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Philosophy 1301: Introduction to Philosophy
The Trial and Death of Socrates
The trial and death of Socrates are described in the following Platonic dialogues. We’ll
concentrate on the first one:
Apology – an (idealized) account of Socrates’ defense at his trial.
Crito – Socrates’ explanation for why he should submit to the jury’s prescribed
Phaedo – the final hours of Socrates; mainly focuses on four arguments for the
immortality of the soul.
• In this context, the word “apology” refers to a
formal justification or defense, not an
expression of remorse. In fact, his demeanor
during the trial can be described as audacious.
• Socrates speaks for himself, and not merely
serves as the mouthpiece for Plato.
• Socratic autobiography.
• Defense and vindication of Socrates’
philosophic way of life.
Preliminary Remarks
• Athens was a free democratic city-state that prided itself on its freedom of speech. In
engaging in philosophical debate, he was simply exercising this freedom. This freedom
would be a mockery if it didn’t extend to unpopular speech.
Socrates’ trial illustrates the conflict between politics and philosophy. Because Socrates
believed that only skilled and trained people should rule, he did not think very highly of
Athenian democracy. Socrates was viewed as a threat to society’s democratic foundation.
In a nutshell, Socrates’ defense consists of his efforts to refute the charges of impiety and
corruption by claiming that the gods mandated his philosophical mission.
o “Now this duty of cross-examining other men has been imposed upon me by God;
and has been signified to me by oracles, visions, and in every way in which the
will of divine power was ever intimated to any one.”
Socratic Maxims to Keep In Mind
• “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
o Kurt Baier: “The examined life ain’t so hot either.”
• No evil can happen to a good man in life or after death. [Apology]
• No one knowingly does wrong. [Gorgias]
o Virtue = Knowledge
o Vice = Ignorance
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o When someone commits an evil act, he always does it thinking that it is good in
some way (through a process of rationalization, perhaps).
o E.g., A thief may know that stealing is wrong, but the steals in the hope that it will
bring him happiness.
o Compare to St. Augustine: When we do something wrong, we know that it’s
wrong, but we do it anyway.
It is wrong to harm one’s enemies. [Book 1 of the Republic]
It is better to be unjustly treated than to do what is unjust.
Happiness is the ultimate human good. [Symposium and Republic]
o Compare: “Happiness in accordance with virtue.” –Aristotle
Philosophy holds the key to human happiness and welfare.
Why Were People So Upset With Socrates?
Gadfly. He questioned people’s notions of justice, piety, and beauty. Were
people insecure/apprehensive about his probing inquiries? Are there some
things that people prefer not to discuss? Some topics that you don’t bring up
in polite company (e.g., religion, politics, and sex)?
Challenged the city’s exclusive control over religious matters. How?
Community over individuality. Purported to receive divine signs.
Some of Socrates’ disciples stage political uprisings. On one occasion, the
democracy was usurped by a tyrannical dictatorship, who’s leader had been a
follower of Socrates. Guilt by association.
What Socrates could do in times of peace, he could no longer do (with
impunity) in times of political unrest. E.g., Freedom of speech in wartime.
Opening Remarks
• The dialogue starts out with Socrates defending himself against charges that have
already been brought, viz., impiety and corruption of the youth.
• Accusers warn the jury of his speaking eloquence. Fallacy: “poisoning the well”
• Many adversaries throughout his life, so nothing new. E.g., Aristophanes.
• Typical remarks of any convicted person.
Two Types of Accusers
Ancient Accusers
• Replacing the traditional gods with natural forces.
o Compare: Creation vs. Evolution
• Turning a weak argument into a strong one. (Sophists?)
o “Socrates is an evil doer, and a curious person, who searches into things
under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better
• Accused of charging a fee for instructions and of making the weaker argument the
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o “[I]f a man were really able to instruct mankind, to receive money for
giving instruction would, in my opinion, be an honor to him.” But Socrates
doesn’t claim to possess such marketable knowledge.
o Confusing him with the Sophists1.
o Sophists took a relativistic stance on morality, while Socrates had an
absolute stance, as evidence by his inquiry of piety, justice, etc.
Side note: Not recommended to reveal prior (incriminating) accusations!
True motivation:
o Earned bad reputation for exposing people’s ignorance; made them look
o “[T]his reputation of mine has come to a certain sort of wisdom which I
possess. If you ask me what kind of wisdom, I reply, wisdom such as may
perhaps be attained by man, for to that extent I am inclined to believe that
I am wise.”
â–ª Oracle of Delphi.
â–ª Politicians, poets, artists, craftsman.
o “This inquisition has led to my having
many enemies of the worst and most
dangerous kind . . . .”
o Did Socrates claim that these people
weren’t knowledgeable at all? No.
o Did he claim that he knew the answers
to the questions he raised? No.
Some of his followers have imitated his example of questioning others. Guilt by
Recent Accusers
â–ª Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon
• Impiety
o I.e., neglecting the gods of the state, and introducing
new divinities of his own.
o E.g., in the Euthyphro, he questions the rationality of
making sacrifices to the gods.
• Corruption of the young
o I.e., leading them away from democratic ideals.
Modern meaning of “sophist” is a person skilled in elaborate and devious argumentation; one who engages in
plausible but fallacious argumentation.
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o Followers involved in political uprising. Guilt by
o Compare: Bertrand Russell, Peter Singer
Denies these allegations.
Against the charge of being an evildoer, Socrates turns the table and attempts to show
that Meletus is the evil one. Unpersuasive.
o Dodges the accusation.
o Socrates efforts don’t prove that Socrates is not an evildoer; only that Meletus
o Essentially, Socrates entraps Meletus
Shouldn’t consider the prospect of life or death when determining whether an action is
right or wrong: “And you are not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is
likely to bring you to an untimely end?”
o But is this wise?
o Compare two scenarios:
â–ª If Socrates was so valuable to Athenian society, wouldn’t it be better
for him to survive and advance his views rather than capitulate and
â–ª Hiding Jews from Nazi searches.
Exhortation against Material Pursuits
• “[A]re you not ashamed of heaping up the greatest amount of money and honour
and reputation, and caring so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest
improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”
• Primary pursuit of material wealth corrupts the kind of person that you are.
o If you agree that wealth is corrupting, in what way is it corrupting?
o Does it depend on person or circumstances?
• Philosophy (i.e., examining one’s life) brings real happiness.
• Antagonizes jury.
“I would have you know, that if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more
than you will injure me.”
• Innocent of the charges; valuable member of society.
• Society will be deprived of a gadfly:
o “For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use
such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God;
and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his
very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has
attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon
you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find
another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.”
• Does this illustrate the Socratic maxim: “No evil can happen to a good man in life or
after death?” Do you think this maxim is true?
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Why Doesn’t Socrates Enter Public Service?
• Divine sign warns him to avoid public service.
• If he does, life will be short. Politician must compromise his moral integrity.
Emotional plea
• Refuses to bring in wife, children, or relatives to plead on his behalf.
• Convict on merits of the case alone; no appeal to pity.
Jury found him guilty! (Surprised?)
Bifurcated trial
Guilt phase and penalty phase.
Guilt Phase
Socrates wasn’t so much surprised that he was indicted as he was with the small minority
that convicted him. If you recall, he stated that had thirty (30) people voted differently,
the outcome would have been different.
There are usually about 500 jurors in an Athenian criminal trial (as opposed to our 12)!
If the jury is evenly split, then the verdict is ruled in favor of the accused. This means
that Socrates could have been found “not guilty” by the jury.
Penalty Phase
• What does Socrates suggest for his own punishment?
o Declared a civic hero.
Pyrataneum – a celebration hall dedicated to Olympic champions.
o Pay one mina
o Finally, his friends suggest thirty minae, but too late.
360 jurists voted for the death penalty. This means that 80 people who originally voted
to acquit him are now voting to have him executed!
Socrates’ Reaction To The Death Sentence
• Calm and collected.
• Doesn’t engage in hysteria.
• Refuses to go into exile, for that would be disobeying God.
• His divine voice has not interfered all day long, so he takes this silence to be approval.
Death and the Afterlife
• Doesn’t fear death.
Either death will be
• “a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness;”
o Feel no pain.
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“a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”
o Opportunity to continue his philosophical inquiry in the next
• So death is either total nonexistence or transmigration of the soul. Which
one does he prefer?
Only fear what we have knowledge of. Since no knowledge of death, no fear of
it. Akin to “ignorance is bliss”?
Closing Remarks
Instructions to the jury to reproach his sons like he’s reproached the Athenian people.
How Did He Die?
Suicide by poisonous hemlock.
Questions To Think About:
Was Socrates asking for it?
• Arrogant, audacious
• Antagonized the jury
• Not change his message even if he has to die a hundred deaths.
• Insisted on order in the court.
• Hearing without interruption.
Could he have escaped the guilty verdict or the death penalty had he really wanted to?
• By couching his defense in terms of free speech.
• Show some deference to the jury; less arrogant.
Should Socrates have tried to live in order to perpetuate his missions instead of dying
and becoming a martyr?
Would Socrates be guilty of any crimes under today’s laws (impiety and corrupting
the minds of young people)?
What Can We Learn From Socrates’ Life and Death?
• Is there any cause/principle/belief for which we will die?
• He’s been compared to a modern-day street preacher.
• In contradistinction to the pre-Socratics, Socrates focused attention on the human
condition instead of the physical universe.
• Socrates was an archetypal thinker, a quintessential model of rational inquiry.
• Socrates was committed to making our actions reflect our convictions.
• Socrates believed that philosophical inquiry was a social activity.
• Socrates was a heroic martyr to critical thinking and virtuous living.
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