Above is the painting by Jacques Louis David, called The Death of Socrates. The first time I saw this painting was in April of last year, as an extra credit assignment in my moral philosophy class with professor Kyle Ferguson at Hunter College. The assignment was to take a selfie with the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It was painted in 1787, just prior to the French Revolution and just after the American Revolution. Socrates was a figure that gave unfettered inspiration to radical revolutionary philosophers in the mid to late 18th century, such as Thomas Paine and Voltaire -the latter, who wrote a play called Socrates, satirically posed against government authority and organized religion. David himself was a supporter of the French Revolution, and was likely also inspired by Socrates in that respect. Thus illuminating the flaw in Catherine Abell’s essay “What is Art?”, in that, art needn’t be conducive to any institution in order to be deemed “good” art; indeed, much of what is called good art is revolutionary by its very nature.
The painting explicitly illustrates the scene in Plato’s Phaedo, following the Apology of Socrates, whereby he was sentenced to death by hemlock. It is an oil painting on canvas, which if one views in person, will notice the striking detail of the feet of the ancient Athenians, which are veiny, dirty and red, presumably from lack of footwear. Such redness is not apparent with characters who have footwear, such as Plato, who is sitting at the foot of Socrates, bowing in sorrow.
A minor point of contention is inaccuracies displayed in the painting. At the point of Socrates’ death, Socrates was a 71-year-old man. Plato was his pupil and was indeed much younger than him, yet in this painting, he is illustrated as if he was just as old as Socrates. Another inaccuracy is the appearance of Apollodorus, who at the time of Socrates’ death, was sent away by Socrates for displaying too much grief. One shudders to think what that was like, given the hysterical lot standing behind Socrates.
Nonetheless, when I first found the painting in the European wing of the MET, I found myself in awe, just as I did when I had first read Plato. I found myself in admiration of Socrates in a way that was different from my admiration of him in reading Socratic dialogues. I, however, could not do very well to articulate why. I knew why I admired Socrates at the moment of his death and at his trial. I admired him because Socrates sacrificed his life of philosophy to answer its ultimate question: “what happens when you die?”. He did not address this question in his lifetime with credulity, but rather with an honorable skepticism and openness that is the mark of a free thinker and of wisdom, and thus of an admirable soul and at the risk of losing subordinate philosophical investigations to inquire upon. This painting, however, gave me a further insight that I couldn’t linguistically explain, however much I felt I that I knew it in my bones.
That is until I read The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche. In Nietzsche’s first book, -which he wrote in 1872, not too long before The Death of Socrates was painted- he elucidated the constituent elements of tragic art. I came to understand, as a result, that The Death of Socrates is the epitome of tragic art, in the form of painting, as, over the winter break I revisited the MET and immediately apprehended this. These constituent elements jumped out at me when I revisited this painting. I could not find another painting in the MET -nor anywhere else- that fully embraced Tragedy like The Death of Socrates. That is likely because Tragic Art is fundamentally Greek, as are the themes in this painting. Tragic art is something Nietzsche believed to be of the best sort, precisely because it gave the ancient Greeks the wear-with-all to transcend the deep pessimism they experienced as a result of apprehending reality, which is made manifest by suffering riddled with malevolence.
The constituent elements of art according to Nietzsche are the Apollinian and the Dionysian. The Apollinian is characterized by order, reason, form beauty, illusion, the known, and dreams; it is the feature of art that provides a kind of beauty by indulging an illusion. Whereas the Dionysian is characterized by chaos, intoxication, formlessness, reality, the sublime, awe and the unknown (which can be characterized as that which elicits both fear and curiosity simultaneously.) The Apollinian can be found in Greek statue and the Dionysian in music. Nietzsche’s premise is that the ancient Greeks initially were only immersed in the Dionysian; the fact that the Dionysian embodied reality and the fundamental principle of reality is suffering, this induced, according to Nietzsche, a pessimism of particular depth in the ancient Greeks, that made them exist in a sort of negatively-valenced paralysis of meaninglessness.
To endure this, the Greeks created their Gods and out of them, Tragic Art, in which neither the Appolinian nor the Dionysian is in excess. The factor which is characteristic of tragic art is the Apollinian overcoming the Dionysian; giving form to the formless; creating order out of chaos and potentially dying in the attempt to do so. What this produces is “Greek Cheerfulness”, which Nietzsche regards as the result of the Apollinian hero glancing into the terror of the Dionysian reality of nature, as a form of bravery. Thus, tragic art is not the art of the contemplative; it is not the manifestation of what Nietzsche referred to with contempt as “the Buddhistic negation of the will.” It is not a denial of life’s suffering; rather, it is representative of direct confrontation with life’s suffering, and forthrightly so. In fact, the Apollinian cannot exist without the Dionysian, according to Nietzsche, as its sole purpose is the defeat and integration of the Dionysian, for the sake of The Birth of Tragedy.
Towards the end of §10 of The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche explicitly states, “Through tragedy, art and myth attain its most profound content, its most expressive form; it rises once more like a wounded hero, and its whole excess of strength, together with the philosophic calm of the dying, burns in its eyes with a last powerful gleam.” Socrates’ followers are representative of the Greeks prior to the birth of tragedy, as fully apprehending the Dionysian, which induces absolute pessimism. The hemlock which Socrates takes is fully representative of the Dionysian itself. The picture which is over it is of the ancient symbol of the Uroboros, depicting a snake or dragon eating its own tail. The Uroboros is representative of the state of being prior to experience; chaos itself; and that which creates all and destroys all. It is the mystery of existence. It is analogous with the Dionysian, because the Dionysian is representative of reality, and much of reality is a mystery to us, which is why it induces pessimism, anxiety, and fear. However, it also induces curiosity, which is where Socrates comes in, as the pure embodiment of the Apollinian directly confronting the Dionysian. The Uroboros in this respect is philosophical inquiry because that is what created Socrates and it is also what has destroyed him. However, Socrates’ direct confrontation with it led to an extraordinary cascade of 2000 years of philosophy inspired by his noble-heroism.
Nietzsche believed that Socrates was the condition for the possibility of the continued creation of aesthetics. This is because Socratism seeks to take science and reason to its logical conclusions which inevitably results in it being unable to explain things, which creates a “tragic perception” which in order to become tolerable, requires art; the rebirth of tragedy and aesthetics is made possible when science inevitably fails, in its logical coherence and its role in satisfying culture. This is circular and has defined much of history. There is much in the way of Tragic art. However, the involvement of Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy, and Socratism as being the ground for the possibility of aesthetics, makes David’s Death of Socrates unique in its capability to be fully mapped onto the philosophy of Nietzsche and unique as a tragic painting. I think, that only this painting can do such justice. Nietzsche doesn’t allude to the existence of any tragic-paintings, thus, given his admiration for Socrates, -and Socrates himself playing the role as the Uroboros of aesthetics- this painting is a strongly unique visual representation of what Nietzsche was trying to get at, and I do not think that any other painting can illuminate Greek tragic art so pristinely.