Paulos: Gibson's Film Disregards Hazy Historical Fact

To ask the question is to dismiss it. It would be absurd, not to mention un-Socratic, for anyone to attribute guilt to contemporary Athenians. (Incidentally, Socrates needs a Mel Gibson or Dan Brown; the Amazon rankings of the various editions of The Trial and Death of Socrates range from poor to abysmal.)

The case of Socrates suggests another comparison. Would a cinematic account of his death focus unrelentingly on his clutching his throat and writhing in agony on the ground after drinking the hemlock? Would such an imagined film's moving cinematography and its actors speaking in archaic Greek do anything at all to increase the likelihood that the events really occurred as depicted?

Whatever one's beliefs or lack thereof, Socrates and Jesus were great moral leaders, whose ideas constitute a good part of the bedrock of our culture. Their lives and teachings are, in my avowedly secular opinion, more important than the details of their deaths, which are likely to remain nebulous at best.

Many important stories of the recent and distant past contain large holes and blank spots. Acknowledging uncertainty about them requires a braver heart than denying it.

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and winner of the 2003 American Association for the Advancement of Science award for the promotion of public understanding of science, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market. His Who’s Counting? column on appears the first weekend of every month.

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