How long will it take until you have to face an emergency? Earthquakes are unusual in most parts of the world, but few men are exempted from the risk of fire at home or at work. How would you react if you were attacked by a tiger? What would you do in case of a flood?
Misfortune tends to hit at the most inconvenient moments. When bad luck runs wild, it may cut its path across our lives and destroy the work of decades. Do you have a system to deal with emergencies? Have you prepared a back-up plan for cases of catastrophic failure?
Most people who study Socrates (469-399 BC) as a philosopher retain few teachings of substance. This Ancient Greek philosopher is reputed for his skill at asking long series of questions aimed at revealing contradictions, discarding fallacies, and establishing truth. However, the most interesting lesson from his life is seldom pointed out.
According to Plato (428-347 BC), Socrates loved to question what everybody else considered self-evident. He would engage debates with prominent Athenian citizens and use his sharp mind to demonstrate the immorality of some comforts, the inconsistency of certain principles, and the difficulty of many truths.
Most of what we know about Socrates concerns his death. By the time he turned 70 years old, he had accumulated many friends but also a substantial number of enemies. While a minority of citizens appreciated Socrates’ passion for philosophical conversation, he was detested by the subjects of his constant criticism. At one point, his opponents raised charges against him and demanded that he was put on trial.
Although the accusations against Socrates did not make much sense, the important point is that such trial could lead to a death sentence. If we trust Plato’s recollections, the charges must have not taken Socrates by surprise. He had spent most of his life in Athens and was well acquainted with its customs and procedures. He knew what he risked if he was convicted.
The fact of being indicted causes great distress to any human being even if the complaints against him are false. One can hardly imagine an emergency most pressing than having to face a jury invested with the power to weigh your every word and put an end to your life in this world.
Plato’s account of the trial describes Socrates’ eloquent and passionate defense. The old philosopher countered the charges against him with facts, logic, and courage. He argued for his innocence and invoked his previous services to Athens. He pleaded with arguments that appealed to reason and emotion, expecting to be acquitted or, at worst, mildly reprimanded.
Even so, despite all his strenuous efforts, Socrates was condemned to death. The sentence was executed by making Socrates drink a mixture of hemlock, a Mediterranean plant whose poisonous effects are similar to those of curare: the muscles of the victim become progressively paralyzed until he can no longer breathe.
What makes the story fascinating is that Socrates had the possibility to flee but refused to do it. This aspect is so intriguing that Plato devoted one of his works to explain why Socrates agreed to face his accusers at the peril of his life.
Crito, an Athenian businessman, was one of Socrates’ friends who stood by him at all times during the trial. When Crito proposed a plan to escape jail, Socrates did not consent. When Crito volunteered to bribe the prison guards, Socrates did not accept.
Twenty-four centuries later, Socrates’ decision seems as incomprehensible as it must have been in Ancient Greece. If you ask anyone in the street about what to do in case of fire, he will tell you to run. When human beings face emergencies, survival instincts often prove more reliable than a hundred essays on ancient philosophy.
Although Plato wrote extensively to explain why Socrates did not flee, the truth is that we have no idea. Xenophon (430-354 BC), an Ancient Greek historian, argues that Socrates was too old and had lost the will to live. How accurate is this theory?
Defeatism, which might apply to those who are terminally ill, seems difficult to conciliate with Socrates’ energetic defense during the trial. If he had given up on life altogether, why did he bother to refute the accusations? Why did he try to convince his opponents of his innocence?
Even though we’ll never know which version of the story corresponds to the facts, there is a crucial lesson to be drawn. What would you have done? Would you have accepted Crito’s offer to escape jail? Would you have fled your city and gone away?
Irrespective of the soundness of the charges against Socrates, the tale of his trial might denote a negative aspect of the great philosopher’s character: vanity. Did Socrates’ desire to demonstrate his innocence and prove his point prevent him from running for safety?
Plato’s account shows that Socrates must have been aware that he could not expect a fair trial. How can we understand Socrates’ unhealthy reaction to such an emergency? If given the possibility, any rational man would have fled, stabilize his situation, and later tried to erase his accusations.