Socrates’ Trial Socrates’ First Accusers and Athenian Law Of all confrontations in political philosophy, the biggest is the conflict between philosophy and politics. The problem remains making philosophy friendly to politics. The questioning of authoritative opinions is not easily accomplished nor is that realm of philosophy – the pursuit of wisdom. Socrates was the instigator of the conflict. While the political element takes place within opinions about political life, Socrates asks the question What is the best regime and how should I live? Ancient thought is riddled with unknowns and can make no such statement as how should I live.
The Socratic philosophy offers an alternative and prepares the way for the alternative of absolutes. This alternative is not without its’ faults. Socratic philosophy is plagued by a destructive element. It reduces the authoritative opinions about political life but replaces it with nothing. This is the vital stem from which the Apology of Socrates is written. Because of the stinging attack on Athenian life, and the opinions they revere so highly, Socrates is placed on trial for his life. The question now, becomes why and in what manner did Socrates refute the gods and is he guilty? Socrates, himself, speaks out against the charges by saying Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by investigating the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by making the weaker the stronger and by teaching others these things. This is the charge of the old accusers.
It is seen from an example in The Clouds. Strepsiades goes to Socrates in order to learn how to persuade his son by making the weaker speech the stronger. Why does Socrates remind the assembly about the old accusers? It appears improper for a man on trial to bring about his other ‘crimes’. Aristophanes, in particular; is implicated by Socrates as an old accuser. For you yourselves used to see these things in the comedy of Aristophanes. The poets helped to shape Greek culture. Poetry was passed on and perpetuated the city where thought constantly 2 changed. Philosophy begins in debunking what the city thinks they know in order to refute the god.
It is evident that Socrates is not interested in the gods. Socrates says, It is not part of the same man to believe in daimonian and divine things. Socrates is subtly admitting his guilt. Perhaps Socrates believes in gods, but if so, they are not the gods of the city. Socrates simply denies that he has had any part in celestial or subterranean inquiry – he simply speaks elsewhere. Socrates goes on to say that those who do are reported to be atheists.
However, Socrates says, Zeus does not even exist. Socrates replaces Zeus with nature, the permanent and necessary things accessible to reason. This is an outrage to any Athenian. To deny the gods is to deny faith and ultimately the authoritarian opinions on which their politics is based. Why does Socrates think that he is being unjustly punished? Chaerophon had told Socrates that the Pythian Oracle had said that Socrates was the wisest man.
Socrates admits, I am conscious that I am not wise, either much or little. Socrates wonders what the riddle is and sets out to refute the divination. This is a prime example of Socrates’ impiousness as is his statement in The Clouds where he states we don’t credit Gods. He is attempting to refute the god at Delphi. Socrates tries to aid his own defense by charging that what he does is in devotion to the god. Even now I still go around seeking and investigating in accordance with the god. Socrates makes this brash statement yet it is unfounded and untrue because it is not a divine order for Socrates to pursue this line of investigation. In opposition, Socrates asserts that the dominion did not oppose him.
Socrates’ impiety is not the only thing that resulted in his trial. Socrates was the gadfly 3 stinging the city of Athens. When Socrates proposes that the gods sent him on his quest, he set out to prove it wrong. In the process, he questioned the politicians and those reported to be wise. After finding that no one reported to be wise, was worthy of being called wise, Socrates investigated further all the while perceiving with pain and fear that I was becoming hated.
The artisans, poets, and politicians all thought they were knowledgeable in the greatest things, but in fact, did not know anything at all. They all say noble things but they know nothing of which they speak. Socrates, in affirming that he ranked above them in wisdom, because he knew nothing, in fact became the oracle’s main supporter. It must be noted that Socrates’ support of the city’s god is based solely on his ‘testing’ of the oracle. Socrates accepts the oracle’s words, not on divine authority but because it passes his test of reason. The hatred of Socrates is extended, as the youth of Athens imitate him and make the elders look foolish by engaging in Socratic dialogue and showing up their ignorance.
This led to the charge that Socrates corrupted the youth. This too was added to the impiety charge. Socrates says that the youth follow him of their own accord. In any event, one concludes that the Delphi Oracle was a definite turning point in Socrates’ life. Perhaps it changes Socrates’ interest from the physical and astronomical studies with moral and political thought.
This turning point brings Socrates into conflict with the city of Athens. His doubt of the opinions taken on authority also concerned the city’s god and the city’s laws. That made him dangerous in the eyes of the leaders. Socrates’ thought was a painful sting to the glorified convictions of human conduct that meant so much to the city. For Socrates, being executed was the only option available to him.
Of course, his friends, could have helped him to escape, but what that prove? It would only go against everything that 4 Socrates has taught. It would also defy everything that Socrates stood for in life. Escaping punishment, would have been an unjust and cowardly act for him. Disobeying the law would set a bad example for his fellow citizens. In addition, it would ruin his reputation for being just and following the laws of the government. Ultimately, Socrates believed that, although he was wrongfully accused, he was given a fair trial through the eyes of the law. The fact that he was given a fair trial means that he was given a fair punishment.
If Socrates’ punishment had not carried out, justice would not have been served. Escaping punishment would have caused a conflict between his teachings and his actions. This would eradicate the moral reputation that Socrates had built for himself throughout his life. The question he would have asked himself would have been, “What kind of example would I be setting if I dishonored my own teachings?” He saw his punishment as a contract between the government and himself, and he firmly believed that agreements should not be broken. This is the same government that allowed him to live life as he chose, so why harm an institution that benefited him? Philosophy.