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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:
Selections Annotated and Explained

Russell McNeil, PhD
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Name:Socrates - Philosophy Series

The Apology
Birth Year:470 BCE
Death Year:399 BCE
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Socrates (June 4, 470 - 399 BC) was a Greek (Athenian) philosopher and one of the most important icons of the Western philosophical tradition.

Socratic method

His most important contribution to Western thought is his method of enquiry, known as the Socratic method or method of elenchos, which he largely applied to the examination of key moral concepts and was first described by Plato in the Socratic Dialogues. For this, Socrates is customarily regarded as the father and fountainhead for ethics or moral philosophy, and hence philosophy in general.

The Socratic method is a negative method of truth-seeking, in that truth is found by steadily identifying and eliminating that which is not true. The method of Socrates is a search for the underlying assumptions, or axioms, which may unconsciously shape one's opinion, and to make them the subject of scrutiny, to determine their truth or falsity. The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover the truth about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterise the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. To the extent to which this method is designed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, it was called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. Oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics. A skillful teacher can actually teach students to think for themselves using this method. This is the only classic method of teaching that is known to create genuinely autonomous thinkers. There are some crucial principles to this form of teaching:

  • The teacher must set the topic of instruction, and the student must agree to this.
  • The student must agree to attempt to answer questions from the teacher.
  • The teacher must be willing to accept any correctly-reasoned answer. That is, the reasoning process must be considered more important than facts.
  • The teacher's questions must expose errors in the students' reasoning. That is, the teacher must reason more quickly and correctly than the student, and discover errors in the students' reasoning, and then formulate a question which the students cannot answer except by a correct reasoning process. To perform this service, the teacher must be very quick-thinking about the classic errors in reasoning.
  • If the teacher makes an error of logic or fact, it is acceptable for a student to correct the teacher.
It is helpful if the teacher is able to lead a group of students in a discussion. This is not always possible in situations that require the teacher to evaluate students, but it is preferable pedagogically, because it encourages the students to reason for truth rather than from authority.

More loosely, one can label any process of thorough-going questioning as an instance of the Socratic method.

Socrates applied his method to the examination of the key moral concepts at the time, the virtues of piety, wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Such an examination challenged the implicit moral beliefs of the interlocutors, bringing out inadequacies and inconsistencies in their beliefs, and usually resulting in puzzlement known as aporia. In view of such inadequacies, Socrates himself professed his ignorance, but others still maintained their knowledge claim, whereby Socrates claimed that he being aware of his ignorance is wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge -- a claim which seems paradoxical at first glance. This claim was known by the anecdote of the Delphic oracular pronouncement that Socrates was the wisest of all men.

Socrates used this claim of wisdom as the basis of his moral exhortation. Accordingly, he claimed that the chief goodness consists in the caring of the soul concerned with truth and understanding, that "wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state", and that "life without examination is not worth living". Socrates also argued that to be wronged is better than to do wrong.

His Life

Socrates left no writings; references to military duty may be found in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. He was prominently lampooned in Aristophanes's comedic play The Clouds produced when Socrates was in his mid-forties. Socrates appeared in other plays by Aristophanes such as The Birds because of his being a philodorian, and also in plays by Callias, Eupolis and Telecleides, in all of which Socrates and the Sophists were criticised for "the moral dangers inherent in contemporary thought and literature". The main source of the historical Socrates, however, is the writings of his two disciples, Xenophon, and Plato. Another important source is various references to him in Aristotle's writings.

Socrates, although no sculptures of him were ever made by people he knew, has been depicted as a rather ugly man in sculptures and busts of him; these portrayals are largely based on descriptions by his disciples, namely Plato.

Socrates' father was Sophroniscus, a sculptor, and his mother Phaenarete, a midwife. He was married to Xanthippe, who bore him three sons. By the cultural standards of the time, she was considered a shrew. Socrates himself attested that he having learned to live with Xanthippe would be able to cope with any other human being, just as a horse trainer trained on wilder horses could be more competent. Socrates enjoyed going to Symposia, drink-talking sessions. He was a legendary drinker, remaining sober, even after everyone else in the party became senselessly drunk. He fought at the Battle of Potidaea, the Battle of Delium and the Battle of Amphipolis. We know from Plato's Symposium that Socrates was decorated for bravery. In one instance he stayed with the wounded Alcibiades, and probably saved his life. During such campaigns, he also showed his extraordinary hardiness, walking without shoes and coat in winter.

Socrates lived during the time of transition from the height of Athenian Empire to her defeat by Sparta and its coalition in the Peloponnesian War. At a time when Athens was seeking to recover from humiliating defeat, upon the instigation of three leading figures at the time, the Athenian public court tried Socrates for impiety and for corrupting the young, found him guilty as charged, and executed him by ordering him to drink hemlock.

Trial and execution

The trial of Socrates gave rise to a great deal of debate, giving rise to a whole genre of literature, known as the Socratic logoi. Socrates' elenctic examination was resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. The annoying nature of elenchos earned Socrates the moniker "gadfly of Athens." Socrates' elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens, which greatly upset the established moral values and order. Indeed, even though Socrates himself fought for Athens and argued for obedience to law, at the same time he criticised democracy, especially, the Athenian practice of election by lot, ridiculing that in no other craft, the craftsman would be elected in such a fashion. Such a criticism gave rise to suspicion by the democrats, especially when his close associates were found to be enemies of democracy. Alcibiades betrayed Athens in favour of Sparta, and Critias, his sometime disciple, was a leader of the 30 tyrants, (the pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for a few years after the defeat), though there is also a record of their falling out.

The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David (1787)

In addition, Socrates held unusual views on religion. He made several references to his personal spirit, or daimonion, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only warned him against various prospective events. Many of his contemporary were suspicious of Socrates' daimonion as a rejection of the state religion. It is generally understood that Socrates' daimonion is akin to intuition. Moreover, Socrates claimed that the concept of goodness, instead of being determined by what the gods wanted, actually precedes it.

According to Plato's "Apology," Socrates' three accusers, Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, all leading members of Athenian political society, indicted him on the basis that he 'corrupted the youth' of Athens and denied the power of the state gods. The offenses charged did not necessarily carry the death penalty, and Socrates himself suggested to his jury that he should be fined thirty minae (the equivalent of approximately eight years of wages for an Athenian artisan). The "Apology" also suggests that the vote on Socrates' guilt was very close, and that his jokes about his punishment resulted in more jurymen voting for his execution than had voted to convict him.

Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock poison provided to him. Socrates has been revered since his execution as a beacon of free speech.

The Socratic Dialogues

The Socratic Dialogues are a series of dialogues written by Plato in the form of discussions between Socrates and other figures of the time. The ideas that Plato communicates are not placed in the mouth of any specific character, but emerge via the Socratic method, under the guidance of Socrates.

In Plato's philosophical system (Socrates himself left no writings, so the actual content of his teaching is debated), learning is a process of remembering. The soul, before its incarnation in the body, was in the realm of the ideas (or Heaven). There it saw things the way they should really be, rather than the pale shadows or copies we experience on earth. By a process of questioning, the soul can be brought to remember the ideas in their pure form, thus bringing wisdom.

Most of the dialogues present Socrates applying this method to some extent, but nowhere as completely as in the Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates and Euthyphro go through several phases of refining the answer to Socrates' question, "What is piety?" The following quotations are from the character of Socrates in Plato's writing. In this context, it should be noted that the early works of Plato are generally considered to be close to the spirit of Socrates, whereas the later works -- including Phaedo -- are not.
  • The life which is unexamined is not worth living. - Apology, 38
  • False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil. -- Phaedo, 91
  • So now, Athenian men, more than on my own behalf must I defend myself, as some may think, but on your behalf, so that you may not make a mistake concerning the gift of god by condemning me. For if you kill me, you will not easily find another such person at all, even if to say in a ludicrous way, attached on the city by the god, like on a large and well-bred horse, by its size and laziness both needing arousing by some gadfly; in this way the god seems to have fastened me on the city, some such one who arousing and persuading and reproaching each one of you I do not stop the whole day settling down all over. Thus such another will not easily come to you, men, but if you believe me, you will spare me; but perhaps you might possibly be offended, like the sleeping who are awakened, striking me, believing Anytus, you might easily kill, then the rest of your lives you might continue sleeping, unless the god caring for you should send you another.
  • Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? - Last words.
  • Really, Ischomachus, I am disposed to ask: "Does teaching consist in putting questions?" Indeed, the secret of your system has just this instant dawned upon me. I seem to see the principle in which you put your questions. You lead me through the field of my own knowledge, and then by pointing out analogies to what I know, persuade me that I really know some things which hitherto, as I believed, I had no knowledge of.
[This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Socrates.]

Alternative Biography

Greek philosopher and educational reformer of the fifth century B.C.; born at Athens, 469 B.C.; died there, 399 B.C. After having received the usual Athenian education in music (which included literature), geometry, and gymnastics, he practised for a time the craft of sculptor, working, we are told, in his father's workshop. Admonished, as he tells us, by a divine call, he gave up his occupation in order to devote himself to the moral and intellectual reform of his fellow citizens. He believed himself destined to become "a sort of gadfly" to the Athenian State. He devoted himself to this mission with extraordinary zeal and singleness of purpose. He never left the City of Athens except on two occasions, one of which was the campaign of Potidea and Delium, and the other a public religious festival. In his work as reformer he encountered, indeedhe may be said to have provoked, the opposition of the Sophists and their influential friends. He was the most unconventional of teachers and the least tactful. He delighted in assuming all sorts of rough and even vulgar mannerisms, and purposely shocked the more refined sensibilities of his fellow citizens. The opposition to him culminated in formal accusations of impiety and subversion of the existing moral traditions. He met these accusations in a spirit of defiance and, instead of defending himself, provoked his opponents by a speech in presence of his judges in which he affirmed his innocence of all wrongdoing, and refused to retract or apologize for anything that he had said or done. He was condemned to drink the hemlock and, when the time came, met his fate with a calmness and dignity which have earned for him a high place among those who suffered unjustly for conscience sake. He was a man of great moral earnestness, and exemplified in his own life some of the noblest moral virtues. At the same time he did not rise above the moral level of his contemporaries in every respect, and Christian apologists have no difficulty in refuting the contention that he was the equal of the Christian saints. His frequent references to a "divine voice" that inspired him at critical moments in his career are, perhaps, best explained by saying that they are simply his peculiar way of speaking about the promptings of his own conscience. They do not necessarily imply a pathological condition of his mind, nor a superstitous belief in the existence of a "familiar demon".

Socrates was, above all things, a reformer. He was alarmed at the condition of affairs in Athens, a condition which he was, perhaps, right in ascribing to the Sophists. They taught that there is no objective standard of the true and false, that that is true which seems to be true, and that that is false which seems to be false. Socrates considered that this theoretical scepticism led inevitably to moral anarchy. If that is true which seems to be true, then thatis good, he said, which seems to be good. Up to this tome morality was taught not by principles scientifically determined, but by instances, proverbs, and apothegms. He undertook, therefore, first to determine the conditions of universally valid moral principles a science of human conduct. Self-knowledge is the starting point, because, he believed, the greatest source of the prevalent confusion was the failure to realize how little we know about anything, in the true sense of the word know. The statesman, the orator, the poet, think they know much about courage; for they talk about it as being noble, and praiseworthy, and beautiful, etc. But they are really ignorant of it until they know what it is, in other words, until they know its definition. The definite meaning, therefore, to be attached to the maxim "know thyself" is "Realize the extent of thine own ignorance".

Consequently, the Socratic method of teaching included two stages, the negative and the positive. In the negative stage, Socrates, approaching his intended pupil in an attitude of assumed ignorance, would begin to ask a question, apparently for his own information. He would follow this by other questions, until his interlocutor would at last be obliged to confess ignorance of the subject discussed. Because of the pretended deference which Socrates payed to the superior intelligence of his pupil, this stage of the method was called "Socratic Irony". In the positive stage of the method, once the pupil had acknowledged his ignorance, Socrates would proceed to another series of questions, each of which would bring out some phase or aspect of the subject, so that when. at the end, the answers were all summed up in a general statement, that statement expressed the concept of the subject, or the definition. Knowledge through concepts, or knowledge by definition, is the aim, therefore, of the Socratic method. The entire process was called "Hueristic", because it was a method of finding,and opposed to "Eristic", which is the method of strife, or contention. Knowledge through concepts is certain, Socrates taught, and offers a firm foundation for the structure not only of theoretical knowledge, but also of moral principles, and the science of human conduct, Socrates went so far as tro maintain that all right conduct depends on clear knowledge, that not only does a definition of a virtue aid us in acquiring that virtue, but that the definition of the virtue is the virtue. A man who can define justice is just, and, in general, theoretical insight into the principles of conduct is identical with moral excellence in conduct; knowledge is virtue. Contrariwise, ignorance is vice, and no one can knowingly do wrong. These principles are, of couse only partly true. Their formulation, however, at this time was of tremendous importance, because it marks the beginning of an attempt to build up on general principles a science of human conduct.

Socrates devoted little attention to questions of physics and cosmogony. Indeed, he did not conceal his contempt for these questions when comparing them with questions affecting man, his nature and his destiny. He was, however, interested in the question of the existence of God and formulated an argument from design which was afterwards known as the "Teleological Argument" for the existence of God. "Whatever exists for a useful purpose must be the work of an intelligence" is the major premise of Socrates' argument, and may be said to be the major premise, explicit or implicit, of every teleological argument formulated since his time. Socrates was profoundly convinced of the immortality of the soul, although in his address to his judges he argues against fear of death in such a way as apparently to offer two alternatives: "Either death ends all things, or it is the beginning of a happy life." His real conviction was that the soul survives the body, unless, indeed, we are misled by our authorities, Plato and Xenophon. In the absence of primary sources Socrates, apparently, never wrote anything--we are obliged to rely on these writers and on a few references of Aristotle for our knowledge of what Socrates taught. Plato's portrayal of Socrates is idealistic; when, however, we correct it by reference to Xenophon's more practical view of Socrates' teaching, the result cannot be far from historic truth. [Adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)]

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Socrates' Apology

Russell McNeil, PhD (Copyright 2005)
[Malaspina Great Books Exclusive]

Few people have had more influence than Socrates. Twenty three hundred years after his death, Nietzsche, the most influential philosopher of the modern era said this: Socrates is so close to me that I am always engaged in a struggle with him.

What is it about this man who wrote nothing, yet has such lasting appeal? Is it his win-win attitude towards death? For to fear death, men, is in fact nothing other than to seem to be wise, but not to be so: no one knows whether death does not happen to be the greatest of all goods for the human being; but people fear it as though they knew well that it is the greatest of evils . Death is either an endless sleep or an opportunity to continue inquiry. An authentic life, for Socrates, is not a life directed towards death, but a life directed towards the good. Socrates never claims to know what the good is. But he remains ever open to the possibility that in all the uncertainty and non-knowledge he professes, that this -- that which is - always remains. When we keep -- this - alive and ever present, life has meaning and death brings peace.

This is attitude. It's an attitude that makes him indestructible, immortal. It's an attitude you just can't shake. In life Socrates questions everything we see as self evident, certain. In death, we, like Nietzsche, continue to struggle with him. He is forever there, in our face. The priestess at Delphi proclaimed Socrates as wise. Socrates interpreted this as a riddle. To learn why he was the wisest man - something he knew he was not - he refers to himself, to know himself. But for Socrates, the idea of the self comes from knowledge of the good and the true. To be truly authentic, truly one's self, is to be guided by the truth. That is what freedom is. Conversely to be guided by what is false is to be enslaved. He trusted that the truth would disclose itself if he persisted in questioning. This is also what he meant by education -- self education - the pursuit of that of which he was only dimly aware in dialogue with others. In doing that he frustrates us, he perplexes us, he infects us. In his questioning he sees himself not as a purveyor of knowledge but as midwife. He does not give birth. Truth cannot be passed from hand to hand - it can only be awakened. The Socrates of the Apology recognizes one absolute authority - the good.

This approach is radical.

It demands a radical transformation in the way we think. The Athenian jury resisted it. We resist it. Of course we do. Of course they did. It rests on a trust in something few moderns or ancients dare face -- one absolute authority -- the good. Without the trust the process is meaningless. Worse, the method he uses cannot be taught. There is no manual. Still we struggle. We struggle because the promise of freedom, enlightenment, or rebirth is so tempting. If Socrates was/is right perhaps we can transcend the world without denying the world. The two cruel masters of our existence - death and suffering -- would cease to be our masters.

That's why we struggle with this. [Karl Jaspers]

Following the analysis of one 20th century philosopher, Karl Jaspers, only three other important figures in the history of human thought have made demands as radically transforming as these: they are the Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. But these three became founders of religious movements - Socrates did not. Socrates was and is thoroughly human. His demand for a transformation rests thoroughly on reason.

For the Buddha the transformation comes from meditation; we free ourselves from the world through contemplation; for Confucius we free ourselves from the world as it is by molding ourselves to -- in essence redefining the world ; for Jesus we free ourselves by orienting ourselves towards another world, and submitting to the will of God. Confucius demands education; the Buddha demands insight; Jesus demands faith; Socrates demands reason; These four figures are as dissimilar as night and day. But they are similar is this: all four push us to the boundaries of our existence. They suggest ways around, through or reconciliation with the apparent hopelessness of existence. All four demand transformation.

These four figures target different audiences. Socrates does not question everyone - his daemon differentiates -- it is not always apparent why; Buddha directs his teaching to the man of understanding; Confucius directs his teaching to the man of talent; Jesus directs his message towards the dispossessed, and the despised.

These four figures reflect differing attitudes on important ideas such as love and war. Socrates argues that evil retaliation (an eye for eye) is unjust; Confucius insists that our enemies be treated with justice; the Buddha advises us to suffer injustice with infinite patience; Jesus demands we love our enemies.

If we call the transformations demanded by these figures as paths towards truth, and if we attempt to compare for example Jesus with Socrates we could say this. Jesus knows the path; Socrates does not; Jesus claims one path; Socrates leaves us free to choose our own; Jesus offers salvation; Socrates provokes us to search for truth.

If we look for commonalities amongst these four figures they look like this: they all use allegory, metaphor, and parables. Their communication is also indirect. But, all four offer ways in which we may reconcile the dilemma of existence through radical transformation. All four leave us no peace. Two, Socrates and Confucius, point to paths that we all might follow, if we were to choose, while the other two, Buddha and Jesus offer modalities of life that are impossible to emulate.

An Athenian jury tried and condemned Socrates in 399. They had to. Socrates was a genuine threat.

There is no transcript of the trial itself, although the Apology by Plato may come close -- I'll say more about that in a moment. But there was the charge. And this is as official as historical records go:

This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus of Pitthas against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Impiety -- Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the State; and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death. [Note: There is a popular misconception that Atheism was one of the charges against Socrates. It wasn't. The accuser Meletus is trapped by Socrates in the Apology at one point in making the claim that Socrates is an Atheist, which suited Socrates purpose, but Atheism as such never was included in the indictment.]

Please don't make the mistake of regarding these charges as quaint anachronisms issued by a naive culture ever fearful of divine retribution. I have no idea how many of the Athenian jury really believed in the State gods or any gods for that matter. I would not be surprised if the proportion was less than in modern Nanaimo, or even in this room. The gods in Athens were important symbols of State. To blaspheme the gods was to show disrespect for state symbols, like in more modern terms burning the flag, blowing up the statue of Liberty, ripping up the constitution.

Now we have in this reading, Plato's Apology, a detailed formal statement of justification or defense against those charges -- or so we would assume. But the response as we'll see does not fit into the convenient shoe that we would expect for a defense. In some respects the answer Socrates offers to the charges has the opposite effect -- it strengthens the case against him. Moreover it is crafted deliberately to do that. Some call it judicial suicide. But Socrates offers the only response that is consistent with his philosophy. He could easily have avoided death, but for Socrates death is irrelevant.

Historical Reliability

Before we get too wrapped in details of the answers Socrates offers, it might be helpful to ask how reliable Plato's account is. Well, at one level reliability may not matter. What matters is that Plato has crafted an extraordinary speech -- some would say the finest example of rhetoric ever written. For that reason alone it demands our attention. However, there was a real Socrates. He was charged under this indictment, and Plato was present at those proceedings. The confusion around the accuracy of this text stems from two observations. First, there was a tradition held for a long time in the Greek work after Socrates death, that Socrates remained silent. Second, other 'apologies,' notable one written by Xenophon, who was not present, differ in details from the one written by Plato. But they do not differ in spirit. In both Plato and Xenophon, the essential elements are there. Xenophon in his preface says that what Plato wrote was how Socrates actually spoke. The main reason Xenophon writes, as Xenophon himself explains, is to offer some background for readers who were struck by the apparent arrogance of Socrates in Plato's account. To this end Xenophon offers this tidbit from a conversation between a certain Hermogenes and Socrates which occurs before the trial:

H: Really, Socrates, ought you not to be considering your defense?

S: Don't you think that my whole life has been a preparation for a defense?

H: How?

S: Because I have consistently done no wrong, and this, I think, is the finest preparation for a defense.

H: (note this) Don't you see that the Athenian courts have often been prevailed upon by argument to put Innocent men to death, and equally have often acquitted wrongdoers, either out of piety aroused by the speeches or because they have been flattered?

S: If revealing the opinion I have of myself annoys the jurors, then I will be choosing to die rather than to remain alive without freedom and beg, as an alternative to death, a vastly inferior life.

In writing this way Xenophon sets Socrates up as a sort of martyr for philosophy transforming his arrogance into courage.

Now the Apology by Plato is NOT a stenographic report of the trial of Socrates. However, there is no good evidence that the substance of the trial as crafted by Plato here is inaccurate. There is good evidence, from Xenophon, and other sources, Isocrates mainly, that Plato's Apology is accurate. Plato also had no good reason to offer an account of the trial that was at variance with the actual event. The event he writes about is within living memory of many who were also there. In fact, given the state of the Law in Athens and the charges -- and the claim that Socrates was ignorant of what impiety (or piety) and virtue were, the speech offered by Plato can be seen as the only consistent response he could have made.

Did He Do It

Okay. Before we run off to examine the trial in more detail, it might be helpful to ask if Socrates did any of the three things sworn in the indictment. That's not the same question as guilt. I'll treat that separately in a moment.

So did he do it? Was there substance to the charges laid by his accusers? Let's take the charge of impiety. In Athenian practice, impiety was a serious offence. But the charge of impiety was reserved and applied to offenses such as gross blasphemy or sacrilege or the mutilation of sacred objects. Socrates certainly was never party to anything remotely resembling an impious act in the sense that impiety was normally understood in Athens.

Did Socrates deny the State Gods? In a loose way he did. Socrates challenges the gory bits of Homer and Hesiod -- raises questions about the accuracy of those portrayals. But that's hardly denial; at best we might characterize it as a sort of heresy. But creed and doctrines didn't bind Greek religion. Religion in Athens was evidenced by what you did, not by what you said. It was ritualistic. Socrates was never accused of ignoring ritual.

Did Socrates introduce new divinities? Socrates had this Sign or Daemon, or conscience -- some might call it now. And he said that his Sign was a constant guide, turning forever away from temptation to certainty. But, so what? At best this shows Socrates as unorthodox in his style and beliefs. But Athenians more than tolerated unorthodoxy; they revered this. Athenians were not known for punishing people for their opinions. Pericles in the funeral oration in praise of Athens suggests the importance of this freedom: in our private intercourse we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes

Did Socrates corrupt the youth? Several of Socrates former young followers had been involved in subversive or treacherous actions against the state, including two of the so-called 30 Tyrants, Critias and Charmides and of course Alcibiades, who defected to Sparta during the Sicilian campaign. But after the war with Sparta, Athens declared a general amnesty -- the first ever political amnesty by the way. The effect of this amnesty was to wipe the slate clean for these former state criminals. And although these men were surely on the minds of those who laid the charges against Socrates, in no formal way could their former crimes be used against them or against Socrates -- who had been their teacher.

So he didn't do it? Well, obviously his accusers were aware that from the perspective of past practice or precedence, the charges were dicey. Yet they laid them nonetheless. Why? They were convinced they could make them stick. There are two main reasons for that. One is easy. The other is a bit more complex. The easy reason is that although the charges, especially the charge of impiety, did not conform to what was normally understood as impiety, Athenian law was rather vague on where the boundary for impious deeds were. There was no equivalent line -- such as theft over $500 or break and enter to cite two modern examples. With no formal line, all the accusers need to do is to persuade the jury that the charges were reasonable.

The second reason the accusers felt confident they could make the charges stick has to with the nature of legal practice in the so-called dicastic tribunal Socrates was tried under. In many respects and from this distance the procedure looks as if it should have been remarkably fair. In fact, and the way the system worked, procedurally the court operated under the unwritten and psychologically determined rules of mob justice. What counted in this court were not facts but persuasion. Let's examine this in a bit more detail.

First of all there would have been a preliminary hearing -- evidence would be presented before a judge or office called King Archon to determine if there was sufficient evidence for trial. If the case was not thrown out it would then proceed to a final trial in the court of 500. This trial, the one documented in the text, was the final stage. There was no appeal. The fact of no appeal seems unfair to us but was actually designed to prevent manipulation of the legal system. The trial was public. Precautions were taken to ensure impartiality -- the very size was viewed as a guarantee of this; each of the jurors swore an oath that had the effect of a modern oath; there was a form of sequestering to prevent tampering; the accuser and accused were guaranteed equal time for presentations and cross examinations; the process was measured using a water clock; the defendant also had the final word -- a decided advantage in the proceeding; to inhibit malicious prosecutions the accuser was fined if he failed to garner 20% in the final vote -- or 100 votes in this case. Attorneys did not represent defendants, but they could hire Rhetors, professionals skilled in Rhetoric to plead the case of the accused. Tradition has it that a Rhetor named Lysias -- one of the best in Athens -- offered his services to Socrates, who refused. While Lysias might have presented a better defense that Socrates, and probably could have won acquittal for Socrates, such a decision would have been completely inconsistent and decidedly unacceptable for Socrates as we'll see.

While all of the above might seem to suggest that Socrates was tried in a legally fair way, there are several other elements that suggest something quite different. The easiest way to understand this is to go back to the business of legal boundary. The laws -- particularly the laws on impiety -- were not clearly defined. An unclear or ill-defined law is as good as no law at all. With no law -- there was no framework within which a legal process could make reference. As a result matters of fact -- which are so important in a modern court -- are less relevant. In modern Nanaimo you may be found guilt of impaired driving if you register above .08 on a Breathalyzer. The law is clear. The operation of a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 is a crime. A jury will find you guilty if the facts presented show -- beyond reasonable doubt -- that your alleged offence falls within that legal framework. In this trial the framework was not in the least clear. According to Socrates defense, the lack of clarity went further. Not only was the impiety boundary ill-defined, Socrates claims that neither he nor anyone else for that matter knew what piety was.

The legal consequence of all this meant that rather than focus on fact, the Athenian juries often, but not always, relied on persuasion. In effect, your day in court was won if you displayed the best rhetorical skill. Why then did Socrates lose? Was the Plato's speech of Socrates not the finest example of rhetoric in the history of western culture? Arguably, it is. But it was not designed to win acquittal. Socrates has another agenda.

Was Socrates Guilty?

Before going there, I'd like to return to the question of guilt. Was Socrates guilty in any formal sense? Oh, yes. In the strict legal sense, and according to the procedures formulated by a long Athenian tradition, he was guilty. This impartial tribunal of citizens, following attentively and meticulously the procedures developed from centuries of experience, voted fairly, and found Socrates guilty. There was no irregularity in process. Socrates was afforded all of the opportunities guaranteed to all citizens of Athens. He presented his defense, refuted the evidence, was awarded his punishment, and offered a counter-penalty. There was no suggestion of tampering; no evidence of procedural irregularity; and no new evidence was subsequently presented to suggest otherwise.

Would a modern court have found Socrates guilty? That's a really interesting question. It would make a fabulous essay -- or better a movie or play.

Much has changed of course since 399 BCE. Probably the most significant change occurred in 1297 in article 29 of the Magna Carta:

No Freeman shall be taken, or imprisoned, or lose his Liberties, or be outlawed, or exiled, or otherwise destroyed, nor will we condemn him, but by lawful Judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land.

The relevant principle enshrined here is the notion of legality. It means that no free person can be subjected to retroactive law. And that of course was the effect of Socrates conviction. Because of the vagueness of the charge and the lack of legal definition in the law, the law that convicts him in a real sense was created through the conviction.

A modern court would regard the Socrates trial as illegal because it violates the Magna Carta principle of legality -- you can't try someone for a crime that wasn't a crime when the deed was one. Strangely however, this principle itself should not be applied retroactively. You can't judge the Socrates trial as illegal using the principle of legality -- because that principle did not exist at the time of the trial!!!

The Trial

The response Socrates offers in the Apology is a masterpiece of forensic rhetoric. But it is peculiar in that it completely reverses what a rhetorical defense is designed to do. So in a sense it isn't forensic at all. Some would call it counter-rhetoric. In structure, the speech is a text book classic of rhetorical form containing five distinct sections with clearly defined objectives: an Exordium, Prothesis, a double Refutation, a Digression, and a Peroation. The speech is designed not to win acquittal, but to tell the Truth. In it Socrates denies none of the charges in the indictment -- in modern legalese he refuses to enter a plea -- presumably because he does not know what the charges mean. So, he does not deny the charges of not acknowledging the gods of the city; he does not deny introducing new divinities; he does not deny corruption of youth. I either do not corrupt them or I corrupt them unintentionally. He does not deny impiety.

That's not to say that Socrates denies nothing. He does deny the charges of what he calls the Old Accusers -- the allegations founded on hearsay and widely held, that Socrates was a Sophist who made inquiries into the things of heaven and earth, and who made the weaker argument the stronger. The fact is he says in 19c there is nothing in these charges. That is clearly a denial. But of course that was not the charge. It was however the prejudice that underlies the charges and the main political reason Socrates found himself in this court and in this political trial. And in the end it would be the real reason Socrates was to die.

However, there is a remarkable irony here. Socrates knows he is hated because of his sophist reputation. Socrates knows that his juror's antennae will be finely tuned to detect sophistry. Socrates knows also that the use of finely tuned rhetoric is exactly what Sophists do -- in order to make the weaker argument appear the stronger. Socrates knows that if he is to impress the jurors he ought to avoid rhetoric; he ought in fact to use the simple language of the market, the sort of language he promises in 18a: pay no attention to my manner of speech, it may perhaps be poor But he lies -- or seems to! Instead of the simple language of the market, he offers the finest example of polished rhetoric in the history of western thought. Why? Socrates rhetoric is not in fact of the sophistic kind, the kind the jurors would condemn, based on emotion and empty persuasion. Socrates rhetoric is a new kind of rhetoric, called philosophic rhetoric, crafted in the pursuit of Truth. Socrates knows this, but he also knows that these jurors would not be able to tell the difference. Why is he committing suicide? As I wrote these ideas my thoughts went for the first time to the possibility that the apparent irony this use of rhetoric implies is based on my prejudgment of what knowing means. Perhaps Socrates does not really know any of this. This goading style is only his way of inquiry. Can the jurors tell the difference between true and false rhetoric? Do they really believe he is a sophist? What better way to find out! The irony is a test -- a test of virtue. If the jury passes Socrates will be freed. If the jury fails the test, Socrates will die, but the world will see why and the world will see what virtue is. And that in fact is what happens.

Socrates was tried for corruption and impiety: two things he knew nothing of and was forced therefore to neither deny nor admit. He went down in a final test of virtue, a struggle designed to discover what virtue was. It's a pity that the trial was governed by a water clock. One senses that had he been given the opportunity to pursue the contradictions that his ironic Apology was designed to uncover, in time his questionings would have eventually worn his accusers down.

I said at the outset that Socrates was a genuine threat. He was. He threatened the Athenian way of life. But that Athenian way, and the law on which it rested, needed to change or to die. The death of Socrates can be seem as the the beginning of the end of the Athenian way. That perhaps was Socrates design. Something new was needed. What was needed may have taken 2,000 years to emerge, but it has. The legal system that succeeded Socrates pays attention to the defects that this trial highlights, as I hope we will see in readings we encounter next year. Seen in this relief, Socrates death may be regarded not as as a judicial suicide, with Socrates the loser, but as a judicial assassination of Athenian law with Socrates the winner.

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