Socrates left no writings of his own, and all we know about him comes through Plato’s writings, including his dialogue Apology. The Apology is a recounting, through Plato’s eyes, of Socrates’ testimony and the trial leading up to his execution. Of all of Plato’s writings, this dialogue especially captures the human side of Socrates and his belief in a singular god. If we want to know Socrates the man – his desires, motivations, struggles, and core beliefs – then this is the dialogue to read. It is as if Plato takes the two-dimensional, black-and-white image of Socrates that we are all accustomed to and adds vivid color, breathing new life into him and animating him to the point that we feel like we know him.
If you wish, you can read post 67, which serves as an introduction to this post, although it is not necessary since this post can also be read as a standalone post. In post 67, I discussed that 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. In this post, we will pick up halfway through Socrates’ main speech.
Plato’s Apology, Part One: The Main Speech Continued
Above all, Socrates was concerned with doing what was right and not with simply preserving his own life at all costs, and this shows through in his testimony. He states the following:
Someone might say: “Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the occupation that has led you to being now in danger of death?” However, I should be right to reply to him: “You are wrong sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or bad man.“28b-c
Whenever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace. . . . To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know.28d-e, 29a
A couple things are worth mentioning here. First of all, and I will discuss this more in depth later, Socrates uses a strong military analogy of being ordered to a position by a commander and holding that position at all costs. This begs the question of who Socrates’ commander might have been. Secondly, this is very applicable in the modern age where we are all being forced to think and believe positions that we know not to be true and that even deny reality. Just like in Socrates’ day, taking positions contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy often comes with a high price.
In the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton prophetically predicted the future of the West, one that would unabashedly deny the basic truths of reality:
Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face.– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living
Sandwiched within the above discourse on death is really the heart of Socrates’ testimony:
…and then, when God1 ordered me, as I thought and believed, to live the life of a philosopher, to examine myself and others, [if] I had abandoned my post for fear of death or anything else…that would have been a dreadful thing, and I might truly have justly been brought here for not believing that there are gods, disobeying the Oracle, [and] fearing death….228e-29a
To answer the above question about Socrates’ commander, it was God whose directive was received through the Oracle at Delphi.3 God commanded Socrates to examine himself and others. According to Socrates, this was not a suggestion, but a command that came with dreadful consequences for not obeying. And yet, knowing that the final fate of Socrates was his execution, we can say that he was called to be a martyr for the truth.
This brings us to the next point: At its core, Socrates’ message was one of self-examination. His place in the history of philosophy was to turn people away from superstition, arrogance, and ignorance, and toward true knowledge and virtue. People cannot learn the truth if they don’t realize that they are are ignorant. By clearing away the philosophical clutter, he set the stage for thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and others – which included later Christian thinkers – to pursue and discover true knowledge. The whole process starts with self-examination.
Although Socrates’ message was strategic in the scope of history, it is also relevant for us again today since we are laboring under the same types of erroneous beliefs such as climate change superstition4, technological arrogance, and a profound ignorance as we mistake knowledge for wisdom.
Socrates Must Obey God Rather Than Man
Rather than just trying to categorize the various insightful and illuminating sayings of Socrates’ testimony, I will list the rest of them in the order that they appear in the dialogue and briefly comment on them. This will give an idea of the flow of his thoughts during the trial, not to mention that Socrates’ sayings are powerful in and of themselves.
Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey God rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy. . . . I will not yield to any man contrary to what is right, for fear of death, even if I should die at once for not yielding.29d, 32a
It is important to note that Socrates wasn’t a “rebel” in the modern sense of the word. We uphold rebelliousness today as a virtue. A rebel in that sense would have fought to subvert the government of Athens or simply would have left the city before his trial. Socrates shows deference to the governing authorities by submitting and being respectful to them, but at the same time refusing to obey when their mandates directly contradict God’s commands.
This is in accord with the New Testament writings that would come to be penned five hundred years after the time of Socrates. As St. Peter stated in his Epistle:
Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors….1 Peter 2:13-14
But at the same time, when this same Peter and John were commanded by the Jewish authorities to stop teaching in the name of Christ, St. Peter replied:
We must obey God rather than man!Acts 5:29
It is striking how much Socrates’ wisdom comports exactly with biblical wisdom.
What Does It Profit a Man to Gain the Whole World But Lose His Soul?
Socrates’ mission was not just to point out the ignorance of those who thought that they were wise, but to point them away from worldly things and toward the spiritual.
I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: “Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?”29d-e
Be sure that this is what God orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to God. For I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth in preference to or as strongly as for the best possible state of your soul, as I say to you: “Wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men both individually and collectively.”30a-b
Socrates was a spiritual minister of sorts, tending to the needs of people’s souls. There is no discrepancy here between the wisdom of Socrates and the wisdom of Jesus:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Matthew 6:19, 25, 33
What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?Matthew 16:26
Socrates as God’s Gift to Athens
Socrates then says something that, at first glance, makes him seem arrogant:
I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating God’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by God – though it seems a ridiculous thing to say.30d-e
After all, when we want to imply that someone has a big ego, we jokingly ask, “Who do you think that you are, God’s gift to the world?” But in the context of the rest of Socrates’ life, this seems perfectly appropriate for he did not take this role on himself; God assigned it to him. Also, his lifestyle of willful poverty was not characteristic of someone with a large ego. His selflessness is another clue in that he did not make a defense on his own behalf, but for the sake of the city that he loved. The final indication of his humility is what he says immediately after the above statement:
As upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some function that I believe God has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long….30e
Socrates viewed himself as a humble gadfly whose purpose was to stir up the great and noble horse of Athens out of its sluggishness. He closes this section with the discussion of how his lack of regard for his own affairs was just another piece of proof that he was indeed called by God to serve the people of Athens:
That I am the kind of person to be a gift of God to the city you might realize from the fact that it does not seem like human nature for me to have neglected all my own affairs and to have tolerated this neglect now for so many years while I was always concerned with you, approaching each of you like a father or an elder brother to persuade you to care for virtue.31a-b
Socrates’ Divine Sign
Socrates closes the main part of this testimony by stating the reason that he never got involved with politics. After all, if someone like Socrates was that concerned for the state of Athens, involvement in politics would seem like a natural course of action.
You have heard me give the reason for [my lack of political involvement] in many places. I have a divine or spiritual sign…this began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but if never encourages me to do anything [positive]. This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me.31c-d
Socrates talks about this in other places, a divine voice that prevented him from doing certain things, in this case, getting involved in politics. This is yet more evidence of divine guidance in Socrates’ life. Then concerning politics, he says some remarkable things that are worth considering:
Be sure, men of Athens, that if I had long ago attempted to take part in politics, I should have died long time ago, and benefited neither you nor myself. . . . A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive even a short time.31d-32a
When you are on the inside of politics, especially corrupt politics, then there is an unspoken rule that you are to play by the rules or else suffer the consequences. There is an implicit understanding that if you are a part of the club, then you are beholden to the other club members. It is no different than being a member of the mob. No doubt it still has its dangers, but it is much safer fighting corruption and injustice from outside the system. Socrates ended up losing his life anyway, but as he stated, it probably would have happened a lot sooner if he were a part of the system.
Socrates Concludes His Testimony
Socrates comes full circle as he brings his testimony to a close. He ends where he began, by discussing his divine call.
Why then do some people enjoy spending considerable time in my company? They enjoy hearing those being questioned who think they are wise, but are not. To do this has, as I say, been enjoined upon me by God, by means of oracles and dreams, and in every other way that a divine manifestation has ever ordered a man to do anything.33c
We already know about the Oracle of Delphi and the divine voice. But now, near the end of his life, Socrates gives us a peek behind the curtain so that we can see the fullness to which this guidance extended. He talks of dreams as well and “every other way that a divine manifestation has ever ordered a man to do anything,” leaving no possibility excluded. These experiences would most certainly qualify Socrates as a mystic just like Plato, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and many other philosophers, Greek and non-Greek.5
I have discussed this in other places, so I won’t go in depth with it here. But the examples of these philosophers are a stark contrast to our modern Western philosophy that is devoid of any mystical or religious elements, leaving only a dry (and often boring) rationalism, much like the residue left over in a container after the aromatic liquid has all evaporated.
As we near the end of the court proceedings, Socrates appears to radiate an incredible peace and assurance, considering that execution is a possible outcome. He addresses the jury as one in control, always conveying the utmost respect and deference. He tells them straight out that he will not beg them to acquit him. Neither will he appeal to emotional arguments by bringing his three children into the courtroom, one adolescent and the others little. Rather, Socrates’ desire is to teach the jury with his testimony as he taught all of Athens for most of his life. Why quit now? Socrates desires to fulfill his calling to God right up until the very end.
Like I mentioned above, he was not a rebel, but just the opposite. He still believed in justice and was willing to submit himself to the jury because of that, accepting whatever verdict was handed down with the utmost grace and charity toward his fellow Athenians.
Quite apart from the question of reputation, gentlemen, I do not think it right to supplicate the jury and to be acquitted because of this, but to teach and persuade them. It is not the purpose of a juryman’s office to give justice as a favor to whoever seems good to him, but to judge according to the law, and this he has sworn to do. We should not accustom you to perjure yourselves, nor should you make a habit of it. This is irreverent conduct for either of us.35b-c
The main part of the trial now comes to a conclusion.
Plato’s Apology, Part Two: The Verdict
It was a close vote. Socrates was convicted by a slim margin of thirty votes out of the 501 jurymen. The first thing he said after his conviction was:
There are many reasons for my not being angry with you for convicting me, men of Athens, and what happened was not unexpected.35e-36a
He goes on to say that if spared the death penalty or exiled, that he would not be able to stop talking about the very things that got him in trouble in the first place, for that was his purpose in life. He sums this part of the trial up with the following, which is really the theme of the Apology and the life of Socrates:
If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying God, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less.237e-38a
Plato’s Apology, Part Three: The Sentencing
Socrates gave one final speech to the jury. He claimed that he was convicted not because he lacked words of boldness, but because he was not willing to do what most other defendants in his position were accustomed to doing – groveling and begging for their lives with tears and lamentations. He states:
I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind. Neither I nor any other man should, on trial or in war, contrive to avoid death at all cost.38e-39a
He goes on to say:
I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but you are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice.39b
Socrates then gives a dire warning to those men of the jury who convicted him, that vengeance would come upon them immediately after his execution. This vengeance would take the form of a loss of credibility and respect for those who voted to convict Socrates. He predicted that many would come out of the woodwork to test those who condemned him. They would be younger than himself and much more difficult to deal with. While Socrates was alive, he held them back, but now there would be nothing to stop them. If the “men of Athens” thought that Socrates was bad, what they, in effect, have done with their verdict was to create many more Socrateses. He is telling them, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This is often how it is with martyrs. When one is killed, many more spring up in their place. Through his death, the humble revolutionary started a revolution. The effects of this, I would argue, continue on in many shapes and forms, up to the present day.
Socrates finally accepts his death sentence, noting that the divine voice has often stopped him from saying things that were wrong, whether big or little. But this time, it did not stop him from saying what he said at his trial. Therefore, Socrates concluded, everything that he said in his testimony must have been correct. Therefore, he notes that what has happened to him may very well be a good thing and he has good hope that death is somehow a blessing.
I will end with the parting words of Socrates to the jury before he was prepared for his execution:
What has happened to me now has not happened of itself, but it is clear to me that it was better for me to die now and to escape from trouble. This is why my divine sign did not oppose me at any point. So I am certainly not angry with those who convicted me, or with my accusers. Of course that was not their purpose when they accused and convicted me, but they thought they were hurting me, and for this they deserve blame. This much I ask from them: When my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if they think they are somebody when they are nobody. Reproach them as I reproach you. . . . If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also.
Now the hour to part has come. I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except God.41c-42a
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.6– St. Paul
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- In the Greek, Socrates uses the word “god” in the singular, whereas in other places he uses the plural for “gods.” In the case of the singular usage, I have chosen to capitalize it for Socrates seems to be refer to God, as apart from the ordinary pantheon of Greek gods. For example at 20e, τὸν θεὸν, God has the definite article τὸν which can render the phrase “the God.” But the definite article that is often used in the Greek is often omitted in translation. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew 3:13, we have ὁ Ἰησοῦς, which literally translates to “the Jesus,” which of course we leave the “the” out in translation. This is the technical argument for using God in the singular. The bottom line is that such a text can be interpreted several ways, and in the end, it really comes down to the presuppositions of the interpreter. It is a myth to say that there is such a thing as total objectivity or neutrality. Every person and every scholar has preconceived ideas as he or she approaches a text. Was “the god” just another pagan god or the God? According to my presuppositions, I will not hide the fact that I believe that the God was communicating with Socrates.
- For more on this important topic of self-examination, please see post 8.
- If the above endnote is the case, then the conservative Christian may critique me for linking God with the Oracle at Delphi that was supposedly under the auspices of Apollo and rife with pagan priestesses. I would answer that God is sovereign and can use pagans as his prophetic mouthpieces if he so chooses. The most striking example of this comes from the Old Testament itself with the story of Balaam and Balak. Balaam was a pagan demonic prophet hired by King Balak to curse Israel. God overruled that arrangement and used Balaam as a conduit to bless Israel instead. Rather than God endorsing paganism, what we have is God establishing His sovereignty over pagan practices. In the affairs of men, God rules and overrules.
- For more on climate change superstition, please see post 66 entitled “The Only Way to Save the Earth.”
- For a more in-depth discussion of Socrates’ relationship with God and how he could have known Him, please see post 39 on Justin Martyr and the Logos.
- Romans 12:21
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, his trial, and his testimony 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