The death of Socrates and the birth of UD


In 399 BC, the democratic citizens of Athens sentenced the philosopher Socrates to death by poison for corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city. 

Rather than flee the city, Socrates remained to be executed. If Plato is to be believed, he faced his death brimming with good cheer. That is a strange way to greet death, isn’t it? 

Nietzsche suggests that such cheerfulness shows that Socrates in fact hated life. With his last breath, Socrates even asks his friends to make a sacrifice to the god of healing.

“Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; make this offering to him and do not forget,” says Socrates. 

Doesn’t this imply that life is a sickness whose only cure is death? And if Socrates really hates life, weren’t his fellow citizens right to put him to death as a corrupter of youth? 

If that’s what he said, he’d deserve what he got, but the admonition, “Make this offering and do not forget,” is an idiomatic mistranslation. After all, why would Crito, a friend so committed to Socrates that he worked out a plan to bribe the guards to secure his release, a plan Socrates vetoed in the dialogue the “Crito,” why would that enthusiastic disciple ever forget Socrates’s last request? It is unthinkable; he would sooner cut off his leg. And Socrates is not so stupid as to think he might forget. 

Rather Socrates is taking the occasion of his death to reiterate his fundamental teaching about life. Literally rendered, Socrates says, “Make this offering. And do not be careless.” 

Why this admonition? The cure for the ills of life is care. Being careless is the source of all the woes besetting us. It is not life but the unexamined life, the uncared for life, that is not worth living. The examined, the cared for life, the one Socrates lived, that is indeed the greatest blessing.

During his trial, Socrates defends the mission of philosophy in the cave of the city: 

“As long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom, truth and the best possible state of your soul?” 

The last temptation of Socrates was the temptation, prompted by Crito, to care for wealth or honor or something else more than wisdom, truth and virtue. He resists the temptation to be so careless and hence a cock for both of them and not just Socrates, is owed to Asclepius.

Were Socrates to have put his philosophy on a T-shirt, it would say in big bold letters on the front, “Don’t be careless.” On the back, under a picture of a groundhog, it would say, “Don’t care for money and fame; care instead for wisdom, truth and virtue.”

Why a groundhog? Socrates’s triple—wisdom, truth and virtue—might sound familiar. After all, they are the three words emblazoned on banners hanging from lampposts all around campus in Irving. Why?

Our lamppost philosophy comes from our mission statement. There are three principal ends of education: truth, virtue and wisdom. That’s the secret that is UD, to work constantly against falsehood, vice and folly. These three ends of education go back to this place where you are standing. Socrates’s death is the birth of what UD stands for. Socrates is the hidden founder of our university.

Of course, philosophy will forever again be put to death for not believing in the false gods of the city, the gods that determine the shadows that show up on the walls of the cave. It is the very consequence of living life according to principle, of endeavoring to live by the natural rather than the artificial light.

Yet Socrates teaches that the worst thing that can happen to you is something only you can do to yourself and that is to fail to live according to principle, to fail to care for what you ought. At the end of the day, the only real enemy is yourself, for no one else is in a position to steal from you the pearl of great price. In this way, he testifies to freedom, existential freedom, which fills in for us just what it means to be independent thinkers, to be those seekers that live according to principle.

Look about you on this trip. The buildings may be gone or just some bare fragments remain. The vases may be frozen in time. But Greece, Socrates’s Greece, lives on in our veins, so we should be of good cheer, too, come what may.


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