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An Ugly Philosopher, a Nagging Wife, and an Illustrious Student
More than 2000 years ago, a philosopher, known for his ugliness and his quarrelsome wife, was sentenced to death. His ideas were dangerous, they said. He committed suicide by drinking poisoned wine.
The philosopher was Socrates, and his wife was Xanthippe, a probably very competent woman who supported the whole family. Her name has becoming a word denoting an ill-tempered, quarrelsome and nagging wife, but I would imagine that she just kept the family in strict order. Socrates himself was an impractical man who lived in his own world of philosophy. Xanthippe just had to take the lead, and I think she did that very well.
The negative picture of her seems to stem from Xenophon (Symposion). Plato, who mentions her only in "Phaedo", describes her as a good mother and wife. As a matter of fact, she might have been of high birth. The couple's first son, Lamprocles, was named after her father, which indicates that her ancestry was more illustrious than her husband's.
Socrates' most famous student was Plato, perhaps the most influential human ever. We still live in his shadow, for good and bad. He is one of the main roots of Christian philosophy, he deeply influenced Islam, and he is the theoretical basis for the intrusive public politics we see almost everywhere today, statism. How much of his thoughts really originated with him is very difficult to determine. He built heavily on both preceding and contemporary thinkers, incorporating their ideas into his own framework in a way that makes every attempt to find the "original" Plato completely impossible.
The so-called "Socratic problem" is a never ending enigma of history. Socrates did not write anything, he is known only from what others wrote, most notably Plato (even if Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Aristotle contributed a little as well). This intellectual giant (Plato) was not only an influential thinker, he also was an excellent writer. As his student, he described Socrates, but the problem is that he also made him a literary character when he, in the favoured form of the times, the dialogue, expressed his own ideas. So where is the borderline between Socrates and Plato, or between Socrates the philosopher and Socrates the literary character created by Plato? An unanswerable question.
Socrates was sentenced to death by the Athenians, for corrupting the youth, and for impiety. His speech of defence is related by Plato in "Apology". The death sentence was to be executed by suicide; he drank wine containing Conium maculatum, hemlock. The poison, coniine, is a neurotoxin that affects the central nervous system, blocking motion centres and causing paralysis. In "Phaedo" Plato describes Socrates' death (Translation by Benjamin Jowett, 1892 - is in the public domain):
Crito made a sign to the servant, who was standing by; and he went out, and having been absent for some time, returned with the jailer carrying the cup of poison. Socrates said: "You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed."
The man answered: "you have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act."
At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of color or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, . . . as his manner was, took the cup and said "What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not?"
The man answered: "We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough."
"I understand," he said; "but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world - even so - and so be it according to my prayer.
Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could not longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all.
Socrates alone retained his calmness: "What is this strange outcry?" he said. "I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience."
When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, "No;" and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: "When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end."
He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said - they were his last words - he said: "Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?
"The debt shall be paid," said Crito; "is there anything else?"
There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end . . . of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
Finally, just a comment on the cock to Asclepius. What sort of debt was that?
Asclepius was the god of medicine and health. A sacrifice of a cock to Asclepius was a common procedure after having been cured from illness. Socrates seems to indicate that he considered death a cure, as healing.