AES54 The Death of Socrates

AES54 The Death of Socrates

“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” - Socrates


This is a famous painting made by french painter Jacques-Louis David in 1987. It shows a story famously written by Plato about the execution of Socrates. This great greek philosopher is one of the most influential intellectuals of all time, his teachings of philosophy are still being read even today. The painting itself is the apex of the Neoclassical art movement of the time, displaying the subjects strongly and severely, and yet it is subtle and beautiful at the same time.

Now for the story of this scene, Socrates was put on trial for supposedly corrupting the Athenian youth with his ideas, and for his refusal to acknowledge the sacred gods of the city. At the conclusion of his trial, he was sentenced to death by consuming hemlock, a deadly poison. Now Socrates could have easily escaped into exile and lived, but he made a choice to stay and teach his students what would be his final lesson, that death is not something to be feared. This painting shows us the execution of Socrates.

Jacques-Louis David didn’t really provide any identification for the characters present in the painting, but it can be picked up from the context alone. The person who stands out the most is Socrates, he is sitting upright in the middle wearing white flowing robes, depicted vividly in stark geometric lines as strong and iron-willed, gesturing defiantly against fear as he reached for the poison that would end his own life. 

His followers to the right side, despairs to see their teacher’s last moments. While Crito, his oldest and most faithful student, clutches at Socrates’ thigh while he looks him in the eye.

The executioner in red robes, shamefully looks away from Socrates as he offers him the goblet filled with poisonous hemlock.

In the left side background we can see Socrates’ wife Xanthippe being escorted out in distress, sparing her the horror of watching her husband’s execution.

But the old man sitting at the edge of the bed is actually the most important part of this painting. That man is Plato, even though he was not present at Socrates’ execution, since he was still a boy at the time. Plato is the person responsible for popularizing Socrates’ teachings, the two are so intertwined that it’s hard to even tell where Socrates’ philosophies ends and Plato’s begins. This can make us look at the rest of the painting in an entirely new perspective. 

This whole scene can be read as taking place in Plato’s head, his idealized reimagination of how it happened. It calls upon the very nature of memory, how we tend to create an ideal in our minds, the imperfections of a scene are smoothed over, giving us a perfect frozen moment in time and reality.

To courageously confront death and stay true to our own ideals. To stand fearlessly in the face of inevitable ruin. This painting shows us a person with moral strength and character to a degree that many of us have never seen before. There’s a lot to appreciate in this painting, and even without knowing the story and context it is still a powerful and beautiful piece of art, withstanding the test of time.

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  • Agreed, I think this is a great interpretation of an amazing piece of art... Then again, I don't think people make this kind of art anymore, or do they still, Rico?

  • interpretasi yang keren Co!

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