“Socrates had a choice…”

So begins a student paragraph; and so far, so good. The rest of the sentence is also fine: “…to stop stirring up the state.” This is pretty much what the government wanted from him, although he hadn’t set out to stir up the state—he was only teaching people to think (or, as the state had it, “corrupting the youth” and dissing the official gods). Well, yes, I guess that’s subversive.

In fact, I suspect all the government tinkering with American public education since my school days, especially the tinkering that makes it more and more test-centered, “knowledge”-centered, has been an effort to inoculate the rising generations against the kind of thinking that turned many of the scrubbed, Sputnick-watching, twist-dancing kids of my generation into peace, civil-rights, women’s-rights, and Earth Day activists in jeans and beads. Or am I succumbing to conspiracy theories?

Anyway, my student was going along more or less well. If Socrates had chosen to shut up and retire to the country, he probably would have ceased to be of interest to Athens.

She starts off all right in the next sentence, too: “Instead he picked death by drinking poison….” Well, he chose to keep teaching, and that got him arrested, and that got him tried for impiety and corrupting the youth, and that got him sentenced to death, and fulfilling that sentence meant “voluntarily” drinking poison, that famous hemlock cocktail. “Picked death by drinking poison” elides the trial-and-punishment part, but she does have the ending right.

The Death of Socrates, by Jean Louis David

Except that she doesn’t end there. As in several examples I’ve already shared, and a few more yet to come, she just couldn’t leave well enough alone. The sentence felt too short to her, perhaps; or she might have wanted to make his death seem less eccentric, or less remarkable, or more routine (all of which possibilities could reasonably be associated with a state-imposed death sentence). Or maybe she felt some further comment was needed to clarify things, but after opening an adjective clause she discovered she had nothing to put in it.

So now I present the whole paragraph:

“Socrates had a choice to stop stirring up the state. Instead he picked death by drinking poison, which was popular in those days.”

She makes it sound like a trend or a fad, doesn’t she—as if it would have been covered in the “Styles” section of the Sunday Athens Times?

And there goes your image of Socrates.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Socrates had a choice…”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Is pressure to conform the same thing as a conspiracy? People, in general, seem to be uncomfortable with those who upset the current order, not so much, I think, because the current order is being deliberately guarded, or that it’s so great, but simply because (a) change is painful and (b) people get pissed off when change is being presented as a desirable alternative and (c) people get pissed off when change is presented as a moral imperative. Comfort is King! What I don’t understand is why America is, in many ways, so very conformist, when the whole point of America was freedom to develop and to express. I would add: these things helped to generate America’s greatness. Unfortunately, Greatness is also suspect: “Who does he think he is? Who does she think she is?”
    Hemlock, anyone?

  • “Throughout history death has always been the solution to many of life’s problems…” « You Knew What I Meant

    […] know (or maybe just don’t want to know) what this student meant. He doesn’t mention crime as one of the things death is “a solution” for; but since another quotation on the next […]

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