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“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

David - The Death of Socrates

“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David depicts Socrates as the stoic old man in a white robe sitting upright on a bed; his right hand extended over a cup, the left hand is gesturing in the air. He is surrounded by his students and loyal followers showing emotional distress. The young man handing him the cup looks the other way, with his face in his hand. Another young man clutches the thigh of the old man begging Socrates not to take the poison. An elderly man sits at the end of the bed, is Plato, his most famous student and he is shown slumped over and looking in his lap.

This famous painting depicts the execution of Socrates, as told by Plato. Socrates has been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and introducing strange gods and has been sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock. Socrates uses his death as the last lesson for his pupils and not fleeing when the opportunity arises and faces it calmly.

David uses the colour of the robes to highlight the level of emotional distress display by the various people in this painting. The shades of red become more vibrant and culminate in the dark red robe of the man holding the cup of poison. The only two serene men, Socrates and Plato, are shown in a contrasting bluish-white.

Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy. He left no writing of his teachings and is known chiefly through the accounts of his students, such as Plato and Xenophon. Plato’s dialogues are among the most comprehensive reports of Socrates to survive, though it is unclear the degree to which Plato represented his views.

Socrates’s search for the truth and wisdom had made some prominent Athenians he publicly questioned look foolish. These prominent Athenians turned against him and sought revenge by accusing of wrongdoing. Socrates defended his role by continuing to argue for the truth until the end. In 399 BC, Socrates was found guilty and as punishment was sentenced to death, by the drinking of a mixture containing poison hemlock. Socrates turned down pleas to attempt an escape from prison, as he had an opportunity to escape, and there was an expectation that he would leave Athens in exile and not die, but he refused that option.

Socrates’s death is described at the end of Plato’s Phaedo, which states that after drinking the poison, he walked around until his legs felt numb. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Some of Socrates last words included:

“all of philosophy is training for death”.

Reflections

  • From amongst all people, do philosophers fear death the least?
  • Is the study of philosophy the best training to prepare us for death?
  • Did knowledge of our mortality give rise to the need for philosophy?

Explore European Paintings in the MET

The Death of Socrates

  • Title:                The Death of Socrates
  • French:           La Mort de Socrate
  • Artist:              Jacques-Louis David
  • Year:                1787
  • Medium:         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:  130×196 cm
  • Museum:        Metropolitan Museum of Art – MET

Jacques-Louis David

  • Name:          Jacques-Louis David
  • Birth:            1748 – Paris, Kingdom of France
  • Died:             1825 (aged 77) – Brussels, United Netherlands
  • Nationality:   French

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“An unexamined life is not worth living.” 
– Socrates

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Photo Credit: 1) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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