On the eve of the French Revolution, Jacques-Louis David painted the Death of Socrates [Le Mort de Socrate]. The oil on canvas work completed in 1887, focuses on the scene from Plato’s work Phaedo in which the philosopher, convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, was sentenced to die by drinking poison hemlock.
He was given the choice of exile or death, and he boldly chose death.
Socrates actions taught his pupils that a true philosopher neither fears nor flees death, but rather faces it with the same calm he applies to life. The scene, while capturing a moment of tragic end, in fact also depicts the moment of the birth of western philosophy. Socrates death signalled the end of the reign of superstition and dogma in Greece, and the birth of rationalism and individualism.
Is it not ironic that the very men who accused Socrates of “introducing new gods” and “corrupting the youth of Athens”, by executing him, essentially killed their own traditions and saw the birth of what they feared, a radical new ideology that would transform their nation and the world.
What power is there in one man’s death to bring down his enemy’s legacy and give ascendancy to his own?
It is as though “ideas” are one’s true power, [the pen, rather than the sword?], and one’s true immortality?
Aslo on the eve of the French Revolution, Voltaire, aka François-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), died at the age of 84. He was an enlightenment writer whose wit and word frequently targeted intolerance, religious dogma, and other French institutions of his day.
He did not die for his beliefs, but rather ten years after his death of old age the French Revolution [1789-1799], broke out, turning France on its head. The blood thirsty rise of the common people in France saw the overthrow of the aristocracy and the institution of a republic, the abolition of slavery in French colonies, and the establishment of the French motto ‘liberty, brotherhood and equality’ [liberte, fraternite, egalite].
Interestingly, while in Socrates case, the ruling elite secured their own demise by killing the philosopher they opposed, in Voltaire’s case, the ruling elite secured their demise by ignoring the philosopher poet and his disciples, finding instead angry bourgeois with gunpowder, torches and ploughshares at their doors, and guillotines and prisons awaiting them.
Moreover, while Socrates ideas defeated his enemies ideas costing his life, one life, Voltaire’s ideas defeated his enemies, costing them their lives, thousands of lives.
What is mightier then, the power of the sword, or the pen?!
Well one may ask, what ideas bring life? One must better ask, what ideas bear good fruit, generations after they are germinated in a philosopher or poets teachings ?
Perhaps as in all legacies, time is true decider.
As written about in an earlier Bear Skin post, Jonathan Ralston-Saul’s incisive work “Voltaire’s Bastards” gives a critical analysis of the legacy of Voltaire’s writings.
Voltaire and his contemporaries believed reason was the best defense against the arbitrary power of monarchs and the superstitions of religious dogma. It was the key not only to challenge the powers of kings and aristocracies but also to creating a more just and humane society. This emphasis on reason has become central to modern thought. However, unfortunately, subsequent society bears little resemblance to the visions of the 17th and 18th century humanist thinkers.
Our ruling elites justify themselves in the name of reason, but all too often their power and methodology is based on specialised knowledge and the manipulation of “rational structures” rather than reason. The link between justice and reason has been severed and our decision-makers, bereft of a viable ethical framework have turned rational calculation into something short sighted and self-serving. This can and does lead to a directionless state that rewards the pursuit of power for power’s sake.
Moreover, we live in a society fixated on rational solutions, management, expertise and professionalism in almost all areas, from politics and economics to education and cultural affairs. The rationalism Voltaire advocates, … has led to the rise of individualism with no regard for the role of society has not created greater individual autonomy and self-determination, as was once hoped, but isolation and alienation.
Ralston-Saul called for a pursuit of a humanism in which reason is balanced with other human mental capacities such as common sense, ethics, intuition, creativity, and memory, for the sake of the common good.
The death of Socrates show us so powerfully, that ideas give or take life. Socrates did not fear the loss of his own life, because he knew that there were power and truth in his ideas, ideas which would long outlive him. In contrast, Voltaire’s ideas while enlightened, gave birth to a range of ‘children’, among them bloodshed, individualism and management as proxy for leadership, the pursuit of rational structures and of power pursuits.