Socrates - death / execution by drinking hemlock

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Socrates - c.470-399BC


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Socrates
"It is not living that matters, but living rightly."

The influence of Socrates on philosophy cannot be understated. His teachings were recorded after his death by others primarily by quoting him in dialogues; he was executed in 399 BC. His death prompted his student Plato and Xenophon to write about him in an attempt to refute the charges brought against him that led to his execution.

Socrates believed that wisdom and virtue are ultimately the same - if you know what good is, you will always do it.

Socrates' logic appeared to be that being morally and ethically good leads to happiness. And since everyone strives for happiness above all else, no one who knows what good is will not choose it. People will only behave badly out of ignorance.

Socrates had a religious dimension. He believed in god, or the gods, and appeared to believe that they would never cause evil or misery; and they approved of morally and ethically good behavior in humans.

In Plato's masterpiece, The Republic, he quotes Socrates describing the type of person that would not make a good and wise Judge. He appears to be describing a 'narcissist', so common in today's world.

"But your wily, suspicious type, who has done many wrongs and thinks himself super-smart, looks pretty formidable so long as he is dealing with men like himself, against whom his own bad principles put him on his guard; but when he comes up against men of experience and good character he looks very silly with his untimely suspicions and the unawareness of what honesty is, which he owes to his own lack of good principle. But he meets more rogues than honest men, and so appears a clever fellow and not a silly one, both to himself and others."1

Socrates appears very aware of the typical narcissist's paranoid behavior, which goes unnoticed in the company of 'codependents', or at least unchallenged. Narcissists often shun 'men of experience and good character'.

Socrates was good humoured and cordial, and very skilled at debating. He had a passion for knowledge, and great patience as exemplified in many of his dialogues in Plato's Republic. He believed in moral and ethical behavior, and didn't suffer fools gladly.

By the time he reached about seventy years old, Socrates had upset so many of his fellow Athenians by challenging their moral complacency and embarrassing them with the contradictions of their lives that he was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth of the city. Following new leadership in Athens he was brought to trial probably to force him to renounce his provocative public speaking. Characteristically though, he refused to plead guilty. He was condemned to death, but not before robustly defending himself and taking to task his accusers. Eventually he was forced to kill himself by drinking a cup of hemlock. Plato described how he died in a most dignified way after discussing the meaning of life and death with his friends.

Despite being a man of great intellectual brilliance and moral integrity, Socrates modestly claimed, "All I know is that I know nothing". He would debate with anyone, young or old, rich or poor, as he strongly believed, "The unexamined life is not worth living'.

Perhaps some people in society today could learn from Socrates by applying a little more self-examination and by displaying a little more modesty.

For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.

1 Lee, Desmond (2003 - second edition), Plato The Republic (Translation by Lee), Penguin Books, London, p. 107.