The dictionary typically defines philosophy as “the love of or search for wisdom or knowledge” or “as the theory or logical analysis of the principles underlying conduct, thought, knowledge and the nature of the universe” (Neufeldt, Goralnik, 1994, p. 1015). With such a general definition, one might begin to understand the complexities involved in studying philosophy as it seems to encompass just about all knowledge pursuits. Perhaps part of the confusion in trying to define the term can be found in the early days of the science when it applied almost universally to all avenues of knowledge in ancient Greece. The term itself derives from an ancient Greek word that translates to “love of wisdom” (Wikipedia, 2005) and it is through several early Greek thinkers that we have arrived at the perceptions we now foster. These thinkers sometimes presented their ideas in the form of dialogues between two or more people, such as in the works of Plato revealing the understood messages of Socrates, blended with a bit of Plato’s original thought to such an extent that the two thinkers cannot today be definitively separated. Others preferred to translate these ideas into more accessible formats such as in the great plays of Sophocles, revealing in ancient myth the ideas that were being discussed in more prosaic terms among the students. This varied presentation of thought can be illustrated by comparing the deaths of what is widely accepted as the factual character of Socrates with the presumed fictional character of Antigone.
A great deal of what we know about Socrates the man, in fact, all of what we know of him, is what is written about him by others who may or may not have heard him speak. This is because Socrates chose not to write anything down in his pursuit of wisdom (Wilke & Hurt, 2000: 942). Some of these writings, such as Plato’s Apology, provide such a degree of firsthand knowledge, though, that we are able to make some characterizations. In this document, Plato records, to what degree of accuracy is uncertain, the defense presented by Socrates himself at the trial for his life as well as the details of his death. Within the text, Socrates continually refers to himself as being the wisest man alive, based upon the words of the Oracle at Delphi, which is known to never speak falsely, but this wisdom is called into question by the facts of his death. Although it can be argued that Socrates acted unwisely in purposefully incurring the wrath of many of Athens’ more powerful figures, the defense he presents to the court indicates that Socrates was indeed wise beyond the understanding of normal men in that he chose to die in support of a higher truth. In doing so, he ensures that his death is redemptive in that encourages future generations to find a means of resolving the conflict he faced in his own society.
Socrates was well aware of what he was doing and why this was making many people angry with him. This is evidenced within the text of the Apology as Socrates begins his defense of himself against the old enemies that have spoken falsely “telling of one Socrates, a wise man, who speculated about the heaven above, and searched into the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause” (Apology: 944). He realizes most of his jurors have heard bad things about him from the time that they were young and are unlikely now to change their minds regarding his guilt. It has been argued that with this knowledge, Socrates should have done more to defend himself based upon more emotional reasons, such as bringing his family to court to plead for his life, which were frequent techniques used in Socrates’ time to beg for mercy (Wilke & Hurt, 2000: 948). At the same time, it is shown through Socrates’ words that he knew he was making enemies even as he was making them. “Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this” (Apology: 946). His willful continuation of actions that only added to the number of enemies he would have in the state is often pointed to as a sign of unwise behavior.
However, Socrates was indeed wise beyond the normal ability of man in that he continued to act in a way that might threaten his life but was in the greater interest of the world’s population. As he explains in court, after being told by the oracle that he was the wisest man alive, Socrates did not allow this distinction to go to his head and immediately begin spouting pithy sayings that proved his wisdom. Instead, he went to the streets and began questioning those individuals he had always considered wiser than himself. In each case, he found that even among those who possessed a little wisdom tended to take that knowledge to the outer extremes and assume they knew everything there was worth knowing, without any further examination. “At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and here I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom” (Apology: 947). From his account, it becomes possible to deduce that Socrates’ definition of wisdom entails not only knowledge, but also the knowledge of what one does not know. “I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” (Apology: 947).
Within the trial itself, it has been argued that Socrates could have made a better presentation on his own behalf, perhaps by calling up witnesses to account for the good he’s done for them or to appeal to the emotional nature of his jurors (Wilke & Hurt, 2000: 948). However, Socrates has wisely already calculated his chances to escape death and chooses instead to be judged by history based upon his own merits rather than attempt to win over a group of individuals who are already disposed against him. He chooses to champion the higher truth and, by his own example, encourage future generations to seek it as well. This concern for a dedication to a higher truth is illustrated in other works, such as Plato’s Euthyphro. This book presents a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro in which Socrates is attempting to learn from Euthyphro the true nature of holiness. Within this dialogue, Socrates illustrates the invalidity of Euthyphro’s logic. Socrates reduces Euthyphro’s argument to two basic possibilities: 1) The gods approve of certain things because they are holy; or 2) The approval of the gods is what makes something holy. In the first instance, Socrates argues that the gods cannot approve of something because it is holy unless what makes the thing holy is something other than the approval of the gods because it is holy first and approved by the gods second. In the second case, if it is the approval of the gods that makes something holy, then there remains an unknown quality in this object that causes the gods to give it this approval (Euthyphro). He is able to prove to history, if not to the jurors, that he has consistently acted in ways that he deems to be in the right, in support of the laws and in the best interests of the people.
Finally, in accepting his punishment, Socrates is able to prove the depth of his convictions and continue to stand for those ideals he has purported to stand for thus far. In his calm acceptance of the death penalty, Socrates expresses a deeper concern for the welfare of men living without an example of how to properly examine whether what they know as truth is actually truthful or merely the platitudes of a dominant leadership. This is expressed in Plato’s Crito as Socrates talks with his old friend about why he will not accept the expected and commonly practiced rescue assistance of his friends and family. He tells Crito, “What we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth” (Crito). Despite this, Socrates ultimately decides to drink the hemlock because he determines that escaping from his prison and sentence would be to break all of the laws of Athens, which he had upheld all his life. “Do you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons?” (Crito), he asks. After following the laws of his higher truth, Socrates must follow the laws of the land, which have given him a death sentence that he must now face.
In many ways, Socrates and Antigone stand for the same thing. Socrates believed that the most important pursuit in life was a search for the truth while Antigone felt that it was adherence to the moralities passed down to people by the gods, but both felt that one’s convictions were essential to the development of their soul. For both individuals, the fact that they were on trial for their lives was not sufficient to keep them from speaking out about their convictions, not expecting to change anyone’s mind but more concerned about taking the right action. Regardless of what the court decided regarding their future, neither Antigone nor Socrates could have kept themselves from engaging in those activities that got them into trouble to begin with. Neither one could bring themselves to beg for mercy when they were sentenced to death, instead opting to restate their case before execution was carried out. Finally, both Socrates and Antigone both opted to take their own lives, Socrates by swallowing poison and Antigone by hanging herself.
Antigone’s trial later in the play given her name depicts many of the issues that Socrates faced in his trial. Her trial is conducted before the king himself, whom she angers when she taunts him with the idea that the only people who agree with his recent decision are those people who are afraid of the consequences should they tell the truth. This is much like Socrates’ charge to the court that the senators are merely frightened of what might happen should the populace begin to think for themselves. To King Creon, as is evidenced by his actions, the primary duty of an individual is to demonstrate loyalty to the state that has provided him with the lifestyle he now enjoys. This was the motivating factor behind his decision to order Polynieces would not be buried, as it was Polyneices who marched upon the city with an army at his back. To Creon, it didn’t matter that Polyneices was simply trying to enforce the agreement made with Eteocles upon the desertion of Oedipus. Creon says “Never shall I, myself, / honor the wicked and reject the just / The man who is well-minded to the state / from me in death and life shall have his honor” (Antigone: 187-188). However, Antigone insists that her community, regardless of who is leading it, should conform first to the dictates of the deities, which includes the directive that all of the dead should be buried as a means of preventing disease, if for no other reason.
As her sister reminds Antigone, women do not have any power in their culture, but Antigone bravely speaks out against what is wrong as well as works to carry out the necessary actions to make things right. She adheres to her inner convictions rather than her king’s orders in everything she does. Instead of adhering to the orders of the king, she brazenly sets out during daylight hours to give her brother the last rites necessary for his spirit to find its way to the next world and is inevitably caught in the act by the king’s soldiers. She tells her sister, “Be what you want to; but that man shall I / bury. For me, the doer, death is best. / Friend shall I lie with him, yes friend with friend, / when I have dared the crime of piety” (Antigone: 183). This compares to Socrates’ actions in brazenly seeking out the most learned and wise individuals of his society and questioning their authority, often angering them in the process of proving that they are not as knowledgeable or as wise as they believe themselves to be.
In the end, it doesn’t matter to Creon if Antigone’s ideas were founded on trying to please the gods; she is put to death for bravely insisting on doing what she has determined is right in relation to her brother regardless of what her uncle has decided. In acting on her beliefs, she openly defied Creon and openly admits that she is a traitor when she is caught: “For me it was not Zeus who made that order / Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below / mark out such laws to hold among mankind. / Nor did I think your orders were so strong / that you, a mortal man, could over-run / the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws” (Antigone: 196). When Creon carries out her sentence of death by entombing her alive, he does so under the understanding that he is fully supporting the rules of the state, but then has second thoughts as he finally realizes the importance of family and the overarching dictates of the religious convictions of the community. Yet even here, Antigone has acted to directly defy his wishes. Bolstering her courage once again, Antigone hangs herself within the tomb in order to put the exclamation point on Creon’s immoral rule over Thebes. She would rather die than live under the dictates of an impious king. In the same way, Socrates refuses to live in a society in which he must hold his tongue or risk retrial.
Throughout the basic plot of the play, Antigone’s actions sharply mirror those of Socrates in attempting to stand up for what they believe is morally right and ethical. While Socrates might have been able to escape the death penalty had he been willing to pull some of the tricks that people before and after him pulled in order to sway court opinion, he would have had to have done so by undermining the very things he most stood for – the examination of the truth, the pursuit of wisdom, the importance of self-examination and the necessity of upholding justice. By both accepting his own lack of wisdom in all things and by accepting that he was indeed wiser than any of the men he had met thus far, Socrates was able to illustrate the importance of eternal questioning as a means of self-definition and of discovering greater truths. By remaining loyal to this stance in his own defense, he not only emphasized this importance to those who came after him, but also ensured his words would somehow be immortalized as the only way in which he might be able to reach future generations. In his acceptance of his penalty, he illustrates the importance of adhering to the laws of one’s life in proper order, first to the higher truth and second to the laws of the land. All of these elements can also be traced through the final chapter of Antigone’s life. Sophocles’ play doesn’t provide any true examination of why Antigone opted to hang herself within the cave she’d already been entombed in, realizing that King Creon might still change his mind before her life expires. However, her adherence to the higher truth as defined in her community’s religious customs and beliefs as well as her adherence to her inner sense of what is right and true based upon her knowledge and relationship with her brother is similar to Socrates’ adherence to the higher truth of eternal questioning. Her final act within the tomb may have also been adherence to the laws of her life, this time to the law that had been decried by Creon that she should die for disobeying his order not to consecrate the corpse of Polynieces to the ground.
Neufeldt, V. and Guralnik, D. (eds.) (1994). Webster’s New World Dictionary. New York: Prentice Hall. p. 1015.
Plato. The Apology. Taken from Wilkie, Brian & Hurt, James. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. (4th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Sophocles. Antigone. Greek Tragedies. David Grene & Richmond Lattimore (Eds.). Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press, 1992: 179-228.
Wikipedia contributors. “.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Web.
Wilkie, Brian & Hurt, James. (1997). Literature of the Western World, Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. (4th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall.