This painting, titled Sokrates’ død (or Death of Socrates), by the Danish artist C. F. Høyer (c. 1775-1855), depicts the final moments from the life of the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE). In 399 BCE, the seventy-year-old philosopher was brought to trial in Athens over accusations that he was a dangerous influence to the minds of Athenian youths, as well as charges insinuating that he held atheistic or heretical beliefs. Although Socrates denied these allegations, 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’s execution was postponed for around a month. During this time, the old philosopher’s friends, admirers and followers tried to convince the condemned man to escape and live in exile. Nevertheless, Socrates refused, claiming that while he disagreed with the trial’s outcome, he would not disobey the state’s decision. Instead of fleeing, he willingly accepted death. Although Socrates, personally, was at peace with the 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).
C. F. Høyer re-creates the moments that occurred just before Plato’s quote, freezing the scene right as the cup of poison is being brought to Socrates. The old philosopher awaits his fate calmly and reassuringly. His friends and supporters, however, cannot contain their anxiety and emotion while the cup of death approaches their leader.
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.