The Trial and Execution of a True Moralist and Philosopher – Socrates

…I say that in fact this is the greatest good for a man, to talk every day about virtue and other things you hear me converse about when I examine both myself and others, and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a man…

Socrates, The Apology of Socrates by Plato

Socrates was one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy, who pursued a life of virtue and wisdom above all else. Living in Greece from 469-399 BC, Socrates was famous (or infamous) in his day for being a wise man who pursued virtue above all else and often questioned powerful and influential people about their beliefs, reproaching them if he found inconsistencies or vanities in their answers (sometimes publicly). In turn, this often humiliating experience to powerful ancient Athenians produced a number of antagonists to Socrates ways and who wanted to be rid of him in Athens.

So, as an old man in his 70’s, Socrates was charged with impiety (disrespecting the gods) and corrupting the youth, and he was made to stand trial to defend himself of these charges. At the time, the trials were held without the oversight of specially trained judges, but instead were judged by large numbers of citizens acting as jurors. For Socrates’ trial, there were 501 Athenians acting as jurors and the prosecutors and Socrates would take turns making long speeches and presenting evidence, in order to try and sway the jurors to their perspective.

The Apology of Socrates was written by Plato, another famous philosopher of ancient Greece and a devoted student of Socrates who had attended the trial and recorded a first-hand account of the speeches Socrates made in his defense. Plato would eventually go on to found a school and expand on the teachings of Socrates with other famous Greek philosophers such as Aristotle. So let’s dive into the speeches which Socrates made in an attempt to counter the charges against him and prove the value of his deeds.

How you were affected, men of Athens, by my accusers, I do not know. But I, even I myself almost forgot who I was because of them, so persuasively did they speak. And yet they have said practically nothing true. I was especially amazed by one of the many lies they told, the one in which they said that you should take care not to be deceived by me because I am a skilled speaker. Their lack of shame–since they will be exposed immediately by what I do, when I show myself not to be a clever speaker at all–this seems to me to be most disgraceful of them. Unless of course they mean to call “clever” someone who speaks the truth. Because if they mean this, then I would indeed admit–not in the way they do–that I am an orator.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

Socrates began his first speech by defending himself against the prosecutor’s characterization of him. He tells the jurors that he prefers to use simple language over the formal language of the courts and then asks the Athenians to consider only one thing at his trial, “whether I say just things or not. For this is the virtue of a judge, while of an orator it is to speak the truth.”

Now, Socrates had an uphill battle in defending himself against the accusations of the prosecution because he had become something of an icon in Greek theater. He was previously portrayed, thirty years prior, in a satirical comedy by Aristophanes as a dirty, thieving, fraudulent sophist (a moral teacher of sorts) and this portrayal was argued to have biased the minds of many of the jurors already. Socrates’ recognized this bias and attempted to dismantle it somewhat although he recognized the challenge of this.

Perhaps some one of you might respond, “But Socrates, what is your profession? Where have these slanders against you come from? For surely it’s not by busying yourself with the usual things that so much hearsay and talk has arisen, but by doing something different from most people. Then tell us what it is, so that we don’t judge your case rashly.” The person who says this seems to me to speak justly, and I will try to show you what it is, precisely, that won me this reputation and notoriety.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

Socrates then continues by telling a story of his friend Chaerephon who had visited an oracle of the gods in Delphi and had asked that oracle if anyone were wiser than himself (Socrates). The oracle responded that there was no man wiser than he.

Socrates says that he was dismayed by this prophecy, because he did not feel that he was wiser than any other man and so he sought to understand why the oracle would pronounce such a thing. After a while, he set out to test the oracle’s claim by approaching the wisest men that he could think of in Greece, including but not limited to: politicians, poets and craftsmen. And whenever he would meet with these men he would examine them to learn the scope of their wisdom and to test them. Yet he repeatedly discovered that although they were wise in some subjects, in many other areas they claimed to be wise, but were oblivious to their own ignorance. Socrates would point out this ignorance, often humiliating these people and predictably created a lot of animosity towards himself.

As a result of this quest, men of Athens, a lot of hatred developed against me, and of the most difficult and oppressive kind, such that from it many slanders arose, and I gained this reputation for being wise. For on each occasion the bystanders thought that I myself was wise about the subject on which I was examining the other person. But in fact it’s likely, gentleman, that in truth the god is wise, and by this pronouncement he means the following: that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. And he appears to be using me as an example, speaking of this man Socrates and even using my name, just as if he said, “Human beings, he among you is wisest who knows like Socrates that he is actually worthless with respect to wisdom.”

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

Because of this trial, the young people of Athens would often follow around Socrates and watch his inquiries of those he would question. Sometimes, they would even mimic Socratic style of inquiry and perform their own interrogations of others. For this reason, Socrates was alleged to have corrupted the youth.

Furthermore, the young people follow me around of their own accord, those with the most leisure, the sons of the very wealthy. They delight in hearing me examine people and they often imitate me, having a go at examining others afterwards. And, I think, they discover a great number of people who think they know something but know little or nothing. As a result, the people who are examined by them then grow angry with me, but not themselves, and they say that Socrates is a most vile person and corrupts the young.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

In the next section of the text Socrates interrogates Meletus, one of the three prosecutors who have charged Socrates, and attempts to dismantle the charges against him with clever inquiry. Socrates performs this examination rather effectively and exposes many inconsistencies in the prosecution’s charges, but I will skip over this section of the text since it is rather long and there is not much in the way of philosophy there. If you are interested in the full text though, the bulk of the content can be found here.

After this, Socrates speaks plainly about why he will not attempt to avoid death in his trial by begging for mercy or forgiveness, since it would not be the honest or virtuous thing to do. He would rather stand by the rightness of his actions. He then explained why he did not fear death in the same way that many others would…

Indeed, to fear death, gentleman, is nothing other than to regard oneself as wise when one is not; for it is to regard oneself as knowing what one does not know. No one knows whether death is not the greatest of all the goods for man, but they fear it as if they knew it to be the greatest of evils. And indeed, how could this ignorance not be reproachable, the ignorance of believing one knows what one does not know? But I gentleman, am perhaps superior to the majority of men to this extent and in this regard, and if indeed I seem to be wiser in any way than anyone, it would be in this, that I am not so certain about how things are in Hades and I do not think that I know.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

Socrates claims that everything he does is for the love of his fellow Athenians, encouraging virtue and wisdom in them rather than worthless superficial things such as wealth and power. He tells them that if he were to die, they would be harming themselves more than they will have harmed him. He speaks about how he has avoided public life so that he could act privately and how he has always been poor because of his mission. He claimed he had never sought to teach anyone but he had never refused anyone to listen either, and then speaks at length about how he would find it distasteful to beg for mercy.

The jurors find Socrates guilty by a margin of 61 votes.

During the next part of Socrates’ trial, it was custom at the time for the prosecution to propose a sentence and for the defendant to propose a counter-sentence which the jury would again vote on.

I set out to accomplish the greatest good, as I declare, by going out to each of you privately, trying to persuade each one of you not to put concern for any of his own affairs ahead of concern for how he himself might be as good and wise as possible, nor to put the affairs of the city ahead of the city itself, and to care for other things in the same way–what do I deserve for being such a person?

Something good, men of Athens, if I must indeed make a proposal truly in accordance with merit. And more than that, some good which is fitting for me. What then is fitting for a poor man, a benefactor who needs to be at leisure to instruct you?

There is nothing more fitting, men of Athens, than to feed such a man in the town hall, even more so than when one of you has won a race at Olympia on a single horse or in a two- or four-horse chariot. For while he makes you think that you are happy, I make you so, and while he does not need the nourishment, I do. So if I must propose a penalty according to justice based on merit, I propose this: dinners in the town hall.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

The speech continues and Socrates does offer a form of punishment for himself in an effort to compromise against the prosecutions sentence of execution. But it was only a modest fine that he proposed for himself, with the help of some of his companions, and a vast majority of the jury voted for his death. So, Socrates was sentenced to death and days later, he would be killed. However, before he was led off to prison, he made some final remarks…

Let us also consider how there is great hope that [death] is a good thing in the following way: Now, death is one of two things, since it’s either a kind of not being and the dead person has no perception of anything, or according to what is said, it is a certain change and migration of the soul from its place here to another place…

And so you too must be optimistic about death, judges, and hold this one thing to be true, that for a good man there is nothing evil in either living or dying. And neither do his deeds go unnoticed by the gods. My actions just now did not happen by themselves, but it is clear to me that it was to my advantage to die now and be released from my troubles. Because of this, my sign never deterred me. And I am not at all angry at those who voted against me and not much at my accusers–though they did not vote against me or accuse me with this in mind, but instead did so intending to harm me, and they deserve to be blamed for this.

Nonetheless, I beg them for this much: revenge yourselves on my sons, when they have grown, gentlemen, by giving them the same trouble I gave you, if they seem to prioritize money or anything else ahead of virtue or if they think themselves to be something that they are not. Reproach them as I reproached you, for not caring about what they ought to and for thinking that they are something when they are worth nothing.

Socrates, The Apology by Plato

How do you feel about this bit of philosophy by Socrates? It took me multiple readings to temper my humour about it all, since at first I thought he must surely be a mad man. However, I believe Socrates lived an admirable life during an age when it was a dangerous act to pursue free-speech and he pressed others to live more virtuously as well, perhaps because he saw how humans were but knew what they were capable of… much more. And I believe it is true, that much in life we can never truly know, but sometimes we accept beliefs without proof because it makes us feel safe and comfortable or in control. I, personally, am a fan of Socrates now and the waves that he has made through the centuries. Perhaps he would never had made such waves without becoming a martyr like he did either. But enough about what I think, what do you think?

Did you enjoy this post?

Thoughts? Comments? I would love to hear them.

7 thoughts on “The Trial and Execution of a True Moralist and Philosopher – Socrates

  1. You can read many teachings of Socrates from different sources, but this historical piece by Aristotle truly shows how Socrates himself defined his own life and teachings. To articulate your own truth in the pressure of a legal trial, where your life hangs in the balance, is no easy feat. Yet, Socrates does just this by speaking the truth plainly and simply. This is one of my favorite writings. Loved this article and your in depth analysis of his orations. Well done, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if history, like it’s often known to do, hasn’t glossed over what seems to me to be, Socrates’ social ineptness. Its one thing to artfully, and with discretion, point out mankind’s failing tendencies of the mind (as a species) in an open public forum and quite another to do so personally one on one as if attacking the individual. After all, who wants to be debased individually while among their peers? Whether this was his intention or not (and we will never now know) I’m sure even back then, he was committing social faux pas!

    So, was he simply an extremely intelligent and brave man with a lack of social wherewithal? Or an egocentric, whose fuel base was the besting of the upper class man? Socially inept? Or perhaps slightly autistic? Whatever he was, its clear his ability to see beyond the norm of human values was highly attuned. Yet for me, his choice in displaying his intelligent prowess — makes me wonder?

    Liked by 1 person

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