Trial and Death of Socrates

Benjamin Jowett. The Trial and Death of Socrates (Dover Edition). New York: Dover Publications, 1992 “What is the charge? Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. And I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am anything but a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends.

And of this our mother the state is to be the judge. Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of virtue in youth; he is a good husbandman, and takes care of the shoots first and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. That is the first step; he will afterwards attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor” (p. 2).

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This quote from Socrates states, in a brief but precise way, what the entire book is about. Socrates constant search for an answer to the meanings of piety, impiety, virtue, what is just or unjust, all while being put on trial for an accusation of corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them to believe in new gods and not to believe in the gods established in the state religion. Socrates is not only on the quest for himself, but also on a quest to make his fellow Athenians question their own preconceived notions of said meanings.

I will now use the Euthyphro, the Apology, and the Crito dialogues as three examples of how Socrates—either speaking with someone directly or to an audience of patrons—is in constant search to find answers, not only for him but also for others. “By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to this” (p. 3). This quote from Socrates comes after he asks Euthyphro what he is doing on the porch of King Archon.

Euthyphro responds by telling Socrates that he is there to bring up a charge of murder against his father. When Socrates points out that, according to accepted beliefs, it is wicked to harm or bring disgrace on one’s father, Euthyphro counters that that makes no difference. According to accepted beliefs, harboring a manslayer is wrong and pollutes those who associate with him. This response is what leads into a discussion of the main topic of the dialogue: piety. “And what is piety, and what is impiety? ” (p. 4).

Since Euthyphro is an expert in religion and seems capable of finding the right course to pursue in what appears to Socrates a dilemma (the prosecution of Euthyphro’s father), and since Socrates is facing a religious charge, he proposes that he become Euthyphro’s student in religion. This is why he asks Euthyphro to define piety, so that he himself will have a measure for deciding what is religious and what is not, thus be able to defend himself in court. Euthyphro answers that what he is doing in prosecuting his father is religious, and he cites the precedent of Zeus punishing his own father (Cronos).

Socrates then questions many of the stories about strife among the gods over the next few passages as Euthyphro continues to defend the gods. This questioning of the stories about the gods is what leads to his trial in the first place, that he questioned them and that because he was a teacher it caused the youth to question the gods. If you question the gods and the gods are pious, you are in turn acting with impiety. “Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious.

Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious? ” (p. 6). After Euthyphro confesses that he is unable to make any progress with this question—having had enough—he excuses himself from further discussion on the grounds that he must keep an appointment. The Apology dialogue begins with Socrates, at his trial, addressing the court after the prosecution has made their case against him. Socrates begins his defense by remarking what persuasive speakers his accusers are in contrast to himself.

He indicates that he does not expect to get a fair hearing because of the wide-spread rumors about him and that these rumors associate him with the natural philosophers. The problem with that association is that the natural philosophers were widely suspected of atheism because some of them openly advocated atheism. “Well, then, I will make my defence, and I will endeavor in the time which is allowed to do away with this evil opinion of me which you have held for such a long time; and I ope that I may succeed, if this be know that to accomplish this is not easy—I quite see the nature of the task. Let the event be as God wills: in obedience to the law I make my defence. ” (p. 20). This statement is a clue as to what Socrates personal beliefs are on acting just and with piety. With his words, he shows the court that although he does not agree with the charges, he will act as the law has been written for all of the citizens of Athens. He does not expect special treatment and his acceptance of his fate through “God wills” is that of a pious nature.

The “God wills” line is sort of a slap in the face to those accusing him because, for Socrates to put his fate in Gods’ hands, it goes against the very nature of the accusations of his atheist behavior. After Socrates gives the court some historical background as to why these rumors exist, he focuses his attention on Meletus and the first charge. Socrates begins by stating that, since Meletus claims to know who is corrupting the youth, he must know who improves them. After some back and forth between the two men, Socrates gets Meletus to say that all Athenians improve the youth and that Socrates is the only one who corrupts the youth.

Socrates continues to use Meletus own words against him throughout and thus making him look quite foolish in front of the court. “ I have said enough in answer to the charge of Meletus: any elaborate defence is unnecessary; but as I was saying before, I 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 mine being the last of them. ” (p. 29).

Here Socrates, in my opinion, shows the court again that he will turn the other cheek to his accusers and not blame them, but instead chooses to blame what I would like to call the human condition. That is, putting your own self interests before that of others to further your gain. This is why Socrates struggles with anyone giving him a definition of piety, because I think that to Socrates piety means acting altruistic. Since the human condition is that of self serving your own interests, he sees through peoples definitions because he knows that they are going to give a definition that fits their ideas. Some one will say: Are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not 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. ” (p. 29). He is saying that you should not do something good with the anticipation of your gain, but do it because that is what is right and that will be the reward.

During his “closing” argument, Socrates states that he will not ask his three sons to come to court and ask them to petition the court for his acquittal because he “feels such conduct to be discreditable to myself, and you, and the whole state” (p. 35). Again, Socrates uses his words to show the court that he will not allow himself to apologize for something that he feels he did not do wrong. He would be lying to himself if he did that, and it also could be argued that this action would be impious to oneself. After being found guilty, Socrates speaks to the court about how he should be sentenced.

The accusers have told the court that death is just for his actions while Socrates reminds the people of the jury that he “sought to persuade every man among you, that he must look into himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all of his actions,” while trying to persuade the jury that he should just pay a fine (p. 36). After the jury comes back with a sentence of death, Socrates is again allowed to address the court.

While Socrates says that the trial was not a fair one, he calls the outcome “fair enough. ” He says that the result is just because there is a just proportion preserved in the consequences for him and for his accusers. He will be put to death, but his opponents will live as lesser men because of their deeds and that their fate is worse. He says no one knows what lies after death, but he envisions two possibilities. If death is annihilation, it will resemble an endless, dreamless sleep, which is not at all bad.

On the other hand, if what the mystery religions teach is correct, he will move on to an after-life in which he may mingle with the famous dead of former ages. He humorously suggests that he will continue engaging in debate and in deflating the pompous, something that he says will make him happy. Socrates jail cell is the setting for the Crito dialogue. Socrates is alone with his elderly life-long friend and neighbor Crito. Crito has come early because he has received advance notice of the imminent arrival of the sacred vessel from Delos.

Crito launches into an urgent appeal to Socrates that he accepts the plans that Crito and other friends have made for Socrates to escape. “Dear Crito, your zeal is invaluable, if a right one; but if wrong, the greater the zeal, the greater the evil; and therefore we ought to consider whether these things shall be done or not” (p. 46). Here is another example of how Socrates only knows what he does not know, much like that of piety. While he loves that Crito is his loyal friend and would do anything to save him, he cannot allow himself to make a decision in haste without using reason.

Therefore, he will not forsake the principles that he has honored for a long time but will remain true to whatever reason tells him is demanded by them. “Then my friend, we must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say. And therefore you begin in error when you suggest that we should regard the opinion of the many about just and unjust, good and evil, honorable and dishonorable” (p. 48).

Socrates says here that once a man is secure with knowing who he is, and what that man deems just and unjust for himself, he cannot be guided by the opinions of others and still be true to himself. “Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him” (p. 49). Again, another example of how Socrates tries to get people to think in a more altruistic or “pious” way. To conclude his argument, Socrates deals with the considerations favoring escape put forth earlier by Crito when he shows how the consequences of submitting to the sentence outweigh these considerations.

He does this by saying that if he escapes taking his children with him, they will be aliens in a strange land and the children of a fugitive from justice; they would be better off as orphans in Athens. Crito acknowledges Socrates’ reasons, thus ending the dialogue. In conclusion, I believe it is important to read this book because it provides the reader with guidance to question why you do the things you do in your life. Don’t just go through life doing things because someone else tells you that’s what you need to do. Or to put it a little more eloquently, “The unexamined life is not worth living—Socrates. ”

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