Here's a second student sample, which I think is pretty good. In this class the students had three hours to complete the essay, and the papers were written on computer. The original was double-spaced.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this essay? 

Student B
Academic Writing
Professor Gutchess
Feb 26 2004

The Character of Socrates As Presented 
In Plato’s "Five Dialogues"

Socrates is one of the earliest historical figures of whom we have enough information to comment upon his character. Since we know him only through the observations of Plato in the Five Dialogues, we cannot be sure of how colored by another’s perceptions our picture might be. Much of the modern understanding of what a man’s character is has its origins in these very writings. I have chosen to juxtapose Socrates’ zealous pursuit of truth against his obvious, if perhaps less renown, sense of the absurd.

What stands out most for me in all of Plato’s representations of Socrates is humor. This aspect of Socrates’ character is not lost on his friends, but is rather shared by them. They liked to poke fun while challenging each other. Phaedo’s aside to Echecrates regarding Socrates’ defense of the idea of an eternal soul, "(t)hat he had a reply was perhaps not strange", contains more than a hint of sarcasm" (P 89a). Even when Socrates is arguing passionately for the inviolability of truth (P 66c), one could easily envision a John Belushi treatment of the scene, complete with hyperbolic crescendo, and a grand finale that involves keeling over in mid- rant. And there must have been at least a few snickers and knowing looks when he suggested that gluttons shall spend the hereafter with donkeys, and the unjust with the wolves (P 82a). But then one might well expect a man who considers the fear of death a frivolous conceit to have a healthy sense of humor(P 62d).

When one spends the majority of his time on earth expounding upon his worldview in the town square to "anyone who cared to listen" (Intro. ix), it is probably in one’s best interest to be somewhat entertaining. The attractiveness of his ability to deconstruct the arguments of the powerful held entertainment value enough for the young men of Athens. It is this that led to the charges of corrupting said listeners and, ultimately, to his being sentenced to death (E 2c-d).

Socrates is an enigma, however. His sometimes light-hearted demeanor is offset at times by a passion for truth and morality that borders on the evangelical. He entreats his listeners to aspire to the good, and tells them in no uncertain terms how a philosopher should reason (P 84a). This tack might be troubling to some when juxtaposed against his position that a truly great thinker should not concern themselves with matters of the body such as sandals and togas.

Another aspect of Socrates’ personality, which overlaps somewhat with morality and truth, is his concern for piety. The charges leveled against him for which he stands trial in the Apology are based on the claim that he teaches of false gods. It’s not that he believes there are no gods. He simply questions the function or existence of certain gods deemed of importance by the power elite (A 26c).

If Socrates were to be roaming the streets of Ithaca today dressed in rags and worn out shoes, his benefactors at Meals On Wheels might feel that he had made what we now euphemistically call "poor life choices". Others, putting a finer point on the matter, would say that the guy is a bum. I would put it differently. His pursuit of a life of the mind led him to a set of priorities that fail to emphasize the broader concepts of personal hygiene. This only helped to illustrate his point.

I would loved to have been present at the discussion his "students" must have had after his execution. Had I been in their number, my contribution to the conversation would have been to say that Socrates, for all his bluster about truth and piety, taught us how to laugh at life. He was, true to the end, "of good cheer about his own soul" (P 114e), even as he was a bit peeved at his friends, who had become somewhat his tormentors while trying to discourage him from accepting his fate.

In the picture for extra credit in our Lesson Nine reading, we were asked to find the errors in the artist’s rendition of the meeting in Socrates' jail cell.** Could it be that Socrates was flipping off his friends with the wrong finger?

Works Cited

Plato. Five Dialogues. Trans. G. M. A. Grube. 2nd ed. 

Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002.

-- end of essay --

** Dr. G's note: Student B is referring to David's painting, 
The Death of Socrates.
He had recently won the class prize for the best description of what is wrong with the painting. He said that Socrates should have had both of his feet on the ground. It wasn't the answer that Dr. G was looking for, but this course is always full of surprises.


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