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In his Own Defense: The Trial of Socrates

Updated on May 29, 2016
Patrick Patrick profile image

Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years

The Trial of Socrates

Socrates about to drink the Hemlock Poison
Socrates about to drink the Hemlock Poison | Source

Let's Look at How Socrates Argues in his Defense

Apart from some older charge, Socrates is also charged with the crime of corrupting the youth. In his defense, Socrates gives several arguments in an attempt to prove his innocence.

The first defense

Socrates starts by stating that he knows nothing- I don’t know anything sir!!! So cool

Here, Socrates professes ignorance - By not knowing anything (except his own ignorance) he explains that he is not in a position to teach young people anything. In his response to Meletus, Socrates explains that in doing harm to others, and thus causing harm to the society, He (Socrates) would also be hurting himself since he is a part of the society. He concludes this argument by stating that he would not be foolish enough to want to hurt himself, and if he actually does cause any harm, then it has to be unintentional.

In his opinion, an individual who causes harm unintentionally should be reproved and instructed rather than being tried and punished in the process.

Second Defense

Socrates notes that there is no one present to testify that he corrupted them. This is referred to as the ad ignorantiam argument. Here, he points out that there is no proof that has been placed in to evidence that anyone was corrupted. As he explains, if he was guilty of having driven away the youth with his so called teachings, then the youth would have persuaded their parents to expel him. On the other hand, their parents would have expelled him themselves. However, this was not the case, and thus he is not guilty of having corrupted anyone.

Where is the evidence provided by this court? This is what he is basically asking… Smart fellow, wouldn’t you say?

Third Argument in his defense

The other argument presented by Socrates is in response to Meletus. In the trial, Meletus asserts that Socrates believes in no gods whatsoever. However, he moves on to point out that Socrates believes and teaches others, especially the youth to believe in various supernatural matters. In response, Socrates explains that since supernatural beings are gods or the children of these gods, then he believes in gods, which contradicts an initial assertion by Meletus that he does not believe in any god whatsoever.

Let’s evaluate this, shall we?

From these arguments/responses, it becomes clear that Socrates is not only out to defend himself, but also embarrass his accusers. I am of the opinion that his arguments are indeed safe to accept and prove his innocence. The first response by Socrates is that he does not know anything, and therefore is not in a position to corrupt anyone.

Here, it is important to keep in mind that Socrates felt that he was wisest man in Athens because he was aware of his own ignorance. It is for this reason that he asked questions in order to determine how much others knew. It therefore becomes evident Socrates only sought knowledge, and to prove that others did not know as much as they thought they knew, and could therefore not be accused of corrupting anyone, since he "did not know any better". Socrates’ defense in this case is that he is only after true knowledge, and cannot take the responsibility of having misled anyone in the process.

In addition, Socrates goes on to explain that if he is actually doing harm to others, and particularly the youth, he would be negatively affecting the society, and thus himself given that he lives in that society. He explains that he cannot be foolish enough to want to hurt himself. This is also a safe premise to accept given that by hurting the young, this would mean negatively affecting the society in general. It is a fact that the young are a population that can easily be influenced by those in leadership positions. They also have sufficient energy that can be used in a destructive manner. According to this premise, Socrates explains that if he hurts the youth, then this would result in negative consequences not only to others, but to the society in general, which would ultimately affect him negatively. He is not foolish to hurt himself, and would therefore not hurt the youth. Socrates concludes that if in fact he has caused harm to the youth, and then it was not his intention (it was unintentional). If this is the case, he should simply be instructed, rather than tried and punished. The premises lead to a good conclusion. This is because if the society could show that he had caused harm to the youth, then he should be shown how this has happened, and therefore instructed or rebuked for doing so. However, no one has come forward to show how he has been hurt or corrupted (neither a youth nor a parent) which shows the charges have not strong basis.

Initially, his accuser (Meletus) had stated that Socrates does not believe in any god whatsoever. However, he also states that Socrates has been teaching the youth to believe in other gods and supernatural matters, which would suggest that Socrates believes in some supernatural being. This contradicts Meletus’ own accusation. From this argument, we are lead to wonder whether his accuser believes that Socrates believes in some gods or not. We therefore see some level of desperation on Meletus side, as well as a weak foundation of his accusations. Given that Meletus had stated that Socrates believed in not gods whatsoever, then Socrates would not be guilty of having taught the youth to believe in some supernatural matter, nor would he be guilty of having been taught by some god to teach/corrupt the youth.

The Video on Piety

The Conclusion

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest man in Athens. However, rather than boost at this assertions and use them as the basis of teaching the youth, he decides to go and try to prove the Oracle wrong. In the process, he tries to find out whether anyone has real knowledge, and thus examine the unexamined life, which fascinates and even wins him the attention of the youth. He can therefore not be said to be corrupting the youth given that he himself is seeking for answers, and only teaches them to do the same. Reason therefore becomes important than feelings given that through reason, it becomes easier to gain true knowledge than simply believe in what has been passed down as knowledge. According to his accusers, Socrates was misleading the youth, teaching them to believe in other gods and question what the state had taught them. However, these cannot be regarded as crimes given that Socrates is only encouraging the youth to not simply accept things as they are, but rather become active seekers of true knowledge. In this case, his accusers become the guilty party given that through their actions, they are seeking to stand in the way of pursuing true knowledge. If in fact there is nothing to hide, then Socrates and the youth would be committing no crime in their examination of life in general. To live an examined life would therefore mean stopping progress, and such a life is therefore not worth living.

Socrates teachings therefore only threatened those who perceived themselves as teachers and leaders, given that they only led by instilling fear in the hearts of the young. This is to mean that they put feelings before reason, and could therefore be manipulated easily. However, by putting reason before feelings, as Socrates suggested, the youth could seek real knowledge rather than simply believing in baseless facts and knowledge as passed down by various "teachers" and leaders. Socrates is therefore not guilty given that his only teachings involved encouraging the youth to question whatever they were told or taught, and through this, reason as to whether such knowledge was indeed sound.

Final Thoughts

Even after the arguments Socrates put forwards, he is found guilty and end up being executed (by drinking the poison). Do you suppose that he had provided a strong argument in his defense? Did they end up executing an innocent man? Let me know your thoughts on the trial and whether you think Socrates had proved his innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

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