Truth and Death
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ views on death (in that he does not fear it) result in his defense being more about being righteous and showing the truth rather than actually defending himself. This legitimizes his defense because he is not simply saying whatever he can to avoid punishment. Socrates is a sophist whose profession is to try to find truths, or to correct false beliefs, in himself and others. This might help explain why he is so steadfast in his pursuit of the truth despite it possibly resulting in hurting him. This is shown in Socrates’ strategy in “defending” himself, which basically runs in a pattern of him denying that the accusation against him is true, giving his reasoning, then disproving his own reasoning for why the accusation was false. This hurts his case obviously but supports the truth. At the end of the Apology, Socrates claims that he does not fear death, only villainy (or unrighteousness), which explains his earlier strategies that appeared to only be damaging to him. In fact they were not damaging to him because they helped to prioritize the truth. Although at times he may contradict himself and therefore have “lied” originally, the contradiction ends up bringing out the real truth. No matter what the effects are, Socrates would rather be honest about his philosophizing, even if very subtly, than to say what the court wants to hear in order to get himself acquitted.
Although Socrates’ discussion of how he does not fear death comes later on in the trial, it is important to understand his views on death before considering his earlier arguments, as they help to explain them. Socrates says that he does not fear death in his defense of his belief in the Gods, saying that “to fear death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so. For it is to seem to know what one does not know: no one knows whether death does not even happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being.” (29a). One of Socrates’ most famous claims is that he does not know anything (although this is highly questionable), and what he says about death is no different. Socrates does not fear death in this case because there is no evidence that it is actually a bad thing. His other reasoning that he gives both before and after claiming to know nothing about death is that it is foolish to fear death and more important to consider right and wrong. He says in response to the question of if he fears the death penalty that “What you say is ignoble, fellow if you suppose that a man who is of even a little benefit should take into account the danger of living or dying, but not rather consider this alone whenever he acts: whether his actions are just or unjust, and the deeds of a good man or a bad.” (28b-c). He echoes this sentiment after he is given the death penalty when he says that “I suspect it is not hard, men, to escape death, but it is much harder to escape villainy. For it runs faster than death.” (39a-b). Socrates sees that he could escape death and acknowledges that it would not be hard. However in both quotations he firmly states that worrying over or prioritizing death is pointless. Escaping villainy, acting rightly, and doing good deeds are what men should hold to be most important. Clearly Socrates views on death are that it is not only illogical and unsupported by any evidence, but that it is not conducive in helping one to be a righteous person, which is what people should strive for above all.
Socrates’ lack of fear of death then explains his defense, it explains why throughout the trial Socrates continually contradicts himself, seemingly against his own case, effectively admitting to many of the accusations against him. For example, one of Socrates’ defenses revolves around the Oracle when he is trying to refute the old charge that he is a wise guy. Socrates recounts that his friend Chaerephon went to the Oracle and “asked whether there was anyone wiser than I. The Pythia replied that no one was wiser.” (21a). Later on however, after Socrates describes how he went around to different groups of men to try to find someone more wise than he, he claims that “this is the examination, men of Athens, from which I have incurred many hatreds, the sort that are harshest and gravest, so that a many slanders have arisen from them, and I got this name of being ‘wise.’” (22e-23a). This makes no sense though, as there would have been no reason for Chaerephon to have gone to the Oracle to ask if Socrates was wise if he were not already referred to as such before his inquiries with other men. Socrates contradicts himself with this reasoning, showing that he truly is a wise guy and that his own argument against the accusation made no sense. This is just one example of many, as Socrates also claims to never have been in court, but then comments on what is typical of the law of courts. He claims not to be teaching (and therefore corrupting) the youth because he doesn’t accept a fee which is a bad argument to begin with, but then says that he makes money through donations from his students. He claims to believe in the Gods of the city and do what he does because the Oracle told him to philosophize, but he has already said that all the Oracle said (not even to him, to Chaerephon) was that no one was wiser than he. These examples of him “lying” actually bring out the real truths that he does teach, he has been in a court of law, and he does not, at least to some extent, respect the Gods. These arguments show him to be guilty of what he is accused of. So why does he make them? Because they are the truth, and as seen in Socrates’ view on death, the truth is more important than escaping death. Once this is taken into account, his arguments actually begin to make sense considering he prioritizes admitting to the truth about who he is rather than lying to avoid the death penalty, even if lying might actually be a better defense for himself. By showing the truth to the jury here, he escapes the “villainy” that runs faster than death. He takes into account only whether his defense is just or unjust rather than focusing on the result of it. This makes what he is saying more legitimate because he is saying what he truly believes, not what will get him a certain result from the trial. It also provokes the jury to do the same and consider not so much whether he has broken the law, which he effectively admits to in his contradictions of himself, but to whether what he has done is right or wrong. Socrates defense contradicts itself and he argues the way that he does because he is focused on truth in the case, not the result (death).
In the Apology Socrates’ arguments appear on the surface not to make much sense. That’s because they’re not supposed to. Socrates purposefully contradicts himself in his defense, although very subtly, so that those who can understand the truth can see it. Death, Socrates believes, is unimportant compared to being truthful, just, and righteous. The way Socrates constructs his defense is contradictory and damaging to his case, but it is ultimately truthful, and comes as a result of his view that avoiding death is not as important as giving the truth.
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In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ views on death (in that he does not fear it) result in his defense being more about being righteous and showing the truth rather than actually […]