Trial of Socrates 2021

I think today is one of the more important dates that we should commemorate (perhaps we can do more in the following years to emphasize its importance). According to best estimates, today, May 16th in 399 BCE the trial of Socrates took place—when he was brought to court and officially charged with corrupting the Athenian youth and impiety against the state religion.

Today, I’m just going to post a few things from Plato’s Apology of Socrates that summarize Socrates’s defense speech and highlight some of the more inspiring passages. You can also find more info (and primary sources) here:

Here are the official charges (we know this from multiple independent sources):

Socrates is a wrongdoer because he corrupts the youth and does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings (24b-c)

In his introductory statements, Socrates insists that there are two sets of accusers that he has to confront. On top of his official accusers — Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon — Socrates has been charged with similar accusations over the course of generations by those of the Athenian public whom have spread rumors and harbored grudges against him. Here’s Socrates, who considers these earlier accusers more dangerous:

For many accusers have risen up against me before you, who have been speaking for a long time, many years already, and saying nothing true; and I fear them more than Anytus and the rest, though these also are dangerous; but those others are more dangerous, gentlemen, who gained your belief, since they got hold of most of you in childhood, and accused me without any truth, saying, “There is a certain Socrates, a wise man, a ponderer over the things in the air and one who has investigated the things beneath the earth and who makes the weaker argument the stronger.” (18b)

This last line was probably inspired by how Socrates was portrayed in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds, which was put on 24 years earlier. This means that many current adults were taught by their parents (and popular media) that Socrates is something of a atheist natural philosopher (“ponderer over the things in the air and . . . beneath the earth”) and trouble-making sophist (“who makes the weaker argument the stronger”).

With this in mind, I like to divide Socrates’ defense speech proper (17a-35d) into four sections:

Socrates’s defense against his early accusers: 17a-20c The First digression (the “Divine Mandate” speech): 20c-24b Socrates’ defense against his later [official] accusers: 24b-28a The Second digression (the “Examined Life” speech): 28a-35d

Those numbers are called ‘Bekker Numbers’ and should be found in any translation of Plato (similar to bible verses). You can use my basic outline to read through his speech with your preferred translation. Here’s a public domain version:

In his “Divine Mandate” speech, Socrates explains that his troublesome “occupation”—his practice of engaging fellow Athenians with his philosophical method—was prompted by a proclamation from the god Apollo [by way of the Oracle at Delphi (a.k.a., the ‘Pythia’)]:

… once [Chaerephon] went to Delphi and made so bold as to ask the oracle this question; and, gentlemen, don’t make a disturbance at what I say; for he asked if there were anyone wiser than I. Now the Pythia replied that there was no one wiser. . . when I heard this, I thought to myself: “What in the world does the god mean, and what riddle is he propounding? For I am conscious that I am not wise either much or little. What then does he mean by declaring that I am the wisest? (21a-b)

After investigating the matter, Socrates concludes that his “occupation” is a kind of divine mandate and consists in verifying the god’s claim and demonstrating the nature of human wisdom. Socratic philosophy for which he is brought to court is now portrayed as a “service of the gods” and, thus, an instance of piety… the implication being: “So how could I be charged with impiety??!” (By the way, he uses the phrase “service of the gods” again at Apology 22a, 23b, 30a, and perhaps 38a)

It’s appropriate to mention two passages that are probably the most quoted lines by Socrates. The first one takes place during his “Examined Life” speech in which Socrates is addressing potential objections to his position. FIRST, he’s addressing those that want him to compromise his beliefs in order to avoid the death penalty. Socrates replies with his own criticism: nobody truly knows the nature of death, thus being afraid of it is a form of ignorance. The famous quote in this passage is often misquoted, so here is is in full and in context:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. [[this echoes an earlier line: “I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (21d)]]. But I do know that it is evil and disgraceful to do wrong and to disobey him who is better than I, whether he be god or man. So I shall never fear or avoid those things concerning which I do not know whether they are good or bad rather than those which I know are bad. (29b)

SECOND, during the speech that he gives during the sentencing portion of the trial, he drops the single most quoted line. I bet I don’t even have to bold it for you:

Perhaps someone might say, “Socrates, can you not go away from us and live quietly, without talking?” Now this is the hardest thing to make some of you believe. For if I say that such conduct would be disobedience to the god and that therefore I cannot keep quiet, you will think I am jesting and will not believe me; and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you. (37e-38a)

Yes, you read correctly: this is during the sentencing portion of the trial. Despite his impassioned “apology”—his explanation for his way of life—he is found guilty (barely, with a vote of 280 to 221)

After the passage quoted above, Socrates suggests a legitimate sentence for himself—a considerable fine rendered with the help of Plato and some others (see 35e-38b). The jury ultimately reject the suggestion and votes for the prosecution’s sentence of death (with a much larger margin of 360 to 140). Think about that… 280 people found Socrates guilty… yet 360 people voted for the death penalty… Socrates noticed that too… and he was upset. In Socrates’s parting speech (38c-42a), he criticizes those who voted him ‘not guilty’ and yet voted for death. Here’s a good passage (there are a lot of vocative and poetic forms which prompt the translator to render Socrates’s words as if they were proverbs or prophesies):

And now I wish to prophesy to you, O ye who have condemned me; for I am now at the time when men most do prophesy, the time just before death. And I say to you, ye men who have slain me, that punishment will come upon you straight-way after my death, far more grievous in sooth than the punishment of death which you have meted out to me. For now you have done this to me because you hoped that you would be relieved from rendering an account of your lives, but I say that you will find the result far different. Those who will force you to give an account will be more numerous than heretofore; men whom I restrained, though you knew it not; and they will be harsher, inasmuch as they are younger, and you will be more annoyed. For if you think that by putting men to death you will prevent anyone from reproaching you because you do not act as you should, you are mistaken. That mode of escape is neither possible at all nor honorable, but the easiest and most honorable escape is not by suppressing others, but by making yourselves as good as possible. So with this prophecy to you who condemned me I take my leave. (39c-e)

LASTLY, in my favorite portion of the Apology, Socrates debriefs those that voted for his acquittal and who must be very distraught at the moment. I want to encourage you to read it in its entirely (it continues on to the very end of the text) because I don’t want to select a fragment of it. I have always found it very poignant and powerful and I hope you do to. Here is the beginning of the speech:

But with those who voted for my acquittal I should like to converse about this which has happened, while the authorities are busy and before I go to the place where I must die. Wait with me so long, my friends; for nothing prevents our chatting with each other while there is time. I feel that you are my friends, and I wish to show you the meaning of this which has now happened to me. . . (39e ff)

Again, you can select your favorite translation or check out a public domain translation here: … Feel free to share your own favorite passages and give your own insights here. No urgency… Socrates will be in prison waiting for his execution for 30 days. We’ll revisit him periodically up through June 15th.

Take care.

―Justin K.


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