Saturday, March 9, 2013


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 that 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 to some country that would accept a fugitive from Athenian justice. Xanthippe was a young wife, young enough to have three children, described as quite young in the Apology and Phaedo, 

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 is.  

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.


At March 30, 2013 at 2:49 PM , Blogger Richard Schmidt said...

This is a thoughtful and articulate piece on an important topic. You continue to impress me with both your choice of subjects and your high quality thinking and writing on these topics. Your country is lucky to have you. Your blog continues to impress.

At March 31, 2013 at 12:40 AM , Blogger Peter Bowden said...

Richard , Thanks but ,I am doing a degree in Philosophy On line, .. I took it up because philosophy is the mother discipline (they claim ) of ethical theory and practice..This is just one of the many disagreements I have with philosophical thinking as taught by academics. Socrates was “The Philosopher” . the advocate of the for “Philosopher Kings “ . I think he was a supercilious windbag


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