Most defendants in a capital case have the singular goal of saving their own lives. With Socrates, we get a different impression. Although he would have no doubt welcomed an acquittal, we get the sense that Socrates’ primary goal was to enlighten those in the Athenian courtroom the day of his trial – to encourage them to seek the truth – since he was always the consummate teacher.
In this post, I am going to comment on highlights from Socrates’ trial as found in Plato’s dialogue, Apology. The entire dialogue is Plato’s account of the seventy-year-old Socrates’ trial and the defense he put on. It is believed to be a reliable account since the young Plato was an eyewitness (34a, 38b). All quotations and some of the insights of Apology are taken from the featured book below that contains five of Plato’s early dialogues. If you are new to philosophy, these dialogues are a perfect place to start since they are not only easy to understand, but contain captivating drama as well since Plato was an excellent dramatist.
If you would like historical background on Socrates’ life, please see the posts with links provided in the bibliography section after the post. These posts will answer all of your questions on why Socrates was on trial in the first place and the significance of his trial and conviction for Western Civilization.
The Trial of Socrates
Athenian trials were much different from those of modern times in the U.S. We are used to a jury consisting of twelve people for a trial and up to twenty-three people for a grand jury. The Athenian trial jury such as that of Socrates numbered five hundred and one Athenian citizens. A jury of that size would certainly be unwieldy and preclude any serious discussion of the evidence. The prosecutor would first make his case and then the defendant. After that, the jury would basically vote guilty or innocent. If a guilty vote was rendered, the jury would weigh in a second time, this time as judge, and pronounce a sentence. Prior to the sentencing, the prosecutor would recommend what he thought the sentence should be and the defendant would make counterarguments.
Plato’s early dialogues, of which the Apology is a part, were written after Socrates’ death, with the Apology most likely being written soon after his execution while the events of the trial and words of Socrates’ defense were still fresh. The early dialogues all center around Socrates, as if Plato were paying due respect and honor to his teacher whom he greatly admired. With the Apology, we get a vivid portrait of Socrates, with his humility, virtue, and spirituality on display for all to see, painted in words by the artistry of Plato. With so many eyewitnesses to the trial, Plato would have most likely done his best to preserve what really happened.
It is also noteworthy that in the seventy years he had lived, this was Socrates’ first time in court. There were two formal charges against Socrates: impiety against the gods and corrupting the youth, both of which will be discussed below.
There are three parts to Plato’s Apology. Part one (17a-35d) is the major part consisting of the main speech. Part two (35e-38b) is the counter-assessment, and part three (38e-42a) includes the last words to the jury.
A Note About the Jury
As mentioned above, the jury consisted of five hundred and one Athenian citizens. These were males, thirty years of age or older, who presented themselves on any given day for jury duty. I don’t know why the one extra was needed. How often could there have been a tie among five hundred people? The jurors were chosen by lot. Athens was a democracy at this time, so the jury in effect represented the people of Athens. When anyone addressed the jury, they were addressing the people, and when the jury rendered a verdict, it was the people rendering the verdict.
Plato’s Apology, Part One: The Main Speech
The dialogue opens with the following statement from Socrates:
I do not know, men of Athens, how my accusers affected you; as for me, I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they say is true.– 17a
Socrates uses sarcasm, an often used manner of speech among the Greeks, for effect. In beginning his defense, Socrates comes out of the gates with a strong denial of his accusers’ accusations. Instead of addressing the jury the conventional way with “gentlemen of the jury,” he instead addresses them as “men of Athens.” He says later (40a) that only the men who voted to acquit him deserved that honor. The lesson here is that being humble does not mean that one does not stand up for and defend oneself.
From me you will hear the whole truth, though not, by Zeus, gentlemen, expressed in stylized phrases like theirs….– 17b
Here and in other places, Socrates compares his accusers’ speech to sophistry and so makes a strong juxtaposition between the truth that he speaks with the sophistry of his opponents. Using the word “gentlemen” seems to imply that he is accusing his opponents to those of the jury that were inclined to acquit him.
Socrates continues with his defense and proceeds to talk about two groups of accusers, the more recent ones being very formidable. The early ones are numerous and have been around for a long time, so long, in fact, that they had influenced some of the men sitting on the jury against Socrates when they were children and adolescents. They accused Socrates of not believing in the gods since he was a student “of all things in the sky and below the earth.” These accusers have done their damage and now are nowhere to be found on the day of Socrates’ trial. Fighting against them is like fighting with shadows.
At the end of his introduction, Socrates states the following:
Even so, let the matter proceed as God may wish, but I must obey the law and make my defense.– 19a
A couple things are worth mentioning. Socrates invokes the divine throughout his defense, always aware of an order higher than man. Secondly, he believed in the principle of justice as well as the particular system of justice at Athens, however tainted it may have been. Socrates could have easily left Athens before his trial, which is what the Athenian politicians had probably hoped so as to avoid a messy trial, but he chose not to because he didn’t want to circumvent justice. Doing such a thing after years of teaching on such matters would have made him a hypocrite. Besides, if no one had faith in the justice system, despite its inequities and corruption, then the fabric of society would unravel. Imperfect justice is better than no justice at all, which is anarchy. Moreover, it’s obvious from Socrates’ defense that he realized everything is ultimately under God’s control.
Let us then take up the case from the beginning. What is the accusation from which arose the slander which Meletus trusted when he wrote out the charge against me?– 19a-b
Meletus was the prosecutor bringing a charge against Socrates. Please read post 64 to learn more about this character. In essence, he was acting at the behest of Socrates’ arch-enemy, the powerful politician Anytus (18b). By prosecuting Socrates and hopefully obtaining a conviction, Miletus sought to score points with Anytus and climb the political ladder. Nothing has changed in over two thousand years!
What did they say when they slandered me? . . . It goes something like this: Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below on the earth; he makes the worse the stronger argument, and he teaches these same things to others…but, gentlemen, I have no part in it…. Not one of [these accusations] is true.– 19b-d
Socrates goes on to say that there is nothing wrong with being a natural scientist, i.e., someone who studies the “things in the sky and below the earth.” Even if that were true, it does not mean he would be an atheist – a stretch for sure. This is the same charge they leveled against the Presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras, but he fled Athens rather than be prosecuted for impiety.
Socrates’ opponents are grasping at straws. In regard to natural science, Socrates claims he knows nothing but that even if he did, there is nothing wrong with such knowledge.
The interesting point above is that he is accused of “making the worse the stronger argument.” This was a common phrase to describe sophistry. They would take the weaker argument and through word twisting and manipulation, they would make it prevail over the stronger so that they or their client would win the day in court. The irony here is that the very enemies accusing Socrates of being a Sophist were using Sophist arguments themselves! This is the oldest tactic in the book – accusing your enemy of the very thing that you are doing. Modern Marxists have perfected this technique and it is ubiquitous in politics today.
Socrates and the Oracle at Delphi
Socrates then talks about his unusual occupation and how it has fostered rumors, accusations, and slander throughout the years since it is indeed very uncommon. Socrates then says something very odd about himself as he takes another sarcastic jab at his accusers:
What has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom? Human wisdom, perhaps. It may be that I really possess this, while those whom I mentioned just now are wise with a wisdom more than human; else I cannot explain it, for I certainly do not possess it and whoever says I do is lying and speaks to slander me . . . I shall call upon the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such.– 20c-21a
Socrates proceeds to tell a very interesting story about how Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates’ youth who is now deceased, had inquired of the Oracle at Delphi if there were any man wiser than Socrates. Pythia the priestess replied that there was no one wiser than Socrates! Socrates was flummoxed at the answer:
When I heard this reply I asked myself: “What ever does God mean? What is the riddle? I am very conscious that I am not wise at all; what then does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? For surely he does not lie; it is not legitimate for him to do so.”– 21b
Socrates was perplexed until finally he decided to conduct an investigation, albeit reluctantly for he knew that it would entail many difficulties. He proceeded, as he says, systematically, starting with those who had a high reputation for wisdom and proceeding downward. As he did, he found something amazing:
I experienced something like this: In my investigation in the service of the god I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable.– 22a
He started with the politicians first. After all, those who govern an entire polis (nation, in modern times) ought to have the most wisdom since they have the most responsibility. Socrates found that they knew the least. Nothing has changed, either!
After that, he interviewed poets, writers, and eventually craftsmen, hoping to find someone wiser than he. Socrates admitted that he did not know much, but he started to realize that that made him wiser than the rest since he was aware of his ignorance, whereas nobody else was. After interviewing a public figure who had a reputation for wisdom, he states:
I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know what I do not know.– 21d
He found that the craftsmen at least had wisdom in their respective fields, but because of that, they thought themselves wise in greater matters as well – which disqualified them from being truly wise. As he wrapped up his investigation, Socrates finally comes to his conclusion of the matter, one that we would all do well to consider:
What is probable, gentlemen, is that fact God is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: “This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.”– 23a-b
Socrates was to serve as an example for others to follow, rather than being an isolated case. The lesson is that only God is wise, and if we are to gain wisdom, we must admit our ignorance and turn to Him. Consider these two verses:
Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.– Proverbs 26:12
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.– Proverbs 9:10
When Solomon became the king of Israel, he asked for that which he lacked but knew to be essential for governing a nation well: wisdom. Socrates teaches us in Plato’s Apology that if we are to be wise, we must admit our ignorance and turn to the only wise God.
Socrates Makes Enemies
As you can imagine, this was not a very popular approach. Who likes being told that they are not wise when they were under the impression that they were? Regardless of the difficulties, he now had a higher calling, to verify the truth of what the divine oracle revealed, and he dedicated the rest of his life to that mission. But, as he states, it came with a very high price. When Socrates tried to convince a person of high standing that even though he thought he was wise but really wasn’t, he stated that the man came to dislike him and so did many of the bystanders. He also stated:
After I proceeded systematically, I realized, to my sorrow and alarm, that I was getting unpopular, but I thought that I must attach the greatest importance to God’s oracle . . . As a result of this investigation, men of Athens, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people . . . [who] are ambitious, violent, and numerous.– 21e, 22e-23a, 23e
This shows a side of Socrates that we normally don’t think about. We think of him as a man on a mission, and as such that he was impervious to personal attacks. Nothing could be further from the truth and Plato’s Apology makes that clear. Even though he was a man on a mission, he was also human and felt every insult and slander hurled against him. He reminds me of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who, like Socrates, was a man sent from God to point out the shortcomings of His people. As a result, he found himself at the receiving end of vituperation and threats on his life, much of which he had to endure alone.
If a movie were ever made about Socrates’ life, it would be important to bring out Socrates’ human side and the intense suffering that he endured. Could Socrates be portrayed as the weeping philosopher as Jeremiah was the weeping prophet? And the fact that he was hated for merely questioning the so-called wisdom of his day, a movie about his life would certainly be an indictment on our contemporary cancel culture. Here is another poignant passage from Plato’s Apology illustrating, like a modern missionary, that he gave up all for obedience to his divine mission:
So even now I continue this investigation as God bade me – and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of God and show him that he is not wise. Because of this occupation, I do not have the leisure to engage in public affairs to any extent, nor indeed to look after my own, but I live in great poverty because of my service to God.– 23b
In society, there are prophets and politicians. Prophets speak the truth and are thus marginalized and hated. Politicians speak anything but the truth in order to garner favor from the people and the spoils of the system. Politicians are in abundance, while prophets are a rare breed, even amongst the bishops and clergy. But one successful prophet can counteract the effect of hundreds of politicians, but like Socrates, they have to be willing to pay the price.
Socrates “Corrupts” the Youth
If I were to write a script for a Socrates movie, the movie would open abruptly with much noise and commotion on the streets of Athens as a group of young people were following Socrates while on his way to debate with a local politician who thought himself wise. Older people, too would be pushing and shoving their way through the crowd in order to try to get a front row seat to the event. This type of scene would immediately dispel the stereotype of the philosopher as a contemplative recluse or an ivory tower academic by showing the example of Socrates who was continually engaged with the people in order to make a positive difference.
Anyway, at this point in his defense, Socrates states something very intriguing about the youth of Athens:
Furthermore, the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others. I think they find an abundance of men who believe they have some knowledge but know little or nothing. The result is that those whom they question are angry, not with themselves, but with me.– 23c
Now we see the true reason for the bogus charge of corrupting the youth. Socrates was making disciples, and not just ordinary disciples, but of the youth of the city who were the children of rich and powerful people. One Socrates is bad enough, but a whole of gaggle of young Socrateses who would multiply Socrates’ effect throughout Athens – can you imagine these young men questioning their influential parents on the nature of justice and finding out that they knew nothing? It is really the story of the emperor has no clothes, and Socrates was the only one brave enough to point that out to those willing to listen.
In regard to those who would accuse him of corrupting the youth, Socrates states the following:
If one asks them what [I do and what I teach] to corrupt them, they are silent, as they do not know, but, so as not to appear at a loss, they mention those accusations that are available against all philosophers….– 23d
These are the same accusations as mentioned above, that of being a natural philosopher or scientist who did not believe in the gods and of being a Sophist. These are very non-specific charges that are impossible to substantiate. And really, they tried to strengthen their arguments by conflating the two charges and making it difficult to launch any real defense: Socrates was an atheist who attempted to corrupt the youth by spreading his atheism to them.
Socrates Questions Meletus the Prosecutor
Finally, halfway through his defense, Socrates does what he does best: ask questions (24c-27d). He departs from the standard procedure of making a defense through monologue and asks the jury if he could proceed “in his usual manner,” i.e., asking questions.
In Plato’s Apology, we see again that Meletus stated that he brought these charges against Socrates because he is concerned about the youth. Socrates’ questioning reveals that, in his personal life, Meletus has never shown any indication of caring for young people. Why would someone who has never cared about the youth suddenly care enough to bring charges against Socrates of corrupting the youth?
In regard to impiety, below is a sample of the dialogue between Socrates and Meletus:
Socrates: “I myself believe that there are gods and am not altogether an atheist…not, however, the gods in whom the city believes, but others, and that that this is the charge against me . . . Or whether you mean that I do not believe in gods at all, and that this is what I teach to others.”
Meletus: “That is what I mean, that you do not believe in gods at all.”
Socrates: “Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits?”
Meletus: “No one.”
Socrates: “But I believe in spiritual things and teach about them…. But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirits. Is that not so? . . . Do we not believe spirits to be either gods or the children of gods? Yes or no?”
Meletus: “Of course.”
Socrates: “Then since I do believe in spirits, as you admit, if spirits are gods, this is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest, as you state that I do not believe in gods and then again that I do, since I do believe in spirits.”
Socrates thus made a sound defense against both the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth. In the next post, I’ll discuss how Plato’s Apology showcases Socrates bringing his defense to a crescendo as he makes some of his most powerful and compelling points yet.
“No one is more hated than those who speak the truth.”– Plato
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Plato, Five Dialogues, John M. Cooper and G.M.A. Grube, translators, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.; Second Edition,2 (October 1, 2002)
The above includes Plato’s Apology if you’re interested in reading it in full. Please check out the following posts for more information about Socrates and his trial as well as additional bibliographical sources.
Post 2 Socrates’ Death and the Triumph of Reason
Post 3 Socrates, the Wisest Man in Athens
Post 4 Socrates, the Humble Revolutionary
Post 5 Socrates, an Ambassador of Truth to Athens
Post 6 Socrates, Martyr for Truth
Post 7 Socrates, a Philosopher of Virtue and Truth
Post 8 Socrates and the Unexamined Life
Post 9 Socrates and Jesus Compared