In 399 B.C., accused by Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, Socrates was charged with the crimes of impiety against the gods of Athens and corruption of the youth. A jury of five hundred Athenian citizens found Socrates guilty in the first trial and the subsequent trial issued a death penalty proposed by Meletus. A number of accounts of the two trials were written ever since and Plato’s Apology of Socrates (Latin: apologia i.e. speech of legal self-defence), is based on Socrates’ defence speech in the two trials.
Socrates established that he would speak the truth and ‘the whole truth’ (17b8), that ‘…it would not be becoming… for someone of my age to come before you fabricating speeches like a youth’ (17c4-5), which suggests that Socrates believe that he could speak in his accusers’ persuasive manner but chose instead the naked truth.
Defence against the Unofficial Charges
Socrates then moved on to defend against the unofficial charges which he ‘fear them more than Anytus and those with him’ (18b1-2). These unofficial charges included:
- ‘Investigate the things under the earth and heavenly things…’,
- ‘Make the weaker speech the stronger’, and
- ‘Teach others these same things.’ (19b5-9).
Socrate believed these slanders were a result of the comedy of Aristophanes that ‘a certain Socrates was borne about there…’ (19c2-3). He defended that he had ‘no share in these matters.’ (18c8) and asked the jury ‘…if any of you ever heard me conversing about such things…’ (18d4) or that ‘…if you have heard from anyone that I try to educate human beings and that I charge money for it, that is not true either.’ (19d8-10). Socrate did share a possible cause for the popularity of these slanders against him. He told a story of his friend Chaerephon who once asked the oracles of Delphi, of ‘…whether there is anyone wiser than [Socrates]. The Pythia replied that no one is wiser.’ (21a6-7).
This puzzled Socrates for the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing, to better understand what the oracles meant, he proceeded to consult the reputed wise politician, poet and artisan. After having inquisitive and argumentative dialogues with them, that are now known as the method of elenchus or the Socratic method, with Socrates at the end of the conversations left in doubt of the wisdom of those whom he spoke with, and of whom in resentment of Socrates, he realised that the wisdom that the oracles spoke of was the ‘human wisdom’ of ‘for what I do not know, I do not suppose I know’ (21d7).
Defence against the Official Charges
Socrates continued his apology to defend against the official charges, which included:
- ‘Corrupting the young’ (24b7),
- Socrates ‘does not believe in gods at all’ (26c6).
Socrates defended that it was unlikely he was the only one (25b) corrupting the youth if it be corruption. He also pointed out that no one would induce harm to himself by intentionally corrupting his associates (25d-e), and if it was not intentioned, it is not a wrongdoing on his part. To defend the charge that Socrate ‘does not believe in gods at all’ (26c6), he engaged in a dialogue with Meletus and showed that it is a contradictory argument for Meletus accused also that Socrates believed in and taught god-matter (daimonia) which implies a belief in god (daimon) (27c). He affirmed his belief in gods for he would not stop his divine mandate of philosophising even in the face of death (28e and 29c-d), and stated his devotion to justice hence refrained from begging for forgiveness, which was not uncommon at his times, ‘Apart from reputation, men, to me it also does not seem to be just to beg the judge, nor to be acquitted by begging…’ (35b11 and 35c1). Socrates ended his apology against the official charges with a statement on his commitment to philosophy in which he said ‘I would say to you, “I salute you and cherish you, men of Athens, but I will obey the god rather than you; and as long as I breath and am able to, I will not stop philosophising…’ (29d3-5).
Defence against the Proposed Death Penalty
The jury found Socrates guilty and a subsequent trial was being held to pass punishment, to which Meletus proposed death. Socrates again had to give a defence and a counterproposal for punishment, in which he merely denounced a fear of death ‘Fearing what? That I might suffer what Meletus proposes for me, about which I declare that I do not know whether it is good or bad?’ (37b6-8), and concluded that ‘…the unexamined life is not worth living…’ (38a6) which has then become perhaps one of the most famous quote in ancient Greek philosophy. Socrates was reluctant to give counterproposal for punishment, ‘But Plato here, men of Athens, and Crito and Critobulus and Apollodorus bid me to propose thirty minae, and they themselves will stand surety. So I propose that much, and these men will be trustworthy sureties of the silver for you.’ (38b).
Last Words to the Men of Athens
The jury passed a death penalty for Socrates. Before being imprisoned to await execution, Socrate gave his last words to the jury and to the men of Athens that his conviction should not be considered as a defeat, that ‘I have been convicted because I was at a loss’ (38d6-9). Rather his conviction was ‘for daring and shamelessness and for not being willing to say the sorts of things to you that you would have been most pleased to hear’ (38d6-9) that he ‘much prefer to die having made my defense speech like this, than to live like that’ (38e5-6) and that ‘I suppose it is not hard, men, to escape death but it is much harder to escape villainy.’ (39a6-7). Socrates shared also a few words on his view of death, ‘For being dead is either of two things. Either it is such as to be nothing and the dead man has no perception of anything, or else, in accordance with the things that are said, it happens to be a certain change and migration of the soul from the place here to another place.’ (40c6-10), that ‘now it is time to go away, I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to a better thing is unclear to everyone except to the god.’ (42a3-5).
Corrupting the Youth
One of the official charges of Socrates was ‘corrupting the young’ (24b7). Socrates mentioned that his accusers ‘have been accusing for a long time now… they speak to you at that age when you were most trusting, when some of you were children and youths’ (18c5-7) that ‘those who persuaded you by using envy and slander and those who persuaded others after being convicted themselves’ (18d2-4). Perhaps Socrates was found guilty because his accusers were in full irony the ones who did corrupt the youth.