The Trial of Socrates: Finding the Root of Reason
The four dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo were all authored by Plato in order to give insight into the trial and death of the famed philosopher Socrates. Each work focuses on a different aspect of Socrates’ personal teachings and ideals, ranging from questions about piety to Socrates’ final musings about an afterlife and death itself. Throughout the dialogues, each statement made by Socrates revolves around practicality and logic. This line of reasoning often results in vague or unresolved questions, as is typical of the Socratic Method. The intention of Socrates was not to provide the answers, but to make his listeners rethink previously held-beliefs and see the error in them.
The dialogues’ main focus is Socrates’ trial, as described in Apology. Socrates chooses to address both old and new charges brought against him in order to fully prove his innocence. He is accused of corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to properly pay homage to the gods of the city. Socrates begins to refute these claims by stating, “I know that I have no wisdom.” He could not possibly teach others because he is not wise; Socrates is simply considered wise because he is aware of his own personal limitations while others are “thought to be wise by many and wiser by themselves.” However, they are simply deluded by what they think to be true. Socrates’ specific type of questioning “has made an enemy of him and of many others,” which in turn is one of the main reasons he is brought to trial because he has made a fool of many prominent society members. Socrates does not set out to make others look foolish. It is simply a result of his efforts to push the citizens of Athens to not simply accept everything they believe as fact, but to be able to defend and prove their beliefs.
Socrates, instead of addressing the charges of “corrupting the youth,” turns the question back on his accusers. Meletus, his primary accuser, claims that “every Athenian improves and elevates [the youth]; all with the exception of [Socrates].” Logically, this statement cannot be true, as one person cannot be the root of all wrong doing. Socrates, once again, likens the situation to another less complicated subject, horses. By using a different subject he shifts the accusers’ focus and makes them think of the charges in a more practical application, rather than through the vague and lofty idea of “corrupting the youth.” By doing so, he strikes down this portion of accusations.
Another element of the charges brought against Socrates focuses on the allegation that he is not paying proper homage to the gods of the city of Athens. The original charge is that Socrates is a complete atheist. Socrates quickly refutes this notion with a question: “can a man believe in divine agencies and not in spirits or demigods?” He is making the claim that someone cannot believe in demi-gods without first believing in the gods that fathered such demi-gods for the simple reason that one cannot exist without the other. Throughout the trial, Socrates relies on logical solutions to seemingly lofty questions; this method infuriates his accusers but is an effective tool for refuting both the new and old charges.
At this point, a reader could reasonably assume that Socrates would be cleared of charges and be released since he has quickly and succinctly proven the charges false. Socrates was correct in assuming that he had made many enemies in Athens because, ultimately, he is condemned to die. Even when faced with death he refuses to “desert the principles which were acknowledged by us to be just.” If Socrates is above the law due to money and connections, then the rule of the Athenian people stands for nothing and will only be followed when it proves convenient. Strangely, Socrates shows no fear and even says, “he expected his result.” For Socrates, exile is worse than death; it would require him to reject his city, his countrymen, and his purposeful questioning of those around him. Socrates goes on to claim he was convicted so that his fellow Athenians could “escape their accuser.” His countrymen felt accused because it is common in human nature to avoid what is not understood; people don’t want to face the reality that every ideal they have could be proven faulty. The reason Socrates is so calm when sentenced with death is that he has “hope that death is good.” Socrates discloses that he has two ideas about what death could be: “a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness” or a “journey to another place.” People are naturally inclined to fear death, but Socrates was not one such person. He saw death in an honest, realistic, inevitable way. Death for Socrates would be a release from his body and from the needs of the material world; he would be unable to push the Athenians to keep striving for more, but his mind and soul would be free.
Through the dialogues, Socrates’ main goal was to educate and to further the virtue of the polis. His willingness to die rather than to leave his community shows the lasting impression that Athens leaves not just for those who lived during the time period, but also for people from future generations. As a society, we look back in awe at the advancements made by ancient Greece and see pieces of our own reality looking back at us. Indeed, as a whole, humanity has repeated similar patterns; many of the political and humanitarian rights that are so prevalent today were the results of the struggles, and suffering, of men and women of reason. Even with these advancements, the people of today still share a similar goal with the ancient Greeks; we strive for the Ideal of the Polis and for a lasting legacy, moral strengths to be given to future generations.
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