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The Trial of Socrates

Updated on July 18, 2014

Who Was Socrates?

Socrates (470-399 BCE), an Ancient Greek philosopher, was a charismatic figure who exercised a dramatic influence on his immediate environment. The renowned philosopher Plato inserted Socrates as a character in his dialogues (with the single exception of the late dialogue The Laws.) It is controversial to what extent Socrates had philosophic positions of his own, as distinguished from those attributed to him in Plato's writings. It is certain, however, that this remarkable character lived and made a profound impression on the cultural life of classical Athens. Although he was not the first in a long tradition of Ancient Greek philosophers, it may have been the case that he was the first to bring moral problems into the compass of philosophic thought. Plato's work, on the other hand, extends beyond moral philosophy - another sign, perhaps, that the historic Socrates is not readily available through the Platonic corpus.

Archaeological evidence has established both the existence and certain key historical events in the life of Socrates, son of one named Sophroniscus and formally a resident of the Athenian county of Alopeki ("fox-country.") It is not unusual for Greek names to have decipherable etymologies - this indeed happens with names across languages. When native speakers use names, they don't think of those names' etymological extraction, but the Greeks seems to have had a singular, and quite mystical, preoccupation with how words are put together all the way back to their roots. Interestingly, "Socrates" could have been derived etymologically from "zo-kratein" which means, roughly, "he who holds dominion over life." His father's name means something like "person of good common sense". Other personae of Platonic dialogues have names whose plausible etymologies seem to fit a dramatic plot; what makes everything even more uncanny is that those characters are attested to have existed. Others among his contemporaries wrote about Socrates but the surviving corpus of texts includes only works by one named Xenophon - a commonsensical and rather shallow thinker but elegant stylist of Attic Greek. Socrates is also included, and bawdlerized, in at least two comedies by the playwright Aristophanes - the Birds and the Clouds, in which Socrates is the center of attention and serves as the butt of many a joke. Socrates' supporters, like Plato and Xenophon, insisted that the Aristophanic depiction of Socrates is way off target and is motivated strictly by a comedian's sycophantic interest in pleasing a rather silly massive audience. This popular misrepresentation of Socrates' character and actions caused fatal harm, according to Socrates' defenders. In one of the most famous stories ever - at least, it used to be famous in the West until rather recently - Socrates was brought to trial, convicted and, put to death, he refused to avail himself of an escape option and carried out the sentence himself by drinking poison (hemlock.) He did this even though the sentence was patently unfair. In the Platonic dialogue we have under the title Phaedo, Socrates commits suicide (considered as a morally right act if done for the right reason) after he enunciates several proofs of immortality - thus claiming that he cannot possibly die, even by leaving a mortal and "entombing" body behind.

The author Xenophon who, as we saw, also wrote material about Socrates accused Plato of misrepresenting the teacher. To be a teacher, of course, Socrates must have had some teachings to bestow - unless he had something of a method. We will be returning to this point later. Xenophon's Socrates can be met in such works as The Memorabilia of Socrates, Hiero Tyrannicus and Economicus. Xenophon also wrote an Apology (Apologia Sokratous, which means "Speech of Defense" rather than "Apology."). The point is always that Socrates was a paragon of moral perfection and a superb teacher bent on eliciting knowledge. Xenophon's Socrates also imparts knowledge of his own - but the Socratic teachings in Xenophon are rather so obvious and uncomplicated that it is hard to imagine that Socrates would have roused great admiration. Xenophon's barbs are directed against Plato too - claiming that Plato depicted Socrates as arrogant and conceited, which, Xenophon insists, is far from the truth. Poignantly, Xenophon takes pains to distance Socrates from certain Athenian policians, and later catastrophic rulers of Athens. Moreover, Xenophon's Socrates stands up courageously to some other rulers of Athens who usurped power as tyrants. (Athens' regime fluctuated widely across a whole range of different political systems. Socrates' trial, however, took place when the political system was democratic, something that Plato never forgot but which seems to bother Xenophon a lot less.)

As in most pre-modern societies, only the wealthy had free time and means to pursue an education. Plato claims that Socrates was available to anyone but in the dialogues Socrates' interlocutors are the rich and famous youths of Athens. Following a political career by claiming to be supporting popular causes, as is the case for the elites even in our times, some of those youths later were elected as Athenian leaders and committed disastrous mistakes that essentially ruined Athens and caused great suffering. The question in such cases is, "who were the teachers who taught them how to be such smooth talkers, persuasive orators and public figures, essentially covering their intrinsic defects?" We are not given to asking such pointed questions but the passionately politicized Athenian public was. A notorious profession in Athens was the Sophists who, precisely, taught rhetorical skills (today, we might include such niceties as communications skills, advertisement, public speech, and even the psychological disciplines that may come along for the ride.) Not all Sophists were cynically involved in such educational offers - "Sophist" means teacher of wisdom. Plato is actually responsible for having given the word "Sophist" a negative connotation for posterity. The people, toiling and moiling from day to day and only observing Socrates from a distance, naturally took Socrates to be one of the Sophists. The comedic heaping of ridicule upon the charismatic but eccentric Socrates exacerbated and confirmed the public impression. Yet, this is supposed to be a misunderstanding. Even though many a youth, once infatuated with Socrates, went on to great political success to contribute to the ruination of Athens, the point is this: had they listened to Socrates, had they stayed with Socrates, they would have turned out right. And those characters were robust, indeed, but they found bad teachers: such natures either flourish and do good for everyone or, if miseducated, they wreak evil which is also great like they are. Socrates was the healer and improver, like someone who can bring out the virtues in a wild but excellent horse; the others, the teachers-for-money or Sophists, were the ones who did the damage - like trainers who cultivate in excellent horses toward destructive behavior.

It is essential to understand what Scorates was actually doing, not only what counted as Socrates' natural and rare charisma that attracted so many ambitious and finicky youths to him.

Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates."
Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates."

Socrates' Charisma

Socrates cut a picturesque figure in Athens, loitering in public places and always seeking conversation. Though a stone mason originally, following his father's lowly profession, he has stopped working and was supported in his meager needs by his wealthy patrons who were simply infatuated with him. Socrates must have been narcoleptic: there are many references to his frequent lapses into what was taken as rumination or, perhaps, prayer when he would remain settled on the spot for long periods of time. Known also to have unnaturally little need for normal sleep, he would seek after new discussants after he had put every one else to sleep aafter a long night of discussion. A famous characteristic of the man was that he claimed to be listening to a voice: it was not up to him to conjure this voice up, but the voice itself would rather sound in his head and always as a warning about someone he should avoid. One of the accusers of Socrates in the notorious trial came to harbor resentment because Socrates, responding to the warning voice's urgent imprecations, had refused to deal with his son. The voice Socrates heard was classified as demonic in the literal sense since the religious ontology of the culture admitted, in addition to divine entities also hald-deities which included demons. Whether Socrates believed in the popular religion or not (the public view was that he was a self-important innovator who rejected the tradition), he used the widely known fact about his demonic voice in his defense. To believe that demons exist - Socrates argument in the trial goes - one must believe in the existence of entities (the demons) which, by definition, are half-divine. This implies that one believes in the existence of divine entities. Yet, one of the charges against him was that he does not believe in the divine entities stipulated by the tradition of the city. No contradiction is apparent - since Socrates may well be introducing alien deities and reject the religion of the city; yet, in Plato's Apology, Socrates skillfully maneuvers the accuser into casting the broader charge - that Socrates does not believe in divine things at all; then a contradiction is generated and the accuser comes across as an incoherent fool. This is an example of Socrates in action as a formidable dialectician.

"Dialectician" here means someone who uses a question-and-answer method to elicit and analyze opinions with a view to removing those posited theories that do not withstand systematic analysis. We will see more about Socrates' method later. Socrates' habit of seeking people to converse with was not an idle search for gossip and frivolity - although some of that is in evidence in Platonic dialogues although, apparently, only as a bait for the lesser interlocutors. Socrates is to be understood as the paradigmatic - maybe even the original and archetypal - searcher for knowledge. The word "knowledge" is to be taken here in its strong sense. In this sense, "to know that p" implies strictly that "p must be true." I cannot say that "I knew p even though p turned out to be false after all." I could have never known p if p is not necessarily true. I may think, erroneously, that I know p but I cannot know p insofar as p is false. There are weaker senses of the word but we must stay with the strong sense to grasp the purpose of Socratic conversations. On this view, knowledge is radically different from opinion. To have an opinion that p is true has nothing to do with having knowledge that p. If my opinion is that p is true, p may be true or may be false. Only a fool would elevate the cult of opinion as some of Plato's contemporaries do and as, interestingly, we seem to do sometimes today. The person who clings to a private opinion as if to a precious item is like an infant taking its bodily secretions to be precious. The objective is truth, that is known. If my opinions coincide with knowledge, that is great. I should use the stronger, not the weaker, term: I should then say that I have knowledge, not opinions. This needs special attention today because the words "opinion" (doxa) and "belief" (pistis, from which the Greek for Christian "faith" was derived) have negative connotations for Plato, although not for us: they are shadowy, incomplete, groping, embarrassed things - only knowledge is the light and the salvation of a human being. This is how Plato's Socrates actually speaks in the dialogues.

Socrates was bent on finding truths. The opinions are laid down and Socrates interrogates them with a view to defeating them. We will see more about his method. Those whose opinions are crushed in this way tend to be unforgiving of Socrates for everafter - except, of course, for those who are infatuated with the old man and are argent admirers, including the erotic sense of "admirer" in a culture that castigated excess and addiction but did not neatpick about what sex one is attracted to. (Greater detail is in order: it seems, actually, that the elite, among whom Socrates spent his time, were fascinated with and attracted to male aesthetics. Females did not cultivate the Olympian body and were deemed less attractive and, in a sadly patriarchal economy, relegated to the household sphere of procreative activities and the raising of children who were not important either - being incomplete and unfinished human beings. Now, the comedic material used by someone like Aristophanes shows that the lower classes actually took the proudly homosexual , preferences of the elite to be funny for some reason or other. Another source of homosexual Eros was, as usual, the military. Nearby Sparta, of "300" fame, had insitutionalized homosexual practices in military life. Plutarch informs us that when the Spartans also consorted with female brides for the sake of procreation, they were capable of showing equal sexual enthusiasm - an interesting, and little known, historical observation that suggests that, in the absence of opressive cultural commands, effective bisexuality may not be rare.)

The appearance of Socrates is supposed to have been beyond ridiculous. We take discussing such matters to be beyond the pale of propriety but the Greeks were obsessed with aesthetics. (We are too, of course, but it is morally inappropriate to bring attention to aesthetically significant defects. A glimpse at the crude institution of Italian sex comedy, in our times, may give us an idea of an alternative that is closer to the classical Greek.) Premodern cultures make a big deal of appearance, confounding what is assessed as ugliness with "evil" moral qualities. Physiognomy studies as a guide to making discoveries about who has a "criminal" personality were not uncommon in our recent past, believe it or not. Socrates' appearance counts, therefore, and a certain notorious paradox emerges: although Socrates should be considered too appaling for the "cool" crowd to hang out with, not only this did not happen but Socrates was actually considered a stellar erotic attraction.

The masses did not find Socrates so attractive, however. In his comedies, where Socrates is brought up, Aristophanes has access to immediate comedic effect. A later legend, reported by Diogenes Laertius, has it that, if Socrates was in teh audience, he would stand up and turn around so that everyone could witness that, in actuality, Socrates looked even more ridiculous than he was depicted in the play. Socrates' supporters would also make capital out of this story in the sense that this shows Socrates' transcendental superiority over the shallow and childish tendencies of the popular culture; it also shows Socrates' modesty and his denigration of the body (not that Socrates or Plato would be haters of the body like later Christian ascetics, but in the sense that we share the body with the lower parts of nature, with the animals even, while it is the mind where human excellence can only reside.) Laertius also knew a legend according to which a famous physiognomist, an expert on the moral features that can be inferred from human appearance, visited Athens and was terrified when he saw Socrates: "you, sir, have every vice conceivable," he told him, to which Socrates replied, "you are absolutely right, sir, but I have mastered all of those vices." (I am paraphrasing the alleged exchange.)

Socrates was older when he became a star. He was balding, rotund in facial dimensions, with protruding (exophthalmic) eyes and thick lips (that looked either ridiculous or sensuous, or perhaps both, depending on who was making the judgment.) He was usually compared to a frog in appearance. He had the obligatory beard and was generally dishevelled - a characteristic that may be interpreted as mandatory for a thinker-type. A deceptively half-witted smile - that could be easily taken as ironic - hovered over his demeanor and, on this account, he was compared in appearance to a Selenus (one of those mythical creatures that are sex-obsessed and, dirty smile on the face, tend to show up uninvited to debauch respectable people (although they, unlike the elite, seem to have a decided preference for females which is perhaps indicative of lower status.) The paradox is that, even though they couldn't deny the ludicrous resemblance of Socrates to idle loafers, out-of-control Satyrs, bulging-eye frogs and such, his entourage were attracted to the charismatic Socrates with a force that knew no bounds. Near the end of the Platonic dialogue titled Symposium (Drinking Party), a drunk Alcibiades shows up and, after he heaps idolizing praise on the erotic Socrates, attempts unsuccessfully to court the philosopher. Now, as far as celebrities of classical antiquity are concerned, Alcibiades is without peer: he was so handsome that, as Plutarch put it, "even women would fall in love with him" and, not lacking in intellectual talents either, he was so admired that his self-indulgent narcissism was out of control. It is reported that Athens banished the flute only because Alcibiades found the sound vexing. It is this person who is shown prostrating himself at the feet of the mesmerizing Socrates.

Socrates' Allure

What, if anything, do you find most attractive about Socrates?

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Recreation of Ancient Athens.
Recreation of Ancient Athens. | Source

Socrates' Method

In one of the most famous stories from the Socrates saga, his admirers had sent an emissary to the Oracle at Delphi, a venerable institution that was consulted for the supposed wisdom of the answers given by the priestess there: intoxicated by using a certain substance, she was thought to be streaming the god Apollo's responses. The answers themselves were clearly crafted with great skill: exploiting the opportunities that arise out of ambiguity and vagueness, those were often answers of the kind that cannot be refuted no matter what happens.

The oracle was asked to identify the "wisest" man of Athens. Socrates' cronies were obviously expecting Socrates to be identified and this is what happened. Living up to his standards of modesty, Socrates minimized the occasion and, in Plato's Defense Speech, he comes up with a deflationary explanation as to why the oracle pointed at him: Socrates knows THAT he does not know. Unlike the various fools we meet at all times, Socrates knows that he does not know and sets out after knowledge. It must be pointed out that we sense modesty in Socrates' reaction - although it can, and has been, viewed as underanded and false modesty too. Nevertheless, modesty is not a virtue in the classical Greek culture. To speak truly of yourself counts; to elevate yourself more than the truth bears is a vice (the excess being arrogance, boasting, bravado, etc.) But it is also a vice to lower yourself beyond what the truth about your abilities and talents is (and, here, not accidentally, we have no word unless we use an expression like "putting oneself down.") Aristotle complains that this Socratic characteristic of saying less than what the situation can support - also with respect to how one presents himself - is a vice. This is known in the texts as "Socratic irony" - again, we must be careful about this since our word "irony" may only partially capture the characteristic.

To know what one does not know presupposes knowing enough already. This might be a subtle underlying point in this story about the oracular praise of Socrates. It is only after you are a student of geometry that you can know what proofs you don't yet know. Plato's Socrates is not aimless or unmethodical. This accounts for predicating of him the attribute of the philosopher in the "academic" sense. In one sense of the word, someone who has nothing better to do than to muse over the meaning of life is a philosopher. This is clearly not the intended sense when Socrates, or Plato, is praised as a philosopher. What does the philosopher do, in the strong sense of the word? Can we say, the philosopher does what Socrates did since Socrates is a philosopher? This will not do - we are going around in circles - unless we can independently establish an intensional meaning for the word "philosopher."

Let us take philosophy to be the analytical examination of the structure of claims and theories. A moment's attention should make clear that an untrained person cannot begin to do this. Socrates had certain relevant skills - more about them later - but he was also engaged in an activity that is not as haphazard as it seems. Socrates would try to refute views presented to him. How does one do it? The ultimate objective is to remove views that, having been refuted, cannot be correct or "true." This is a matter of logic, not of taste or private belief. Essentially, what is at stake is how to evaluate the logical structure of theories or how to check claims. Obviously, a factual claim that can be assessed does not invite philosophic analysis (although, embarrassingly, many people are not aware of something like this.) Now, if the task is to establish a sound theory of justice, for instance, the game is on. Platonic dialogues have such themes as justice, friendship, courage, piety, knowledge, truth, and so on.

Socrates was skilled in refuting views. Plato's Socrates does it but the historical Socrates must have been into this activity. Not every refutation is correct. (Try to ask yourself how can we tell and you can begin to appreciate that something rather technical is going on here.) Still, philosophers like Socrates and Plato are bent on evaluating claims and theories and the arguments that support them. There is an underlying principle in all this: no view should be accepted unless it is supported theoretically in the right way. "Right" here has a normative force; it is not a matter of preference or opinion. A fallacious argument is fallacious not to you or me but it is fallacious as such. Confusing? Think of the meaning of the sentence "a triangle has four angles." This is false regardless as to whether I happen, by means of psychological conviction, to believe it as true. This is what happens in logic too but very few people study it and, as it usually happens, those who don't study it "don't know THAT they don't know" and may be inclined to follow the route of less resistance by claiming that it is a matter of opinion whether an argument is good or not (it is not a matter of opinion!)

Plato's Socrates destroys claims by showing that one can correctly derive from the claim sentences that are mutually contradictory. Is this a logically valid approach? What is being claimed exactly? Try some symbols: Let's say that an opinion or proposed theory is expressed by a set of sentences {p1, ..., pk}. Socrates uses them as premises to derive conclusions based on those premises. He may also use as additional premise some sentence whose meaning is necessarily true (like, "all triangles have three angles" or "anyone who is morally evil is not morally good.") In this way, he can keep spinning out conclusions. The theory under examination is committed to all those conclusions! It doesn't matter if the exponent of the theory is not aware that these conclusions are supported by the theory. In Platonic dialogues there are derivations of conclusions that are flawed but it is remarkable how many of the derivations are correct. (To give you a relative, and rough, yardstick, famous academic textbooks turn out to have logical flaws when examined by someone trained in logic.) Socrates' remarkable gift, which attracts envy, is that he hits on hypotheticals that help push the discussion toward unearthing more and more of the conclusions that follow from the given claims. (If you want to experience the method of hypotheticals at work today - well, try listening to a Supreme Court oral argument.)

So, we have the theory {p1, p2, ..., pk}. Now we also have conclusions that have been derived, we take it, without logical flaw. The conclusions may be symbolized as {q1, ..., qn}. Big deal, right? But note: we have, for instance, in our conclusion set {q1, q2, ..., qm, ..., - q2, ..., qn}. We have both q2 and -q2: we have both a proposition and the negation of this same proposition. This is what a contradiction is! In the standard logical view, every statement that has the logical form of a contradiction (say, "q and not-q"), has to be false! So, the theory {p1, ..., pk} entails an absurdity (a contradiction, which is logically necessarily false.) This means that at least one of the propositions in the theory has to be false. Yet, the proponent of the theory cannot relinguish any one of those propositions. Defeat - and victory for Socrates.

The big deal is that here goes another theory that cannot be true even though all kinds of people could have fallen for it. The search for truth goes on. Socrates does not give us good theories, he only skillfully eliminates bad theories. Socrates may have had some teachings of his own. Plato, for sure, goes beyond refutation and engages in constructive laying down of theoretical views in his dialogues - such positive theoretical views are, as usual, attributed to the character Socrates of the dialogues. Of course, when Plato, or anyone, sticks his neck out this way, his own views are available to be attacked as forcefully as the views Socrates was savaging: the game, however, is not one of violence (although human emotions cannot be made to go away); this is a clinical and unemotional process that has to do with meaning. We are not talking about how people learn but about how viewpoints are to be assessed. It is unlikely that Plato himself ever made it to the promised land of the formal study of Logic (although Plato's "esoteric" works, meant for a few, have been lost.) The father of Logic was destined to be a later philosopher, Aristotle.

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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