Plato documented the trial of Socrates and his last days in imprisonment and captured a truly moving moment in history. The Athenian people judged Socrates after some individuals in the city had accused him of effectively-being depraved and misleading the city’s youth. Such accusations have been levelled against many people throughout time. Socrates was dogmatic and single-minded and adhered to ideals that other people did not want to consider or think about. He was, in his own words, a gadfly.1
Some people saw Socrates’s constant questioning and dogmatic behaviour as a threat to society. Many people did not like being questioned or thinking about their position in society. But, like others, Socrates was recognised after being martyred. Many individuals throughout history have been remembered after society has rejected them. In modern times, even Alan Turing was persecuted for would now be accepted. Few individuals are remembered as well as Socrates. Despite the desire of many people in Athenian society to silence Socrates, his words remain in the Western canon.2
In this work, Plato documents the pivot point within the trial. At this moment of truth, Socrates does not seek to apologise for his actions but rather notes that he will continue to be a gadfly and continue disturbing the peace in the same way he has already done. In admitting this, he understands that most citizens in Athens do not want to think about their position in society and that he faces the death penalty if not merely being ostracised.
But, the majority of Athenian citizens in the fifth century B.C.E. remain like the majority of humans throughout the world today. Like those who have come before us, most people do not want the contemplated life and do not want to reflect on the rights and wrongs of society or even to investigate their perspective on life and their beliefs in detail. Only when we investigate what we believe that we find out whether it is logical and rational or whether we have contradictions in the ideas we hold. Only when we apply the light of reason do we determine whether our beliefs are consistent.3
I. The tradition and origins of Western philosophy
“The European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.4 Whether or not you agree with the concepts and ideas presented by Plato, it is difficult to find a set of concepts in Western philosophy that have not addressed his way of thinking in some manner. Moreover, Plato can be seen as the father of modern philosophy and an ancient philosopher. Of course, there have and will always be more influential individuals than Plato, and it will always be the case that new concepts are developed. Still, few individuals have been honoured as deeply as Plato in intellectual circles.
During the Middle Ages, Aristotle was revered. Moreover, more contemporary philosophers, including Ayn Rand, have seen the philosophical foundations of Aristotle as being objectively critical. During the nineteenth century, both Hegel and Kant withheld in incredibly high esteem. Aristotle was himself one of Plato’s pupils and in many ways adheres to a philosophy that disagrees strongly with many of the concepts expressed by Plato. However, few philosophers will fail to acknowledge the debt Western philosophy owes to Plato even in disagreement.5
Equally, it is through Plato that we know of the history of Socrates in the detail that we acknowledge. There is a deep love and affection in the works of Plato describing his master, Socrates. In the dialogues discussed in this lesson, Apology and Crito, we see Plato’s remarkable devotion to his teacher. Plato presents Socrates as a man with unbounded courage and steadfast morality. Because of this work, Plato is identified with Socrates and acts as the primary source for all our knowledge of this individual and his persona. Without these works, without the views and stories presented by Plato, we would know nothing of the philosophy of Socrates, who did not believe in writing down his knowledge.
Both Plato and Socrates are different people in history. However, the difficulty in reading these works is associated with how Plato uses other people as a mouthpiece and puts what he needs to say into the perspective of another. Plato is the individual speaking in the dialogues even when he talks through other individuals. The narrative allows the reader to believe that Socrates addresses an audience, not Plato. Plato uses several literary tricks and techniques that allow us to imagine Socrates or others as talking directly to us.
Plato was not attempting to deceive anybody. While he writes in his teacher’s voice, all who read Plato understand his words. Therefore, we cannot see Plato as merely a scribe recording the words of Socrates. Rather, Plato created characters out of the individuals in his narrative designed such that they would say the words that he would think each individual would say. The real Socrates may be far less patient than Plato portrays him. As a result, the conclusions may not be as ready or as simple, and the conversations betrayed may not be as amenable to being made into literature. None of this matters. The work of Plato is not a work of history but rather philosophical work designed to make the reader think.6
To this end, the author has achieved his desired goal.
It is known that many of the individuals mentioned within the dialogues written by Plato are historical figures that would have been known and would have interacted with Socrates. For example, Gorgias, as with his contemporary Protagoras, were each known to be Sophists and taught their own version of philosophy that is not remembered outside of Plato. Moreover, the various participants in the Symposium, including Alcibiades, were known for several exploits and are also documented in Plutarch’s lives. Moreover, General Nicias, who was featured in the Laches, has been documented separately by Thucydides throughout the work, History of the Peloponnesian War.7
These individuals are not merely characters made in a novel. Rather, it is likely that Plato formed the various dialogues based on the historical interactions of these men and Socrates. During the trial in 399 B.C.E., Socrates was already seventy years old. Plato was comparatively young and only around twenty-nine. The Athenian court heard the accusations against Socrates that Meletus, Lycon and Anytus brought, and, likely, even those individuals did not foresee the outcome of their actions.8
In the end, the court judged that Socrates, then well-known and now the most famous citizen of Athens ever to live, would be put to death. In the Apology, Plato presents the various charges against Socrates and how Socrates answered them. Because of this, we can examine this trial and its outcome now. Through this, we can contemplate the various decisions and seek to either reject or justify the outcome. This outcome follows from a series of historical events that led to this trial.
Before this, in 404 B.C.E., Athens had lost a prolonged war with the Spartan people. The Athenian alliance was growing in power, and the economic reach of the Athenian people was casting a shadow over the Spartan kingdom and its league. Twenty-seven years before this date, smarter and Athens started a series of bitter conflicts that Thucydides documented in his history. In all of these changes and the losses associated with constant warfare, Athens went through a series of political disturbances and changes.
Athens had remained a democratic city-state for over 100 years before these problems. However, warfare and the problems associated with prolonged conflict led to implementing an oligarchy that was overthrown and again replaced by another democratic system of rule. The people in this new government became anti-oligarchical and opposed aristocratic influences of all types. It was this democratic government and the will of the mob and the people that tried and executed Socrates.9
Socrates was believed to have supported the oligarchy and believed in an aristocratic rule. Yet, for all of this, the words of Plato show that Socrates was unwilling to commit injustice or to stymie his beliefs in any way, even if he was ordered to. This, however, remained whether we discuss any form of government, democratic, monarchical or oligarchy.
II. Should we obey an unjust law?
In referring to an “unjust law,” we reference some command or pronouncement designed to forbid us from engaging in just action. Many people will recognise the clearer example in opposing statutes and laws that discriminate against individuals for race or sex. There are many examples of laws that people consider to violate human rights, including those that stop consenting adults from engaging in certain acts, including imbuing drugs such as marijuana or laws that prohibit homosexual activities.
In the past, and continuing even today, some were conscientious objectors and did not believe that the government should compel them to go to war or even be drafted. Such pacifists may even oppose the collection of tax monies that are applied for military expenditures. In this, it is important to consider what a conscientious citizen should be doing in objecting to a law that that individual believes to be unjust or wrong. In this, some people believe that they should disobey the law. Therefore, it is necessary to consider whether reasons can exist for disobeying a law that we consider to be unjust or whether, as with Socrates, we accept the outcomes of our actions.
In this, Socrates did not believe in the court’s decision, yet he remained bound by its decision. In Athenian court processes, the defendant would put forth his argument as to why the jury should rule in their favour. Socrates defends himself and creates what would be expected to be a favourable view of his perspective of the truth. It is difficult to see anything but a tragedy in how Plato documents this trial. Moreover, the level of misunderstanding that the Athenian people hold is difficult to understand.10
We all have different opinions and weigh how we value law or even political decisions. Yet, finding a death penalty against Socrates is difficult to see as anything other than a major miscarriage of justice. Therefore, in reading this, it is important to consider our views on various topics and imagine what we would vote on that may be considered a miscarriage of justice either now or in the future. Socrates is indeed unyielding in his devotion to what he considers truth. In this end, he will not compromise even in the face of death:
Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength, I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.
Socrates notes in his defence that he will not stop teaching, and in fact, he says he will not obey the law if it tells him he must stop. Rather, he instructs the jury in the Athenian citizens that he will always strive to do what he considers right even if he is facing capital punishment by refusing to change.
III. What response should be applied to address an unjust law?
Laws can be just, or laws can be corrupt. However, even good laws may be applied incorrectly and lead to injustice. For example, in the Dreyfus case in France around 100 years ago, a law was implemented to punish acted in sedition against the government. In many ways, this law can be seen as justified. In the case, the individual, Captain Dreyfus, was charged with treason but was not guilty. Yet, he was persecuted because of his race. As a Jew, many in France at the time believed him to be guilty because of birth. In an unjust case such as this one, it is necessary for us all to question our role the citizen and our duty in society.11
Some people blindly follow the justice system, believing it can be considered infallible. However, as with all human institutions, it is a system run by people, and as such, it has all the fallibilities of humanity. The trial process and finding an individual guilty through jury is one of the best we have, yet everything is not perfect. As with all humanity, judges and juries are fallible and make mistakes. A miscarriage of justice can occur, and when this does, it is up to other individuals and society to attempt to right the injustice. At times, people have been convicted when they are innocent. In recent times, we have seen individuals who have been pardoned and pronounced innocent and who were likely given unjust trials because of their race.12
However, other issues are more blatant and obvious. Sometimes, the application of the law is indubitably unjust. There are times when it is clear that a guilty verdict has been issued against an innocent person. In this example, many of the same questions that faced Socrates apply. Here, it is necessary to question the duty of a citizen. As a member of society, should we demand obedience, or should we enact rates of disobedience?
In Plato’s work, a speech is presented that constitutes Socrates’ primary defence. Following Socrates’condemnation and as he is waiting for the penalty to be applied, Socrates then states the following:
“If I tell you… But I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that daily to discourse about virtue, and any of those other things about which you hear me examining myself and others, is the greatest good of man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you are still less likely to believe me. Yet I say what is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.
Socrates knows that he is facing the death penalty. However, he is neither humble nor penitent. In his speech, Socrates asserts what many people see as being arrogant. Socrates refuses to say that he will change. Rather, Socrates asserts that he will continue to try and instruct people and live his life how he wishes even though the court has already found him guilty.
Standing before the judges and refusing to change even after being told that he could face the death penalty, Socrates negatively impacts the judges, leading to the death penalty being issued. The intransigence of Socrates comes from his firm belief in how he should be living his life. To Socrates, doing right and holding to your moral values is more important than even life itself.13
IV. Each citizen has societal responsibilities; what duties and responsibilities apply to bad law and address these?
Socrates takes his arguments even further. He doesn’t only state that he will continue but argues that the state requires people like him. In this, he argues:
“I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me, you will not easily find a successor to me, given to the state by God; and the state is 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 attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”
Socrates likely described himself quite well. Most courts use a general maxim that when an individual denigrates himself in this manner, it most likely forms truth. So why would Socrates lie to the court knowing that this will only worsen the sentence worse? Moreover, in stating this and doing it before his accusers and the people he constantly had annoyed, Socrates increased the animosity that the people before him felt. While this is an ancient example of injustice, the attitudes of individuals, including lawyers and judges, can be swayed in this manner even today.
We hope that people are judged on the truth and the merits of the case, but the reality is that charismatic individuals have fewer problems than others who are not. Human nature is flawed in all aspects of life, and there are always limitations to what humanity can achieve. Socrates may have understood that he had lost and faced death in any case. However, how we faced the jury demonstrates his integrity. Standing for his cause no matter the cost, he demonstrates his true beliefs and understanding of the true causes in bringing the charges. In this, he understands the outcome and the value of truth and the examined life. Few would have the courage to stand strong and uphold their convictions.
V Can Socrates be said to have disobeyed an explicit command, and was it unjust?
A law may seem to be just and may be written such that it can have good outcomes when applied in certain ways. But, equally, it could be unjustly created for the wrong reasons. A further example would be if a decree issued a law without a valid legislative process. In this, it may seem just, but not following the correct legislative process can be invalidated. Through this, we could argue that any administrative decree has a lower value as the force of law.
In a modern liberal democratic society, it is the role of our legislative houses such as the House of Commons in the U.K. or the Congress and the United States to create law. However, some would argue that laws created in other ways, including those implied through judicial activism in the Supreme Court of the United States, are not made by the legislature and thus should not hold the force of law.14
In Crito, Plato continues with the story and documents more of what happened to Socrates. In this work, we also start to understand and see the use of the Socratic method. Through this, Socrates brings out other people’s beliefs and challenges them through a process of conversation where he uses abstracted moral problems and even derives examples from his own case. In doing this, Socrates can enable people who have not been involved in the case to understand better the charges laid against him.
This dialogue looks at the citizen’s relation to the state. In this, each citizen has obligations under the law and, as a member of the state, differs in how they act to a subject who has no right to challenge the law. Crito initially presents a very simple scenario that he can understand, and that seems to him to justify the case against Socrates. In the trial, Socrates was condemned to die and was found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens. Crito has a son called Critobulus, trained and instructed by Socrates. In the Apology, we read part of the story. So, we already know and understand that Crito does not believe that Socrates is guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens.15
Consequently, Crito can be seen to believe that friendship requires that he intervene and help Socrates escape. Therefore, in his view, Socrates has been wrongly condemned, and as such, it is his duty to help a friend avoid death. Socrates tells Crito that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. In the dialogue that follows, Socrates has Crito examine his views and demonstrate some of the flaws in how he is thinking. In this process, we start to see that Socrates is necessary to be true to oneself and that this deep integrity is more valuable than life itself.
A question to be asked is whether many of us can withstand the force of examination and whether we will be able to stand strong against the attacks of others. In some ways, the same question of whether integrity matters is being asked by William Shakespeare through his character Hamlet.16 In Act III, Scene I, the protagonist, Hamlet, questions whether it is wise to act or better to remain silent in a renowned speech:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.—Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.17
The distinction is that Socrates, in his 70s, already knows how he will act and respond. In youth, Hamlet procrastinates and fails to understand how he should act and what is morally right until much later.
VI Based on Socrates actions, was he wise?
As we saw in Crito, Socrates will uphold more and not disobey the state even though it leads to death. But, equally, in the Apology, we have a seeming contradiction in that Socrates openly states that he will disobey a direct order. So the question now is how do we square the circle and find the difference in this, or is Socrates creating a contradiction?
In examining the actions of Socrates, we need to look at both situations and look at how they are different. In examining his responses, we must look at how these contradictory positions. In this, the support of the law in the Crito and the assertion in the Apology to obey God rather than the judges demonstrate that not all laws and actions are equal. There are times when citizens must stand for the beliefs that they hold dear. However, Socrates does not do this anonymously. Furthermore, Socrates does not do this in a way that will avoid the consequences of his actions. Rather, he stands strong against the slings and arrows of those who would oppose him and who feel differently.
In this, Socrates demonstrates that while he will not change his behaviour, he will do so openly and acknowledge the consequences of his acts. The question that follows is to ask whether this is wise. Socrates held wisdom in knowing that which he did not know. Few of us can answer that with that level of assertion, and few of us will accept how little we really know. The question now remains to ask whether this is itself wisdom. Is Socrates correct in asserting that knowledge of one’s ignorance is an achievement of the intellect?
Is this also a form of hubris, or rather are those who won’t accept the limitations of the ones who are not wise? There are limits to everything, and in this, we must now look towards the sceptic who refuses to accept any truth? Such scepticism would characterise him or herself as knowing that he or she does not know. The following question would be to ask whether Socrates was thus a sceptic? Equally, in the Socratic dialogues presented through his works, Plato presents Socrates as seeming to know many things. In the work we examined, the Crito, the questioning and comments made by Socrates demonstrate that he has a deep knowledge of citizenship, including duty and of the law. From this, we can understand that he also understands government and politics. So, the question that remains here is to ask what Socrates means by ignorance and how he perceives wisdom.18
VII “The unexamined life is not worth living”?
With this knowledge, we can now think about which areas of life and our existence we should be examining and questioning. Moreover, there is a question about whether this applies to all people in society or whether Socrates states that it’s only for people like himself. Is this a question for philosophers, business leaders, and politicians, or does it exclude people such as artists and labourers? Moreover, the difficulties in conducting day-to-day business and engaging in life demand time and effort and question how we can fit time in the self-examination.
As introspective individuals, we need to consider whether we examine all aspects of our lives and whether this requires that we re-examine what has come before and whether that outcome leads to a worthwhile and fulfilling life.
Questions and Reflections
In order to best understand and comprehend the work, we must question it and think about our understanding by challenging ourselves. Through this, we can learn how to question our own comprehension and whether we have been thorough in understanding what we have read.
- Socrates was charged with several old charges; it is important that we understand what they are. So, in reading, think about and recall the old charges made.
- Next, it is important to understand the differences between the old and the new charges. In reading, consider both of these aspects of the case and reflect on what charges were laid both in the past and towards the end of the case.
- Who were the people Socrates came upon in his search for a wise man? This group knew something; what was it that they knew?
- Socrates was charged with being an atheist. What was his defence? Why was this not accepted by those on the jury?
- Socrates argued that death could be better than life and nobody could injure him? What does he mean in this, and what is the summary of his real argument? Could this be different if he was a younger man?
- What would happen if Socrates had escaped as some of his friends wanted to do? What would this mean for his philosophy and interaction with the law?
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