Was Socrates a wise man or wicked guy?
Zachary Davis: In 399 BC, the Greek philosopher Socrates, was on trial.
Steven Smith: Socrates is about 70 years old at the time of his trial. He’s lived virtually his entire life in Athens and he is brought up on charges of disbelieving the gods of the city and corrupting the young. Today, we might say this is a treason trial.
Zachary Davis: Socrates believed in free-thought. He sought truth by questioning everything, including society. His philosophies were political. They were seen as a threat to the ancient Athenian government, which felt that Socrates was undermining democracy and corrupting society.
Steven Smith: But it’s revealing that the person we think of as in many ways the first political philosopher, is also the subject of what might be thought of also was one of the first treason trials, and that already sets up a revealing problem, that there is something dangerous about this activity of philosophizing and of political philosophizing in particular. What is it about Socrates’s activity that suddenly have become too appears so dangerous or problematic that he is brought up on treason charges.
Zachary Davis: Welcome to Writ Large, a podcast about how books change the world. I’m Zachary Davis. In each episode, I talk with one of the world’s leading scholars about one book that changed the course of history. For this episode, I sat down with Stephen Smith, a professor of political philosophy at Yale University, to discuss Plato’s Apology.
Zachary Davis: Plato is believed to have been born around the year 428 BC, in Athens, Greece. He was a student and follower of Socrates who was roughly forty years his senior. Although Socrates did not consider himself a teacher, he did have many devoted followers who he shared his philosophical ideas with.
Zachary Davis: Unlike Socrates, who never wrote anything down, Plato was quite prolific. He wrote approximately thirty works and pioneered a new form of writing： the dialogue. In his dialogues, he explored philosophical ideas through real and imagined conversations.
Zachary Davis: Plato’s Apology is one of these dialogues. It is an account of Socrates’s trial, documented by Plato, who was there that day. The dialogue includes Socrates’s defense speech to a jury of roughly 500 Athenians. What does it mean that it’s called The Apology?
Steven Smith: Apology doesn’t mean exactly what we think of it as meaning today. He’s not apologizing in the sense of saying, I’m sorry or I regret what I’ve done. An apology is literally a defense speech. The defense of Socrates, the defense speech of Socrates would be in some ways a kind of more up-to-date translation.
Zachary Davis: So let’s now go into the structure of the text. How does he arrange the story? How long is it? What, how is it constructed?
Steven Smith: By the standards of Platonic dialogues, a relatively short dialogue. It’s a dialogue that proceeds in a couple of different acts. The main act, you might say, is Socrates’s defense speech itself.
What’s Athenians’ long-lasting prejudice against Socrates?
Zachary Davis: The text begins with this defense speech. Socrates was brought to trial by three men: Anytus, a rich, distinguished Athenian and son of a politician, Meletus, who was essentially Anytus’s puppet, and Lycon, a democratic politician. They charged Socrates with corrupting the youth and failing to acknowledge the gods of the state. But these three were not Socrates’s first critics.
Steven Smith: To me at least, the most interesting part of his defense speech is the way he divides his accusers, the people who brought this accusation against me today, Anytus and Meletus, are really, he says, drawing on a longstanding prejudice that Athenians have had against me for a long time, that was brought against me by a famous poet, he says. That poet was Aristophanes, who had written a play about Socrates called The Clouds.
Zachary Davis: One of the rumors about Socrates was that he tried to provide physical explanations for things that were usually the business of the gods. In The Clouds, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as a charlatan philosopher—a fraud. He shows Socrates floating in the air, speculating about spiritual matters. Socrates claims this is a lie and asks the jury if any of them has heard him speak about such things.
Steven Smith: But what this shows is that from the very beginning, from his earliest investigations, Socrates was shown as something of a problem. And there also in the Apology, Socrates alludes to what will become or what is a central theme of his work, what he calls the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy.
Zachary Davis: The poets at the time represented standardized thought, along with the politicians, orators, and artisans. They were considered the wise, important people of Athens, and society looked up to them. But Socrates questioned their thinking. This made him very unpopular among many Athenians.
Steven Smith: Aristophanes, you might say the inheritor of the poetic tradition. And Socrates, the inheritor in many ways a creator of the kind of you might call newer, more fangled than traditional philosophy.
Zachary Davis: Socrates then turns and speaks to his new accusers, the ones who brought him to trial. He says their minds have been poisoned by these deep rooted prejudices.
Zachary Davis: He addresses the first charge, corrupting the youth. He tells the jury that this complaint really began years earlier when his friend Chaerephon paid a visit to the Oracle of Delphi. Chaerephon asked the Oracle who was the wisest of all men. The Oracle responded, “There is no man wiser than Socrates.” Socrates interpreted this as a riddle because he knew that he knew nothing.
Zachary Davis: To test the riddle, he set out to find someone wiser than himself. He questioned the so-called ‘wise men’ in town： the poets, artisans, orators, and politicians. He tested their wisdom and found that while they thought themselves wise, in fact, they knew very little.
Zachary Davis: Socrates interpreted the Oracle’s message to mean that because the so-called ‘wise men’ actually knew nothing, then he must be wiser because he was aware of his own ignorance. The wise men thought they were wise but Socrates knew that he knew nothing, which made him the wisest of all.
Zachary Davis: I remember once a teacher of mine talked about how annoying Socrates would have seemed to his fellow citizens, and really in a different light, he’s just going around mocking everybody constantly. So you can find some sympathy with his fellow citizens who, like, probably don’t quite know what to make of this guy.
Steven Smith: Right. I mean, one of the things that comes out is his mockery. Another term for that is his irony, that made him eventually seem very, to his fellow citizens, very unsympathetic in his attitude of challenging received opinions.
Zachary Davis: While he was questioning the wise men of Athens, Socrates caught the attention of the younger generation. Many of them followed in his footsteps and began doing the same thing.
Steven Smith: And it became clear he seemed to be a kind of pied piper of Athens, particularly attracting young people who clearly enjoyed and reveled, as young people always do, of seeing their elders mocked and ridiculed by Socrates. There is something deeply interactive and intriguing about that as indeed there was.
Steven Smith: And yet, for many people and I think there’s more than a grain of truth to this. His mockery seemed in many ways not to lead anywhere, it would do something not just skeptical, but destructive about it. He seemed very adept at undermining, we might say today, deconstructing received values and opinions, but without really replacing anything.And that constant undermining and deconstructing of opinion became to be saying not only is annoying and irritating, but as dangerous to the opinions on which society rests.
Was Socrates a devout man or an atheist?
Zachary Davis: Socrates then proceeds to defend the second charge against him, that he is an atheist. He does this through a cross-examination of Meletus, one of his three accusers. In this famous interrogation, Socrates leads Meletus to contradict himself. Meletus claims that Socrates is an atheist and follows different gods than those recognized by the Athenian state.
Zachary Davis: Socrates says this is illogical. How can he be an atheist and recognize other gods at the same time? Socrates also reminds Meletus that he follows the Oracle’s prophecy, that he is the wisest of all men. Since the god Apollo speaks through the Oracle of Delphi, Socrates also acknowledges Apollo.
Steven Smith: So begins with Socrates referencing this old quarrel and distinguishing the first generation of critics represented by Aristophanes, from that current generation of critics represented by an Anytus and Meletus who have built on this, you might say prejudice against Socrates, but have kind of turned it in in a somewhat different direction, direction of disbelief of the gods and corrupting of the young.
Zachary Davis: Near the end of his defense speech, Socrates tells the jury that he is doing a service to Athens. He compares himself to a gadfly, who stings the lazy horse that is the Athenian state. Without his stinging, the state is inclined to drift into a deep sleep. Although it may be uncomfortable and irritating, his role is necessary for finding truth. So, they didn’t buy it. They didn’t like his defense. What happens?
Steven Smith: He continues to dig. I think quite intentionally. A much deeper hole for himself than in many ways the charges even suggested. So in this way, the speech writing is very far from being an apology in our ordinary sense of that term, than really a defense of the life of the philosopher and what philosophy does.
Zachary Davis: After Socrates’ defense speech, the jury votes on his sentence. They find him guilty by a narrow margin. According to Athenian law at the time, both the prosecutor and defendant have to come up with a punishment for the charges. Typically, the defendant would want to come up with a punishment that was not as severe as the prosecutor’s, but severe enough so the jury would pick theirs—the lesser of two evils.
Zachary Davis: Meletus chooses the punishment of death. But Socrates believes he shouldn’t get any punishment because he hasn’t done anything wrong. He chooses what he believes to be fair compensation for his public service to Athens.
Steven Smith: They ask him to choose something and he says, what I really want is I want to be honored with dinner at the high table of Athens. I want dinner there every night, you know. So, you know, by this time he is mocking the seriousness of it clearly.
Zachary Davis: Socrates stands by his role as a philosopher. He never apologizes and instead, one last time, defends philosophy while facing the real possibility of death.
A short but glorious life or a long but humdrum life?
Steven Smith: The final straw in the speech is, maybe the most famous sentence of the speech, when he tells the Athenians, that the unexamined life is not worth living. And yet he can tell the Athenians that only the philosophic life, that is to say only the examined life is worth living. What does it say to people? Is unless you’re engaged as I am in the examination and interrogation ideas of my own and those around us. Your life is useless. It’s meaningless. It didn’t mean anything.
Steven Smith: I mean, with that statement, you might say he signs his death warrant and in a way, because he really does. Far from telling the Athenians that I’m doing you good, which he does claim to be doing. He claims to be exercised and kind of fruitful, useful role as a gadfly. I’m kind of awaken you, I’m a spur to your critical self-reflection. But he ends up telling them that only I am leading a worthy human life.
Zachary Davis: Socrates finally says that if his proposed punishment must in fact be a punishment, it should be a fine. He doesn’t have much money but agrees he could pay one hundred drachmas. Some of his wealthy supporters chime in and offer to raise the price to three thousand drachmas, hoping the increased fine would sway the jury to spare Socrates’s life.
Zachary Davis: But it was too little too late. The jury voted for his death. Athenian law stated that death sentences were to be carried out by drinking poison. Before he is carried off to prison, he addresses both sides of the jury one last time.
Zachary Davis: He tells those who voted for his death that they have to bear the criticisms of those who voted to acquit him. He says that he could have saved himself by weeping at their feet and saying whatever was necessary for his acquittal, but that he would be disgracing himself. He says the real goal is not to outrun death, but to outrun wickedness. He acknowledges that death has outrun him, but wickedness has outrun them.
Zachary Davis: Socrates then addresses those who voted for his acquittal. He tells them that the divine voice that usually warns him against harm, stayed silent throughout the trial. He says perhaps death is a blessing, and should not be feared. He predicts it is either a deep restful sleep, or a transition to an afterlife where he will be among the great figures of the past. Why do you think he was so committed to being a martyr?
Steven Smith: Socrates was 70 by this time, you could even say by this time he had one foot in the grave and he wanted to have a martyr’s death, a philosopher’s death. You know, in many ways, a kind of imitation of Achilles in the Iliad who was offered a short life and a glorious one or a long life, long but humdrum life. And Socrates wanted to take on, in many ways, the martyrs role.
Zachary Davis: Socrates spends his final hours in a jail cell accompanied by several of his followers and students, including Plato. As ordered by the state, Socrates takes his own life by drinking a poison made out of a deadly plant called hemlock. His final hours and death are depicted in great detail in another one of Plato’s works written decades later called Phaedo.
Steven Smith: His life is beautified in a certain way and his death is beautified. We see him at the very end of his life offering elevating speeches about immortality of the soul while waiting for the hemlock to set in. He’s given a true martyr’s death, which has remained throughout Western history, a kind of model of how to die. So Socrates not only give us a model of how to live or what he thought was the best way of life. He showed us how to die as well.
Zachary Davis: But why? Why do you think the city rulers didn’t just ignore him? Why do you think they really felt compelled to put him on trial? And eventually, you know, they didn’t back down. They did kill him.
Steven Smith: You might say here is this old guy, 70. He’s lived a pretty long life. I mean, why not just let him go on? Ignore him. Let him go on. He’s not going to live that much longer anyway. And I’m sure many people felt that way.The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 BC, only a few years prior to that in 404, so five years before, Athens had been defeated in its nearly 30 years, what you might call an almost 30 years’ war with its chief rival, Sparta.
Zachary Davis: This thirty years war is known as the Peloponnesian War. After Athens was defeated, Sparta established an oligarchy and the city was ruled for roughly eight months by a group known as the Thirty Tyrants. They ordered that anyone in Athens who opposed their regime would be killed or exiled. Socrates stayed in Athens during this rule and was therefore associated with supporting the Thirty Tyrants.
Steven Smith: It does seem to suggest that Socrates was associated from the standpoint of the city of Athens with some very questionable company. In 401, I believe it was the oligarchy of the Thirty was overthrown, a democracy or the democracy was restored. And it was under this restored democracy that the trial of the day, that the trial of Socrates took place.
Steven Smith: So once you begin to see the context of this, an Athenian defeat, the imposition of a Spartan-led oligarchy, and then the restoration of a kind of unstable democratic regime. Socrates might not look like such a totally innocent bystander to this, but someone who is really questioning the basic principles, the basic assumptions of Democratic Athens.
How did his ideas inspire Thoreau and MLK?
Zachary Davis: How was the text read over the last few thousand years? What are some moments where we can trace a direct line of influence by the institutions and culture that we have?
Steven Smith: When we’re talking about the way in which the trial of Socrates’ figures into kind of the long arc of Western history, one of the ways in which Socrates has remained in many ways alive and heroic is in the tradition of civil disobedience. He was a hero for Thoreau. Obviously both, probably the most famous chap in civil disobedience in, certainly in American literature.
Zachary Davis: Henry David Thoreau was a 19th century American philosopher, poet, and essayist. One of his most famous works is an essay called Civil Disobedience, in which he argues for disobedience against unjust governments. Similar to Socrates, he believed individuals should not tolerate an unjust government that overrules their own morals, forcing them to perpetuate injustice. He believed citizens should stand up to such governments.
Steven Smith: When I started college was during the Vietnam War and there was a lot of talk in the air about civil resistance defying the draft. Socrates was again hauled out. I remember my first introduction to Socrates was in a class where the context of that class was resistance to the draft. And Socrates was enlisted into the cause of resistance to the Vietnam War. Socrates was used many ways very admirably by Martin Luther King in his resistance to Southern segregation statutes during the civil rights era. He was used by Gandhi in his resistance to British imperial rule in South Africa and India.
Steven Smith: So Socrates very much figures into not just the philosophic canon, think of Spinoza and Thomas Moore as examples, but clearly he figures into, I think, very prominently into the tradition of civil disobedience and the way in which in the American political tradition. Civil disobedience is very much a part of our kind of political DNA and Socrates is there.
Zachary Davis: And is that because he witnesses that there are higher values or higher ideals than the status quo and that he was willing to die for those ideals?
Steven Smith: When, you know, he was invoked by the protesters against Vietnam, we certainly weren’t invoking Socrates’ claim that only the philosophic life is worth living. I mean, that’s the challenge.I mean, because Socrates does bring out, as you point out, a resistance based on a much higher, you know, an extraordinarily high principle.
Steven Smith: It’s not just one that’s based on freedom of expression. He’s not invoking anything like what we would think of as a First Amendment right. But he invokes a principle of the philosophic life is the only way worth living, as it is his ground for a kind of principled resistance or principle of resistance to authority. And that’s a very high standard that very few, if any of us, are able or willing to live up to.
Zachary Davis: Socrates was disobedient because he refused to live any other way than as a philosopher. His disobedience continues to serve as a model for resistance today, but also raises some new questions. What about this text’s influence on ideas of justice or legal matters in Western life?
Steven Smith: It takes up the theme of justice, you might say, sort of indirectly, in that it posits a at the core of the dialogue, a tension between, you might say, the needs of individual moral life, a life kind of moral integrity, and the demands of the community.And in that way, it brings up kind of indirectly the question of justice. What does a just person do when confronted with an unjust demand? This is not really a formula, quite an answer given to that, but Socrates does bring up the idea that there are demands that society makes on us that can be rightfully or justly resisted.
Steven Smith: And that’s one of the, I think, an issue that you see in Thoreau and others who, you know, faced with what they deemed an unjust law or any of the civil resisters, you know, can be Vietnam. One of the problems with that is Plato doesn’t give us a very clear idea of when resistance is justified and when it’s not. Of course, it’s easy for us to be on the sides of MLK and Gandhi and even Thoreau when they are asked to do certain things. But take another example, I think probably more controversial, someone who invokes the right to the voice of conscience to do something when the state or the authorities are telling you do it.
Steven Smith: What about the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue licenses to gay couples on the grounds that this violated her conscience or her right of conscience to do something. We were outraged at that. Do your job, we said that’s your job. You can’t. Who are you to put your own private conscience, you know, before the law? But that’s also, you know, when is conscience the voice of principle?When is it a mask for self-interest and prejudice? And that’s why it’s such a slippery slope in many ways that Socrates invokes.
Zachary Davis: It does seem the core or a core theme of the Apology is about change versus the status quo. And what’s interesting is the youth are attracted to Socrates, and like most youth, they’re interested in changing things a little from the way that their parents have arranged society. But, Socrates, as you mentioned, in a way, it is a negation philosophy. It’s we can know nothing. The pursuit itself is all there is. And if you’re the mayor of the city, what kind of program is that?
Steven Smith: Right. Exactly. Yeah. You still have to pick up the trash. You have to be responsible for all kinds of things. This is why in many ways, the Apology taken by itself, although we can certainly do that, is really incomplete until we put it with the dialogue which was intended to be paired and that’s the Crito.
Why didn’t Socrates escape from prison?
Zachary Davis: The Crito is another Platonic dialogue, centered around a conversation between a man named Crito, a follower of Socrates, and Socrates himself. It takes place in Socrates’s jail cell following the trial. Crito tells Socrates that he’s going to help him escape.
Steven Smith: And Socrates refuses to do it. He refuses to do it. And he gives Crito a number of reasons, very powerful for reasons for why he’s not going to escape. Haven’t the laws raised us? He said, the laws of the city. They’ve raised us. They’ve made us who we are. Don’t we owe them than an obligation not to break them? Isn’t it a question of piety?
Steven Smith: In fact, the laws are like our parents. They have kind of created our character. They’ve made us who we are. We owe them a kind of filial piety not to break laws. Don’t make me do this, he says. And he’s willing to stay and drink the hemlock. But there’s also a sense that he doesn’t want to set a bad example for people who aren’t going to be philosophers. This friend of his, Crito, is no philosopher by a long stretch. He doesn’t really gets it. He’s seems to be attracted to Socrates， but he doesn’t get it.
Steven Smith: And Socrates doesn’t want to help him become a lawbreaker. So he gives him a story, a very in many ways a powerful story about why the laws should never be broken. Why we should never dissent from the laws? Doing so is like disobeying our parents and our other ancestors.
Zachary Davis: Although the majority of Athenians saw Socrates as a threat to society, Socrates believed he was doing the public a service. He believed in the laws of society and was carrying out his mission, given to him by the Oracle, to awaken the public from their deep sleep. He cared about the future of Athens.
Steven Smith: The question in a way that runs throughout the Apology is how will citizens of the next generation be educated? Who has the right to educate? Is it the poets who might say claim to speak for, the older tradition, the gods, the heroes of Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Hesiod and the like? Or is it philosophy? Is it the philosophers who will argue on the basis of some kind of rationality or on some grounds of sufficient reason, who will not be swayed by song, by stories, by fables, by the gods, but claim to re-educate society on the basis of the kind of reason alone.These issues are still with us. They have not been totally resolved by any means.
Zachary Davis: If Socrates is the first to really ask how to live a good life, is it fair to characterize previous ways of thinking about that question as sort of nonsensical, that will we live the way we live? There’s just customs that we follow. We don’t think about them because they were given to us. Is the big distinction, he just is willing to question the way society and human life is ordered?
Steven Smith: I think it’s a very good way of putting it. Socrates asks the question, is there a best way of life? And I think that’s right. He’s willing to break with custom. And I think it’s largely what drove that charges against him. His challenges of the customary which includes the gods, to be sure, beliefs about the gods, he’s willing to challenge that and ask, is there a single best way of life for all human beings? Everywhere and always. And that’s a revolution. That’s a revolutionary idea.
Zachary Davis: Socrates constantly questioned the conventional ideas of his day. He challenged the leaders of Athens who he thought blindly perpetuated old traditions and old thought. His influence resonates throughout history, and his impact has inspired not only Western philosophy, but also social rights movements. As societies evolve, this clash of old thought and new thought continues. But it is precisely at this clashing point that the seeds of change are sown.