This Day in History (15-Feb-399) – Philosopher Socrates sentenced to death

Socrates wasn’t from a noble family and hence he probably received a basic Greek education and learned his father’s craft at a young age. He served in the armored infantry as a part of mandatory service and participated in three military campaigns at Peloponnesian War, where he saved the life of Alcibiades, a popular Athenian general. Socrates was known for his courage in battle and fearlessness, a trait that stayed with him throughout his life. It is believed Socrates worked as mason for many years before he devoted his life to philosophy.

Socrates believed that philosophy should achieve practical results for the greater well-being of society. Ultimate wisdom comes from knowing oneself. The more a person knows, the greater his or her ability to reason and make choices that will bring true happiness. Socrates believed that this translated into politics with the best form of government being neither a tyranny nor a democracy. Instead, government worked best when ruled by individuals who had the greatest ability, knowledge, and virtue and possessed a complete understanding of themselves.

Humiliating defeat by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War triggered Athenians to cling to past glories, notions of wealth, and a fixation with physical beauty. Socrates attacked these values with his insistent emphasis on the greater importance of the mind. While many Athenians admired Socrates’s challenges to Greek conventional wisdom and the humorous way he went about it, an equal number grew angry and felt he threatened their way of life and uncertain future.

On this day in 399 BC the philosopher Socrates stood before a jury of 500 of his fellow Athenians accused of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and of “corrupting the youth.”. The jury was not swayed by Socrates’s defense and convicted him by a vote of 280 to 221. He made things worse during the deliberation over his punishment. Athenian law allowed a convicted citizen to propose an alternative punishment to the one called for by the prosecution and the jury would decide. Instead of proposing he be exiled, Socrates suggested he be honored by the city for his contribution to their enlightenment and be paid for his services. The jury was not amused and sentenced him to death by drinking a mixture of poison hemlock.



This Day in History (26-Mar-1484) – William Caxton printed his translation of Aesop’s Fables.

Fables are short stories that exhibit a moral lesson or value through the use of animals, inanimate objects and mythical creatures. Even though the genre is generally attributed to Aesop, fables’ origins are deeply rooted within ancient Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations (modern day Iraq), as archaeological evidence suggests. Earlier forms of Aesopic tales came from neo-Babylonian and Assyrian wisdom literature dating back to third millennium BCE, long before Aesop’s existence (600 BCE). Aesop was a slave who many believe lived in Samos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. The name of his first owner was Xanthus. It is believed that he eventually became a free man.

Aesop was a foreign, captured slave of African descent, Nubian (modern day Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia) according to speculations. The etymology of his name further supports this notion as Aesops comes from Aesopus, which is synonymous with Aethiops, meaning Ethiopia or burnt-faced people. This explains his integration of animals such as lions, elephants and camels into his fables, which were creatures unfamiliar to Greek terrain at the time. Furthermore, some of his tales give mention to the great river Nile, the majority of which passes through Egypt and Ethopia. Many of the tales that came to be associated with Aesop convey conflicting morals thus suggesting the idea that more fables were attributed to him than he actually recounted as a Nubian Kummaji, a folkteller from the oral tradition, thus questioning the authorship of many of these fables. It is not known exactly when the first Book of Aesop’s fables were written as the fables were originally handed down from one generation to the next just like a myths, tales and legends.

Aesop’s fables were first printed in English by William Caxton in 1484, from his own translation made from the French. Aesop’s fables were not believed to have been written as Children’s literature and the book of fables were originally used to make thinly disguised social and political criticisms. Nonethless, the messages given in the fables like ‘The hare & the tortoise’, ‘Lion & the mouse’, ‘The fox & the grapes’  have proved appropriate throughout the centuries.