By Emily Wilson
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Extra info for Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint
Were the people of Athens really such fools as to kill their wisest citizen? If we want to explain how Socrates’ philosophy led to his death, we should begin with our earliest surviving description of the philosopher, a text that was composed during his own lifetime. Aristophanes’ comedy the Clouds includes the first account in literature not only of Socrates’ teaching, but also – surprisingly – of Socrates’ death. The comedian created a fictional ‘death of Socrates’ some twenty years before the trial.
Perhaps – as Alexander Nehemas suggests – Socrates’ paradoxical statements have no ‘hidden doctrine’ behind them, and no specific pedagogical purpose. Rather, Socrates’ irony is a fundamental unknowability. We cannot tell whether he is arrogant or humble, whether he is wise or not, or whether his provocative attitudes should be seen as claims to truth or simply philosophical gestures. None of these approaches provides an entirely satisfactory solution to the problem with which we began. The scholarly debate on the topic is extensive and more complex than I am able fully to indicate here.
Socrates is by no means the only person who can teach young people how to cheat and disobey their parents. He is just the most famous example. The Clouds suggests, then, that the death of Socrates might not solve anything – although it would give satisfaction to his personal enemies and those suspicious of the new ways. While the play hints that Socrates could be a corrupting social influence, it does not actually show him corrupting anybody. In fact, none of the characters needs to learn moral corruption from Socrates.