Hemlock for Socrates or His Method?

Socrates ImageThe great philosopher’s mind was sound and for a man facing imminent death he was remarkably calm. His face was round with a bulbous nose and wrinkles like lines of latitude running parallel across his forehead. As the sun set, a golden light poured in through the small window of his prison cell and touched his face and flowing white beard for the last time. This wasn’t his first encounter with the looming chance of eternal slumber. He was a decorated war hero and known for his bravery in many battles. However now he was 70 years old and he was ready to die. To fear death would run counter to everything he believed and taught. The trial was over, the sentence was death, and he would die by the most humane method of execution at that time, hemlock poisoning.

His life’s work and contribution to western thought are most likely a foundation for thinking like a lawyer. A pedagogy in which question after question is used not only to find an answer but to truly understand the often subtle nuisances of a topic. He believed that seeking truth through questioning and logic rather than emotion was the key to determining one’s actions. This pursuit of virtue should outweigh ones desire of earthly wealth. He opposed the beliefs of many of his contemporaries because they emphasized artistic excellence in all aspects of life and especially in powerful speeches. However, these speeches, no matter how persuasive could lack not only logic but also proof!

The trial of Socrates puzzles historians to this day. Why would such a man be so offensive that he was sentenced to death at age 70? Was he deserving of the death penalty when he was so close to a natural death? What made him such an outlaw? The charges brought against him and many of the details of his trial are documented on a wonderful resource by the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here it states that, “Socrates is charged with ‘corrupting the youth’ of Athens and ‘not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.’” Socrates would travel through the ancient Athenian criminal procedure. Socrates first went before a legal magistrate where both sides were allowed to speak. If the magistrate felt the process should proceed he would set a date for a preliminary hearing. At the preliminary hearing, Socrates basically represented himself as was custom. Socrates then affirmed that his written denial was true and the accuser verified that the charges against Socrates were true. Then the magistrate interrogated both Socrates and his accuser. Finally, Socrates and his accuser were then allowed to question each other. The magistrate, finding sufficient reason, then set a date for Socrates’ public trial. During this trial, the prosecution presented their case. Then Socrates spoke in his own defense as recorded in detail by both Plato and Xenophon’s apologies. The 500 jurors then did NOT deliberate but simply voted on their own understanding of the law! Voting was done by dropping bronze ballot disks into the appropriate marked urn. Only a majority vote was necessary for conviction. He was convicted by a vote of 280-220. Later, he was sentenced to death by another vote of this same 500 member jury.

Our knowledge of Socrates comes from second hand sources especially his pupil, Plato. According to Plato, Socrates spent his last day using his dialectic method with a group of his friends regarding his belief in the immortality of the soul. During this time his friend Crito pleaded for Socrates to escape. True to form, Socrates also had logical reasons for why he had to stay which are covered in Plato’s third dialogue Crito. The next day Socrates willingly drank the hemlock cocktail. He was asked to move around until his legs felt numb. He then lay down and like a flame devouring a dried leaf, the poison moved through his body causing paralysis resulting in respiratory failure and ultimately death. However just before his final breath, Socrates said his last words to Crito, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Asclepius was the Greek god for healing the body.

Most law schools are still using the Socratic method. I think this method is still teaching students to think critically and logically. However many of you reading this probably have a story to tell about how you either succeeded or felt completely embarrassed by this tough line of questioning in law school. As in the movie The Paper Chase, the student named Hart bee-lined for the bathroom to puke after the Socratic method was inflicted on him by Professor Kingsfield. Therefore there may be some of you who wish Socrates had been convicted in his teens and possibly rending his method moot. Many of you might even question whether this method still adequately prepares law graduates for jobs in the current legal market. What do you think? And in honor of Socrates I must ask why?


About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This entry was posted on September 22, 2015 by in History and tagged , , .

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