This painting, by French artist Jacques-Louis David (c. 1748–1825), depicts the death scene of the famous Greek inquirer, Socrates. In 399 BCE, the seventy-year-old philosopher was brought to trial in Athens, charged with crimes such as holding atheistic or heretical beliefs, and of being a dangerous influence to the minds of Athenian youths. Although Socrates denied the charges, he was found guilty by his peers and sentenced to death. Despite being condemned to face execution, Socrates’ death sentence was not immediately carried out. This was because the philosopher’s trial had occurred around a time when Athens had sent representatives on a religious mission to Delos, and it was deemed improper to execute a prisoner while the mission was ongoing. As a result, Socrates was held under relatively loose imprisonment for around a month. During this time, the old philosopher’s friends, admirers and followers tried to convince the condemned man to flee Athens and live in exile. Socrates refused, however, saying that although he disagreed with the trial’s outcome, he would not disobey the state’s decision. Instead of fleeing, he willingly accepted death. Yet, although Socrates was at peace with that decision, his followers had a much more difficult time dealing with the situation. Socrates’ protégé, Plato, recorded the dramatic scene of Socrates drinking poison while surrounded by his distraught friends:
“He was holding the cup, and then drained it calmly and easily. Most of us had been able to hold back our tears reasonably well up until then, but when we saw him drinking it and after he drank it, we could hold them back no longer; my own tears came in floods against my will. So I covered my face. I was weeping for myself, not for him—for my misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade. Even before me, Crito was unable to restrain his tears and got up. Apollodorus had not ceased from his weeping before, and at this moment his noisy tears and anger made everybody present break down, except Socrates” (Plato, Phaedo, 117d).
Such is the scene that is portrayed by Jacques-Louis David in his painting. It captures Socrates in the moments before he drank the cup of poison. The artist, like Plato before him, portrays Socrates resolute in his decision, whereas the philosopher’s followers struggle with despair over the impending loss of their friend and mentor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Phaedo by Plato, in The Trial and Death of Socrates, translated by G. M. A Grube and edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2000.