Cancelling Socrates: how the great philosopher sealed his fate with comedy

Playwright Howard Brenton asks why ancient Athens turned on its famous citizen, and how such an uncompromising free-thinker might fare in our own ‘age of rage’

Did Socrates “cancel” himself? At his trial in Athens, in 399BC, did he deliberately incense the jury with an outrageous comic speech to ensure they condemned him to death?

Socrates was charged with denying the gods exist and inventing new ones, and of corrupting youth. Actually, Socrates was deeply religious and it was fighting dirty to accuse him of sacrilege. But powerful people had had enough of him. A scruffy 70-year-old man hanging out in public places surrounded by adoring pupils, teaching that a life unexamined is not worth living but we must learn we know nothing, corroded certainty. And certainty was what the city craved.

The uncompromising voice of Socrates in a dangerous time resonates with our own “age of rage”. After Tom Littler, artistic director of the small but heavy-punching Jermyn Street theatre, proposed a Socrates play, I drafted a scene based on Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro – a hilarious encounter between Socrates and an upright Athenian citizen outside the law courts. Socrates came across as impish, empathic and provocative, great fun to write. Then his wife and the mother of their two sons, Xanthippe, and his lover Aspasia, the one powerful woman in Athenian politics we know of, took over the next scene. The play was up and running.

Socrates never wrote anything, though in jail he composed poems based on Aesop’s fables. Or Plato says he did. And there is the problem: the four dialogues we have describing the trial and execution are vivid, shot through with humour and drama, yet they are suspect, distorted by Plato’s worldview. There is one other account of Socrates’ speech by Xenophon but it is a dull read and has nothing whatever in common with Plato’s. Plato is effectively our only source.

Euthyphro, Defence of Socrates and Crito are thought to have been written near the time of the execution. A fourth dialogue, Phaedo, is obviously much later: Plato has Socrates believe in reincarnation, of which there is not a trace in the early works – but his intensely moving description of his teacher’s death and cryptic last words rings true. So, turn the glass this way and that and a very real Socrates emerges.

Athenian democracy in 399BC was fragile. There had been a brutal coup by oligarchs in 411BC, which collapsed after a year. There was a second coup when Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404BC. Democracy was restored but national pride was deeply wounded. The economy was threatened: farms had been burned by Spartan troops and there were outbreaks of plague. People were angry, exhausted, and wanting to blame someone – in bad times, cutting down tall poppies was an Athenian sport.

And Socrates was a very tall poppy. He was the most famous man in the city, but not universally popular. He only held public office once, for a day, as president of the Assembly. He used his vote to try to block the execution of six generals when the whole city was baying for their blood, arguing that their trial was illegal. He had a long, passionate relationship with his student Alcibiades, a war hero who defected, twice, first to Sparta then to Persia. He was wildly popular with the young, and parents worried he was leading their sons astray.

The jury of 501 was probably merely out to clip his wings, narrowly condemning him on a first vote. The law allowed Socrates to propose an alternative punishment – exile, or a large fine – which the jury would accept and everyone would go home. But he did not ask for exile or a fine; instead he asked to be given free dinners for life by the state – an honour accorded to national heroes. Enraged, the jurors voted heavily to confirm the death sentence. Then, in jail, he refused to escape, arguing that to flee would destroy his reputation, and that he must honour the laws of the democracy, even though it be perverted by enemies.

Was he testing the state to destruction by destroying himself? Or was it the culmination of a profound inquiry: does the soul survive death? The relevance of great stories can go way beyond the immediate moment.


Howard Brenton

The GuardianTramp

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