible that all these stories were made up or exaggerated by later writers hoping to find precedents for the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian state. Ancient historians, like modern ones, saw the execution of Socrates as a strange anomaly.

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