Socrates and The Aftermath


I don’t mean to brag, but, I did research for that little thing about Socrates the other day. In particular I cast about for names that maybe plausibly could have been of people Socrates might have known, because it’s fun and research avoids actually having to write, and getting that sort of irrelevant detail right is the sure way to win the lifetime adoration of someone who specializes in whatever it is I’m writing about. So that’s why I picked, particularly, “Euryptolemus” as a name. My spouse wondered how I had, and I had to dig through my notes.

It’s all kind of long, complicated, and confusing, in that way ancient history just is, but he was one of the figures in the controversy over the Battle of Arginusae. This was a battle during the Peloponnesian War where the Athenian navy beat the Spartan one, and then most of the navy was sent to try relieving Sparta’s siege of the city of Conon rather than stick around picking up Athenian survivors. A storm came up, and both the attempt to relieve Conon and the attempt to pick up survivors failed, and the Athenian population naturally put the generals responsible for beating not Sparta enough on trial. This gets back to Socrates because some of the trial was done under his authority as an epistates, possibly the only time in his life that Socrates actually held a political office.

In fact, my spouse, the professional philosopher, didn’t know that Socrates ever held office. Socrates’s role in trying the Eight Generals from the Battle of Arginusae was one of moderation, because he apparently didn’t think there were constitutional grounds for the motion to just have the generals killed right then and there. This reason, if it’s true (and it’s hard to be perfectly sure as ancient historians felt more free than we do to alter facts so to make a better and more instructional story), neatly foreshadows his refusal to take the chance to escape his judicially-sponsored murder two years later, and shows his belief in the social compact binding people in a society to each other, for good or ill. It’s a fascinating peek at the historical Socrates that makes him a more real and more compelling character, and by the time we had read enough ineptly-written Wikipedia pages to we think straighten all this out in our heads, we were captivated. My arbitrary plucking of a name had given us the chance to see how a person who studied so diligently the problem of how we could come by knowledge and how we could be confident we had it dealt with the inherent uncertainties in judging human affairs, particularly in the boiling-over world of ancient Athenian politics.

Two hours later we both realized that while we hadn’t the faintest recollection what the name of the battle was, who any of the generals involved were, or what city the navy was sent to relieve, or what precisely was the name of Euryptolemus, we nevertheless were describing, in precise enough detail for scholars to completely reconstruct it, that Big Red chewing gum commercial with the marching band.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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