The first in a series exploring what I believe are highly relevant paintings from a complex and ultimately sad genius.
The Death of Socrates: A New Understanding
David’s Dialogue on Making the Proper Choice
The first thing I want to say is this is for people who are already familiar with the subject matter, and the accepted analysis.
I am going to share a lot of theories, some I believe wholeheartedly, some an intriguing thought process of speculation and whim.
This must be seen through the lens of the French Revolution, and the “imagination” of Jacques-Louis David at the time of its painting.
The image must be read from right to left. The painting is a graphical timeline, with the defining event at the center of the timeline. The subjects to the right are before the event and the subjects to the left are after the event. Also, the placement and symbolism of the people in the painting are paramount. The characters are in groups of three (excluding Socrates) with each group representing a bigger concept (that communication and Da Vinci’s Last Supper being an inspiration, explain the reduction of people represented from 15 to 12.)
The first group is the three to the extreme right, and none of them are looking at Socrates. But they each represent the current (circa 1787) ruling powers. The far right character, with his back to Socrates, represents the military. They have their right hand up in defeat or frustration, and their left hand rubbing their eyes in a manner of having a stress headache, or possibly rubbing out the dirt of North America and elsewhere. Either way, their eyes are closed and their back is turned. They are powerless to affect any real change in France today.
The second character is the old man who seems to be looking at Socrates but is not. He represents the Clergy. Even his dress is a simple one color robe reminiscent of a monk. His gaze is on the raised finger of Socrates and not Socrates himself. Communicating they are focused on Heaven or the afterlife with their left eye, but they are covering the ear pointed towards the people! They won’t listen to the cries of those seeking relief. (I think David is also saying they should pluck out their wandering right eye for it is causing sin. If nothing else, it isn’t being used to focus where it should.) They too are powerless to help the people of France.
The third of the group is the man with his head in his hands. He represents the Monarchy. His beautiful clothes in the colors of the Royal flag. He has his face turned from the people and his head is in his left hand almost as if he is asleep standing. His body also carries a certain tension that communicates cringing shame, forcing the king to turn his face from his people (his shame will be discussed further when speaking of Socrates.) Also, if you look, the way his right hand is painted, it, or his wrist is covering his mouth. So, he is asleep standing, and even if he was awake, he isn’t clearly saying anything. And, directly above the monarchy in the shadows that haven’t been killed by the morning light, sits a shackle chain hook, which I believe shows David’s desire to have the king jailed in some near future. (Note, it isn’t an executioners axe, his vote for execution is still years away.) That gesture of covering his mouth also completes a see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil concept in this first grouping.
The second grouping is the three looking directly and intently at Socrates. They represent the middle and lower classes. The two in the back could be Critias and Alcibiades, but either way, I think they represent the ambitious and focused middle class, who may be pushed to the back and obscured by the ruling powers, but they are engaged and aware. The third of the group is the man sitting in front of Socrates and touching his leg, I believe, this is the man who walked Socrates through the effects of the hemlock. His hand is almost in a pinching motion representing the process of detecting the effects of the poison as it slowly crawls up Socrates’ deadening body (some have stated that David put his signature under this man to show his connection to him. I can accept that because I believe David did see himself as the one documenting the cold death moving towards the heart of the France he was born into, and his placement in the timeline puts him, and his awareness, just ahead of the rest of society. If that is the case I believe David is also connecting himself with the Owl of Athena seen as a symbol of knowledge, wisdom, perspicacity and erudition. And if Plato must be in this scene, then this is Plato.) I think he represents both the philosophers and the Third Estate. For the first time the people are in front, aware and clamoring for action. They are the ones who must hear and understand the truth of Socrates teachings. Understand when one must act and not just speak, especially from a distance, in exile from the real world.
Those two groups of three, also comprise the whole group of those to the right of Socrates. They represent all of French society who are before the choice is made. Like, David, they live in a world pre-action, pre-choice. (Here they are clearly seen by David, they inhabit his real and tangible world. They are at odds but still tightly grouped together.) They still have time to ready themselves with knowledge and understanding of truth. But, he also communicates the first group is entirely self-absorbed, and the coming events will catch them off guard.
Then we come to the figure of Socrates himself. He represents both the man and his teachings. Aged and focused on the purity of the afterlife, and eternally youthful and alive in the now. Most importantly he is not swayed by the flurry of emotion and fear of those around him. He has based his decision on pure truth and logic and happily anticipates his bodily death so he can be stripped of that last anchor of fleshly desires that obscures pure truth and understanding.
I want to take a second to focus on his gaze. It is not on the man in front of him but to the man I say represents the monarchy. Socrates entire head evokes the classic image of a wise and judging God. A dialogue could be; Socrates, a man who has only begun to glimpse the divine is saying, “Shame on you! Look to pure truth in thought and action. If you had, you wouldn’t need to hide your face in shame from your subjects.” This evokes the story of Esau; who sold his birthright to feed his flesh. Then later when great change was coming, he desired his blessing but was rejected, and found no place for repentance even though he sought it with tears.
As the timeline moves along we come to the area of the focal point. In this area are many important symbols at play. The main focus of our eyes is the chalice and the hand, but they are just a part of the communication of this area. This is the area of decision. This is what this work of art is all about. The moment of action to which there is no going back. That is surprisingly represented by the shadow of the incense burner stand! That shadow reveals something very interesting; there is no burner on its top. Because in the moment of action, everything stops! There aren’t even prayers offered up to God, and even our faith is seemingly missing. The modern concept of Schrodinger’s box best exemplifies the stands shadow.
That moment of action (shadow of burner stand) goes right through a lyre sitting on the bed. It represents (of course his recent recurring dream to make music) Apollonian virtues of moderation and equilibrium, being contrasted by the Dionysian pipes which represented ecstasy and celebration, again calling back to a choice between pure and real and fleshly and temporal.
From under the lyre snakes a chain. I think it goes under the lyre and reaches from somewhere behind Socrates, somewhere in the past, but we don’t really know where it starts. But, we do know it moves through the moment of decision and sometimes is seen and sometimes is obscured. It moves down into the shadows and from below, like some ancient familiar evil, it ends up an open shackle like a trap hoping to ensnare those even before the moment of decision. It could also be viewed as; once Socrates drinks of the chalice and puts his foot down to walk until his legs are heavy, he will be locked into the reality of that decision. It could even represent justice making its way back to the monarch, who’s sins and apathy are so great even the passage of time offers no escape for them.
Move a little further in time and the shock of the action is over, the faith of the people is real and tangible, and their prayers are reaching to God.
We now come to the next group of figures. I believe they are a mutated echo of the earlier groups. But now they are confused, morphed, and dislodged from the perceived unity. They are only speculation in David’s mind. But, I think they represent the three that David thinks will still be relevant and present (because I am blinded by the facts of history that David was not privy to, I struggle to grasp his ignorance that would have shaped his choices of who these men represent. I will make my predictions but know I am easily moved to other opinions on this matter.) The first man handing the cup to Socrates represents the people and possibly the military. He is the transformed version of the man sitting with his hand on Socrates. He is still in the forefront, but now he is young and powerful, and the catalyst for the event. He is covering his eyes. Why? Is he blind to what he is doing? Is he blinding himself to this, thus being in denial of his actions? Or is he ashamed of what he did? Either way, his left foot tells us he is moving away from his act (if you put the scene in motion, Socrates will catch the cup at the shadow.)
The man in blue in the background represents the new wealthy merchant/middle class who wears the beautiful robes like the monarchy. They are in despair in their world of uncertainty and stop in the light to get their bearings before they continue down the dark hallway of the future.
The last and most important figure is the defeated man at the end of the bed. This is Crito! (Near the window sat Mr. John Harlowe, his face and his body turned from the sorrowing company; his eyes red and swelled. CLARISSA HARLOWE, or the HISTORY OF A YOUNG LADY Volume IX. LETTER XXVI.) He has already lost his argument with his teacher and has even used his cloak to cover his mouth to keep from continuing and making his teacher upset at this moment. He has set down his ink and scroll, there are no more words to be written down, only action to be endured. In mere moments Socrates will drink from the chalice and Crito will become too emotional and will leave. But for right now he represents the church and academia. Sitting stoically in contemplation of his role in the future. David again harkens back to Socrates past to remind us what Crito should base this contemplation upon. So much so he is literally sitting on it! LD. LD refers to the year 450 BC (I also believe it stands for Leonardo Da Vinci…which means, read right to left.) One could possibly read the two stone blocks as a message from David. “450 at Athens. L. David.” In 450 BC Socrates traveled to Athens and met Parmenides and his Eleatic school of philosophy. Again, David is pleading for those in power to use reason and logic based in truth to make their decisions. And, I think David desperately hoped it could be accomplished through dialogue and discussions (like this very painting) and not bloodshed.
That leaves the last group walking up the stairs and leaving this timeline. They are the three that will be cast out of the timeline into the outer reaches of history and be ignored by the greater society.
There is an old man with a cane who I believe represents the monarchy and possibly, what David perceives to be the evil of the church as well (connecting the two with being the only ones with an obviously open mouth and similar colored garments.) He is old and frail. He has had his time in the sun and has been allowed to keep his vain golden robes as he exits, but the symbolic blue he was wearing is now being worn by someone else.
The taller man beside him represents the powerful but ignorant parts of the military and others who have always blindly assisted the Monarchy maintain its power. Even now, quite a distance from the moment of decision, he is by the king’s side as he walks in shame, the two forever linked. Because the youthful and powerful man is so caught up in his senses and emotions his own hand blinds him as he navigates the stairs (being an example of, the consequences of basing your actions on senses and feelings, and not logic and truth.) He continues to be led around by the old king.
Lastly, there is Xanthippe, waving good-bye. She isn’t being pushed out as fast, and there is a fondness and comfort in her. I think she represents the good, the loved, the traditions, and the familiar that will be a casualty of this great change. She follows the others out into their stormy exile, but she is the one Crito and his group can’t bear to look at as she leaves, and they desperately hope she will be found again soon!
“Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”
I have purposefully left out certain information that will be revealed later. It’s super awesome though!