The Trial and Death of Socrates remains a powerful document, partly because it was a true – perhaps in certain parts verbatim – account of the end of one of the greatest figures in history. In Apology Socrates defends himself before the Athenian court against charges of corrupting youth. Phaedo is the account, by a young man, of the actual last words and moments of Socrates. These are presented with scene-setting introductions to the historical situation. They are performed, unabridged, by a cast led by Bruce Alexander as Socrates, following his successful reading of The Republic for Naxos AudioBooks.
‘Apology’ and ‘Phaedo’ describe the trial, conviction and execution of Plato’s friend and mentor Socrates. Why, we may ask, was there a trial? What was Socrates accused of? Was he guilty? And if he wasn’t guilty (as Plato clearly thinks he wasn’t) why was he accused? Is this a verbatim report of the speeches he gave? More generally, what is it about these dialogues, and about Socrates himself, that has exercised such a fascination over later ages?
To take these questions in order:
He was accused of two things:
1) not believing in the gods the city believed in; and
2) corrupting the young.
Was he guilty? Well, it depends on your point of view. You could say, with some justice, that very few people in late fifth- century Athens believed in the gods the city believed in. Certainly not in the Olympian gods such as Zeus, or Aphrodite, or Apollo. There were still those who believed the sun and the moon were gods. Indeed, the catastrophic loss of the Athenian expeditionary force to Sicily fourteen years earlier had in the end been caused by its commander’s superstitious refusal to abandon an untenable position for twenty- eight days following an eclipse of the moon. But then Socrates was prepared to accept the sun and the moon as gods, as he explains in the ‘Apology’.
Did he corrupt the young? In a sexual sense, no. Alcibiades, the best-looking youngmaninAthens,famouslyattempted to seduce Socrates sexually, and failed. But in a different sense, maybe the answer could be yes. What Socrates did was to teach the young to ask questions which their elders found difficult or impossible to answer. If you were one of those elders, you might well have thought that he was making young people into worse people than they would otherwise have been. In that sense, from the point of view of their elders, maybe he did corrupt the young. It’s a common enough argument, now as then: ‘when I was young we respected our elders; these days there’s no respect any more; someone must be to blame.’
Was that a sufficient reason for him to be accused? In normal times, no. But these were not normal times. Within the last five years the Athenians had lost a war and an empire, and been deprived of their democratic rights. Many of the people who had taken away those rights had been followers of Socrates in their youth. When democracy was restored, there were those who wanted their revenge.
Is the ‘Apology’ the speech Socrates actually made? And did he spend his last hours in the way Plato describes? It is hard to know. As far as we know, Socrates never wrote anything, and if he did write anything, it hasn’t survived. Almost everything we know about him comes from Plato, though there is a hint in Xenophon which suggests that what he actually said at his trial was a bit different from what Plato has given us. It may be we have to take Plato’s account as coloured by what he thinks Socrates should have said, or what he would have liked Socrates to have said.
We can, however, say with confidence that the way Socrates talks and acts in the ‘Apology’ and ‘Phaedo’ is wholly in character with the way he talks and acts in every other Platonic dialogue. Beyond that, we have to accept that the Socrates who has been admired for more than 2000 years is the Socrates presented to us by Plato, just as the Jesus who has been admired for 2000 years is the Jesus presented by the NewTestament.
And finally, what is it about Socrates which has so fascinated later ages? Two things, principally: an ethical standpoint and a method of argument. The ethical standpoint can be summed up in two of Socrates’ most famous beliefs: It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, because only doing wrong can harm you. And no one does wrong on purpose; people do wrong only from a failure to perceive what is right. More striking still is the method of argument: it annoyed the ancient Athenians, and it annoys a lot of people today, but it is revolutionary for all that – and as needed now as it was then. Before Socrates there were three ways of resolving a disagreement: by force, by appeal to authority or by competitive oratory. What all three have in common is that they produce a winner and a loser, and that the loser is even less convinced at the end than at the beginning. Socrates’ method – arguing by agreed steps from agreed premises – necessarily results in an agreed conclusion. If you don’t like the conclusion, you can go back and amend the premises.
So – a new ethical position, and a new method of argument. And nowhere will we find either more clearly and movingly exemplified than in the ‘Apology’ and the ‘Phaedo’.