“Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.”
Socrates in Plato’s ‘Apology’
The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates, is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.
To fully grasp the significance of The Death of Socrates, one must first understand the historical context around the time of the work’s painting and completion. The 1770s and 1780s saw an increase in the popular and intellectual allure of the ancient world, especially the republican civilizations of Greece and Rome. This was the age of the Grand Tour and saw the publication of the six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. One example of this trend in the artistic world was the Neoclassical style of painting which developed both as a celebration of the ancient world and its artistic merit and as a reaction to the highly ornamental, decorative Rococo style which was in vogue at the time. Neoclassical works were often driven by their meaning and allegory, while Rococo was heavily focused on ornate design at the expense of deeper ideas. The political and intellectual atmosphere of this period was also one driven by ideology and change. Politically, the landscape of 1780s France was turbulent, to say the least. The financial crisis which followed the end of the American War of Independence was extremely damaging to the royal treasury and state finances and resulted in that economic pain trickling down to the regular folk of France. This economic crisis led to a political crisis, as the absolutist state could not raise the taxes needed to buttress national finances without some level of popular consent. The government attempted to gain this popular assent with the calling of an Assembly of Notables in 1787, but this body did not approve the tax package put forward by the King’s finance minister Calonne. The state tried to force tax increases through the nominally independent parlement of Paris, which, shockingly to the King and his ministers, also refused to comply with the King’s diktat. This push against the recognized authority of the King in the service of higher principles and democratic participation was truly an Enlightenment attitude. Idea-wise, the 1780s were the peak of the Enlightenment age, when the ideas of the philosophes were ascendant and salon culture was at its height. Many of the key works of the French Enlightenment had been published, including the writings of Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, and were receiving widespread acclaim – even King Louis XVI had a copy of the Encyclopédie in his royal library. The ancient ideas of Stoicism and republicanism were being rediscovered and popularized in a major way, and the story of Socrates was one of the best examples of these high philosophical principles.
Jacques-Louis David’s contributions to the popularization of the ideas and principles of classical Antiquity were his beautiful and moving works of art. The Death of Socrates was no exception, exhibiting both an artistic splendor in its design and execution as well as a moral message worthy of its physical beauty. When looking at the painting, one’s eye is drawn to the partially-seated figure of Socrates, who is simultaneously engaged in teaching – his face and left hand show his involvement in a philosophical discourse – while also grasping confidently at the cup of poison hemlock held by one of his acolytes. This is a powerful dichotomy, as it visually depicts the principled stand Socrates is making; with one hand he is refusing to stop his supposedly criminal activity of ‘corrupting the youth’ with his ideas, while with the other he is reaching out for the necessary consequence of this action, namely death. Socrates, who is shown in a white toga symbolizing his philosophical purity, is surrounded by his students, who universally mourn his fate. These figures are endowed with significant moral weight through their anguished expressions and physical lamentations, from the inability of the man holding the hemlock cup to look in the face of his teacher, to the intense grip of the hand on Socrates’s thigh, to the weeping and bemoaning exhibited by the rest of the men. These students are all depicted in colorful outfits, setting themselves apart from the focus of the image, the white-clad, bathed-in-light Socrates. A curious and interesting aspect of the image is the other man who is shown in white at the foot of the bed – this was Plato, who was not present at the death of his mentor, but whose writings brought the story to the readers of the future. Given the attention to accuracy in the rest of the painting, the inclusion of Plato – as well as his depiction in white clothing like Socrates – is purposeful and meant to stand out. This is supported by the fact that David’s initials are engraved on the seat on which Plato sits; the association of the artist with the man who kept the story of Socrates alive shows that David saw himself as bringing the principles of the ancient world to his day and age.
The painting is not only incredibly magnificent in its execution and design, but its deeper meaning says something important about the time in which it was painted and its implications for the coming French Revolution. The major idea depicted in The Death of Socrates is that it is noble and honorable to stand up for one’s principles, especially in the face of state tyranny or oppression. Socrates is presented as the hero of the story, willingly accepting death as the price for his philosophy and the actions consistent therein. This would have been a popular sentiment among French intellectuals at the time, as in 1787 the resistance to the royal government of King Louis XVI was strong and French political consensus was near its breaking point. The courage of the parlementarians – to a man, enlightened nobles steeped in the ideas of the philosophes – to stand up to the King and Calonne was a modern version of the Socratic example. This focus on standing up for one’s principles would be replayed over and over throughout the years of the French Revolution. It is seen in the powerful oratory of Mirabeau, who exhorted his fellow deputies of the Third Estate not to leave the Séance Royale except at the point of bayonets. It recurs in the myriad men who went to madame la guillotine with their heads held high and their principles even higher, and shows up again in Danton’s refusal to go to said guillotine quietly. From the Girondins and the Jacobins to the sans culottes and the royal family, thousands of men and women died for their principles during the French Revolution, on all sides. The Death of Socrates was an expression of the idea that these deaths were not indeed in vain, but instead in service of a greater purpose, that of individual liberty and autonomy in the face of a tyrannical state.
 Plato, Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1, trans. Harold North Fowler, intro. W.R.M. Lamb (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966). Accessed at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0170%3Atext%3DApol.%3Apage%3D30.
 Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates was likely started sometime in the early to mid-1780s and was completed in 1787.