Category Archives: Socrates

Socrates: The Trail And Death

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Socrates is philosophy’s most famous martyr. Yet he wasn’t the first tried in the courts of Athens. The Decree of Diopeithes allowed for the persecution of  “those who fail to respect (nomizein) things divine or teach theories about the heavens” (OCD). It had been used against Anaxagoras, who challenged traditional views of gods and taught the heavens were merely burning stones. There is also evidence that Diogones of Apollonia was accused (Laks, 7). Numerous other thinkers and statesmen were also sentenced to death for various reasons around this time: Sophocles is only the most famous of others to be executed for impiety (Johnson, 152)

The rigid legal system was a sign of the crisis in religious and moral traditions at the time, and of the fear of those governing. The legitimation of morality in Athens, like the legitimacy of religion, was viewed as under threat. The Presocratics along with the Sophists — and some other thinkers — were seen as a threat to the civil order. Here religion was not a private affair. There was a civil obligation to participate in religious rites. It would have been widely accepted that the gods may punish the city for the impiety of its members. There would have been a strong desire among many to prevent the teaching of new ideas about the gods and to halt any questioning of traditional ethics. New teachers of all sorts were suspect.

Socrates and Xenophon both make strains to distinguish Socrates from the Sophists and the Presocratics, the philosophers of nature like Anaxagoras, who Pericles had invited to Athens. This is writ large in The Apology and Plato’s general narrative about Socrates. Aristophanes’ The Clouds, however, told a different story, one that would have been familiar to many at Socrates’ trial. Aristophanes’ work might be read as an early medial attack on a leading public figure. It set up Socrates, apparently very unjustly, for a fall. We can imagine that it also influenced Plato’s later developed view of the potentially negative role art could play in a polis.

The alleged impiety of non-traditional thinkers like Socrates was of grave concern to many in Athens. Add to this the fact that Socrates had attracted to him members of the Thirty Tyrants who were had early staged a bloody coup of the Athenian government and harbored some of the strongest critics of the Athenian Democracy. Critias, his former student and the cousin to Plato’s mother, had led the group. Charmides, a close associate, was Plato’s uncle (Johnson 145ff.). Socrates had also, no doubt, regularly embarrassed many of the leading figures of the city and not unlikely some on his jury or well-connected to jury members. The Athenian democracy, too, was a purely majoritarian political order, entailing all of the possible threats of a mobocracy. Spurred on by the fate of Socrates, Plato will later offer one of the most influential attacks on democracy in history, precisely as facilitating mob rule and rule by the least fit.

The jury, according to The Apology, consisted of 500 citizens of Athens. In the trial, Socrates displays his typical irony. Specifically of importance for the case of denying the existence of the gods, Socrates relates how his entire philosophical quest (which is resulting in his now being tried) began only after his friend Chaerephon had been told by the priestess of the Oracle at Delphi of the judgment of the Oracle that none was wiser than Socrates. The irony here, of course, is that the Oracle is deeply significant for the religious. Do the religious really want to condemn one who their own most famous oracle has said was unmatched in his wisdom?

There would, of course, have been various ways to understand the Oracle. One might have understood it to mean that no man is wise at all — along the lines of Heraclitus’ fragment that “a man is found foolish by a god…” (D 79). So Socrates’ wisdom like that of all other men would be negligible. Socrates, however, does interpret the Oracle rather more commonly as implying that he does possess a kind of wisdom. Interestingly, though, Socrates does not simply accept the statement of the Oracle on faith. He trusts his own reasoning, not the declaration of a religious authority. So he sets out apparently thinking it may be possible to show the Oracle wrong. Socrates surely has a different piety than most Athenians. His has underlined the importance of trusting his own reasoning, not that of authorities. Yet he does come to see the truth of the Oracle. As earlier discussed, he sees a form of wisdom in his understanding of the limits of his own knowledge.

The story of the Oracle, of course, provide Socrates with the possibility of describing how he came to be a public philosopher. Yet, since this is the major Oracle of religious importance, the story serves as a sort of witness of character — for those willing to believe, from the gods. Much of what Socrates offers in the court scene similarly witnesses to his character. He recounts his service in the Peloponnesian War. He distances himself from the natural philosophers who had otherwise been tried in Athens, noting that as a young man he had already turned his back on their speculations having found them bereft of evidence and also unimportant since the teaching would not improve the soul of man. Similarly, he distances himself from other new atheists, the sophists, who are known to teach for profit. The former group may teach heresy about the gods. The latter were in many cases more vehement about their atheism, not redefining the gods anew, and they were thought to corrupt the youth. Socrates shows he has a kind of piety.

By contrast with the sophists —  he maintains — he fundamentally cares about the soul. Further, he claims not really teach at all. He just spurs his interlocutors on to self-reflection in conversations. In his plea, Socrates reveals that he is not like Heraclitus, who condemned the religious rites as having a corrupting influence on those who practiced them. Socrates may have unorthodox views about the gods, but he still participates respectfully in the civic religious ceremonies. More still, Socrates, even is led in his decisions, always consulting with the voice of a daemon, which speaks to his conscience, not bidding him positive things to do but warning him when he should avoid some negative course of action. Though his defense does show that he is far from Orthodox, it also does show Socrates to be a deeply spiritual man.

Is he an atheist? It is clear that he does not believe in the gods of Hesiod. Does he corrupt the young? He does for those who think that teaching non-traditional ideas about the gods and about morality is corrupt. Socrates, however, makes his case denying atheism and maintaining that he did not take money for teaching like the sophists, who it is implied might really be considered too corrupt the young. And in any case, he underlines he would only encourage the young to use their minds, to care for their souls, that which is best in them.

In the end, the 500 votes were cast. It was a close decision, as Socrates was found guilty by fewer than 30 votes. But guilty he was found. It thus came to him to propose a penalty. Now, though, in a display of Socratic irony, even at this point Socrates refuses to placate his jurors. As a proposed punishment, rather than suggesting a reasonable fine or exile — something customary that may well have swayed enough jurors in his favor — as punishment, he suggests free meals at the Prytaneum for life, the reward for Olympian heroes. Would not Socrates deserve at least as much since he cared for what is most important in man — not the body but the soul? This was clearly in jest. But large numbers in the jury, we can well imagine, would have been less than amused. He then notes that he has but one mena, an amount that would buy a copy of Hesiod — so again, an insult. So he finally suggests that his friends would come up with thirty menas (Johnson, 167), about 1/5 of his annual income. This was not insignificant but was still not a serious amount of money as an alternative to a death penalty. At the jury reconvening, in a larger number than the initial vote, they sentence Socrates  — to death by the drinking of hemlock (Johnson 151ff.).

Socrates in prison

Ordinarily, Socrates would have been executed the day after the trial. But because of a religious ceremony over three days, the execution had to be postponed. The prison reflections that occur (or that Plato places) in this period in Crito and Phaedo provide Socrates (or Plato) an opportunity to reflect on the trial, of his views of his obligations to the state and on his views of death. They show Socrates content with his decisions in the trial and willing to face death, even if it is unjust.

Crito, who the dialogue is named after, depicts conversations between Socrates and his friend in his final days. In the dialogue, Crito offers arguments critical of Socrates’ behavior in the trial and reasons for Socrates to allow his friends to pay a bribe so that Socrates can flee prison. Socrates in each case offers counter-arguments that Crito appears to find convincing. A first argument concerns why Socrates was so disregarding of the mores during the trial. Surely, Socrates would have had a better chance with his case had he simply been respectful of those trying him. To this Socrates indicates that he does not believe that respect in such arguments is due to those in power, but to those who have truth on their side. “One should greatly value some opinions,” Socrates notes, “and not others.” Besides he argues, “A good life is more important than a long life.” Socrates is unrepentant. Crito is an obedient interlocutor.

Seeing that Socrates is in such a difficult situation and that Crito and his other friends can help, Crito suggests though that Socrates allow them to pay a bribe for his escape. This would have occurred often enough in the situation. Crito drives home particularly that this would be justified since the sentence was wrong, and indeed Socrates death would bring about a further wrong of depriving his wife and their children of his care. Socrates rejects this utilitarian argument about the greater of evils. He adheres to a strict ethics of duty. Even though the sentence was wrong, paying a bribe is wrong as well; and two wrongs do not make a right.

A tacit contract — and a basis for civil disobedience

Finally, Socrates argues that besides the fact that bribery is wrong, he thinks that has a duty to the city-state of Athens to accept the punishment of its legal system, even if that penalty is unjust. Here Socrates puts forward an argument that will be important in the history of philosophy that individuals living in a polity form a tacit contract with the political body from which they benefit. In Socrates’ case, he has benefited from his education in Athens and from the security of the city-state. So while he has a fundamental obligation to follow his conscience on matters of individual action, he also has an obligation to accept the punishment for that if the city-state metes it out.

Socrates implied throughout the court case that he has an obligation to follow a higher law than that of the city. He must follow his conscience in matters of personal action. Here, however, he displays a paradox, like later proponents of civil disobedience. While maintaining the duty to breach a particular law (here to question traditional views even if it is not permitted), he still affirms a basic duty to the system of law. He must accept the punishment the city-state provides for breaching that particular law.

The entire point is not so clearly laid out as it is displayed. Though these fundamental principles of what will become civil disobedience are not all clearly synthesized in a treatise, the basis for the argument is clearly to be reconstructed from the text.

There are some further elements in a teaching of civil disobedience as later developed missing here. In John Rawls 20th century theoretical formulation of the ideas, it is important that the breaches of the law be done with the purpose of pointing out the failure in the legal system to those in power so that they reform it. In most cases, civil disobedience later occurs not with individual actors, who would likely be ineffectual, but as part of a social movement.

Nonetheless, whatever differences there are between civil disobedience as a developed teaching and Socrates’ depicted actions in the trial and death scenes, there are some remarkable similarities. In the ideas depicted in these final scenes of Socrates life, we thus see two vital ideas for the later history of thought: the idea that there is a tacit contract between an individual and her polity; and the kernel of the often related teaching on civil disobedience.

On death and the soul

Phaedo is thought to be a middle-period work of Plato. In it, Plato develops ideas on the immortality of the soul that many scholars think differ from Socrates’ own views. In part, this is because they show a tension with other views that are expressed on the soul by Socrates in the Apology. In that dialogue, contemplating death Socrates assures his friends that there is no need to fear, for it is one of two things. Either it is a night of dreamless sleep, which should cause none to worry, or it is as the poets claim, which is a reason to be cheerful. Socrates expresses a hope that it is the latter, but without a worry if it is not.

In Phaedo more Platonic views of the soul are introduced. In that dialogue, Socrates wife, Xanthippe and his child were sitting with Socrates when his friends entered to speak to him. They are led away after the arrival of his friends. In the ensuing scenes, the character Socrates is together with Crito, Cebes, Simmias, and Phaedo discussing many (of Plato’s) ideas about the soul.

One of the remarkable elements of Socrates’ death scenes is the great serenity with which he is shown to confront death. He is 70 at the time of his execution. He exudes a sense that he has lived a life of good conscience and he can die in peace. After a long discussion, Socrates finally summons the guard for the hemlock. He drinks it and settles down to die. Of those present, Socrates alone remains calm. He eventually lies down and covers himself. The parting words of the philosopher were a request to settle debts: “He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito.”

Summary of Socrates’ Teachings

A marble head of Socrates

A marble head of Socrates in the Louvre

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Excerpt reprinted with permission.)

Socrates’ biography

Socrates was of humble roots. In Nietzsche’s eyes: He was born of the rabble. His father was a stonemason, his mother was a midwife. As a young man, he is thought to have studied Greek natural philosophy. But he found the views of the natural philosophers too obscure and unsubstantiated. He thus, like the sophists, turned against natural philosophy to questions of morality and justice.

In Athens, he lived a life of simple means, married Xanthippe, with whom he had three children. He fought, evidently heroically, in the Peloponnesian war against Sparta. He was known in Athens for gathering and speaking in the Agora, the market place. He was known as unkempt, often unwashed, and for being quite homely … Yet many were attracted to him. He … gathered support from some Athenians who had been members and associates of the Thirty Tyrants, who had early led a bloody coup against the government in Athens and who were bitterly opposed to its democratic government.

According to Plato’s account, he … was motivated to his public discourse by an early Oracle of Delphi, which had indicated that no one in Greece was wiser than Socrates. In what we may take to be an ironic court defense, he maintains that he found this unbelievable so set out questioning the learned in Athens to find someone wiser than himself. In Plato’s account, Socrates’ questioning was unsettling to authorities in Athens, who thought that he was undermining the civic religion of Athens and corrupting the youth. Socrates was thus brought to court, where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Socrates’ thus became a celebrated martyr for philosophy.

The examined life

Among the views for which Socrates is most famous is that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The ability to think, in Socrates’s view, is our unique human capacity. To live a life devoid of thinking — where we simply accepted what tradition and authority told us — was thus to live a less than fully human life. But what does an examined life, the fully human life, entail? For Socrates, it entailed questioning especially the moral and religious views of his tradition. In Socrates’ view, this examination is to be done as a form of moral or spiritual development — it is done with the intention of moral improvement both to oneself and ultimately to one’s community.

While it was traditionally thought that the existing laws of a polis were identified with the will of the gods, Socrates questions this. There were hints already in Heraclitus and others of a view like this — that there is another law a law above the city’s laws to which one had a greater alliance. Socrates’ life and death is a testimony to a belief in such a law and to a sensibility that adherence to that other law is imperative.

The clarification of concepts

Socrates is invested in the clarification of concepts, even if he does not always finish the job (or hardly ever does) and provides us with a clearly satisfying definition or description, even if often we need to look to what he does — as a character in Plato’s dialogues — if we want to answer some of the questions he poses.

Socrates engaged in his own self-examination with the clear conviction that he could come to understand truth, and that the means to do so was through the clarification of concepts, achieved not through individual self-reflection but through dialogue. This indeed is so marked in him that Aristotle thought it fundamental to the shift in ancient philosophy from the Presocratics to a new era in Greek thought. We see hints of it in thinkers previous to Socrates who are thinking of metaphysics — Parmenides being the main case in point. But it becomes full-blown and receives a new focus on questions of justice in Socrates. What is justice? What is piety? As individuals, living in a society, we have internalized views about what these things are. [But] Socrates thinks that self-examination involves us in a process of thinking through our own beliefs on these questions …

The Socratic method

Socrates maintained that he did not teach anyone. What he did was facilitate their own self-reflection through public dialogues. The disputational method Socrates used in the public forum led to his reputation as a gadfly, for his logic was often stinging. Taking some proposed general definition to a question like what is justice, he was merciless in criticizing its weaknesses, often indirectly and with irony. And he did not hesitate to embarrass the most recognized of the citizens of Athens.

This dialogical approach, [today] described as the Socratic method, was used not to propose his own views. Socrates was not a guru who answered the most obscure of metaphysical questions and sought adherents to the system he constructs. Rather his method was to engage in an exploration and to get those involved to reflect on their own views, on the culturally accepted views they had largely adopted. It focused on clarifying what the concepts under discussion meant, what presuppositions they entailed. It typically started with a definition of a concept, which would then be analyzed, broke into discrete parts; then on the basis of the analysis, the ideas were synthesized.

In his public dialogues, Socrates appears to be motivated by a faith that the analysis of concepts should lead to positive results. Yet curiously perhaps, Socrates did not develop a set of clear ideas about what justice is, what piety is or the other things that he discussed so enthusiastically. He deconstructs much more than he constructs.

Socratic wisdom

Indeed, this [is] even fundamental to what becomes known as Socratic wisdom. In Plato’s rendering of Socrates’ story in The Apology, when … Oracle of Delphi [told Socrates]  … that none was wiser than him, Socrates [was] skeptically. He claims it inspired him to begin to discuss ideas in public. Not feeling wise at all, he was sure — he says with some irony — there must have been others wiser than himself. In the court case where he discusses this, he notes however that after years of such questioning and public conversation he did come to recognize that there was some truth to the Oracle. He had a kind of wisdom. His wisdom, which others lacked, was simply in knowing the limitations of his own knowledge. Socrates’s wisdom consisted in knowledge of his own ignorance.

It is an interesting paradox perhaps that one of the individuals most celebrated for his wisdom in world history in fact baldly claimed that this wisdom consisted in so little. The fact is that those who have viewed Socrates as wise have never really taken this explicit statement of what his wisdom was to be the complete story. Socrates was trying to clarify concepts, but as a statement even of what his own wisdom was, this is quite incomplete — a negative definition only.

If that is all there were to Socratic wisdom, then we might have imagined this serving as a footnote in Ancient philosophy. But of course, much of what we have taken to be Socratic wisdom has consisted not in what was said, but in what was unsaid. It comes from an examination of how Socrates lived his life. And here there is much more indeed than is summarized in the negative description of wisdom.

Is his statement that he is wise because he recognizes what he does not know simply a case of irony? Is it likely not offered as a definition at all? In any case, if we want to know what Socrates wisdom consists in then an examination of his life offers us something much richer to work with than his negative definition. In his life, … Socrates is someone deeply curious, conscientious about self-examination, which he engaged in as a practice of self-improvement. Socrates is wise because of his care for the soul, because of his questioning whether his own priorities in life were rightly ordered and whether his own life was just and good … when it comes to understanding what he thinks, we have to do more than examine what he says. We must see how he lives.