It is that time of year again. Christmas nowadays can be a materialistic holiday, where people overindulge in food, drinks and presents. However, materialism is a tale as old as Ancient Greece itself. The story of Socrates and Athens is a tale of a man who valued a simple life of virtue and happiness in a city obsessed with riches and beauty.
There are many cities around the world who claim to have been founded upon seven hills, and Athens is one of them. Among them are the famed Acropolis hill, Lycabettus hill, the highest point in Athens, and Filopappou hill where Socrates is said to have been imprisoned whilst awaiting his final trial.
Socrates was an ancient Greek philosopher famous for the phrase, “the only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing”. However, there are a few things that we know about him. Although he is considered by most as the founding father of western philosophy, Socrates didn’t write anything during his lifetime. Everything we know about the philosopher is through the works of his students, especially his most famed student, Plato.
Socrates was born in Athens and was the son of a stonemason and a midwife. As an Athenian citizen, by law he received a basic education in reading and writing – even though the latter didn’t serve him any purpose.
Socrates acknowledged his own ignorance, which is why he never wrote anything during his lifetime. He was consistently challenging his own opinions and perpetually learning. After his education, he then fulfilled his military service by fighting in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, where he first gained admiration for being fearless, enduring discomfort and saving the life of an esteemed general.
After returning from the war, he quickly began gaining the reputation of a philosopher. He wasn’t interested in the universe’s big questions but instead lived a simple life, always questioning everyone’s everyday viewpoints and habits.
During this time, a friend of Socrates consulted the Oracle at Delphi and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle confirmed that there was no one wiser. This sent Socrates out on a quest to prove the Oracle wrong, questioning everyone who claimed or was perceived to be wise. He eventually came to the conclusion that the people deemed to be common folk were wiser than those who claimed to be intelligent. This led Socrates to believe he was, in fact, the wisest of them all for he was the only one wise enough to acknowledge his own ignorance.
Socrates then spent most of his time at the Agora, an open space that served as a meeting point for the city’s citizens, questioning those who would talk to him. He would seek out those of all social classes to further understand people’s ethics. Socrates’ method consisted in continually asking the other person questions until any contradictions were exposed. He often did this in front of a young audience and his questioning method was designed to encourage people to look beyond the obvious or popular opinion and help them explore and discover their own beliefs.
Socrates’ performance at the Agora attracted a vast group of young Athenians who decided to abandon their original aspirations and devote themselves to philosophy. However, whilst many admired Socrates, many resented him for challenging the Athenian way of life. Eventually he was accused of corrupting the youth and of not acknowledging the city’s official gods.
Socrates was notoriously ugly with bulging eyes, a snub nose, and a protruding belly. He had no regard for personal hygiene, rarely bathing and walking around everywhere barefoot. He also had no interest in money or social status, in a city that worshipped male beauty and your position in society. Athens at the time was also going through a period of political instability following a humiliating defeat to the Spartans which contributed to his conviction.
During his trial, Socrates decided to represent himself and proceeded to further antagonize the jury. He proclaimed that he did not fear death for only those who falsely thought themselves to be wise feared death, as no one truly knows what happens when you die. He also presents himself as a benefactor to the city of Athens, enlightening everyone and persuading them to reproach their ways and beliefs.
At the end of the trial, the defendant is given a chance to suggest an alternative punishment to death and Socrates took the chance to further insult the jury by suggesting he be honoured by the city instead and receive free meals at the Prytaneum, a place reserved for heroes of the Olympic games.
In the end, Socrates was found guilty by 280 jurors out of 500 and was sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. His sentence was pushed back a month due to religious festivities and, during this time, Socrates’ friends tried to persuade him to flee the city and live in exile. However, Socrates stayed true to his beliefs until the very end, proclaiming he would not be a true philosopher if he tried to escape. In the end, Socrates drank the poison, wandered around until his legs grew weak and then lay down and spent his final moments in the company of friends.
Socrates’ influence was felt immediately as his students quickly formed their own philosophical schools, sharing with others their experiences with their teacher. And that is what life and Christmas is really all about – sharing the company of friends and family. Socrates himself wrote nothing, but his outlook on life shared by others still inspires people today.
By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.