University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
The precise facts about how and why the great Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced and executed remains one of the biggest puzzles in history, even to this day. Socrates lived and philosophized in Athens, which is said to be the ancient model for a democracy. Yet, it seems like the Athenians sentenced to death a respected member of their society for speaking his mind and standing by his principles. Now how democratic is that? What makes the situation more riddling is that the only two journals for the events surrounding the death of Socrates are written by Plato and Xenophon, who are his followers.
Some historians argue the picture they presented in their works is intended to imply Socrates was unfairly brought to trial and executed. However, by examining closely what arguments Socrates presented to defend himself in his Apology and the reasons he had for not escaping prison presented in Crito, it becomes more likely than not that Socrates intended to get just the judgment he got. He was aware that the Athenians wanted to be free from his philosophizing, but was not willing to go on exile and stop being who he is, and doing what defines him.
That is why Socrates chose death. Throughout his trial Socrates passes through various points he has to make once again in front of the Athenian society, but the whole time what he aims is to defend his belief in the power of philosophizing and his idea of what is democratic and right. In no way would he admit his teaching was wrong. But he was aware that philosophizing is what put him on trail and by continuing to do it, he would most probably not convince the jury of his innocence.
After he is pronounced guilty and a sentence is being discussed, he even starts being somewhat arrogant to the jurors, maybe to find out how they will react as the elite of a democratic society. At this point Socrates is deliberately saying things that will get him sentenced to death, but stays true to his own principles. Just as I. F. Stone suggested in his book The Trial of Socrates: “the trial of Socrates, the most interesting suicide the world has ever seen, produced the first martyr for free speech. Just as Jesus needed the cross to fulfill his mission, Socrates needed the hemlock with venom to fulfill his.
The Apology of Socrates represents a trial, and Socrates is supposed to be building a defense argument in his own favor. But what he does from the very beginning does not sound much apologetic. One important charge against him is impiety. The jury says Socrates does not believe in the traditional Greek gods and that is a crime. What the philosopher does is to refer to “daimonia”, which he describes as “god of some sort” (27d, Apology). Therefore, he is not impious if he believes in some godly concept. However, his claim is not even close to a defense against what he was accused of.
As we know even form modern law a defense has to be adequate to the exact accusation, which in this case is that Socrates does not believe in particular gods. By mentioning “daimonia” he basically admits he does not obey the commonly accepted gods, therefore, admits the accusation. Another part of the “lawsuit” worth mentioning is the accusation that Socrates is “corrupting the youth”. Here, again the philosopher does not make any valid defense and does not provide any evidence for the opposite. He merely asks Meletus who makes the youth good, which in a way puts the blame on the whole Athenian society.
Meletus responds that who makes the youth good is everyone but Socrates, and at this point Socrates goes further, by implying he is actually the only one who really understands the youth and can make them good. Such a statement must have sounded rather challenging for the jurors given the situation, and certainly not one that will persuade them Socrates was “innocent”. The defendant tries to discharge the accusations in his own fashion, but let us highlight one more time that he understands philosophizing will not do the job, as it is what the polis leaders found disturbing in the first place.
Trying to be humble and denying his believes would probably be the right strategy, but Socrates just stays true to his principles. Even when saying we is a humble man who knows nothing, it is obvious he does not mean it, he just puts a meaning behind it. In the progress of the trial Socrates also claims that apart from being not guilty, he should be actually viewed as a hero. He mentions his service in the battles against Sparta, and again going one step further he compares himself to the great hero of the Trojan war – Achilles.
The analogy made here is that Socrates like Achilles does not keep into account “the matters of living and dying” (28b, Apology). Just like Achilles even fear of death will not make him stop exercising his way of thinking and philosophizing the way he always did. This basically means that the only way to make Socrates stop doing what he was accused of is by sending him to death. He sees his manner of living as a duty. Socrates never got paid for his work as a teacher, and therefore has never been restrained by the need of having to satisfy anyone but his feeling of self-content.
So what he does here is, saying that even though he loves Athens, it will never make him change who he is and what he is destined to always do. Socrates makes a point about how his way of thinking is the right one and should be adopted by this democratic society, but is aware this is unlikely to happen now and will most certainly not get him cleared of accusations. Another brave claim made by Socrates is that he actually is the greatest good that happened to the city. He says that “either obey Anytus or not, and either let me go or not, since I would not do otherwise, not even if I were going to die many times” (30c, Apology).
This is a way of testing whether Athens can comprehend his ways of teaching and is worthy of having Socrates and his philosophy. However, here he is rather too arrogant for the jurors by providing only two options – either kill me or let me go. His statements about him being send by the gods and how by killing him the citizens will suffer themselves is outrageous. It will clearly not help discharge the accusations, but is simply aimed at making a point. There is no way a person like Socrates, from the little that we know about him, would not understand how his words will affect people and what reactions he will get.
However, he chooses to get sacrificed for his cause. When later voted guilty but by a small difference, he suggests and alternative to a death sentence, that he should be given free meals in the Prytaneum, which was an honor intended for the city elite and the Olympic champions. Suggesting a real punishment as a second sentence option will be like admitting he was wrong. Most people in this situation will live with that just to get a smaller punishment, but Socrates would clearly not in the world do anything to even suggest he is guilty of something before the people of Athens.
He knows the people who voted him guilty will not change their mind and give him free meals, but he still chooses death. After the death sentence was announced Socrates has his final words before the Athenian society saying that by killing him they failed the test that he has conducted for them. Maybe here he draws the conclusion that people are just not ready for his way of thinking and that philosophizing is not a part of their democracy. He in a way condemns them by saying they will be held responsible for “having killed Socrates, a wise man” (38c).
He admits that he lost the trial only because he did not say what “would have been most pleased to hear”, suggesting that he could if he wanted to, but that would make him unworthy of what he has been standing for all these years. “I much prefer to die having made my defense speech in this way than to live in that way,” (38e) says Socrates referring to exile and having to live as a stranger from one city to another and be unaccepted for who he is. Possibly, his decision has something to do with the fact that Socrates was aged 70 at the time of the trial.
There is now no way for him to develop much further and to try and establish himself, all he has left now is simply standing his ground until the end. With the Apology of Socrates the theory about Socrates not being able to defend himself falls, as there is an enormous discrepancy that the person who could make unjust speech sound just could have not defended himself properly if he wanted to. The point is he did not want to and did not need to do it. Plato’s work Crito naturally transitions us to the moment when Socrates is n his cell and is waiting to die.
At this point Crito comes and tells Socrates he is going to do anything to help him escape and starts giving him reasons to go somewhere before the time for execution has come. Socrates, on the other hand, gives various reasons why he simply can not and does not want to do that, because running is not what he originally intended. But in terms of our discussion a particular point Socrates makes is about Athenian Law. He conducts an imaginary conversation of law and how it would react if Socrates escapes.
According to the philosopher law is what gives one the opportunity to engage in truth-seeking and thinking. Therefore it gives the reasonable person the kind of education he needs to actually be a thinker and a Philosopher like Socrates. In this sense the Laws are part of what made Socrates who he is by giving him the right basis. Since the dialogue is going on in his head this clearly is Socrates’ own opinion. He feels like he owes a big part of who he is to being in Athens his whole life and developing in this exact society, so leaving it now will not do any good.
What happens in Crito is that Socrates gets a second chance to rethink the decision he made to basically sentence himself to death, but it is clear that he would do the same thing and talk in the same way if he had the chance to do it one more time. Socrates, despite antagonizing Athens in his trial stand by its polis by saying: “that a state can exist and not be overthrown, in which the decisions of law are no force, and are disregarded and undermined by private individuals. ”(Delue) In a twisted way Socrates does not fail Athens even in his end.
So, its is clear by just looking at these two texts that Socrates started off his trial by not caring at all what the outcome for him might be. He simply aimed to defend his way of teaching and philosophical ideas. Socrates said what he felt like he should say without considering his own destiny. When he later saw what the situation with the accuser and the jurors is, Socrates decided the best option is a death sentence, as it was the only one that would keep his dignity and principles. Socrates’ defense speech was a failure, but a deliberate failure. Plato’s published Apology of Socrates turns that failure into enduring success”(23, Four Texts on Socrates). This heroic end is just what Socrates seeks, and with it he remained in history. Today’s society does charge the Athenians with killing a “wise man” just as he predicted. His personality still interests us in various ways, which proves that the ancient Greeks were indeed not ready to understand what Socrates had to say.