Who Is Socrates?
Socrates is regarded as the founding father of western philosophy, although very little is known about him. Socrates himself did not produce any written works and what we know about him is mostly derived from Plato and Xenophon's works.1 They made it clear that Socrates made significant contributions to the growth of philosophy, epistemology and systems of logic. The Socratic method of teaching by Socrates is the foundation of western systems of thought and philosophy still widely used today. This is adjudged to be his main contribution to western philosophy. The Socratic method was the way Socrates went about giving his lectures to the people of Athens. 1 Here is an example of the Socratic method!
- They were Socrates' prized students and also famous philosophers. ↩
- He did this by asking questions that prompted his audience to arrive at a logical conclusion via deduction. He basically broke down a problem into many parts, solving each part on its own. ↩
Plato's and Xenophon's writing tells us that Socrates was born to a stonemason and his spouse, a midwife. He spent his entire life in Athens where he served in the Greek army as a hoplite (sword and shield soldier) till the age of 60. He is said to have participated in 3 large battles and was courageous and fearless in battle. In the Symposium, Plato wrote “when you behave in war as he did, then they just about do not even touch you; instead they pursue those who turn in headlong flight.” After serving his term, Socrates married late and fathered 3 sons with his wife, Xanthippe. It is unclear what Socrates did for a living but according to Xenophon, he dedicated his life to philosophy.
It was Socrates’s dedication to philosophy and the lessons he gave that led to the state charging Socrates with corrupting the Athenian youth and impiety towards the Gods. Were the charges made against him justified? Was his choice of death over escape an act of foolishness? Was his death so influential that it justified choosing death? Continue reading to find out!
Since Socrates wrote nothing about himself, it is not entirely accurate to perceive one interpretation to be true. It is said that Plato was Socrates’ “prized student” so it is only effective if the death of Socrates’ is evaluated by Plato’s writings called “dialogues”. The trial of Socrates happened around the 399 BC. Socrates was charged with 2 conditions.
The Athenians felt threatened by Socrates and his radical ideas, hence he was charged for “Corrupting the youth”(p.21) and “Impiety toward the gods”(p.21). Socrates spread ideas that were unique and gained followers who had his strong ideals. Since the Athenians were democrats, it is very intriguing to see that they put their most intellectual individual (Socrates) to death for passing on his wisdom. In a way, the Athenians were contradicting themselves for this sentence as they were “proud of their intellectual accomplishments and freedoms.” In this context, the Athenians were not truly democratic as Socrates was not given the freedom of speech. However, recent studies have shown that the democracy that we know today is not the same as it was in Socrates's era. "The charges Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us, but in Ancient Athens they were genuinely felt to serve the communal good." Hence, the study showed that his charges were justified and legal.
That, however, isn’t the premise as to why Socrates’ trial still remains as one of the most controversial trials. There were two perplexing choices that Socrates made that left most of us puzzled to this day.
HE AGREED TO HIS DEATH
After the jury sentenced Socrates guilty, the jurors were asked to determine his penalty. A death penalty was proposed by his accusers. Socrates was given the opportunity to name his own punishment, but instead of suggesting a more reasonable sentence, he decided to go with the what was given to him. So, he essentially agreed to his death.1
- This might be difficult for anyone to wrap their head around - how could someone be so ready to die for a matter that did not even deserve such a grave consequence? ↩
HE COULD HAVE LEFT
Socrates, as a strong believer of rational and moral thinking, decided that the only reason his penalty should be reduced is if the sentence was inequitable. Therefore, just as Socrates refused to beg the jurors for mercy, he similarly was not willing to beg for a lighter sentence for his own selfish reasons. One of his students, upon learning of his teacher’s penalty, was ready to plan an escape for Socrates. There was no issue with that. 1
- All his enemies wanted was for him to be gone, his friends were committed to ensuring his safety, and cities were willing to take Socrates. ↩
The only problem was Socrates. He did not want to leave. Let’s evaluate his arguments for the choice to stay despite having the option of leaving.
Destroying The State
Socrates said: “The state cannot exist if people do not obey its laws.” 1
We say: It is true, if everyone were to break the law and disobey orders, the state would be in chaos. However, it is highly unlikely that ONE PERSON’S escape (Socrates’) would lead to the crumbling of the state of Athens.
- He argued that disobeying the law would result in the destruction of the state. ↩
Analogy of the State and our Parents
Socrates said: “As the state provided for us just like our parents did, it is our obligation to obey the state just like how we are obliged to obey our parents.” 1
We say: The problem with this argument is that Socrates’ was 70 years old. As juveniles, we listen to our parents and accept their punishments because we lack judgment and need guidance. When we turn into adults, however, it is no longer within our duty to obey our parents. We may do it out of respect and but we no longer owe them our obedience.
- He used the analogy of the state and our parents to support his stance on accepting the death sentence. ↩
Socrates said: “A society rests on the agreement that we make with one another.” 1We say: Social living is a cooperative arrangement in which citizens will benefit from one another and in exchange, we support the institutions and practices that will make those benefits possible. Thus, Socrates came to the conclusion that he should stand by his agreement even if it meant his own death. However, with every contract, there are two parties. What happened to the state’s part of the contract? The state is supposed to protect its citizens from unjust threats but it seems like the state was the one making the unjust accusations to begin with.
- The idea that our society functions on a social contract and breaking it would mean chaos for the state. ↩
These flawed arguments, given to us by one of the world’s most influential philosophers, might be leave you as baffled as we are. Coming from Socrates, we would have expected a stronger use of reasoning. 1 However, one thing we can learn from this is to not only assess everything with rationality but empathy.
What we deem as significant to us might be different from person to person. Personality, time, place, and context can orient what a person identifies as significant. Socrates had no fear in death for he believed in an afterlife. More importantly, Socrates believed in his morals. He believed that if he upheld them, many after him would have the courage to do the same. And this, to him, was more precious that his own life. Although we can’t grasp why he chose to die, we can at least respect that he believed it was worthwhile.
- After all, this isn’t a game of chess, it is a matter of life and death we are talking about. ↩
Socrates's Impact After Death
After Socrates death, the Greeks continued with their internal wars and it was unlikely that Socrates had any influence in them 1 , while his students continued to spread his teachings. Socrates' teachings influenced many important historical figure after his death. Thanks to his closest student, Plato, starting up an academy to spread his ideas. 1
- It was mainly due to already existing tensions and Persia, we doubt papa philosophy had anything to do with it. The political situation then was already very messy even before Socrates was alive. Plus, this showed that Socrates wasn't that important to them. ↩
- Though the general population didn't bother much about his death, Plato was deeply affected. If Socrates didn’t die who knows if Plato would have left on his recovery trip around the region, then deciding to start this academy? ↩
- This is one long causal chain effect... ↩
Further down the timeline, Socrates methods teaching and ideas are still around. His Socratic method, which is to seek the truth by exchanging ideas through arguments, is used by philosophers now. Another idea that is being used: teachers modifying classroom discussions using the Socratic Seminar as a backbone. 1 Hence, it cannot be denied that Socrates had much influence to do history's course!1
- This revamped discussion is also known as the fishbowl discussion. Remember what we did in class 11? ↩
- And might even had guided it with his death! ↩
The charges presented to Socrates might seem absurd to us, but in ancient Greece, these laws were in place for reasons that were genuinely thought to be what’s best for their society. Albeit the death sentence was harsher than it needed to be, the charges made against Socrates were valid as he posed as a threat to the social and political fabric of the then Athens.
Socrates’ personal decision to die was supported by his arguments that were weak at best. Are we then supposed to respect his decision to die even though they are not justifiable by our terms? Although the vindication of his choice was flawed, we have to agree that Socrates deserved the rights to his own reasoning. Therefore, his arguments although weak, provided sufficient grounds for his death.
Many have perceived Socrates’ suicide as a long-term security for his reputation and a bad reflection of the Athenians for being partly responsible for his death. Life after Socrates would have been starkly different if he chose to escape. Doing so would have breached his personal moral code of conduct, tarnishing his reputation and effectively abandoning his philosophy. Generations that followed might not then regard his teaching as seriously and his life work would have gone to waste.
Socrates did not choose death. He chose ethics and moral reasoning. He chose to inspire. And that, to him, was far more important than his existence.
Nicholas, Smith and Woodruff, Paul. Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy. (2000) Oxford University Press.
Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart. "The Legacy of Socrates" from Problems from Philosophy (2012) McGraw-Hill
Emlyn-Jones, C. Socrates, Plato, and Piety from Mediterranean Studies, (1990) Penn Sate University Press. 2, 21 -28.
Johnson, Simon, Socrates trial and execution was completely justified, says new study. (2009, June 08) Accessed 17 March 2017, from The Telegraph
Maxwell, Max. A Modern Example of the Socratic Method. (2009) Accessed 15 March 2017.
Perlman, S. The Causes and the Outbreak of the Corinthian War. The Classical Quarterly. (1964) Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association, 14(1), 64-81
Socrates, from Philosophers.
Wiggs, Blake. THE 21ST CENTURY SOCRATES: HOW TO IMPLEMENT A POWERFUL HYBRID CLASSROOM MODEL (2011) States News Service