The History of Art: The Death of Socrates

“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’[1]

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[2], 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.

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The Curious Case of Simeon Bekbulatovich

Note: This is the first academic paper of many that will be posted to this blog. Please check out our Brief Update for more info. Fair warning, this is not a short read. Enjoy!

Abstract

One of the most peculiar episodes of sixteenth-century Russian history revolved around a Christianized Tatar prince, Simeon Bekbulatovich. His brief reign as Grand Prince of All Rus’ from 1575 to 1576, during an abdication by Ivan IV, was seen as controversial at the time and has only become more contentious over the centuries. The significance of Bekbulatovich’s time as Grand Prince, Ivan’s rationale for Simeon’s elevation, and the merits of that decision remain up for debate. This paper undertakes a historiographical analysis of the perspectives of various historians on the Bekbulatovich affair, from the initial sixteenth-century accounts through those of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. I explore the contemporaneous evidence from Bekbulatovich’s reign, including writings by foreigners in Muscovy at the time who discussed the issue with Ivan IV. An assortment of historical views on Bekbulatovich, from those of early scholars like Soloviev and Kluchevsky to those of more modern historians including B.A. Uspenskij, Charles Halperin, Ruslan Skrynnikov, Donald Ostrowski, and Isabel de Madariaga, are presented and analyzed. I argue that the defining aspect of the controversy over Bekbulatovich’s rule was Ivan’s attempt to reestablish an oprichnina­-like system to further cement his own autocratic power.

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A Masterpiece of a Case

When there is a major advance in civil rights for a minority group that has been widely discriminated against, do people have the right to dissent with the new standard? Should individuals and businesses be treated the same with respect to the fundamental rights protected by our Constitution? Are artists, artisans, and other craftsmen exercising their free speech rights when they create custom works for paying clients in the normal course of business? Where does society draw the line when it comes to sincerely-held religious beliefs? And how, if at all, is racial discrimination different than discrimination based on sexual orientation? All of these critically important societal questions are deeply integrated in one of the most widely discussed and anticipated Supreme Court cases of this term, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

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III. “The Only Remedy to be Applied is More Speech”

“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

–   Justice Louis Brandeis, Whitney v. California


Before getting into the meat of this section, I have a simple question for you to consider: since the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945, has the United States or any American state ever been governed by a party or individual that has openly espoused fascist or Nazi ideology?Read More »

II. “Particularly Controversial or Unpopular Entities”

“It is easy to defend freedom of speech when the message is something many people find at least reasonable. But the defense of freedom of speech is most critical when the message is one most people find repulsive. That was true when the Nazis marched in Skokie. It remains true today.”

ACLU Statement, August 2000


Now that I’ve gone through a less-than-concise legal history of the First Amendment in the 20th Century, let’s talk about an organization that has made its own impact on the popular understanding of free speech and assembly in the United States: the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU. Read More »

I. “A Question of Proximity and Degree”

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

– The First Amendment to the US Constitution


The fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and association have been enshrined in our Constitution since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, and were expanded to include all Americans with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and its key ‘equal protection’ clause in 1868. Since then, there have been many legal cases that have expanded upon or conversely, limited, the speech, assembly, and association rights recognized under the First Amendment.Read More »