Socrates:Innocent Or Guilty Essay, Research Paper
Living in a democracy, everyone is exposed through television and other various forms of media everyday to numerous trials by jury. Usually they are rarely given a second thought, but every once in a while along comes a specific trial which captures the attention of the entire country. This goes the same for trials throughout centuries in our past. Although they did not have the same forms of media as in this, modern era, there were still specific trials in which everyone knew about. One trial that stands out is the one against the great philosopher Socrates. Accused of corrupting the youth, being an atheist, and believing in other gods, Socrates faced trial by jury. The early forms of democracy were not as sophisticated and complex as they are now. The outcome of the trial was that Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to be put to death by hemlock poisoning. The question is whether Socrates was truly guilty or just another person fallen to the early form of democracy of a people who were possibly jealous and afraid of Socrates. However, by understanding Socrates intentions, it is clear that he was in fact innocent of the above charges, and was wrongly accused and executed.
Socrates was executed after a trial in which he was accused of corrupting the youths of Athens, and committing acts of impiety. These accusations were brought to the court by a small group of men. Meletus was the speaker representing the group of accusers, while Socrates defended himself. The jury of 501 Athenians voted to execute Socrates on these accusations, but this extreme outcome was not planned out (Stone 78). The initial object of the trial was to get Socrates out of Athens, and he would just move along to another city and practice his teachings there. Being as stubborn as he is, Socrates refused to leave the city of Athens, no matter what the penalty. No one had previously imagined that Socrates would be put to death.
Socrates was a man who spent most of his time talking to people. He would ask them hypothetical questions, and make them think for themselves about the true answer they believed in, by serving as a guide for the conversation. Many people, including the accusers, believed that while Socrates did this, he was serving as a Sophist. A Sophist is a person who talks to people, and teaches them how to argue a point, whether the point is right or wrong. A Sophist would collect money for this lesson, and go on with their teachings (Xenophon 42). This accusation is inaccurate because Socrates did not collect any money for his conversations with people. Instead, Socrates was a very poor man, who happened to have rich friends. Talking to these people was a way for Socrates to try to spread his way of life to the Athenian’s. He enjoyed conversing with people about ethical issues, and moral beliefs. In his argument, Socrates refutes Meletus’ charge that he corrupts the young. One crucial point deals with the idea of Socrates as a paid teacher. This would imply that Socrates was actively seeking students and teaching “corrupting” ideas. This plays a part in the argument, by Meletus, that Socrates has deliberately corrupted the youth. Socrates says that, “the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others.” (Plato 23:c) The operative part being “of their own free will.” This effectively shows that, unlike some other philosophers of that time, Socrates was not formally imposing his views on others. This partially proves that Socrates is not deliberately corrupting the youth.
While Socrates was practicing his lessons in downtown Athens, and conversing with all the Athenians, he was doing no harm to the people. If the people did not want to talk to him, they did not have to. Socrates did not force people to talk to him, and he did not harm those who did choose to talk to him. A Sophist would come to your services, and ask you what you wanted to argue for. Whether the subject is right or wrong, a Sophist would teach you how to argue for or against a certain point (Xenophon 45). Socrates would do no such thing. He would just hold a conversation with people, not arguing points, or teaching literal lessons, but he would just have certain discussions about certain issues. These discussions may even benefit a person, because what he is doing in his conversation, is making a person think for themselves about certain issues, and by doing this, that person may see something they have never noticed before. He almost makes people more open minded in their thoughts and actions. After hearing Socrates speak, a person should be able to decide for themselves if they want to take what he said seriously, or just forget everything he told them. If a certain person does not like what is being preached, they do not have to follow that person’s preaching.
Socrates was accused and found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens. His activities were such that he was considered to have corrupted the children by talking to them, and passing down his knowledge. Not only is Socrates an extremely wise man, but he is also a good man. Socrates’ activities were to teach the children of Athens various lessons that would improve the children, and
the future of the city. Teaching lessons is certainly beneficial to the pupil, because people spend their lives learning their own experiences, and the experiences of others. Since a person has the ability to listen to what they want to, and also to make their own decisions, so in effect Socrates can not harm any adult that he talks to, because they are mature enough to make their own decisions (Reeve 141).
Socrates had a gift that was very unique, and there is no harm in expressing his gift to others. If he was corrupting the youths, he certainly did not mean to do it. Evidence is a key factor in this accusation as well. Two people who had been under the tutelage of Socrates went on to be traitors. It can not be assumed that these two people became traitors because of Socrates’ teachings. There are so many factors that could contribute to this, so it is a fallacy to assume that Socrates is the sole cause (Reeve 118). If the accusers wanted to truly convict Socrates of corrupting the youth, and people in general, then they would have to show much more evidence of this. Since these teachings have positive results, the teachings of Socrates should be encouraged. Socrates had a large following of children, and the people of the city may have been jealous. “If I corrupt some young men, and have corrupted others, then surely some of them who have grown older and realized that I gave them bad advice when they were young should now themselves come up here to accuse me and avenge themselves.” (Plato, 33:d)
The final component of Socrates argument against corrupting the youth is brought forth later and deals with the witnesses which Meletus neglected to utilize. The argument is as follows: if Socrates actually corrupted anyone, some would want to retaliate and testify for wrongs done to them. After making this point, Socrates offers some of his limited time to Meletus for the purpose of calling these witnesses forward. Socrates names several people in the assembly who had spent time with him and who are favoring him in the trial. There is no one for Meletus to call who would testify against Socrates (Brickhouse 202). The argument is concluded by, “Now those who were corrupted might well have reason to help me, but the uncorrupted, their kindred who are older men, have no reason to help me except the right and proper one, that they know that Meletus is lying and that I am telling the truth.” (Plato 34:b) Thus there is no proof of Socrates transgressions against the Athenians, only the results of long-term slander by those of influence who felt wronged by Socrates use of wisdom. His argument is very straight forward and should have proven Socrates innocent on this account. The fact that only thirty votes would have acquitted him seems to be enough for Socrates to feel that his arguments have been accepted (Stone 93). Socrates has essentially proven that he does not deliberately corrupt the young and that if he did so unintentionally Meletus has no right to bring him to court.
As for the accusation brought against Socrates that he is an atheist, and he believes in new gods, it seems somewhat an awkward statement. How can one be an atheist, believing in no gods, but at the same time being accused of believing in new gods. Meletus is accusing Socrates of not believing in the known gods of that time period, but believing in his own gods, namely spirits and voices. Although he does not necessarily refute the idea of believing in his own gods, he concentrates more on the awkwardness of Meletus’ accusation. Socrates just simply states that if he worships new gods, then he is not an atheist. However, if he does not believe in gods or that he is an atheist, then he does not believe in new gods. Either way Socrates is not guilty of the charges. What Meletus is actually trying to do is questioning Socrates’ piety. Although Socrates does not attempt to defend himself against the questioning of his piety, he desires more to attack the formal charges brought against him (Brickhouse 219).
Probably one of the biggest trials of his time, Socrates was wrongly accused and sentenced to death. Socrates never had the intention of corrupting the youth. He merely had conversations and arguments with people, only so they would open their own eyes and question their beliefs. Either they would stay faithful to what they believe in, or they would change their beliefs once the truth is brought to light through simple logic. Socrates only intention was to help people and to go along through life staying true with his own beliefs while also questioning them when the moment arises. There is one charge he hasn’t really faced, that of making the weaker argument the stronger. That is he just questioned peoples arguments, no matter how strong they were compared to his own. In essence he made fools of powerful and knowledgeable people for sport. Perhaps this overshadowed aspect of the charges is true after all.
Brickhouse, Thomas C. Socrates On Trial. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 1989.
Plato. Five Dialogues. Hackett, Indianapolis: 1981.
Reeve, C. D. C. Socrates in the Apology: An Essay on Plato’s Apology of Socrates. Hackett, Indianapolis: 1989.
Stone, Isidor. F. The Trial of Socrates. Little Brown, Boston: 1988.
Xenophon. Recollections of Socrates, and: Socrates’ Defense Before the Jury. Collier Macmillan, New York: 1965.