[1.5.1] The Older Charges Against Socrates.
Late in his life Socrates was brought up on charges of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the state. Plato’s Apology tells the story of Socrates’ trial, at which he defended himself.
Socrates sums up what he calls “the older charges” against him (the long-standing negative things that people have been saying about him for decades) as follows:
Socrates is an evil doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others. (handout p.2)
In his defense, he explains that he has gained this reputation because of a certain type of wisdom that he has. He explains how an Athenian named Chaerephon asked the Oracle of Delphi—a prophetess who the Greeks associated with one or the other of their Gods—if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle answered “no!” (handout, p.3)
Believing that he was not wise, Socrates claimed to set out to solve the riddle of the oracle:
After a long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the god with a refutation in my hand. I should say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.” (handout, p.3)
He questioned other Athenians to discover whether any were wiser than he…
He began by talking to a number of politicians…
Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed to him - his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination - and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (handout, pp.3-4)
As it turns out, they thought that they were wise, and they were thought to be wise by many other Athenians, but they really were not. They become angry, and Socrates realizes he is better off because he at least knows that he is not wise.
He next talked to the poets. But they seemed to have no understanding of what they had accomplished, so Socrates concluded that they were not wise but wrote by “divine inspiration” only. But because of their poetic skill, they (like the politicians) thought they were wise about things when they really were not (“upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.” handout p.4)
Finally, he spoke with the craftsmen (“artisans”). He discovered that they did know things that Socrates did not, and in this respect they were wiser. But because of this command of a technical skill, they thought themselves qualified to give opinions on other, greater matters, and in this they were not wise.
Socrates’s solution to the oracles’ “riddle” is that he is “wise” in that he realizes that he really isn’t wise.
This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies, and I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. And so I go my way, obedient to the god, and make inquisition into the wisdom of anyone, whether citizen or stranger, who appears to be wise; and if he is not wise, then in vindication of the oracle I show him that he is not wise; and this occupation quite absorbs me, and I have no time to give either to any public matter of interest or to any concern of my own, but I am in utter poverty by reason of my devotion to the god. (handout, pp.4-5)
Even after solving the oracle’s riddle, Socrates continued to impart the lesson to others by questioning them, forcing them to examine their most fundamental beliefs, i.e., forcing them to engage in philosophical inquiry. This had three consequences:
1. it took up so much of his time that he had none left for public or private affairs;
2. it generated a lot of anger toward Socrates—people don’t generally like to have their pretensions deflated;
3. a group of young men began accompanying him as he questioned the citizens, and eventually began doing the same themselves—the people they questioned then became angry at Socrates himself.
Socrates’ motivation was never dogmatically to convince people to accept some doctrine or other, or to persuade them by flattery or deception or emotion, even when it came to defending his own life. His motivation was always to help them arrive at the truth.
Socrates claimed to make people better through this questioning, because he believed that to discover your ignorance is better than to hold mistaken beliefs. Self-examination ultimately makes one better off. As he says toward the end of the Apology, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” (handout p.15)
[1.5.2.] The Newer Charges Against Socrates.
Again, the two formal charges against Socrates (“the newer charges”) were corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the state; we will only consider the former.
Socrates calls Meletus a “doer of evil” because he only pretends to care about the welfare of the youth:
Meletus is a doer of evil, and the evil is that he makes a joke of a serious matter, and is too ready at bringing other men to trial from a pretended zeal and interest about matters in which he really never had the smallest interest. And the truth of this I will endeavor to prove. (handout p.5)
In arguing against the charge that he corrupts the youth, Socrates gets Meletus to agree to the following claims:
it is better to live among good citizens than among bad, because if you live among citizens the you will eventually be harmed;
no one wants to be harmed by those around him (i.e., to live among bad citizens);
Finally Socrates asks Meletus whether his corrupting the youth is intentional or unintentional; Meletus answers that it is intentional. But by this point Socrates has trapped him: either way Meletus answers is unacceptable.
But you have just admitted that the good do their neighbors good, and the evil do them evil. Now is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him, and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too; - that is what you are saying, and of that you will never persuade me or any other human being. But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally, so that on either view of the case you lie. If my offence is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offences: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally - no doubt I should; whereas you hated to converse with me or teach me, but you indicted me in this court, which is a place not of instruction, but of punishment. (handout p.7)
Because of what he has admitted during Socrates’s questioning, Meletus is trapped in a dilemma:
dilemma (df.): a situation in which you are required to accept one of two choices, but neither choice seems acceptable. The two choices are called horns. There are three ways to respond to a dilemma: (1) “grasp” the first horn; (2) “grasp” the other horn; (3) “go between the horns” by finding a third alternative that hasn’t been considered yet (this is not always possible).
Meletus’s dilemma is as follows:
Socrates corrupts the youth intentionally
in which case
he wants them to harm him...
but Meletus has already admitted that no one wants to be harmed…. so Meletus is contradicting himself.
Socrates corrupts the youth unintentionally
in which case
Meletus should not have brought the charges, since Athenian law does not recognize unintentional offenses.
Socrates again emphasizes that Meletus does not take the welfare of the youth seriously, otherwise he would have thought through all of this before hand.
[1.5.3.] Philosophy or Death.
Having defended himself against both the older and the newer charges, Socrates says:
certainly have many enemies, and this is what will be my
destruction if I am destroyed; of that I am certain; - not
Meletus, nor yet Anytus, but the envy and detraction of the
world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more; there is no danger of my being the last
of them. (handout, p.9)
He supposes that some people will think that he ought to be ashamed of living a life that leads to an untimely end. In response to this hypothetical criticism, he makes explicit the principle by which he lives: do not act out of a fear of death, only out of what you believe is right and wrong.
a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong—acting the part of a good man or of a bad. (handout, p.9)
He then indicates that he will not stop engaging in philosophical inquiry, even if agreeing to do so is the only way that he can escape death. See the long passage on p.10 of the handout.
Socrates proceeds to argue that if they sentence him to death, they will be harming themselves more than they will be harming him: “if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.” (handout p.11) In his explanation of this, Socrates famously compares himself to a gadfly:
if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly. (handout p.11)
[1.5.4.] After Socrates’ Conviction.
Socrates is found guilty, and Meletus suggests the death penalty.
Socrates points out that he has tried only to do good for all of them (by questioning them) and thus deserves a reward, not punishment: the just sentence is “maintenance in the Prytaneum.” (handout p.14) The Prytaneum was like a town hall of Athens, in which public entertainments were performed, especially to athletes victorious at Olympia. By “maintenance” is meant free meals. Socrates suggests that the just sentence is for the city to pay for his meals.
Socrates explains why he does not suggest exile as punishment: he would be irrational to expect non-Athenians to put up with his philosophical questioning when his own people would not put up with it:
And if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life if I were to consider that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you would fain have done with them, others are likely to endure me. (handout p.15)
This implies that he is still not willing to stop engaging in philosophical inquiry.
But why won’t he stop philosophizing?
It would mean being disobedient to the God (“this would be a disobedience to a divine command”—handout p.15)
The more famous reason he gives—and in fact this is one of the most famous statements in all of philosophy, and in all of Western culture: “the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue ... the life which is unexamined is not worth living” (handout p.15)
At the end of this portion of his defense, he suggests as his actual punishment a large monetary fine: “thirty minae.” This is roughly eight-and-a-half-year’s wages—this would not be paid by Socrates himself, but by the wealthy friends that he lists (Plato included).
[1.5.5.] After Socrates’s Sentencing.
Socrates is sentenced to death. He then makes the following points:
· It is harder to avoid unrighteousness than it is to avoid death. He himself has been “overtaken” by the faster runner, namely, the unrighteousness of his accusers and those who voted to execute him:
The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. (handout p.16)
Socrates issues a prophecy: after he has died, a far stronger punishment than the one inflicted upon him will be enacted upon his executioners.
now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you;
for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers,
that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you
have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed
because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an
account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far
otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you
than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as
they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them. For if you think that by killing men you
can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken;
that is not a way of escape which is either possible or
honorable; the easiest and noblest way is not to be crushing
others, but to be improving yourselves. This is the prophecy
which I utter before my departure, to the judges who have condemned me. (handout p.16)
Socrates’s “oracle”—the inner voice the frequently stops him from doing something he shouldn’t do—did not cause him to hesitate in his defense, suggesting that death is not an evil thing:
the familiar oracle within me has constantly been in the habit
of opposing me even about trifles, if I was going to make a
slip or error about anything; and now as you see there has come
upon me that which may be thought, and is generally believed to
be, the last and worst evil. But the oracle made no sign of opposition, either as I was leaving my house and going out in the morning, or
when I was going up into this court, or while I was speaking,
at anything which I was going to say; and yet I have often been
stopped in the middle of a speech; but now in nothing I either
said or did touching this matter has the oracle opposed me.
What do I take to be the explanation of this? I will tell you.
I regard this as a proof that what has happened to me is a
good, and that those of us who think that death is an evil are in error.
This is a great proof to me of what I am saying, for the customary sign
would surely have opposed me had I been going to evil and not to good.
Death is either…
(a) “a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness … a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams” in which case it is a good thing.
(b) “a change and migration of the soul from his world to another … the journey to another place [where] all the dead are.” In this case, it is an opportunity to meet the dead, converse with them, and above all, to continue philosophical inquiry, in which case it is a good thing.
He concludes with a request to those who accused and condemned him:
When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing, - then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands. (handout p.18)
[1.6.] The Allegory of the Cave.
Imagine a group of people chained from birth inside a cave, seeing only shadows cast by puppets held before a fire located behind the people. These prisoners would take the shadows to be real things. If one of them were suddenly released, he would find it difficult to look at the fire which casts the shadows and more difficult still to face the sunlight thrown upon the visible world outside. Eventually, though, he would be able to do this and even to contemplate the sun itself.
inculcation (df.): the process of teaching or impressing by urging or frequent repetition.
You can learn much more about Socrates and Plato, as well as Aristotle, by taking UWG’s Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (PHIL 3100) course, which is offered every fall semester.
Stopping point for Tuesday June 8. For next time, read Sober chapter 2 (pp. 7-17). You will have a pop quiz over this reading and/or over today’s lecture notes.
 For more information on the Oracle of Delphi, see Preston Chesser, “Oracle of Delphi,” eHistory.com, posted April 30, 2002, URL = < http://ehistory.osu.edu/world/articles/ArticleView.cfm?AID=8 >, retrieved May 28, 2010.
 Typically, Socrates asked questions of the form, “what is _______”, where the blank if filled in by the term for a fundamental idea. Some dialogues from Plato’s early period in which no conclusions are reached are:
 In its original, primary meaning, the word “gadly” means “any of various flies (as a horsefly, botfly, or warble fly) that bite or annoy livestock.” It now also has the secondary meaning of “a person who stimulates or annoys especially by persistent criticism.” (“gadfly.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. 5 June 2010. URL - <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gadfly>)
 C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology: an essay on Plato's Apology of Socrates (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989) p.174.
This page last updated 1/8/2010.
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