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The Death of Socrates

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For those of you who haven't read Apology, Crito, or Phaedo, to make a long story short Socrates could have avoided his death sentence but instead refused escape and willingly drank the poison hemlock, the method of his execution. He justified this, more or less, by saying that he had agreed to stand up for and live by the laws of Athens, and that it would be unseemly for him to try to run way when they no longer went in his favor. Thoughts? Could the death of Socrates be a demonstration on how the "social contract" justification for being law-abiding can be anti-life?

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For those of you who haven't read Apology, Crito, or Phaedo, to make a long story short Socrates could have avoided his death sentence but instead refused escape and willingly drank the poison hemlock, the method of his execution. He justified this, more or less, by saying that he had agreed to stand up for and live by the laws of Athens, and that it would be unseemly for him to try to run way when they no longer went in his favor. Thoughts? Could the death of Socrates be a demonstration on how the "social contract" justification for being law-abiding can be anti-life?

Absolutely. By abiding their death sentence, Socrates held compliance with the law to be a primary virtue, completely detached from the concept of justice. He failed to recognize that the law is not a primary, a list of rules to be obeyed blindly, but rather exists to codify the moral way to deal with a certain range of actions that involve a violation of one's rights. One cannot value life by putting it in the hands of arbitrary law.

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Absolutely. By abiding their death sentence, Socrates held compliance with the law to be a primary virtue, completely detached from the concept of justice. He failed to recognize that the law is not a primary, a list of rules to be obeyed blindly, but rather exists to codify the moral way to deal with a certain range of actions that involve a violation of one's rights. One cannot value life by putting it in the hands of arbitrary law.

Sometimes people carrying out civil disobedience choose to accept the punishment for their actions, on the grounds that it makes their enemies look bad, and makes a stronger statement. Martydom has a very strong emotional effect - I think Socrates drinking the hemlock caused his posthumous reputation to be higher than it would have been had he fled. And martydom has a strong place in world history/literture - from Jesus' acceptance of crucifiction, to Ghandi's tactics in India, to persecuted religious saints in the middle ages refusing to give up their convictions to avoid torture/death, to Howard Roark's reluctance to flee the Corlandt scene, and John Galts willingness to be tortured. The picture of someone serenely accepting unjust punishment from their enemies seems to appeal to something quite deep iin the human psyche, and is well-established in cultural mythology.

“I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society. To my country, I wish to give the ten years which I will spend in jail if my country exists no longer. I will spend them in memory and in gratitude for what my country has been. It will be my act of loyalty, my refusal to live or work in what has taken its place"
Edited by eriatarka
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  • 3 months later...

We talked in length about this in one of my philosophy classes. I asked the same question of why Socrates would do this. There were many answers, from martyrdom, to taking a stand, etc. However, from actually reading the dialogues, I have to say the reason he went with the law was preservation of the law. He acknowledged that the law could at times give an unjust or improper judgment to a person, but this is to be accepted in a system of laws; there will always be people who are innocent that are sent to prison, or in worse cases sent to death. However, if one person refuses to follow the law, then more people, eventually you can have a breakdown of the entire legal system. Yet I think possibly his age had something to do with his decision, as he was in his seventies.

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