Thoughts on the Trial of Socrates and the Socratic Project

The Apology of Socrates is the portal by which we enter the Platonic cosmos. In it, we find the raison d’être of Socrates’s life and work. Was it political? Was it philosophic? Both? Socrates gives us clues to his project in his famous defense at his trial in 399 BC.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques Louis David (1787)

We proceed as childlike observers. First, we must explore the nature of politics in order to better understand the significance of the death of Socrates. Politics is a kind of action, and every political action has to do with either preservation or change. Humans seek to preserve what is good, and change what is bad. So all action is based on beliefs about what is good and bad. Therefore, we must have some awareness of what is good and bad. This awareness formulates itself in the character of opinion. We have opinions about what is good and bad, and whenever we have an opinion, we are aware of the fact that it is merely an opinion, and not knowledge. Knowledge (episteme) is superior to opinion (doxa). Therefore, our quest is to strive for knowledge of good and evil, and this happens within the form of the totality of the political regime.

Now, because man, by nature, has particular needs to live, such as food, shelter, water and so on, we can safely assume that man has natural ends. The city, therefore, also has natural ends. There are, however, other ends of man, such as the nourishment of the soul, which was well understood by Plato, Aristotle, and others up through the Middle Ages. This period we call Classical Political Philosophy, as distinct from Modern Political Philosophy. At any rate, health of the soul was understood as the being in possession of, and practicing with, the virtues. The virtues and the practice of the virtues are the highest aspirations of man par excellence, and therefore since a political community, or a regime, is a community of men, the highest task of a political community is concern for, and cultivation of, the virtues.

In the Apology of Socrates, the only dialogue in which Plato uses the name of Socrates in the title, the city seeks to change what is bad, by eliminating Socrates, the political philosopher. He is brought to trial on serious charges that are of concern for the city. What is at stake in the premise of the dialogue is the possibility of political philosophy, or the quest for the good society. The city of Athens believes it will be good if it rids itself of a pesky gadfly, while Socrates believes his project is ultimately improving the city and its citizens.

For Socrates, much of his later life is spent conducting a trial of his own; testing politicians, poets, and craftsmen by confronting them and testing their virtues. When finding them lacking, Socrates questions them to the point of confusion or anger. To Socrates, the ‘unexamined life is not worth living’, as living life awake, rather than in a dreamless sleep, is preferable. In the Apology, Socrates is brought to trial by the city. He is accused by several men and brought to court on two charges: corruption of the youth, and for not believing in the gods of the city. More than 500 men arrive to bring him to trial (traditionally the number is 501).. Socrates defends himself with a harsh tone against his accusers, and he attempts to combat the slanderous rumors of the comedic poets, primarily Aristophanes, against whom one is left mostly defenseless to fight with ‘shadows’. According to Socrates, the reason for his project is reported by his now deceased friend, Chaepheron. The Oracle of Delphi once claimed that no man was wiser than Socrates, which at the time puzzled Socrates, and led him to search in vain for a man with greater wisdom. Thus, Socrates took upon himself the life of a “gadfly” which plagues a sleepy and idle horse. Thus Socrates initially claims his project is to bother and annoy, and in doing so, to hopefully shake the city out of its complacence. His project angers his opponents, and delivers great blame to Socrates and his younger followers, who thoroughly enjoy watching interlocutors discover their own ignorance.

Despite Socrates’s defense, and his exchange with Meletus, he is found guilty by a narrow margin of 30 votes. As a counter, Socrates offers an alternative: he and his followers can pay for his freedom, but Socrates is denied and sentenced to death. The remainder of the chronicle of Socrates is continued in Plato’s Crito and the Phaedo.

If we take the words of the ‘Master of Those Who Know’, as Dante once dubbed Aristotle, then the Apology of Socrates should not be called a tragedy. For Aristotle in the Poetics, tragedy is not possible without a mistake, or guilt on behalf of the sufferer. Throughout the Apology, Socrates maintains his innocence. Only self-destruction of a certain kind is tragedy. Hegel later calls the fate of Socrates “tragic.” The ancients, such as Aristotle, did not necessarily understand the death of Socrates to be a tragedy, however the moderns find his death a tragedy in whole.

For this reading I used the Grube translation as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

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