4th century BC
(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)
Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner. He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him. Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day. Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous. Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit. Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor. I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect. In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds. Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them. His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.