Did Socrates deserve the death sentence?

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David

In his dialogue, “Apology”, Plato describes how Socrates responds to the charges against him. Socrates’ speech is an excellent example of rhetoric, rich with arguments, stories, analogies, questions, answers, and conclusions. He defends himself so as to be right and he thinks is necessary. He asserts that he says only the truth, however, sometimes it seems questionable. By analyzing the “Apology” and keeping in mind the historical context of Socrates time, I will show that it cannot be said certainly whether Socrates deserves or does not deserve the death sentence.

When Socrates was brought to the Athenian court there were two types of accusations that he was faced with. The first type was based on rumors, which had been circulating in Athens for a long time. We do not know exactly, but from Socrates’ words, he was accused of practicing natural philosophy or natural science, in making the worst theories appear like the best ones, and in teaching those concepts to others (Apology 18b).

Socrates does a bad job defending himself. He bases his defense on the strategy of plain denial. He says that he knows nothing about natural philosophy (Apology 19c). He implies he could have neither the worst nor the best ideas because he does not have his own ideas at all, he just examines the ideas of others (Apology 21d-22e). He asserts that he does not have pupils because he does not charge any fee from anyone, and that young people who mimic him do this by their own initiatives (Apology 19e-20c, 23c).

Were his claims true and how helpful are they in defending him? First, because he did practice the natural sciences early in his life, and the Athenian people remembered this fact, this statement by Socrates sounds like a false one.

On the second point, Socrates makes a claim that he does not have his own positive ideas. However, in the second part of the “Apology”, he presents an abundance of positive concepts, such as that man has to choose not between life or death, but between right or wrong (Apology 28b-d). He himself confesses also that his ideas are very important, so he must teach Athenians how to live a moral, pious, fair life (Apology 30b-c). The latter example also contradicts his assertion that he is not a teacher.

His argument that he does not have students, as long as he does not take a fee, sounds illogical because he could teach without money. His denial of those people who follow his methods looks not quite ethical, or like a betrayal.

Socrates’ arguments in defense were not only weak but also arrogant and provocative. When he tells his story about the Oracle, he caused a public disturbance at least twice (Apology 20e, 21a). That is not a smart defensive tactic.

If the charges mentioned above played a role in his conviction, to some degree Socrates deserves the verdict. But we cannot expect that as wise a man as Socrates would act so absurdly. Plato gives us a hint why Socrates chooses such a strange means of composition for his speech. In Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro”, Socrates tells his friend that he realizes that process against him is not an isolated incident, but Meletus plans to launch a widespread campaign in Athens of prosecuting philosophers and other people who think like Socrates (Euthyphro 3a). In Crito, Socrates does not follow Crito’s advice, in part because he does not want to put his friends in danger (Crito 45a). It is quite logical to suppose that Socrates deliberately cut his ties with his pupils and friends in his speech to save them from prosecution by association.

The second type of accusation was made by Meletus. They are that Socrates does evil by corrupting the youth; and he doesn’t believe in Athenian gods but in new ones (Apology 24b). Socrates builds his defense for the first part of the Meletus’ charges on the logical reasoning, such as: one naturally doesn’t want to be hurt, but, if he corrupts his neighbor with evil intention, he will be eventually hurt by his corrupted neighbor, which could not be his desire (Apology 25c-e). He also offers the horse breeding analogy to show that if morals get corrupted it is not from conspiracy of the few, but from the influence of the many (Apology 24e-25b). Socrates shows magnificent orator skills (Apology 24d-26a), when in the beginning of the “Apology” he denies that he is an accomplished orator (Apology 17a-b).

In his defense against the second part of the Meletus’ accusation, Socrates traps Meletus by provoking him to hastily change his charge that Socrates believes in new gods into the statement that Socrates is an atheist (Apology 26b-c). But Socrates argues that all his deeds are committed in the name and by the will of god. However, he evades a direct answer in what divine source he believes (Apology 27c-28a). Thus, Socrates is trying to protect the rights of philosophers of free views on religious issues. According to him, philosophers had great social significance in the life of Athens. In contrary to persuasion, which was a tool of politicians to pursue their self-interests, philosophers care about rational social organization and bring benefits to the ordinary citizens.

In the end of the “Apology”, when the verdict was announced, Socrates plays a fool, saying that he deserved a dinner in Prytaneum or he could pay one mina of silver for his penalty (Apology 36d-37s, 38b). Again, it seems like he was trying to provoke an emotional response from the jury for a worse sentence. This shows, without a doubt, that he cares not for himself but for other philosophers, his pupils, friends and citizens of Athens, so for their sake he needs to achieve either total acquittal or cruel punishment to make his accusers feel guilty afterwards (Apology 38c). If the jury decided on a minor penalty, the citizens of Athens would not feel remorse and continue to chase the philosophers in the future. Socrates got what he aimed for. He got a death sentence and the Athenians regretted their decision; they stopped persecuting other philosophers and artisans.

So it can be said that Socrates in some sense deserves the death sentence, but in another he does not. According to the point of view of a person of modern time the Socrates’ death sentence was totally unjust, because he did not rob or kill anyone. He just questioned people and had free beliefs and his own opinion, which was different from others. From the point of view of the Athenian citizens of that period of time, he might deserve death for not believing in Athenian gods, which was considered a major crime and a betrayal of the social order, especially since Socrates defended himself badly or even not at all. However, his death played a significant role in the history of Athens. Athenians regretted what they did. There was not any case of persecution on philosopher after that. With a sense of Latin etymology of the word ‘deserve,’ which means ‘to devote oneself to,’ he devoted his life to the well-being of Athenians.

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4 Responses to Did Socrates deserve the death sentence?

  1. harryalston says:

    A fascinating read: I devour classical history and it’s always nice to stumble across something really quite delightfully random and get eaten up by your writing style. Very good 🙂

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