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Athenian Justice

Why did Socrates have to die?

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By PETER LOPATIN
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Because Socrates left no corpus of philosophical writings, all that we know of him is hearsay. He remains, necessarily, an elusive figure. And as to the question of why we still care​—​and ought to care​—​about his life and death, Hughes offers this observation:

We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did. Socrates’ belief that, as individuals, we need to question the world around us stands at the heart of what it means to live in “modern times.” .  .  . Socrates stands at the beginning of our world​—​when democracy and liberty are first conceived as fundamental values of society. We need to understand him because he did not just pursue the meaning of life, but the meaning of our own lives.

There is, then, something very much at stake for us, today, in the effort to see Socrates’ life and death more clearly. As one who “incarnates the tension between the freedom of the individual and the regulation of the community,” he compels the attention of the modern democrat. And though he is elusive, we must continue to search for him:

Socrates is recondite. And he is essential. He reminds us to keep debating the meaning of life, to keep questioning, to keep speaking to one another, to keep looking for answers. However you value him, you cannot argue with the central tenet of his philosophy. Because he beseeches mankind not to be thought-less.

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.

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