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Few subjects of study reward our pains so well, as the lives of the greatly good, in past ages. The example of those who are eminent in virtue among ourselves, has not an equal influence; for beside a suspicion of their sincerity, which men cherish from an unwillingness to confess themselves outdone by others in the same circumstances, there is a real imperfection in every thing human, which will not bear to be looked at too closely. Good character, like a good picture, is seen to the best advantage from such a distance that the shadows of present jealousy may not fall upon it, and after time has mellowed the coloring, which, to be impressive and lasting, must be strong. This led Lord Bacon to say, that 'death extinguisheth envy, and openeth the gate to good fame ;'* and the twin dramatists of his time to put into the mouth of an honest man, oppressed by wrong, the bitter exclamation:
As in time.'t But among the 'rare examples' of moral dignity, which the history of heathen nations affords us, Socrates deserves the highest place, whether we consider the disinterested and firm devotion of himself to the true welfare of mankind, the singular modesty of his searches after truth, or the remarkable agreement of many doctrines which he taught, with that better wisdom, now shed
upon our souls by light from above. The best of the ancients freely rewarded his memory with this honor, and the greatest of modern poets, (' who,’ Mackintosh observes, 'from the loftiest eminence of moral genius ever reached by mortal, was perhaps alone worthy to place another crown upon his brow,'t) says:
* Him well inspired the oracle pronounced
Essay on Death.
Alluding to a Delphic response given during his life time, that
"Saphocles was wise, Euripides wiser,
But Socrates wisest of all.' Yet, notwithstanding the greatness of his fame, it is only after much and cautious study, that we can form any just opinion of his character and philosophy. His very virtue made him enemies, not only in his own day, but in subsequent times; and some pious fathers of the church, unduly fearful lest his character for wisdom and goodness might seem to disprove the necessity of revelation, have most uncandidly repeated their foul and baseless slanders against him ;* while, within a few years, a learned translator of Aristophanes, in bis zeal for his favorite poet, whose matchless power of language but ill atones for his indecent scurrility, has virulently though unsuccessfully assailed him. On the other hand, his admirers have been excessive in his praise; so much so, indeed, that another early defender of our faith, in a travsport of admiration, pronounces him a Christian. Beside, as he carefully abstained from making any records with his own hand, we are indebted for our knowledge of him principally to his two most eminent disciples, Xenophon and Plato, both of them professedly his eulogists. Xenophon, except when he is speaking of arts, or historically of scenes in which he himself figured so gloriously, is well known to have been a romancer. While Plato, the father of mystical philosophy, (from whom, indeed, the modern Kant and Coleridge have derived most of their ingenious but useless abstractions,) delighted to put his extravagant theories into the mouth of his modest and cautious master; so that Socrates himself, on hearing one of bis Dialogues read, exclaimed, “What does not this young fellow make me say!' A careful comparison of their two accounts will however give us much that may be relied upon.
Socrates was born at Athens, in the 468th year before Christ, and lived, from infancy to his death, during that period which may be termed the Augustan age of Greece; the age of Pericles, of Phidias the sculptor, Zeuxis the painter, Herodotus and Thucydides the historians, Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the dramatists, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and the splendid though luxurious Alcibiades. These were all known to our philosopher, and in his own time he was greatest among the great. Though the son of poor pa rents, his father Sophroniscus gave him an excellent education, and he enjoyed the instructions of a very remarkable man, the philosopher Anaxagoras. Early relinquishing the calling of his father, that of a sculptor, he devoted himself to the study of human duties. This did not prevent his proving himself practically a good citizen, and a brave man in fighting the battles of his country, saving by his devoted valor at one time the life of Xenophon, and at another that of Alcibiades. Afterward, however, he mingled little in public affairs, (though he served once in the council of the five hundred,) believing
* Tertullian. Cyril Alex. Gregory Nazianzen. + Justin Martyr.
himself called by the divinity to persuade his countrymen to virtue and rational religion. For this end, he chose, though not ostentatiously, a life of poverty and self-denial, looking for his best reward to a consciousness of integrity in this life, and a happy immortality. Original in thought and eloquent in language, though so ungainly in person as to resemble a satyr, he soon drew around him many followers, and among them the noblest in birth and character of the Athenians. Yet this blamelessness and usefulness of life soon excited against him many enemies, in the vicious and turbulent democracy of his native city. The sophists, or false philosophers, who have given their name to the vexatious quibbles in which they delighted, were especially enraged against him, for he fearlessly exposed their mercenary quackery; and because he taught that there was one supreme overruling Providence, whose “just eyes could not be blinded by the smoke of sacrifices,' but loved virtuous actions better than sumptuous forms, they accused him of impiety against the gods. Taking advantage also of the fact, that he had peculiar pleasure in teaching young men, they charged him with an unnatural crime, then lamentably prevalent. This prompted Aristophanes, a comic poet, whose gross blackguardism shows the baseness of his soul, to hold the teacher of virtue up to ridicule, in his comedy of the Clouds,' showing the venerable man hanging ridiculously in a basket, and teaching the most disorganizing doctrines. The comedy was not indeed successful at first, Socrates himself laughing at it; but few characters can bear up against ridicule ; and the poison then began to work, which three-and-twenty years after resulted in a grave public indictment against him for impiety and corrupting the youth. Against these charges he made an eloquent and dignified defence, retracting none of his sentiments, denying the charge of crime, and asserting that his countrymen owed him reward, not punishment. It availed him nothing against the cruel hate of wicked men. Some say the multitude believed the charges; others, that they were exasperated against him, because Critias, a renegade disciple of his, whom he openly rebuked for his oppression, was one of the thirty tyrants, that the Spartan Lysander set over the Athenians, and who deluged the city with blood. But alas! we know too well the treatment which wise and good men receive, when they oppose the will of a blind and brutal populace, and need only to be told of the integrity of Socrates, to account for his condemnation by a people who had already banished Aristides, because they were tired of hearing bim called the just. Athens has not been the only state, where public virtue has been the least claim to popular favor; or where it were not easier to gain power by flattering the people than by serving them. Alas! again, it is human nature, which loves even tyranny better than honest counsel ; for, in the language of the modern Euripides, the pure, classical Talfourd :
· The cloven hearted world Is ever eager thus to own a lord,
And patriots smile for it in vain. The best defence of Socrates is found in the remorse of the Athenians. They prosecuted his accusers as enemies to the state, putting Melitus, one of the two most active, to death, and banishing the other,
Anytus, who was so universally execrated, that he found no place of refuge, but was stoned by the people of Heraclea, after they had cast him out of their city; and it is said that when the Palamede* of Euripides was performed, and an actor pronounced the line :
'You have given to cruel death the best of all the Greeks!' the whole audience, reminded of Socrates, burst into tears, and the theatre resounded with lamentations ; for which reason they made a decree that his name should not be spoken in public any more.
A high testimony to the purity of his character is also found in the confession of Alcibiades, who, though he left his great teacher. that he might pursue projects of ambition and luxurious pride, declared, that he 'blushed at his way of life, whenever he thought of Socrates, and at times almost wished him dead, and no longer a witness of his pupil's shame.'t
Condemned, however, he was to drink the fatal hemlock. Thirty days (owing to some religious ceremonies) elapsed between his sentence and his death, which was not only worthy of his life, but the summit of its admirable virtue. He spent these mournful days, (mournful to those who loved him, but full of calm and unfailing hope to the martyr himself,) in conversing cheerfully with his disciples, exhorting them to remain stedfast in the virtue he had taught them, and confidently to expect a happy immortality in the divine presence, as the reward of it. An account of this sad interval is given us in the Phædon of Plato, the simplest and most affecting of all his writings. It were in vain to attempt translating the dying scene from the Greek, for the very words seem to sob, and the sentences moan as if they came from a broken heart, so that it has won from the learned of all ages the tribute of tears, as if our universal nature suffered in him. Crito, his friend, at one time, by bribing the jailer, had made every arrangement for his escape ; but the consistant friend of social order smiled at his zeal, and refused to fly from a mortality which he would soon meet, wherever he might go; declaring, that the injury done to him, under color of the law, was no reason why he should do wrong by rebelling against the public authority. Speaking kindly to the executioner, who prepared the poison, and presented it to him, not without tears, he calmly drank it amidst the loud sobbings his friends could no longer restrain, and walking up and down his cell, he greatly comforted them, until the torpor seized his limbs ; then lying down, he wrapped his mantle around him, and with a slight tremor, 'the best, the wisest, and the most just, of Athens,' breathed his last, leaving to all ages the blest assurance,
Shall, in the happy trial, prove most glory.'+
* This play is lost, but some fragments, and among them this sentence, are preserved.
EURIPIDES. Glas. ED., Vol. vii., 643. Plato. * Milton's Comus.
in which he lived, as remarkable for their purity and elevation, as his life. Before him, the inquiry of philosophers had been chiefly into physical causes; and though some most interesting sayings of the wise men of Greece, and Anaxagoras in particular, are recorded, yet it is generally admitted that Socrates was the first to study and teach morals as a science.
Cicero expressly says: 'Socrates was the first who brought down philosophy from the skies, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, good and evil.'* Indeed, he seems to have had an unjust contempt for all science, except that of mind, thinking it better for us to inquire what we ought to do, than what the Deity had done. He was provoked to this by the vain and quibbling theorists of his day; but could he have known the moral dignity which in modern times those sciences have acquired, or have been surrounded by such expositors of physical truth as now adorn the world, he would never have deemed it necessary to deny their studies, that he might exalt his own. Socrates was, however, as he has been described by the ingenious though often erroneous historian of Ethical Philosophy, 'more a teacher of virtue, than even a searcher after truth.' Hence his opinions, though remarkable, were few.
He believed most firmly in the existence and providence of one supreme, self-existent, and spiritual God. Of him he often speaks in the singular number, delighting to give him the name of the Superintending God, or the God who wisely and tenderly cares for us. This God, he believed, could only be served by sincere virtue, having more regard to the hearts of men, than the most costly sacrifices ; quoting, with high commendation, an oracle which declared, that God loved the thanksgivings of the Lacedæmonians better than all the sumptuous offerings of the Greeks ; for,' said he, “it is absurd to think that Deity, like a false judge, can be bribed by presents.' He taught the duty of prayer, which he said required much precaution and attention, and gave his followers what he called a most excellent and safe form of petition, which was: 'Great God ! give us the good things that are necessary for us, whether we ask them or not; and keep evil things from us, even when we pray to thee for them. He believed that virtue consisted in obedience to the supreme will of God, which we were to learn from the fitness of things; and there can be little doubt that he would have rejected, as a vexatious dispute of the sophists, the question, which some have started, whether there is not a radical distinction between right and wrong, antecedent to the divine will. Virtue, he believed, was always rewarded, and vice always punished, by the Supreme Governor; and though in this life wrong might seem to be more succe
cessful, the seeming inequality would be compensated in another. For he believed also in the immortality of the soul, and declared that though he knew nothing of the manner of our existence after death, it could not be otherwise but that the Deity would take just men to be happy with himself, and banish the wicked to a correspondent misery.
These were the principal and fundamental articles of his belief,