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“The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David

"The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David

“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”.

Jacques-Louis David

Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) was a French painter in the Neoclassical style, considered to be the preeminent painter of the era. In the 1780s his history painting marked a change in taste away from Rococo frivolity toward a classical austerity and feeling, harmonizing with the moral climate of the final years of the Royal Régime.

David became an active supporter of the French Revolution and friend of Maximilien Robespierre and was effectively a dictator of the arts under the French Republic. Imprisoned after Robespierre’s fall from power, he aligned himself with yet another political regime upon his release, that of Napoleon. At this time he developed his Empire style. After Napoleon’s fall from Imperial power and the Bourbon revival, David exiled himself to Brussels, then in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, where he remained until his death. David had a large number of pupils, making him the most substantial influence in French art of the early 19th century, especially academic Salon painting.

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

Exploring the Art of Philosophy

Quotes by Socrates

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“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

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“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

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“I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have unlimited power for doing good.”

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“If a man is proud of his wealth, he should not be praised until it is known how he employs it.”

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“The beginning of wisdom is a definition of terms. ”

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“I know that I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing.”

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“What a lot of things there are that a man can do without.”

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“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

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“Know thyself.”

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“How many are the things I can do without!”

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“Where there is reverence, there is fear, but there is not reverence everywhere that there is fear because fear presumably has a wider extension than reverence.”

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“When the debate is over, slander becomes the tool of the loser.”

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“By all means marry: if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy; if you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.”

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“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

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“To find yourself, think for yourself.”

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“I was too honest a man to be a politician and live.”

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“I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think.”

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“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

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“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance.”

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“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”

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“Our prayers should be for blessings in general, for God knows best what is good for us.”

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“They are not only idle who do nothing, but they are idle also who might be better employed.”

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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?

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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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