A Fresh Look At Socrates

The trial and death of Socrates stands alongside that of Jesus of Nazareth as a milestone in our civilization. What these deaths signify is far from clear. Neither man wrote memoirs about what he taught. Both were killed by political authorities intent on doing what politicians always do – keeping order. And both deaths have spawned passionate debate and interest thousands of years after each man breathed his last. Why we do care about these deaths?

Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life provides an answer of a sort. "Home sapiens," she writes, "craves the anonymity of the herd. All of civilization’s darkest hours have been bayed on by men who want scapegoats, who want the finger of blame to turn in any direction, as long as it is away from their own face. Loose, jealous tongues are the bane of history." That, at least, is a compelling reason for why Socrates was condemned to death in 399 B.C.E. (The vote among the 500 jurors sitting in his case was close as to guilt regarding the crimes charged, neglecting the Athens gods and corrupting its youth – 280-220; the vote in favor of death as a penalty was 340 to 160.)

Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, its population was decimated by disease and war attrition, and the imperial tribute that fed the leisure of its citizenry had dwindled to a trickle. And Socrates was the friend of Alcibiades, a sometime friend, sometime enemy of the city. Surely a scapegoat was needed. Socrates, the infamous Socrates of Plato and Xenophon, was just too different. The Delphic Oracle had reportedly declared no man to be wiser; yet the philosopher proclaimed that he knew no truth. He wandered the streets shoeless, debating endlessly and offending with delight. Socrates, implacable Socrates, philosophized while Athens burned. "We strive for answers, for closure; but all Socrates does is ask questions."

Hughes brings ancient Athens to life, weaving the setting for Socrates’ life out of historic records and recent archeological evidence. The tone of the book is not the sort of ponderous scholarship often encountered in serious works on ancient Greece. It is rather playful; she is a wit at work and at play, trying to make sense of the life and death of philosophy's founding father. The book caught me off guard, her breezy and almost playful tone put me off at first, but I could not put the book down, even though I profess not to like the writing. How like Socrates this book must be: not altogether pleasing in form, but irresistible.

In recent years, I’ve struggled with the question presented by the historical Jesus. What can we know about this man? Can we know anything? There is so much more written about Socrates by contemporaries, and Plato’s dialogues, whether fictive in whole or in part, at least have the ring of truth: he was a witness to what he wrote about. We have no eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, only Gospels written decades after his death and by men who never broke bread with the man -- nothing admissible, as we lawyers like to say. Why the great need to know about a man who cannot be known, and the easy acceptance of something less than knowledge as to Socrates?

One claimed that he was the truth and that to know him was to be set free. He was killed by Roman overlords. Socrates claimed to know nothing save that the unexamined life was not worth living. He was killed by fellow citizens. Perhaps the deaths have little in common. Yet they remain two of the most profound political executions in the history of the West. Hughes has nothing to say about this, of course. Her focus is the Athenian. I will shelve the book this afternoon, but I will miss it a great deal. She’s also written a volume on Helen of Troy. I suspect I will soon be in Hughes’ hands again. Can she be persuaded to take a try at the death of Jesus?


Back In New Haven

I've missed the bright lights of the city, living as I do in the country. My main office is a couple short miles from where I live. The morning commute is usually a matter of dodging wildlife: I see more deer and turkeys than cars when I see anything at all. One stop sign separates my home from my office. If it takes all of five minutes to get to the office, I've been dawdling.

It was not always so. I used to be centered in New Haven. Sure, it's not much of a city by the standards of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. But it is as close to urban as I can tolerate. I spent my youth in Chicago, Detroit and New York CIty. I've had enough smog and congestion for a lifetime.

I've missed New Haven. It's a funky kind of place that plays at having urban problems. Yes, there is poverty: its infant mortality rate is among the highest in the nation, rivalling third-world nations. But there are none of the looming sorts of housing projects typical of a big city: no gigantic cinderblock fortresses breeding nothing but despair. Trouble in New Haven comes in small bursts, bursts that can be as deadly as big-city violence, but the city nonetheless has a welcoming feel.

So this week, I reopened an office in the Elm City. I'm heading back into town a day or two a week to work my way back into the city's court system.

The move is driven in part by the economy. My practice has me running all over the place. I might have a case at one of the state on Monday, and then another at the state's other end the following day. That requires fees often in excess of what a lawyer tethered to but one courthouse will charge. Practicing criminal law means following chaos and courting fees from those in harm's way: few folks budget for, or plan on, needing the likes of me. Focusing on one city yields economies of scale that will help keep legal fees down.

New Haven is blessed with many good lawyers. So competition is fierce there. But the stars of the local bar are teetering on the cusp of seventy -- they've plenty of bark, to be sure.  I can hold my own in the city. 

My new office is located next to the federal courthouse at 129 Church Street, Room 606. I've not decided what days I will be there yet. And consultations are by appointment only. My office can be reached at 203.393.3017. I hope to see a few of you there soon.


About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


Nothing in this blog should be considered legal advice about your case. You need a lawyer who understands the context of your life and situation. What are offered here are merely suggested lines of inquiry you may explore with your lawyer.

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