Sunday, September 10, 2006

Y13 Classics: I adapted this slightly from a philosophy website called ‘Age of the Sage’. Paste this link into your browser if you want to look at the original site- it is a short but properly scholarly treatment of the subject and worth reading.

The Trial and Death of Socrates
Socrates’ Apology

A friend, in consulting the Oracle at Delphi, asked was any man wiser than Socrates. The Oracle replied that there were not!!! Upon being told of this answer Socrates maintained that this implied that he, alone, had this claim to wisdom - that he fully recognised his own ignorance.
From that time he sought out people who had a reputation for wisdom and, in every case, was able to reveal that their reputations were not justified. Socrates regarded this behaviour as a service to God and decided that he should continue to make efforts to improve people by persuading and reminding them of their own ignorance. What we now call the "Socratic method" of philosophical inquiry involved questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through further questions into seemingly inevitable contradictions, thus proving to them that their original assertion had fatal inconsistencies. Socrates refers to this "Socratic method" as elenchus. The Socratic method gave rise to dialectic, the idea that truth needs to be approached by modifying one's position through questionings and exposures to contrary ideas. Socrates did not seek to involve himself in the political life of Athens as he felt that there would inevitably be compromises of principle that he was not prepared to make. As a prominent citizen he was called upon to fulfil minor political roles where his sense of principle had caused him to place himself in some personal danger by holding out alone against the unconstitutional condemnation of certain generals. He later refused to participate in the arrest of an innocent man that had been ordered by a corrupt body of "Thirty Tyrants" who ruled Athens in the wake of her defeat by Sparta. This refusal might have cost Socrates his life but for the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants and a restoration of democracy.
This restored democracy was however markedly traditionalist and reactionary in its religious views - this led it to see Socrates, as a teacher of novel ideas of morality and justice, with some disfavour. Socrates had also alienated many powerful men by acting as a relentlessly questioning gadfly causing them to face their personal ignorance or own to shortfalls in office. In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of "impiety" and of "neglect of the Gods whom the city worships and the practise of religious novelties" and of the "corruption of the young". The trial, last days, and death of Socrates are successively related in several works by Plato. These works are the Apology (i.e. Defence Speech), Euthyphro, Crito and Phaedo

The last days of Socrates

The Apology (defence speech) consists of three speeches made by Socrates at his trial before a jury of five hundred or so Athenians who had gathered to hear him answer the charges. He had not prepared any defence but, being sure in his own mind that he was innocent, was hoping that his words of truth would secure an acquittal. He at this time was more than seventy years of age and he asked the jury to make allowances if he spoke in the sort of language he might use in discussions in the market-place as he was unfamiliar with law courts and the stylised language used in formal trials.

Plato - Apologythe first speech

Socrates told the jury that he thought that he had two sets of accusers, old and new, and that the old accusers he feared moreso and wished to present a defence against first of all. Socrates saw these old accusers as being influenced by prejudiced opinions that he had indulged in natural philosophy physical speculations or took money as a teacher. Those who indulged in physical speculations were routinely assumed to recognise no Gods. In earlier days a play by Aristophanes had featured a character named Socrates who seemed to be such a person but Socrates called on those assembled at his trial to produce evidence that he, the real Socrates, had ever taught along those lines In response to the idea that he took money as a teacher Socrates insisted that the life he led had brought him utter poverty rather than monetary reward. He lived that life in response to what the Pythian prophetess at Delphi had told his friend Chaerephon:- that no one was wiser than Socrates. Socrates suggested that he had made many abiding enemies by personally approaching people who had reputions for wisdom only to reveal through questionings that their wisdom was specious. Others had been alienated by young persons who had witnessed Socrates' methods of questioning similarly revealing yet other people's pretensions to wisdom to be baseless. Socrates made the case that his questions had tended to vindicate the utterance of the Oracle at Delphi by showing that he, Socrates, did indeed have a particular claim to Wisdom in that he at least fully recognised his own ignorance.
Socrates then addressed his new accusers in the form of Meletus the prosecutor. These new accusers accused Socrates of Impiety, of neglecting the Gods approved by the state, and, of introducing new divinities. Meletus, who was obliged to answer Socrates' questions delivered before the jury eventually commited himself to a straight assertion that Socrates was a complete atheist. Socrates then showed the fatal contradiction in Meletus accusation - how does someone whom the prosecution holds to be a complete atheist come to be accused of introducing new divinities or religious novelties. Having exposed the contradictions in the "new accusations" Socrates again mentioned that he feared his old accusers - those who had their pretensions exposed in the past - moreso than the new.
As the trial continued Socrates insisted that he had lived his life the way he had in response to God calling him to fulfill a philosophic mission. Even were he faced with death as an alternative, (death might for all we can know be a great relase into good), Socrates insisted that he would not give any undertaking to cease from moral teachings designed to encourage people to pay great attention to the "improvement of the soul". Socrates went so far as to suggest that if the Athenians sentenced him to death that it would be a sin against God. God had made him into a sort of Gadfly that was intended to stir the Athenian state into moral improvement. Socrates response to this call from God was to live a life of an unpaid teacher and he was in a state of utter poverty through neglect of private affairs.
Socrates maintained that he has long lived with an inner "oracle or sign" that occasionally forbade him from following certain actions and reminded the jury of the real danger that he put himself at the time of the unconstitutional trial of the generals and again when he refused to obey the Thirty Tyrants over the arrest of an innocent man. Socrates' great concern was not to avoid danger that might arise by alienating the powerful but rather to avoid committing any unrighteous or unholy act. Socrates then spoke of his followers stating that they enjoyed hearing his cross-questioning of those with pretensions to wisdom and that Meletus was making no effort to call any of them as witnesses for the prosecution. As to his family Socrates said that whilst it is far from unknown for accused persons to bring their tearful families to the attention of the court as an argument for leniency he, Socrates, could only regard such behaviours as being discreditable. Socrates hopes that his arguments alone will convince the court of his innocence and will not resort to such devices. In the event the five hundred or so strong jury before which Socrates was standing trial found him guilty by a narrow majority of sixty. Meletus moved that the sentence should be death, in reply Socrates had the right to propose a sentence that the court might select as an alternative.
This is the subject of the second speech in Plato's Apology

The last days of Socrates
Plato - Apologythe second speech

Towards the end of the first speech of the Apology Plato relates that the five hundred or so strong jury before which Socrates was standing trial found him guilty by a narrow majority of sixty. Meletus moved that the sentence should be death, in reply Socrates had the right to propose a sentence that the court might select as an alternative.
This is the subject of the second speech:- Although now an officially guilty man Socrates, true to his own estimation of his past actions, suggested that he has actually done great good to the state and that he deserved reward rather than punishment!!!
The trial jury was asked to entertain the idea that he, Socrates, should be maintained at public expense, such as was awarded to famous Olympian charioteers, so that he would have leisure to impart beneficial instruction. Socrates then backtracked a little from this suggestion, reminded the court that no one actually knew if death was a disaster or a release, and said that he was reluctant to suggest a real penalty in preference to death which might be a blessing. He had no money to pay any fine, he did not feel he deserved imprisonment, exile would bring great uncertainties for a man who even in a foreign city was bound to continue to instuct towards the "improvement of the soul".
Socrates openly suggested that he could himself pay a small fine of one Mina but that his friends were prepared to pay, on his behalf, a fine of thirty Minae.
In the event the trial jury thought that Socrates proposed alternative - the fine of thirty minae - was significantly too lenient and voted for the sentence of death rather than the fine being imposed and voted that way by an increased majority.
Plato - Apologythe third speech
Socrates asked those who had voted in favour of his being guilty to bear in mind that, even though he did not consider himself to be wise, the rivals of Athens would say that the Athenians had ordered the death of a wise man who lived among them. He also reminded those who had condemned him that although he was not to be around much longer as a Gadfly other, younger, and possibly less considerate, people might well fulfil the same role in the future. To those who had voted in favour of his being declared innocent Socrates gave assurances that he was not afraid of death, his sure guide - the inner Oracle or sign, - had not made its presence felt in ways that would have led him to believe he was on a wrong path. Whether death led to a state of utter unconciousness or else to a transmigration of the soul Socrates foresaw something that would be not completely unwelcome. To go into an eternity of a single, quiet, night or else to have the opportunity as a transmigrated soul to converse with, and to question, the heroes in Hades. Amongst his closing remarks Socrates asked his friends there present to visit punishments and troubles on his three sons if they seemed to care more about riches than about virtue, or if they seemed to be pretentious.
Socrates' closing words in this third speech of Plato's Apology being:-
The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways - I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.
In most circumstances Socrates would have been obliged to submit to execution by drinking the deadly poison Hemlock within twenty four hours of his sentence. It happened however that executions were traditionally suspended whilst a certain sacred ship made an annual voyage to the Island of Delos. This ship was presently on the seas and this allowed a certain stay of execution. The ensuing events are related by Plato in his Euthyphro and Crito
The last days of Socrates

Plato - The Euthyphro

In his Apology Plato relates the trial and sentencing of Socrates - The sentence being that of death by imbibing a fatal poison.
In most circumstances Socrates would have been obliged to submit to execution by drinking the deadly poison Hemlock within twenty four hours of his sentence. It happened however that executions were traditionally suspended whilst a certain sacred ship made an annual voyage to the Island of Delos. This ship was presently on the seas and this allowed a certain stay of execution. Plato continues his relation of the last days of Socrates by presenting him in the days immediately following the trial in his "The Euthyphro". In the Euthyphro the reader is presented with an example of the Socratic method of enquiry. The Euthyphro opens with both Socrates and Euthyphro being present at the door of a King Archon prior to the presentation of law suits. Socrates' case arises from his being accused by one Meletus, (who is described as having a beak, long straight hair, and an ill grown beard), of corruption of the young. Euthyphro's case arises out of Euthyphro having accused his father of the murder of a servant. Euthyphro's case gives rise to a long discussion about the nature of Piety and Impiety. Socrates seems to hope that Euthyphro can shed some light of the nature of Piety and Impiety which could be of the greatest use in his trial against Meletus. In the event the Socratic dialogue shows the extreme difficulty of achieving a satisfactory definition of Piety and Impiety. The Euthyphro does not shed much light on Socrates' character or philosophy but does show how relentless questionings such as Socrates cultivated in a search for the good and the true could well have an unsettling effect on persons who thought that they had a grasp on such things as what Piety or Impiety might be.
Plato - The Crito
Plato's relation of the last days of Socrates continues in the Crito which deals with the imminent arrival of the sacred ship back from its voyage to Delos. Crito visits Socrates in prison and finds him apparently untroubled by the prospect of his imminent demise. Socrates tells Crito of a dream in which a fair and comely woman clothed in white had advised that he, Socrates, had but three days of this life remaining before "to Phthia shalt thou go"
Although Socrates' friends offer him a sure escape to Thessaly Socrates insists that he cannot return evil for evil. He has a duty to respect the due process of the Law in the city that had nurtured him. The final episode in Socrates life is related in the Phaedro
The last days of Socrates

Plato - The Phaedo

As related in the Crito Socrates is imprisoned awaiting the time when a sacred ship returns from Delos as this will lift a prohibition on the completion of the sentence he faces - the drinking of the fatal poison - Hemlock. Socrates' friends offer him a sure escape to Thessaly but Socrates insists that he cannot return evil for evil. He has a duty to respect the due process of the Law in the city that had nurtured him. The very last days of Socrates are related in Plato's the Phaedo. The sacred ship has arrived back from Delos, Socrates shackles are removed and he is allowed a final visit from his weeping wife Xanthippe who has brought with her their infant son in her arms.
Following Xanthippe's visit Socrates' final hours were spent in discussion with a group of his friends, the subjects of discussion including "the immortality of the soul". This discussion was later written about by Plato who was not actually present on this last day possibly because his own distress might well have disappointed his friend Socrates.
The discussions set out in the Phaedo feature a justification of a life lived with a view to the "cultivation of the Soul". The Orphic and Pythagorean faith background against which Socrates lives accepted the deathlessness of ths Soul, and accepted physical death as also involving the release of the Soul. Where a person had lived a good life, - had cultivated their Soul, - they were held to merit a far more pleasant situation in an afterlife reincarnation than where a person had led a bad life. The very fact of belief in an afterlife making the cultivation of the Soul a matter of the utmost importance. People were deemed to be "chattels of God" however and were not deemed to be free to seeking induction into the afterlife by taking their own lives. Crito asks Socrates in what way would he like to be buried. Socrates replied that he would be happy to be buried any way Crito likes, provided the Crito can get get hold of him and takes care that he does not walk away.
Socrates then addressed the whole company present and smilingly commented that Crito had difficulty in perceiving that the real Socrates would soon depart to the joys of the blessed and that only his body would remain to be buried. Socrates went into the bath chamber in order to wash and save the womenfolk the task of washing his body after death. While he was gone his friends considered amongst thenselves how like a father Socrates was to them and how like orphans they would be before long. After a final visit from Socrates sons and womenfolk just before sunset a jailer entered and respectfully and tearfully told Socrates that the time was come for him to drink the cup of Hemlock. Shortly thereafter the Hemlock was brought to Socrates who drank it as if a libation to the Gods. Socrates upbraided some of his assembled friends for the extremity of their distress.
As was usual in such cases Socrates was required to walk about a little until a certain heaviness, due to the effects of the Hemlock, crept into his legs. Thereafter condemned persons could expect their bodies to be increasingly overtaken by a fatal numbness.
Just before his death Socrates last words were:-
Crito, we owe a cockerel to Aesculapius; please pay it and don't let it pass.
Aesculapius was the God of Medicine and these words implied that Socrates felt that he owed a debt to the God of Medicine because of the cup of Hemlock he had just drunk. After Socrates' death opinion in Athens turned against his accusers


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