The case of Socrates (Final – 12 Rules For Life) – Jordan B Peterson

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1787 / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Today we reach the final book excerpt from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rule For Life. A lot of what the book espouses is about ‘delaying gratification’ (sacrifice) and pursuing what is meaningful and not what is expedient. Peterson uses the case of Socrates to illustrate his overarching message:

‘…After a lifetime of seeking the truth and educating his countrymen, Socrates faced a trial for crimes against the city – state of Athens, his hometown. His accusers provided him with plenty of opportunity to simply leave, and avoid the trouble. But the great sage had already considered and rejected this course of action. His companion Hermogenes observed him at this time discussing ‘any and every subject’ other than his trial, and asked him why he appeared so unconcerned. Socrates first answered that he had been preparing his whole life to defend himself, but then said something more mysterious and significant: When he attempted specifically to consider strategies that would produce aquittal ‘by fair means or foul’ – or even when merely considering his potential actions at the trial – he found himself interrupted by his divine sign: his internal spirit, voice or daemmon. Socrates discussed this voice at the trial itself. He said that one of the factors distinguishing him from other men was his absolute willingness to listen to its warnings – to stop speaking and cease acting when it objected. The Gods themselves had deemed him wise above other men, not least for this reason, according to the Delphic Oracle herself, held to be a reliable judge of such things.
Because his ever-reliable internal voice objected to fleeing (or even to defending himself) Socrates radically altered his view of the significance of the trial. He began to consider that it might be a blessing, rather than a curse. He told Hermogenes of his realization that the spirit to whom he had always listened might be offerring him a way out of life, in a manner ‘easiest but also the least irksome to one’s friends, with ‘sound body and spirit capable of showing kindliness’ and absent the ‘throes of illness’ and vexations of extreme old age. Socrates decision to accept his fate allowed him to put away mortal terror in the face of death itself, prior to and during the trial, after the sentence was handed down, and even later, during his execution. He saw that his life had been so rich and full that he could let it go, gracefully. He was given the opportunity to put his affairs in order. he saw that he could escape the terrible slow degeneration of the advancing years. He came to understand all that was happening to him as a gift from the gods. He was not therefore required to defend himself against his accusers-at least not with the aim of pronouncing his innocence, and escaping his fate. Instead, he turned the tables, addressing his judges in a manner that makes the reader understand precisely why the town council wanted this man dead. Then he took his poison , like a man.

(I read elsewhere, rather than present himself as wrongly accused, Socrates declared he fulfilled an important role as gadfly, one who provides an important service to his community…Socrates suggested he be honoured by the city for his contribuition to their enlightenment and be paid for his services…The jury was not amused and sentenced him to death by drinking a mixture of poison hemlock)

Socrates rejected expediency, and the necessity for manipulation that accompanied it. He chose instead, under the direst of conditions, to maintain his pursuit of the meaningful and the true. Twenty-five hundred years later, we remember his decision and take comfort from it….you can discover meaning so profound that it protects you even from the fear of death.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Reading, Reflections

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