2 March 2006 | theowinthrop
The first Philosopher we all tend to recall the name of...
He is the first and best known philosopher, as his pupils Plato and Xenophon would have wanted it, but he is also the only "great" philosopher who never wrote anything or constructed his own theory. In fact, Socrates (fascinating man that he was) was really the inventor of a method of inquiry, and the man who became the mouthpiece of a great philosopher, his friend and disciple Plato. We know much about Socrates because of Plato and Xenophon (and a few later writers who had access to sources now lost to us). He also was a friend of Aristophanes (who spoofed him in THE CLOUDS), and is mentioned for distinguishing himself in some heavy fighting at a land battle in the Pelopponesian War by the historian Thucydides. It does show that in his own time (roughly 450 - 399 B.C.E.) he was a well known public figure. But his fame was secured by his death. He died literally because of his faith in his city-state's laws and decisions, even if they were deadly for him.
Because Plato and Xenophon were politically conservative types, even elitists, one can assume that Socrates too was one. But he was inquisitive, and constantly asked question after question about the philosophical issue or point of behavior under discussion. The "Socratic method" remains the favored method of philosophers, but it is also the key to legal confrontation in court. You never accept a statement without testing it, or seeing where it goes. It was Plato who took his teacher's method in the various dialogs to include his own views on society in THE REPUBLIC and THE LAWS, or on love and friendship (THE SYMPOSIUM) or on the issue of goodness or whatever issue would occupy Plato's attention.
But the Socratic method also makes enemies. Most of the sophists or rival teachers of Socrates who are Plato's straw men resented being made to look like fools by Socrates. When several of his students and friends were among the anti-Democrats who helped Sparta win the Peloponnesian War and to conquer Athens, they took their first opportunity to have Socrates arrested for "impiety". This was tantamount to a treason charge. Socrates had long talked of a small voice that spoke to him at times. This suggested a rival to the official gods of the city of Athens (although Socrates never said it was).
The result was that Socrates was convicted by an Athenian jury. He was asked if he could suggest his punishment (it should have been death). He gave a speech, and suggested some trivial punishment. The jury decided to condemn him to death. He had one month left, and his friends insisted that he flee. He refused - he would not fight the laws of the city state he loved. So he was given a goblet of the poison hemlock, and died after drinking it.
Plato wrote four short dialogs giving the trial of Socrates (including the speech the "Apology") Socrates gave to the jury. The trial (the first great historic trial in western civilization) has been written, analyzed, and discussed ever since. Plato's later REPUBLIC was designed to protect a future Socrates from a stupid judicial murder. Plato's disciple Aristotle left Athens after a political error almost led to his trial and death (he said he would not enable Athens to repeat a historic mistake again).
Yet the drama of Socrates' demise never became the subject of a major drama or movie, except this one time. In the late 1950s Maxwell Anderson wrote the play BAREFOOT IN ATHENS (Socrates walked without sandals). A late play, it has less of Anderson self-indulgence in it than most of his works and can be revived. This is probably because all he has to do is turn to the ancient writers to get his story and structure of the dialog.
His only innovations is the development of the character of Socrates' wife Xanthippe (historically a shrew), and his relationship with the Spartan King. Socrates befriends the King of Sparta, who has slowly found that defeating Athens just unloads a huge number of problems into his lap. He has little trust of the small men who would run Athens now (the generation of leaders personified by Pericles is long gone). But Socrates keeps arguing for the restoration of the city's democracy. Of course this will guarantee his own doom, but he is a patriot.
Ustinov was perfect casting as Socrates, physically looking like the fat, slightly homely, and bearded Greek. His high points (that I recall) were when he begs the King of Sparta to restore Athenian democracy, when he defends himself at his trial, and when he tries to comfort the difficult Xanthippe (Geraldine Page) who does, for all her sharp tongue, love him dearly. It was a worthy production, and until a full movie is made of it this is the only dramatization of this historical tragedy.