Saturday, July 7, 2012

Robin Waterfield on the Death of Socrates

Robin Waterfield is remarkable as a prolific author who maintains a high quality in his work.  A classics scholar, he has translated numerous works from the Greek.  Especially to be noted is his annotated translation of Plato's Republic.   Waterfield has produced an interesting biography of a third-rate figure, Kahlil Gibran.   More noteworthy is Waterfield's Why Socrates Died:  Dispelling the Myths (2009).

Waterfield believes that the move to condemn and execute Socrates arose from Athenians who were angered by the deeds of his most famous pupils, Alcibiades and Critias.   Alcibiades is notorious, while the lesser-known Critias was the leader of the Thirty, a group of oligarchs who led a coup against Athenian democracy.

Waterfield gives essential background information regarding the Peloponnesian civil war, the Athenian system of government, and the Athenian legal system.   The trial had to be completed in one day.  This temporal limit for trials reminds one of the temporal limit for classical tragedy.

Waterfield helps us to understand Aristophanes' representation of Socrates in "The Clouds," as well as the differing accounts of the apology of Socrates which have been left to us by Plato and by Xenophon.  It is unexpected, though, to learn that Socrates was on the side of the oligarchs and opposed to Athenian democracy (limited democracy though it was).   This seems to run counter to Nietzsche's perception of Socrates as a champion of the decadent democratic forces.

Socrates' death appears to be a type of martyrdom, according to Waterfield's account.  The last paragraph of his book strongly suggests that Socrates gave his life to save the city he loved:

" Socrates' last words, uttered to his old friend Crito from his deathbed in prison as the poison took hold of his body were, ' Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.  Please make sure you pay the debt. '   Asclepius was the healing god, whose worship had been introduced into Athens less than thirty years previously.   These famous and mysterious words have attracted numerous interpretations.   I would like to add one more.   Playing on the close link between pharmakos and pharmakon, ' scapegoat ' and ' cure,' Socrates saw himself as healing the city's ills by his voluntary death.   A thanks offering to the god of healing was due. " 

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