Selected Works | Hao Chen: Image and Meaning of Socrates’ Death

2020-07-02 | By Historian | Filed in: District.

Chen Hao

Associate Professor, Capital University of Economics and Business

There are quite rich artistic images in human cultural tradition. A series of archaeological discoveries that began in the 19th century conjectured, inferred and interpreted the codes and messages of ancient civilization from ancient works of art-buildings, inscriptions, statues, sculptures, murals, gold and silver wares, coins, etc. These artistic images, like written documents, are the carrier of knowledge and the expression of thoughts. Taking these artistic images as the main body, through drawing lessons from the research method of artistic iconology initiated by art historian Panovsky, to interpret the legal theme in the images and the history and thoughts contained therein is the beginning of the column “Legal Thoughts and Artistic Images”.

I. Socrates in Davide’s Paintings
Second, Plato’s Description of Socrates
Third, the dedication of the philosophy king and the dedication of revolutionaries

  • Jacques Louis Davide’s Death of Socrates, written in 1787, is now hidden in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Jacques Louis Davide (1748-1825) was an outstanding painter during the French Revolution and a representative figure of neoclassical art.   

Socrates in Davide’s Paintings

The Death of Socrates is the work of French painter Davide, which was created in 1787. In 1787, France’s monarchy under the rule of the Bourbon Dynasty was impacted by the continuous ideological liberation movement and liberal political organizations and was on the verge of collapse. Neoclassical aesthetics uses ancient major events and heroes to respond to the ideological and political changes in this period. David is the representative figure of neoclassical aesthetics. In the theme of Davide’s paintings, Socrates has become the leading role in artistic creation, which has strong practical significance. Of course, we know that Davide did not choose the theme of the painting, but a lawyer from the French Parliament commissioned him to draw it. However, Davide injected a new era of interpretation into this historical event.

The consistent comment of Davide and neoclassical art in art history materials is that the motivation of these creations is not art for art, but to promote some morality. We can also confirm this by comparing Davide’s series of other paintings. He wrote “The Oath of the Horace Brothers” in 1785, “The Attendants Return the Body of Brutus’s Son” on display in Sharon a few weeks after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and “The Death of Mara” in memory of Mara. These works unanimously express the noble qualities of courage and sacrifice, which are exactly the moral thoughts advocated by the French Revolutionary Movement. Davide himself was a revolutionary. He was a member of the National Assembly and successfully became the chief painter of the Empire after Napoleon came to power.

Davide’s painting “Death of Socrates” describes the plot of the day Socrates died. Against a black background, Socrates, dressed in a white robe, sat in the light, surrounded by his disciples and friends, mostly looking sad. Socrates has a calm face, his right hand stretches out to the cup filled with poison, and his left arm bends to point to the sky, which means that he can accept death calmly and calmly for the sake of simple and absolute ideas. Socrates’ upward fingers seemed to light up the dark, horrible and cold prison. In the sadness of all, Socrates’ dying peace seemed to be full of passion.

As for the interpretation of Socrates’ image, the image of “the kindest, most upright and wisest first philosopher” and the image of “martyr” all originate from Socrates described by Plato, or Socrates believed by Plato.

On the day Socrates died, Plato was not present due to illness, but the image of Plato appeared in Davide’s painting: he was wearing a white robe, sitting at the end of Socrates’ bed, bowing his head and meditating. David signed the bench under Plato, explaining that his inspiration came from Plato. David drew Plato as big as Socrates, instead of being about 30 years younger than Socrates as he actually was, and put Plato on the same white robe as Socrates.

These ideas are not Davide’s misreading, but a very accurate, clever and profound understanding and conception of the relationship between Plato and Socrates. What Davide wants to convey is Socrates’ and Plato’s teacher-to-teacher relationship, the same age and clothing, giving students the same authority as his teacher. Except for Plato’s last work “Law” in his later years, Socrates is the main interlocutor in Plato’s other 24 dialogues. It is difficult for us to distinguish whether Socrates’ narration in the dialogue is his thoughts or Plato’s own thoughts.

Socrates wrote without writing, leaving behind three maxims, “Virtue is knowledge” and “Know yourself”, as well as the picture, which Socrates also practiced with his own death, “Law-abiding is justice”. Taking Socrates as a model to inspire revolutionaries to die for faith and truth seems to open a new perspective for us to understand Socrates. From the perceptual level, revolution means passion and bloodshed for faith. However, we also need to distinguish carefully. As a famous historical event and legal event, does Socrates’ death mean the same thing as revolutionaries’ sacrifice? To differentiate this problem and understand the image of Socrates in the painting, we need to return to history.

Plato’s Description of Socrates

In the spring of 399 BC, poet Meretus, rhetorician Lai Ken and statesman Annithos in the restoration of democratic government accused Socrates of slowing down the gods and bewitching young people. Socrates defended himself not, but the jury still convicted Socrates, who was 70 years old, by 280 votes to 220. The judge adopted the plaintiff’s proposal and sentenced Socrates to death.

Socrates died in vain. Plato described Socrates’ talk with religious family Youxufron before his trial in “Youxufron”. Socrates asked him if what worshipped God and what was slow God because of the accidental death of his servant and accused his father of slow God. However, Yousuflon’s answer shows that he does not understand the essence of respect and slowness. Athens religious experts still do not know the essence of worshipping God and slowing down God, but Athens ordinary people have identified Socrates’ slowing down God.

On the contrary, in the accounts of Plato and Xenophon, Socrates often sacrificed, often saying that the gods had instructed him, saying that man was the object expected by God, and that man should understand the limitations of his knowledge and not boast, because God is the wisest. Socrates said that he had never been anyone’s teacher or taught anyone knowledge. He was just like a horsefly sticking to a horse, stimulating lazy, slow and fat horses, just like awakening people in a groggy life. All this was God’s will and God’s mission.

As for Socrates’ bewitching of young people, there is a view that this crime is actually for political purposes. In 406 BC, Athens tried naval battle commanders who did not rescue survivors. Socrates, as a member of the Elders’ Committee, was the only one who firmly opposed democratic collective trials against the law. Some of his influenced friends were anti-democracy people who took part in the movement to overthrow Athens’ democracy in 404 BC, including Cridia and Alcibiad. But in fact, Socrates never took part in any political activities of the 30 tyrants. Plato and Xenophon also explained to the world in many documents (including “Hui Yin” and “Phaedro”) that Alcibiad’s unruly behavior had nothing to do with Socrates.

Socrates did not commit a crime, but the law found him guilty. Before the execution, his friend Klitong had already opened his joints and persuaded him to escape. Socrates declined. The root cause of his refusal to escape lies in his thinking on “justice”. Socrates said that he had been thinking all his life that what was just and what was unjust. To escape without the release of the Athenians is to trample on and destroy the law and is unjust. One cannot exchange mistakes for mistakes or repay evil for evil. He must match his words with his deeds and practice justice.

On the day of his death, Socrates’ last conversation with his disciples still revolved around the issue of “justice”. Socrates said that he believed in absolute justice, absolute goodness and absolute beauty. Only by using pure and absolute reason can he find pure and absolute essence. How to use simple and absolute reason? When the soul observes by the body, it will bring into a state of undetermined change and lose its way. When the soul thinks alone, it enters the realm of purity, eternity, immortality and immortality. Therefore, to seek the truth of anything, one must get rid of the body and look at it with the soul. Then, the wisdom we ask for cannot be obtained until we die.

Socrates died for abiding by the law, but for justice. In order to achieve justice and “obey” even unjust laws, Socrates’ death and revolutionaries’ death (the act of “subverting” the old order in order to achieve justice) actually have different meanings.

The Sacrifice of Philosophy King and Revolutionary

Thinking about Socrates’ death and thinking about what is just, which constitutes the core issue of Plato’s Republic.

In Socrates’ view, justice exists in the “subject”, including city-state justice and individual justice. The justice of the city-state is the internal order of the city-state and the order formed by the optimal combination of individuals. A person’s justice is also the internal order of a person, that is, rational control of desires and emotions is the state of personal justice. Individual justice and city-state justice are symmetrical. Individual justice benefits from rational control, as does city-state justice. However, in reality, everyone will not naturally know himself and find his proper position in the society. Therefore, the realization of city-state justice requires some internal control, just as reason in the individual soul controls desire and emotion. Plato introduced the concept of “philosophy king” here. He believed that philosophy king should bear the responsibility of realizing the overall justice of the city-state.

The ruler of the Republic should be a real philosopher, because only a real philosopher can bring the city-state to justice, goodness and ideal. Why only philosophers have such ability? Because philosophers can see not only the “visible world” but also the “knowable world” through the power of reason. However, ordinary people can only perceive the “visible world” through their senses. Plato’s “visible world” is the world in the cave. The “knowable world” is the world outside the cave. Philosophers are those who escape from the cave. He wandered under the sun and gradually acquired the truth in the world of ideas.

He did not have to return to the cave, but the philosopher in Utopia was a person who kept his innocence and selflessness. He recalled his cave dwelling, his intelligence level at that time, and his imprisoned companions, so he returned to the cave with pure self-congratulation and regret for his companions. His story about the outside world was laughed at and regarded as a weirdo who broke the existing order and was killed by his companions.

If revolution is an act of realizing justice and restoring order, then the dedication of cave philosophers, like revolutionaries, aims to bring out the shackled people in the old order and enter the new, real and good world.

Plato must think of his dead teacher Socrates when he tells the story of the philosopher who returned to the cave, failed and was killed. The philosopher who got rid of the shackles did not have to return to the cave. He returned to the cave to save his imprisoned companions. Not all true philosophers are willing to assume this responsibility: “It is enough to see others do everything they can, but to be free from injustice and evil all one’s life, and finally die with good wishes and good expectations.” Most philosophers do. However, as a king philosopher, he needs some kind of responsibility to sacrifice himself for the sake of the whole.

The fundamental reason why the rule of the cave version of the philosophy king did not succeed is that the realization of the rule of the philosophy king needs rational soil. The rule of the philosophy king is not to “manage” the real world, but to lead the members out of the cave, beyond the reality, to “watch” the world outside the world that they have become accustomed to. Only then will people believe in philosophers and obey their guidance.

Like cave stories, we should not understand Plato’s “philosophy king” as a real person, nor should we understand Plato’s “philosophy king rule” as “rule by man”. Philosophy King is also a metaphor and the embodiment of city-state rationality. Plato’s Republic is the world that prisoners see when they walk out of the cave. It is a world in which everyone has reason. In order for everyone to have rationality, it needs the enlightenment and guidance of philosophy king (rationality), because he can bring real cognition and freedom. At that time, when everyone stood in the sun and saw the world clearly and saw himself, it was the time when the rule of the philosophy king came true. We can say that the rule of the king of philosophy is the rule of reason.

At this level, Socrates’ death has revolutionary significance and religious salvation significance. However, we cannot understand the justice of philosopher’s sacrifice and Socrates’ death as the justice of individual sacrifice for the group. The realization of city-state justice depends on the realization of individual justice “awakened” by the philosophy king. As mentioned earlier, Socrates’ justice is not justice in “relationship”, but the internal order of the subject. The judgment of right and wrong obtained through rationality is justice to “things”, not justice to “people”. The fundamental reason for the philosopher’s dedication still comes from the philosopher himself. He wants to practice “knowledge and belief”.

Some people say that Plato gave up the ideas of Republic and Philosophy King because of Syracuse’s political failure in his later years and began to realize the important role of law in reality. He turned the rule of Philosophy King into the rule of law and developed from “rule of man” to “rule of law”. However, through our interpretation of Socrates’ death and Plato’s theory of justice, we have seen the consistency of Plato’s theory and the germination of the rule of law in the Republic. It is not those norms and principles that are consistent with the modern spirit of rule of law, but constitute the western tradition of rule of law-believing that there is another world higher than the real world, and this world can only be seen through rationality, and it can help people identify the real world; Emphasize that the justice of man and country lies in the subject itself, not in the relationship. People’s persistence in justice is manifested in the “Bacus intoxication” and selflessness that they fall into when they are liberated from secular shackles, enter the world in ideas, and are “self-revolution” in which they walk out of the old order and establish a new order through ideas.

Reprinted from Public Number: China Law Review


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