Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth, and of
impiety. He was sentenced to death by a majority of his peers in a 500 person jury.
Socrates accepted the penalty using the arguments set out in the Crito – that as
a citizen, it was his duty to accept the laws of Athens. His acceptance appears
at odds with his strong statements at his trial that he was innocent.
The Crito raises a conundrum. In fact, it makes no sense. I
am not sure that Plato faithfully reported Socrates’ arguments. I believe that Socrates
wanted to accept death, but that Plato put in his mouth those magnificent words
about his duty as a citizen in order to make Socrates out as a more morally
perfect man than he actually was. Socrates accepted death, not for the reasons
Plato gave him, but for other reasons. For one of three reasons or more likely,
a combination of all three:
1, He was guilty, and he accepted that, or at least accepted
he had lost the confidence and support of a majority of his fellow citizens.
2, He was 70 years of
age, and not about to leave Athens, where he had spent the greater part of his life. Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates, although not
at the trial, states in his Apology
Socrates had come to regard death
for himself as preferable to life.
3, Socrates was not
about to take Xanthippe, his wife, and their children
some country that would accept a fugitive from Athenian justice. Xanthippe was a
wife, young enough to have three
described as quite young in
Plato however, could not give these reasons. He wanted to portray a stronger picture of Socrates.
In a series of dialogues that extol Socrates’ virtues, he could not put forward
a picture that painted Socrates as possessing fallible traits.
We come now to Plato’s version of Socrates defending himself
in the Apology. Plato portrays Socrates as obviously believing that he was
innocent. This was likely a true picture,
for many people were at the trial who could confirm Plato’s portrayal. There is
however, a second part to the conundrum of Socrates’ trial and execution. Was Socrates actually guilty? If not, why
then did a majority of his fellow citizens condemn him to death?
I believe that they were following Anytus, who appeared in
Meno, and who warned: “Socrates, I think you are too ready to think
evil of men: and, if you take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful”. Socrates’ reply, in Anytus’ hearing, is
quite derogatory of Anytus: ”… when he (Anytus) understands, which he does not
at present…he will forgive me.” Anytus
apparently did not forgive, for he was the principle accuser, and the one who
demanded the death penalty.
My own belief is that Socrates annoyed quite a number of
people, including the two fellow accusers Meletus and Lycon , although we know little of them. Socrates can be
extremely supercilious, claiming to know nothing, but nevertheless pointing out
to people the error of their ways. An example is seen with Crito. Crito is a
friend, and does not take offence, but in a so-called dialogue, Crito’s
contribution to the dialogue is a series of agreements: ‘yes,’ or ‘no’, ‘certainly not, Socrates’.
Most of Plato’s dialogues portray Socrates holding forth on whatever the issue
Those who are not
Socrates’ friends will take offence. My particular favourites of these
offensive monologues from Socrates – which remember, is Plato writing several
years after Socrates has gone- is in Meno, and in Protagoras.
One philosophy blog states:
Many of Socrates’ opponents or
collaborators in the dialogues are made to agree with Socrates for the purposes
of the discussion when we – the readers – often feel that objections need to be
made; the answers Socrates’ interlocutors give often seem rigged by Plato to go
in the direction that he wants. This can seem acceptable in some cases because
Plato is simply using the dialogue to expound his ideas and the artificiality
of the responses is not relevant to the philosophical point he is making. (
Philosophy Blog 2013)
I agree with this analysis. I believe that Socrates is
particularly scathing of Protagoras, who is an avowed sophist. My own reading of that dialogue is that
Protagoras is just as believable as Socrates. One of the co-accusers of
Socrates at his trial, Lycon, was a possible supporter of the Sophists.
There are other reasons why the accusers acted. A dislike
for Socrates’ support for the Thirty Tyrants would have motivated all three.
Neither Plato nor Socrates was an advocate of democracy. Meletus was also a
poet, a profession not strongly endorsed by Plato and Socrates. These reasons
may have caused the three to argue to the jury of five hundred to condemn
Socrates. My own belief, however, is that Socrates had offended too many
prominent Athenians through his supercilious dialogues, and these were the
reasons why a majority of his fellows voted the death penalty. Death may seem
to us a severe penalty, but we have to remember that the death penalty was
accepted practice in Athens at this time. History has recorded, with occasional
exceptions, that nations have executed people for crimes of different types for
many centuries. The Code of Hammurabi,
chiselled into tablets in 1760 BCE, stipulated the death penalty for 25 different
crimes. Today’s arguments against death were irrelevant.
Socrates must have realised that he had offended many people,
perhaps even during his trial, and that realisation was possibly another
contributor to his decision not to fight the death penalty - to choose death instead.