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On the Shores of the Great Sea by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE DEATH OF SOCRATES

"And because right is right, to follow right

Were wisdom, in the scorn of consequence."

—TENNYSON.

ONE of the most familiar figures in Athens at this time was that of Socrates, and the story of his life and death, thrills us with interest to-day. His youth and manhood were passed in the most splendid period of Athenian history. Pericles was making the city beautiful; men were writing poetry and history, as they had never been written since the world began; art and sculpture ranked high in that period of genius. As a boy, Socrates received the usual education in music and gymnastics; he learnt a little science and mathematics, and understood something of astronomy.


[Illustration]

SOCRATES WAS A WELL-KNOWN FIGURE IN ATHENS.

But his greatness did not spring from his learning, rather it sprang from his thoughtfulness, and his close observation of his fellow-men. He was a man who hated everything sham, or hollow. He loved truth and justice for their own sake; he loved all that was high, and honourable, and right. He was a well-known figure in Athens, for all day [112] long, he wandered about the streets, now talking with a group of clever men at one of the corners, now speaking to the children, who might care to listen, now arguing with his devoted pupils and disciples.

This great Socrates was strange enough to look at. He was very ugly, with a flat nose and prominent eyes, and he was dressed very shabbily, because he was always poor. When the men of Athens turned on him at the last, and brought him up for trial, 4 was all he had to offer for his life. Wealth, beauty, praise,—these things he despised as unworthy. Truth, justice, courage, honour,—these were the things, that made a man acceptable to his God.

Here is the account of him by his great friend. "At one time we were fellow-soldiers together," he says. "His fortitude in enduring cold was surprising. There was a severe frost, for the winter in that region is really tremendous; and everybody else either remained indoors, or if they went out, had on an amazing quantity of clothes, and were well shod and had their feet swathed in felt and fleeces; in the midst of this, Socrates, with his bare feet on the ice and in his ordinary dress, marched better than the other soldiers who had shoes, and they looked daggers at him because he seemed to despise them."

Such was the man who stood head and shoulders above his fellows. Let us look at him when he is an [113] old man still discoursing, in the streets of Athens. This time he is speaking to two little schoolboys on friendship. He has just been brought into a newly built school.

"Having come in," he says, "we found the boys all in their white array, and games at dice were going on among them. There was also a circle of lookers-on: among them was Lysis. He was standing with the other boys and youths, having a crown upon his head, like a vision, and not less worthy of praise for his goodness than for his beauty. We went over to the opposite side of the room, where we sat down and began to talk. This attracted Lysis, who was constantly turning round to look at us—he was evidently wanting to come to us."

Presently Lysis and a boy friend came and sat down by the old man, and Socrates began talking to them.

"Which of you two youths is the elder?" he asked.

"That is a matter of dispute between us," answered one of the boys.

"And which is the nobler? Is that also a matter of dispute?"

"Yes, certainly," they answered.

"And another disputed point is, which is the fairer?"

The two boys laughed.

[114] "I do not ask which is the richer of the two," he said, "for you are friends, are you not?"

"Certainly," they replied.

"And friends have all things in common, so that one of you can be no richer than the other, if you say truly that you are friends."

In this way the wise old man talked to the boys. But as time went on, the men of Athens did not approve of his teaching. He talked as if there were higher things than sacrificing to the Greek gods, and the Greeks grew alarmed.

The trial and death of Socrates, as it has been written by his beloved pupil Plato, is one of the masterpieces even to-day in the world's history. He tells, how Socrates appeared before his judges, the men of Athens, to answer the charges against himself, and it gives the words of that wonderful defence. Socrates begs for his life, not for his own sake, but for theirs: he is their heaven-sent friend, though they know it not. He is an old man already, and the Athenians will gain nothing by taking away from him the few years of life remaining. But they can acquit him or condemn him, he is willing to die many deaths for the cause he feels to be right.

And the men of Athens condemned him to die.

Fearlessly he speaks to his judges of death.

"Be of good cheer about death," he cries to the crowded court, "and know of a certainty that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life, or [115] after death. The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways—I to die and you to live. Which is better, God only knows."

Every touching detail of the last hours of the master is carefully told by his faithful pupil Plato.

The sun was just setting upon the hills behind Athens, when Socrates took the cup of poison, which was to end his seventy years of work. Friend after friend broke down, and sobs of strong men filled the room as the Greek philosopher lay dying.

"What is this strange outcry?" he asked at last. "I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience."

And so he died, "of all the men of his time, the wisest and justest and best."


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