This is the situation Socrates found himself in, in 399 B.C. for charges of ‘corrupting the youth’ and straying from the traditional viewpoint on the Gods of Ancient Greece. In Apology, we see Socrates on trial for these charges; his words recounted through his pupil, Plato.
For reference, this is not an apology in the traditional sense—Socrates was by no means sorry for what he did. Rather it refers to ‘Apologia’, a form of rhetoric used in Ancient Greece where an individual defended one’s beliefs and actions. Socrates does so, profoundly, to say the least.
Love of Wisdom
In reading Apology, one sees how deeply Socrates cherishes wisdom.
O my friend, why do you, who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?
An intriguing point in Apology comes from the Oracle at Delphi. Socrates’ friend Chaerephon asks the oracle if there was any man wiser than Socrates—the priestess said there was not.
Ironically, though Socrates is the wisest man in Athens, he claims that,
I neither know nor think that I know.
Then Socrates, perhaps mockingly, seeks out the ‘wise’ men of Athens, among them many politicians and poets. He questions them, and although he finds they indeed have certain intellectual talents, they lack profound wisdom. He concludes that he is wiser that his fellow Athenians because he doesn’t inflate his ego with false ideas, rather he accepts that he knows nothing.
This ‘lack’ of knowledge serves as a catalyst throughout his life and forces him to always seek the truth. Because he knows nothing, he must accept no facts or ideas as axioms, and must always start from the ground floor.
This is a fantastic approach to learning. People are often caught up in their own biases that they ignore objective truth. When a person is constantly questioning their beliefs, only then can they truly understand what is right from what is wrong.
As previously mentioned, Socrates stands accused of ‘corrupting the youth’ and denying the Greek Gods. Not only does Socrates deny any wrongdoing, but he systematically breaks down why he is innocent, humbling and humiliating his accusers in the process.
This confounded Socrates, they say; this villainous misleader of youth!—and then if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practice or teach? They do not know, and cannot tell; but in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers.
One gets the idea that, through Plato’s recollection, that Socrates is not only innocent, but is a target of the elite of Athens. Socrates has become a thorn in the side for the rich and powerful, questioning the Status Quo and threatening to disrupt their principles.
This often happens today. People who question the established narrative on a topic are scorned as veritable heathens, who deserve nothing less than to be burned at the stake.
Pick a topic:
- Global Warming
- Gay Marriage
If you challenge the Status Quo, don’t be surprised when people come after you.
It’s interesting to ponder how Socrates would be perceived today. Although he wouldn’t be sentenced to death today, imprisonment via a false rape accusation or inciting hate speech would be conceivable.
Shortly before he is sentenced to death, he makes what he calls a ‘Ludicrous figure of speech’, comparing himself to:
… a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like 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 given the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.
No one likes flies. In fact, our first instinct is to squash them, as the elites wish to do with Socrates.
The way Socrates looks at it, however, is that a gadfly does a horse (Or human, etc.) a favor of sorts, in that it always keeps the animal alert. Socrates, through his incessant prodding and questioning, always keeps people questioning what they know and prevents society from entering a languid state where people can no longer bother to question the world around them.
Just like Ancient Greece, most of the modern world has descended into this state. Or perhaps it’s always been that way. Maybe the power elite have always sought to keep men like Socrates down, and he, by some miracle, made it into the hallowed halls of history without ever having recorded his works.
Virtue: Man’s Greater Purpose
Socrates represents a man who could have had it all, but chose nothing. He even gave his life up instead of capitulating on his belief systems.
I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living—that you are still less likely to believe.
In fact, living a virtuous, examined life was so important to Socrates that he pleads to the jury:
When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, O my friends, to punish them; and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing,—then reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands. The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.
Can you imagine a parent in this day and age, being forced to leave their children behind with the stipulation that they be punished if they fail to live a virtuous life?
On Death’s Doorstep
It could be said a man reveals his true colors in the face of death. To reiterate the initial proposition of imaging your own death, really think about it.
Honestly, I’d be scared shitless, but perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong.
Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night.
Socrates goes on to give a profound insight into the afterlife, or perhaps the lack thereof. The way he frames it the afterlife is not only not something to be apprehensive towards, but something that one should look forward to with near anticipation.
The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.
Though Socrates isn’t angry or hysterical, he doesn’t intend to wish well unto those sentencing him to death:
For I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you…. For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accuser censuring your lives, you are mistaken; that is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable; the easiest and the noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to be improving yourselves.
Socrates was likely brought up on bogus charges; this is nothing new throughout history. People are repressed, jailed and punished for their beliefs and actions that challenge authority. Though what Socrates wishes to bring to light is that this is not the solution. The power elite can kill, kill and kill some more, but the effects will actually be more grave for those dishing out the punishment in the long run.
A Pivotal Moment in Western History
Although I enjoy reading philosophy, I bet others can empathize with me when I say that much of it goes over my head. Nonetheless, I still try.
Apology, on the other hand, was not difficult at all to read. In fact, from what I understand it serves as an excellent starting point to understanding Western philosophy. I intend to extract more knowledge from these dialogues (See Below). And would you have guessed that all of this was packed into just 22 pages?!?
Stay tuned for Part II: Crito.
I recently purchased a copy of Six Great Dialogues by Plato (Amazon). I plan on doing an article for each dialogue as I read through them.
But because this is a public domain work, it’s widely available for free. Here are some different versions: