The trial of Socrates marked an interesting turning point in the lives of his followers. It is important to note that Socrates philosopher did not have any known written works that directly communicated his ideologies or narrated his life. Instead, what the modern world know about Socrates and his Socratic ideologies have come from the works of his students and predecessors.
Plato was one of the students of Socrates. Three of his popular works presented Socratic arguments about piousness, wisdom and ignorance, and justice. To be specific, through the Socratic Dialogues composed of the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, Plato chronicled the last days before and after the trial of Socrates—who prepared and argued against the accusation that he corrupted the youth and introduced novel beliefs that went against traditional and deity-centric ideologies of the Athenians.
A definition of piety according to Socrates
In the imagined dialogue Euthyphro, Plato presented Socrates as having a conversation with the religious expert Euthyphro. Both men were trying to define piety. It is important to note that Socrates was accused of impiety or perceived failure to show reverence for something considered sacred and traditional. Some of his works were deemed offensive because they questioned the nature and existence of gods and goddesses.
The Athenians were deeply occupied with their religious and spiritual beliefs. Participating in rituals and other practices were not only important part of the Athenian life but also a seemingly required social obligation.
In the Euthyphro, Plato presented Socrates as someone who was eager to approach a religious expert to question the commonly accepted definition of piety. For him, he found some of the definitions incomplete, subjective, and even blasphemous (Plato 5d, 6e-7a, and 10 a, in Morgan 35-46). This was where he introduced the Euthyphro Dilemma.
According to the dilemma, Socrates posted the question, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the dialogue, Socrates offered his final definition of piety, claiming that it is an art of sacrifice and prayer, as well as a form of knowledge of how to do exchange (Plato 14e, in Morgan 35-46).
The Platonic and Socratic notion about belief and piety nonetheless centres on the give-and-take relationship between the people and the gods. Simply put, piety is an obligation in which people must shower the gods with reverence in exchange for favours and blessings.
Although it appears that Socrates had a firm grip of the nature of piety, he maintained that it was essential to question the nature of belief. This notion put him in trouble. As discussed in Euthyphro, Socrates was accused as an inventor of gods and who declined to recognise older ones.
Wisdom begins with ignorance: The defence of Socrates against impiety
Part of the trial of Socrates was the defence put forth against accusations of impiety. He did this by arguing about the nature of philosophers and their natural inclination toward the search for wisdom.
Apology is another work by Plato. This is one of the written works based from the 399 BC speech delivered by Socrates as he defended himself before the public against allegations of misconduct. Other philosophers such as Xenophon also wrote their versions of the infamous Socratic speech. Although discrepancies exist among these versions, they all featured the same apologetic nature of the message.
Remember that that an “apology” is different from the modern and common understanding of the word. It is actually a type of literature or rhetoric written or delivered for self-defence or in defence of actions or ideologies and delivered before the public. For this reason, the version of the apology written by Plato delivered the argument made by Socrates as he defended himself from accusations against piety.
Central to his argument was the definition of the nature of philosophy and wisdom in relation to his alleged misconduct toward beliefs and traditions. Specifically, Socrates and to a certain extent, Plato believed that questioning the existence and purpose of gods and goddesses or other traditional ideologies were obvious and logical part of their philosophical inquiry. This argument reiterated the Socratic concept that philosophy and wisdom begin with sincere admission of ignorance.
Socratic irony: Using ignorance during the trial of Socrates
The trial of Socrates showcased how he established his argument about ignorance as the starting point of philosophy and wisdom. To do so, had to promote his credibility and establish the wickedness and ridiculousness of the people who accused him of wrongdoing. He slammed his accusers, saying:
“Those who have spread this rumour, men of Athens, are my dangerous accusers, since the people who hear them believe that those who investigate such things do not acknowledge the gods either. Moreover, those accusers are numerous and have been accusing me for a long time now. Besides, they also spoke to you at that age when you would most readily believe them, when some of you were children and young boys. Thus they simply won their case by default, as there was no defence” (Plato 18c, in Morgan 47).
The quoted passage from the Platonic version of the apology suggests that during the trial of Socrates, he was not only defensive but also assertive when it came to debunking the credibility of his accusers. He was not really aggressive or hostile however. The philosopher was simply debunking the accusations thrown at him by establishing his credibility and accomplishments, as well as by highlighting the fact that his accusers had always been behind his back and had always failed.
After presenting the aforementioned direction of his argument, a compelling argument was delivered during the trial of Socrates. Remember that the entire Platonic version of Socratic apology echoed the notion that philosophy and wisdom begin with sincere admission of ignorance.
It is important to note that despite an emphasis on his accomplishments and stature, the speech of Socrates was plain and conversational. It was free from fancy words and phrases. His detractors had otherwise accused him of being a man capable of persuading people using his language. However, the philosopher debunked this, saying:
“If that is what they mean, I would agree that I am an orator—although not one of their sort. No, indeed. Rather, just as I claimed, they have said little or nothing true…expressed in elegant language like theirs, arranged in fine words and phrases. Instead, what you hear will be spoken extemporaneously…After all, it would not be appropriate at my age, gentlemen, to come before you and speaking in polished, artificial language like a young man” (Plato 17b-c in Morgan 47).
This quoted passage suggests that Socrates was humbling himself. Despite being an accomplished philosopher, he presented himself before the public as a mere old man who was unfamiliar with legal proceedings and unable to deliver a speech heavily decorated with fancy language.
Socrates maintained that he is ignorant. And by doing so, he justified his conduct by arguing that his actions and philosophical ideologies were a natural part of his inquiry that took into consideration the idea that being ignorant and highlighting the ignorance of others would promote philosophy and subsequently, wisdom.
This argument was also tantamount to debunking the accusers. Socrates perceived them as pretentious because they think they know everything, especially about his life and works. In the Platonic version of the apology, Socrates argued that he did not corrupt the people but rather lead them to the path of wisdom by letting them embrace their ignorance.
Defining justice: The final days of Socrates
Results of the trial of Socrates were not favourable. The philosopher failed to convince the public through his apology. He was eventually executed.
Nonetheless, Plato once again depicted him while he was awaiting his execution inside the prison. In the written work Crito to be specific, Plato presented Socrates as having a conversation with a wealthy friend named Crito about justice. The conversation revolved around an attempt of to convince Socrates to escape the prison.
As a wealthy man, Crito had connections with the guards and he can free the philosopher. However, Socrates refused the offer. His wealthy friend argued that his refusal would further promote injustice as it would allows people to wrongly accuse if not execute someone for his or her ideologies. The trial of Socrates demonstrated injustice and abuse of power.
The philosopher rebuffed this argument and discredited the intention of Crito. He said that while it is never good to do injustice, it would certainly be inappropriate to do injustice in response to injustice. For him, he wanted to face his punishment because refusal to do so would damage the law and the city.
Socrates acknowledged that he was an Athenian and would remain as one. By doing so, he reiterated that he had an obligation to stand for his city and community. He had entered the city and had benefitted from it. It would be inappropriate for him to betray it by escaping his ordeal.
Despite the unfavourable outcome, the trial of Socrates revealed some of his most compelling ideologies. One relates to culture and tradition as he defined and defied the concept of religious belief. Another one relates to human interaction as he defended the need to promote the ignorance of the people to compel them to embark on the path of knowledge. And the final one was related to law and politics as he argued against injustice and the need for citizens to respect the law in order to maintain stability.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article referenced the Socratic Dialogues found in the book “Classics of Moral and Political Theory” by Michael L. Morgan published in 2011 by Hackett Publishing Company. Photo Credit: “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David/1787/Adapted