Plato - Philosopher: On Socrates
Created | Updated Nov 12, 2013
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Socrates was the principal character in most of the dialogues written by the Greek philosopher Plato. That fact has led to much academic discussion about whether the writings constitute records of Socrates' philosophy, or whether Plato was just using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own philosophy. The truth is probably a mixture of the two.
Socrates was a small man who did not consider himself to be attractive, having a snub nose and bulging eyes, and he lived a poor life in Athens, often going about barefoot, as he did not demand payment in return for people listening to his philosophical ideas. He had a great fondness for beautiful young men, and enjoyed talking to them and introducing them to his way of thinking.
He had a habit of questioning well-known figures in Athenian society to test whether they were as wise and knowledgeable as they claimed to be, and he always found that they were not. He was strongly influenced by the god Apollo, and on several occasions he experienced a 'divine voice' that steered him into a different course of action, indicating that his initial plan would have been the wrong thing to do.
It was these factors that led a group of angry Athenians to bring charges against him in 399 BC, when he was about 70 years old, accusing him of corrupting the youth and not believing in the gods of the city.
The works of Plato that concentrate on Socrates and his life and death are Euthyphro, the Apology, Crito and Phaedo.
This dialogue takes place outside the law court, where Socrates is waiting to be called to trial. He meets Euthyphro, who is at court to charge his own father with murder. His father's alleged crime was that on apprehending the man who murdered one of his slaves, he had tied the man up and left him for a few days while he went to summon assistance, and in the meantime the man had died.
Euthyphro explains to Socrates that he had brought the charges against his father because it was the pious thing to do. Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain piety to him, so that he would have some way of defending himself against the accusation that he did not believe in the gods of the city.
The example of Zeus punishing his father Kronos for eating Zeus' other brothers and sisters is used by Euthyphro to demonstrate what piety is in his case. Socrates is not satisfied with that, since it is not a definition, so he encourages Euthyphro to try again. The discussion proceeds until the arguments Socrates elicits from Euthyphro become circular, proving that Euthyphro didn't know what piety was after all.
This book presents the speech that Socrates gave in his own defence in court, as written by Plato. He pledges to tell the truth and defends himself against the accusations of the people who brought him to court, but also against the accusations that were made against him in the past by people who misunderstood him, including the comic playwright Aristophanes.
He cites a statement by the Oracle at Delphi, which said 'No' in answer to the question, 'Is there anyone wiser than Socrates?'. Subsequently, Socrates decided to enter into dialogues with people who were believed to be wise, and he found them not to be wise after all (which made them hate him as a result). He also found that poets have talent to create poems without knowledge of what they are actually saying. Similarly, people think they know something important, whereas Socrates knows he does not know such things. He knows he is not very wise, too, and that is what makes him the wisest.
Socrates mentions teachers who took money in return for speaking to young people, including Gorgias, Hippias and Callias (who feature as characters in other dialogues written by Plato) whereas he has never asked for payment if people listened to what he had to say. He also tells the jury that the young men who followed him learned his technique for testing whether someone has wisdom and tried it out themselves, which caused the people so tested to become angry and to blame Socrates for the way they felt.
Socrates next enters into dialogue with Meletus, one of his accusers, about the charge of corrupting the youth. Meletus asserts that Socrates intentionally corrupted others. However, Socrates then encourages him to assert that nobody intentionally associates with people who could damage them, and that corrupt people damage others. If Socrates turned his young friends into people who could damage him, it must have been unintentional, and hence he argues that either he did not corrupt young people after all, or he did so without knowing it, so he should be educated, not convicted.
On the charge that Socrates did not believe in the gods of the city, Meletus first claims that Socrates does not believe in any gods, as he talks about others' theories that the moon and sun are made of rock. He also claims that Socrates believes in 'divine things' because of the divine voice he sometimes hears, but then, Socrates says, he must believe in gods as they give rise to divine things. Apollo and the Oracle's influence on Socrates was so strong that he was prepared to face death rather than give up philosophy.
Socrates speaks to the jury and advises them against carrying out an unjust action, and also mentions that if the gods did send Socrates to Athens to challenge people and make them think, then his death would not harm himself as much as it would do harm to the city. His divine voice prevented him from becoming a politician - such a move could have helped him to spread his thinking about justice more widely more quickly, but it would have meant he came to a 'sticky end' much more quickly, too.
He refuses to beg the jury to acquit him, as some do (bringing their family into court to make the jury pity them) even though he has three young sons1 himself, plus relatives and friends2, as he wants the jury to do only what is just.
The vote takes place and a small majority of jurors choose to convict Socrates on the charges. Since Socrates insists he has done Athenians and the city good by trying to encourage people to strive for wisdom, justice and goodness, he proposes that instead of being condemned to death as Meletus and the other prosecutors wanted, he should be kept in the Prytaneum, where the politicians who presided over the Assembly3 ate - this would give Socrates more time to spend talking to people and helping them to improve themselves.
He then proposes that he could pay a fine of all the money he has (one piece of silver - a mina). Plato then passes a message to Socrates to tell him that he and Socrates' other followers4 will guarantee a proposed fine of thirty minae. Unmoved by his talk, the jury vote again and choose the death penalty.
Socrates then makes a 'prediction'5 that after he is gone, the Athenians will not be free of people to criticise them and make them think, but many younger philosophers will take up the challenge of trying to help people to improve themselves.
Before he has to leave to face his sentence, Socrates speaks to the jurors who did not vote against him, and he contemplates what death and the afterlife might be like. His divine voice has not spoken to him (and it only ever acts to prevent what he plans to do) so the path he finds himself on must be a just one, and he is not angry with the other jurors and the prosecutors, but he is sad that they didn't learn to think justly as he had tried to help them to do. He also asks them to make sure his children are brought up in the way he would want, adhering to his philosophy.
In this short piece, Crito visits Socrates in prison in the early morning some days after the trial and offers to help him to escape from Athens. Socrates debates with him what the just thing to do would be. Since the law has spoken and he has been ordered to die, even though there was injustice at the trial, the just thing, and the least harmful to the city and his friends and family, is for Socrates to obey the law and face his punishment in Athens.
The final moments in Socrates' life are recorded in this book, along with his thoughts about death and the afterlife. The event is narrated by Phaedo, a young friend of Socrates, who had been with the philosopher at the end6.
Socrates first discusses with his friends (who have come to visit him in prison) how pain and pleasure are linked together. He then explains that he has been writing poetry and putting Aesop's fables into poem form just in case the dreams he has often had, telling him to make music, meant that he should compose poetry and not just compose in his usual way by constructing philosophical dialogues with people.
He discusses death and the nature of the afterlife, and how philosophers are best prepared for the journey as they aim to improve their souls during life, and need to separate their soul from their body as much as possible in order to seek the truth and not be distracted by the body's senses (as sight, for example, can be deceived). Socrates' divine voice has not prevented him from facing death - he hopes to meet good friends and the gods on the other side, and looks forward to the experience of being freed from his body and being able to perceive the true nature of things.
Socrates then talks about death and rebirth, and the 'Doctrine of Recollection' is mentioned. This was his theory that people are not taught, but merely remember facts that they came to know during a previous existence (also described in Plato's book Meno).
The nature of the soul and its immortality is then examined by Socrates and his disciples. Socrates talks about his early education, when he learned mathematics and natural science and avidly read the books by the astronomer Anaxagoras. His disappointment in only learning about the facts and not why the facts were true led him to consider the world in his mind rather than being distracted by what his senses told him, and hence he became a philosopher.
He does have a concept of the Earth, though. Anaxagoras had believed that the Earth was flat and supported by aether or 'strong air'. Socrates, on the other hand, thinks the Earth is spherical and does not need to be supported by aether or a similar material, since the equilibrium of forces on the Earth and the uniformity of the universe holds everything in its place.
He can also imagine looking at the Earth from above the atmosphere. As the bottom of the sea (under water) is less attractive than the land (under air), so he imagines the world outside the globe to be even more beautiful, with creatures living alongside the gods in the clearness and able to sense things much more easily than humans can through the air of the planet. Inside the Earth is the Underworld which contains a series of rivers. Some of these cause rivers, earthquakes and volcanoes on the surface of the Earth, and others are where souls are taken to. Souls are punished if they have committed terrible crimes, purified if they are neither very bad nor very good, and those that are very good are released to live in the realm outside the atmosphere. Philosophers receive an even better prize, as they are freed from their bodies and able to progress to the purest realm beyond the world outside the atmosphere.
As sunset approached, Socrates bathed, said farewell to his children and Xanthippe, and then took a fatal dose of hemlock7 with his friends around him.
[Socrates] was the best of that generation we'd ever encountered, the wisest, too, and the most just.