After a clamorous trial in which the philosopher Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth and believing in novel gods, the Athenian jury of Five Hundred declared him guilty by a narrow margin (56% in modern estimates). Following the conviction, both sides proposed punishments. Socrates suggested that he be forced to dine in the Prytaneum and hold a position in high society, which would be the opposite of his philosophy of calling all norms into question. His accusers, representing business concerns, religious laymen, and other philosophers, argued that Socrates should be compelled to suicide by drinking hemlock.
This form of execution was traditional in ancient culture, where there was worry about reprisals from the gods if an innocent person was accidentally executed. Instead, the legally guilty would kill himself and then receive a more noble place in the afterlife for taking personal responsibility. On a practical level, however, it was customary for the guilty party to flee town before nightfall and go into exile, thus freeing the city of nonviolent social misfits. Following this understanding, the jury sentenced Socrates to death on a wide margin of 72%.
Socrates’s longtime friend Crito begged Socrates to make an escape. Socrates, however, was determined to follow the letter of the law, even if it was against the unspoken spirit, as was outlined in a dialogue between them written by Socrates’s student Plato. Surrounded by many of his friends and favorite students, Socrates drank the hemlock made from leaves of the Conium plant by a city official. While the philosophers debated and his friends began mourning, Socrates described to them how his feet had gone numb, not even feeling a pinch. The cold feeling crept up his legs toward his heart, where it was expected to kill him.
As he struggled to take his final breaths, he called out, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” There is much debate about whether Socrates’s last words were a reminder to settle his books so that there could be not even an unpaid medical bill against him, or perhaps a reference to the healer demi-god granting immortality to his words, or if it was a suggestion to attempt a resurrection as the mythological Asclepius himself had done. Said to be the son of Apollo, Asclepius was the first physician and founded medicine, but when he cured death itself by resurrecting Hippolytus after his horses threw him, the gods struck Asclepius down for impudence.
Whatever the meaning, Crito was not satisfied and asked for Socrates to say something more, anything at all. Socrates then stopped breathing.
Crito threw himself into an embrace of Socrates’s chest, where he noticed that the old philosopher’s heart was still slowly beating. He cried out that if Socrates would not take in breath, he would give it to him, and blew into his mouth. The body did not reflexively deflate, so Crito pushed the air out from the torso and breathed again.
The young philosophers were divided, some believing Crito to have gone mad, while others were fascinated. While Crito worked, they examined the body and found that Socrates’s heart continued to beat and, in fact, grew stronger rather than stopping. Crito became exhausted, and soldier-scholar Xenophon, who had just returned from a disastrous campaign in Persia, stepped up to continue the artificial breathing. Over the course of the next two days, the students took turns breathing for Socrates, although he largely breathed for himself through the last night. After sleeping several hours more, Socrates awoke.
Athens was shocked. The official who had given the poison was put on trial and proved with witnesses that he had given the appropriate dose. Socrates had fulfilled his execution and yet lived. A cult swiftly broke out around him as a miraculous return to life, and his philosophy students found themselves as priests to a swarming congregation.
There are few recorded words from Socrates after his near-death. Descriptions from Plato paint him as sickly and slow to respond, likely due to at least some brain-damage during his low-oxygen state. He survived for at least a year more before passing away more conventionally.
Yet Socrates lived on through his apparent apotheosis. Those who had accused him either quickly converted or were hounded out of Athens, prompting many of the “new gods” or “daimons” Socrates was convicted of worshiping to become accepted. These were explained by Plato and others as forces of nature and spirit. Study of natural philosophy flourished, incorporating a great deal of numerology from previous thinkers such as Pythagoras. Soon Socratics developed statistics, economics, and biology, with a special emphasis in medicine.
Many students under Antisthenes broke away to create their own Cynic cult, rejecting many of Plato’s diamons that directed human activity. The more material-directed thought spread to the fledgling Roman Republic through the Greek colony at Syracuse, where the philosopher Archimedes had applied many principles into engineering. Using enormous war engines and efficient logistics, the Romans conquered Greece despite its vast wealth in a social system that knew almost no poverty.
In reality, Socrates died in self-execution and swiftly became a martyr. His “Socratic method” of admitting ignorance, asking questions to reveal foundational truth, and then building logically from there became the groundwork for the Western style of philosophy, which would be expanded through his students, especially Plato for the generations to today.
Hemlock is wildly poisonous to animals, its alkaline structure blocking the neuromuscular activity of the respiratory system. Although the victim would die after ingesting seven or eight leaves or even fewer seeds, it has been shown that an artificial respirator can provide a cure by breathing until the poison is worked out of the patient’s system.