On the second day of Thargelion (May 16th in the Julian calendar), 399 BCE, at the age of 70 years old, Socrates was brought to the high court of Athens. According to Plato’s Apology, he was officially charged with two crimes—amorality and impiety:
Socrates is a wrongdoer because [#1] he corrupts the youth and [#2] does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beingsPlato’s Apology 24b-c
In his preliminary statement, Socrates insists that there are actually two sets of accusers that he has to confront. Besides his most recent accusers — Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon — Socrates had already been charged with similar accusations by those of the Athenian public who spread rumors and harbored grudges against him for years …
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.”Plato’s Apology 18b
This portayal of Socrates sounds similar to the one in Aristophanes’s Clouds put on for the Athenian public 24 years earlier. Socrates is implying that many of the adults serving on the assembly (i.e., the jury) have learned from the older generation that he was always an amoral and impious sophist.
With this in mind, Plato has Socrates present his defense speech (Sections 17a-35d of his Apology) into four sections:
- Sections 17a-20c: defense against his early accusers
- Sections 20c-24b: first digression (“The Divine Mandate”)
- Sections 24b-28a: defense against his later accusers
- Sections 28a-35d: second digression (“The Examined Life”)
While addressing his first accusers, Socrates explains to the assembly how his troublesome “occupation” — his practice of questioning his fellow Athenians— was initiated by a proclamation from the god Apollo [via 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?Plato’s Apology 21a-b
After investigating the matter, Socrates says that he interpreted the encounter as a kind of divine mandate. His “occupation” should be to verify the god’s claim and demonstrate the nature of human wisdom. Socrates’ way of life for which he is brought to court is now portrayed as a “service of the gods” (see Apology 22a, 23b, 30a, and perhaps 38a) and, thus, an instance of piety (thus, charge #2 is wrong).
Socrates’ response to his later accusers is actually quite brief—consisting of a classic Socratic discussion with Meletus which ends with the following passage:
I do but think, men of Athens, that it requires a prolonged defense to prove that I am not guilty of the charges in Meletus’ deposition, but this is sufficient. On the other hand, you know that what I said earlier is true, that I am very unpopular with many people. This will be my undoing, if I am undone, not Meletus or Anytus but the slanders and envy of many people. This has destroyed many other good men and will, I think, continue to do so.Plato’s Apology 28a-b
This transitions into an inspiring theme of the Apology that begins here and continues on after the verdict is voted upon—how does Socrates justify his choice to risk being “destroyed” for the sake of philosophy?
Someone might say: “Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?” However, I should be right to reply to him: “You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good man or a bad man.”Plato’s Apology 28b
And because Socrates believes this, he has become the “gadfly” of Athens (30e)—annoying, offending, exhorting, and reproaching his fellow Athenians who do not realize this truth:
Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence (virtue; aretê) makes wealth and everything else good for men, but individually and collectively.Plato’s Apology 30b
After Socrates’ defense speech, the jury finds Socrates guilty (barely, with a vote of 280 to 221). Here, Socrates drives home the earlier theme that he began at in the passage above:
Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexemined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.Plato’s Apology 37e-38a
Socrates ultimately suggests a legitimate sentence for himself—a considerable fine rendered with the help of Plato and some other friends who were in the courtroom that day (35e-38b).
The jury votes and approves the prosecution’s sentence of death (with a much larger margin of 360 to 140).
In Socrates’s parting speech (sections 38c-42a), he criticizes those who voted him ‘not guilty’ and yet voted for the sentence of death—as usual, it’s the inconsistency which is upsetting to Socrates. So, to those that voted for his total acquital, he leaves this powerful message, which the Stoics will establish as their central tenet 100 years later:
. . . keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods.Plato’s Apology 41d
Though Socrates himself faced social or institutional injustice, he remained unharmed. Socrates embodied the virtue of justice himself and no one could have stripped him of that most precious thing. Even when he was thrown in prison, he remained free. Even when he was executed and killed, he lived a good life—one that many (especially Stoics) insist is a model for human excellence. We should reflect on this person’s character and ask ourselves how we can emulate it to whatever degree possible.
Go to www.lastoics.com/socrates to learn more and read Plato’s Apology in full.