The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David
The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David. Click for larger image.

Robert Hopkins, philosopher, on The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RH The painting’s appeal for me is both immediate and hard-won. Hard-won, because when I first encountered David’s work, this picture included, I found it rather awkward and contrived: both too overt in its representation of emotion, and too strident in its use of distinctive forms. Immediate, because now I feel at home with the work, it has a powerful visual appeal, one that comes without effort, every time I see it.

GB It seems to be quite an intellectual choice. Did you have an immediate sensory response to its beauty?

RH There is real sensuousness here. The motif at the centre of the work, of the two hands around the cup containing the hemlock, is enormously compelling. There is something very touching in the gesture – Socrates’s hand reaching over to embrace the fate reluctantly offered by the hand of his disciple. The pathos is amplified by the fact that neither pays attention to this central, and surely rather difficult, transaction: Socrates too busy dispelling his followers’ doubts, the disciple unable even to bring himself to look. But this is also simply a wonderful passage of painting. The hands are rendered with a delicate vigour that always compels my eye. (I’m afraid this is not something a reproduction can convey.) The way David has concentrated his painterly resources so we are drawn to the fulcrum of the action is very impressive.

GB Do you also have an emotional response to the subject matter?

RH The passage from Phaedo that David dramatises is one of the most moving in literature. David taps these well-springs of feeling, but channels it through his own classicist sensibility. The emotional arc of the story is crystalised in the striking triangular form that dominates the whole picture: tapering from the agitated, closely bunched followers on the right; through the firm, strongly directional figure of Socrates himself, to the sorrowful but resigned character of Plato at the foot of the bed. In the journey from the base of this triangle to its tip, David has given visible form to the range of emotions the story elicits, and that its characters express. The feeling is captured, but also caged.

GB Do you think of the painting as didactic? Does moral purposiveness add to its beauty?

RH It is didactic in a way: not solely or even primarily in any message its content is used to convey, but in the attitude to the proper handling of feeling embodied in its classicism. In finding visual form for the emotional development it expresses, it exemplifies the stance it encourages us to adopt: allowing ourselves powerful emotions, but only provided we retain control over them. Of course, one might be repelled or drawn by the proposal that this is our proper relation to emotions. That reaction might well influence whether one finds the picture beautiful. I am more fascinated by the message than confident how I should respond to it. But to be fascinating is at least close to beauty, even if it is also close to other, negative, qualities.

GB Is this a universal beauty?

RH In embodying emotion in form, the piece seems to me a perfect example of what some have taken to be the central goal of pictorial art. I’m thinking above all here of Susanne Langer, in her wonderful, and these days sadly neglected, book ‘Feeling and Form’. Her view is that the distinctive contribution of painting, drawing and so on to the visual arts is precisely to offer us ‘virtual forms’ the structure of which corresponds to structures in the development and interrelations of feeling. A trip to the Met to see the David also offers the opportunity to see another perfect case study for Langer’s theory: Poussin’s ‘Abduction of the Sabine Women’. However, it’s another question whether all pictorial art of any merit, or even all that the merit of which lies in beauty, achieves it by means of emotionally resonant form. So, while I think the David’s beauty is open to anyone with eyes, time to look, and patience to learn; its way of being beautiful is certainly not the only way.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RH To be beautiful, something must at least compel our attention, and that attention must be drawn to aspects of the thing’s appearance. That’s hardly sufficient for beauty, since it’s true for other perceptually arresting properties, such as being repellent or even uncanny. And it is necessary only if we can construe the idea of appearance (and for that matter attention) very broadly, so that, for instance, even intellectual structures, such as arguments or complex ideas – which can certainly be beautiful – count as compelling attention to their appearance, in some sense or other. But the idea of compelling attention is important, I think, and one that philosophical writing on beauty has not always sufficiently acknowledged.

5 Comments »

  1. Surely it is Crito, not Plato, who sits resigned at the foot of the bed. The man is too old to be Plato at the time at which Socrates was executed. In any case, if the painting dramatizes the events in Plato’s Phaedo, then Plato’s narrator notes that Plato was not present due to illness. — An interesting dramatic touch given the concluding remark that Socrates owes a cock to Asclepius, presumably for the “cure” he has just received.

    Leaving aside that pedantic quibble, I’d also note the hand of the person (Simmias or Cebes?) on Socrates’ thigh is rendered with equivalent detail to those of Socrates and the person holding out the poison — as if to keep Socrates amidst his friends when he seeks to ascend. The four hands form a circle that provides a very human disruption (or complement?) to the triangular form that Prof. Hopkins draws our attention to.

    • Thanks for these interesting observations. My thought about the hands wasn’t that it was the detail with which they were rendered that was key. Rather, it’s the intense handling of the paint that does the work – something, as noted, that the reproduction struggles to capture.

      That said, I very much agree that the four hands also form an interesting figure. To my eye, it is a visual echo of the larger triangular form that dominates the painting as a whole. (Indeed, the left hand of the bowl bearer can be seen as completing this figure.)

  2. You raise some interesting points here. All my research into the painting confirms that it is actually Plato who sits at the end of the bed. This is curious because first, he was supposed to have been ill that day and secondly, would only have been 29 at the time. David is known to have consulted several sources to research the story – so we know that this painting is only loosely based on the Phaedo account. David also pays great attention to historical detail in elements such as the lyre, the incised owl of Athens and the portrait bust of Socrates. So it looks as though the aged Plato is not there by accident, but rather by design. It may be (as Professor Hopkins has suggested to me), that this is David exercising artistic licence and therefore depicting Plato at the age required to portray the emotional development of his character, perhaps showing the time it took to be reconciled to his master’s decision. Others have speculated that he simply wanted to present Plato as the ideal philosopher with the scrolls, pen and ink at his feet. It seems clear that David thought Plato should have a prominent role in the life (and death) of Socrates. Anything else is speculation.

    • Fascinating! And it surely explains the inkpot and scroll which otherwise find no place in the story as narrated by Plato.

      Was it just by chance that you put the point by saying ‘he wanted to present Plato as the ideal philosopher with scrolls, pen and ink at his feet’? For by those criteria, Socrates is precisely NOT an ideal philosopher. After all, he wrote nothing.

      Might we think of Plato as something of a stand-in for David himself? He chose to include the non-present narrator who nonetheless presented the scene to posterity in words — and moreover to present him ‘out of time’, i.e. as an old man when he was in fact young at the time of the event depicted. Is David himself not the non-present witness, similarly out of time, who presents the scene to posterity in images?

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