Last Days Of Socrates Essay, Research Paper
Plato. The Last Days of Socrates. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1993
Imagine the time just after the death of Socrates. The people of Athens were filled with questions about the final judgment of this well-known, long-time citizen of Athens. Socrates was accused at the end of his life of impiety and corruption of youth. Rumors, prejudices, and questions flew about the town. Plato experienced this situation when Socrates, his teacher and friend, accepted the ruling of death from an Athenian court. In The Last Days of Socrates, Plato uses Socrates own voice to explain the reasons that Socrates, though innocent in Plato s view, was convicted and why Socrates did not escape his punishment as offered by the court. The writings, Euthyphro, The Apology, Crito, and Pheado not only helped the general population of Athens and the friends and followers of Socrates understand his death, but also showed Socrates in the best possible light. They are connected by their common theme of a memoriam to Socrates and the discussion of virtues. By studying these texts, researchers can see into the culture of Athens, but most important are the discussions about relationships in the book. The relationships between the religion and state and individual and society have impacted the past and are still concerns that are with us today.
While Plato is writing to prove Socrates a good or respectable person, he allows the modern reader a glimpse into Athenian culture. We see that religion is held in very high regard and failing to serve a religion is punishable by death, no matter what one s social or political stature. In Euthyphro, the reader learns that sometimes an Interpreter is consulted when dealing with certain criminal behavior. Also, we realize that the Athenians regard a son accusing a father of a crime, no matter what the charge, as very odd and of great annoyance to the family. I believe this is still true today. Family loyalty is considered, in some cases, more important than the laws of the country. One example is the crime families that operate in the country. These families are known to be patriotic, but their patriotism stops when family and money are involved. In The Apology, the reader sees some of the Athenian court system in action. Researchers can guess that prosecution and defense are allowed only certain amounts of time by Socrates reference to staying within his time allotted during testimony. The fact that the convicted can offer money instead of punishment and that friends of the convicted may offer money on their security are directly discussed. At first, I was shocked to read this because it would seem that the rich could go unpunished for crimes. But then when I considered our court system in America, I discovered that we are not too much different even though we try to be totally fair. The wealthy, such as O.J. Simpson, can afford many lawyers at astronomical cost and, whether guilty or not, can almost ensure an acquittal.
In his writings, Plato wants to explain why Socrates accepted the penalty of death from the Athenian court. This is very important because Plato wanted Socrates to be seen in a positive, glorified light. In the public eye, why would Socrates be convicted if he were not guilty of failing to serve the gods and of swaying the youth? Also, why would he submit to the court s ruling unless he thought he deserved the punishment? Not only the general public, but also Socrates followers and friends were concerned and wanted to know the answers to these questions. Thus, Plato writes about Socrates confusion about the charges about impiety, his defense, and his sense of duty to his city s laws in a way that is designed to make Socrates seem appealing to the Athenian people. While accomplishing this goal, Plato almost defines the relationship between the individual and the society and the relation of state and religion.
The first topic discussed is Socrates confusion about the charges of impiety in Euthyphro . In this first scene, Socrates and Euthyphro are waiting to enter court. As they stand outside, the two men fall into discussion. Socrates questions Euthyphro, a man who claims to know the details of religion (10), about what is holy and unholy. The question is harder to answer than first appears and there is never a true conclusion. The section Euthyphro shows that holiness is hard to define; therefore it is hard to understand what actions can be considered holy or unholy. At first holiness is described as what is agreeable to the gods or divinely approved (13). Then Socrates observes that the gods argue and, therefore, other gods might not approve what some gods divinely approve. In fact, no true definition of the holy and unholy is ever reached. The inability to arrive at a definition of what is holy only furthers Plato s goal of showing Socrates as an innocent in an awkward situation in court. Society still struggles with these issues. If one faith looks down upon one action and other faiths or secular beliefs do not, who is right? If the government wants to teach evolution and the church wants to teach creation, how does society decide what is best for the student? Holiness verses what is unholy. State verses religion. How does Meletus prosecute a man for impiety? This shows that the government in Athens regulated religion to the point of telling how to worship. I believe this discussion is a very valuable part of the book because how much state/government should be involved with religious matters has been an issue from Hammurabi and his stele to Socrates to the Spanish Inquisition to the Puritans to now.
Next, The Apology , shows the actual trial. Plato s main purpose is served by implying that the jury was dealing with preconceptions when it came to judging Socrates fairly. In Socrates defense speech, he observes that the jury has heard many peoples negative opinions about him long before this trial (38). He also states that he was not really a teacher because he does not charge a fee to listen to him speak or question a person. Another main factor in this section is justice. Socrates thinks that to stop his philosophy would be an injustice against his god s command to seek out wisdom. He states that if he was not to do his duty to his god by living a philosophic life then he might really with justice be summoned to court (52). Here the relationship between individual and state is important. This show society or the state trying to regulate what the individual can do or think. I believe Socrates is right in standing up to the constraints of the state. This does not mean I do not support the sentence of guilt, rather that if the state is controlling the individual that individual should stand up for his/her beliefs. Later, Socrates, talking about Meletus, says to the jury, I believe it is far worse to do what he is doing now, trying to put a man to death unjustly (54). Socrates seems to be saying that the court is trying him on charges that really have no proof and that he is not guilty of any crime. Maybe he is speaking for freedom of though. Either way, it would be injustice to convict him. Plato uses all of these reasons to help the public to understand Socrates defense and hopefully cause them to agree with the idea that the jury might have been wrong.
Again, the relationship between individual and state is addressed. What seems most appealing to the average man is that Socrates refuses to escape, even when begged* to do so by a close friend, because of his firm support for justice and his loyalty to the city of Athens. Socrates did not give his life because he believed the court to be just in its ruling, rather his support of the system of justice in the Athens. In Crito, Socrates speaks for the laws of Athens. He makes this reply to the thought of running away, Can you imagine that a city can continue to exist and not be turned upside down, if the legal judgments which are pronounced in it have no force but are nullified and destroyed by private persons? (86). How much does the individual owe his society? Does he owe his money? His loyalty? His life? The idea of sacrificing for the state has been considered a great act throughout history. Memorials to heroic warriors, cherishing the saints, respecting those who give their lives and time to others honoring, those who challenged the system are all integral parts of history and life today. Perhaps Socrates stand inspired others to follow their beliefs. We know that Plato and many others continued to philosophy even after Socrates death. I believe Socrates did the right thing. He supported the city s laws so that he could be a good example to others and not act unjustly in his mind. This follows along with his ideas of duty to the state. Plato could not use a better way of improving or showing Socrates true image than by demonstrating the charges against him were unclear, presenting his defense, and then showing him being a patriotic citizen of the city?
The death scene in Phadoe is most interesting to me. The administer of poison tells Socrates to expect the legs beginning to feel heavy. This heaviness or numbness then spreads to the rest of the body. Socrates death is not one of torment and pain, but one of slowly fading away. I believe it is fitting that the Athenians, who pride themselves on their education, civility, and laws, do not have a violent death sentence. They do not prescribe to hanging or chopping off of one s head, but rather an easy slipping into whatever lies beyond death s door. Capital punishment has been revised many times during the 200 years of America. We go from hanging and shooting to gas and electrical to death by lethal injection. Americans consider themselves to be a civilized society and I believe that our way of punishing criminals reflects how we treat individuals in our society. A less painful death, to me, speaks of a high value for individual life. Though in Athens the state had more control over the individual than our government today, the state did value individual life.
On the whole, Plato s writings did change the Athenians poor view of Socrates to one that has made Socrates a well- respected and known figure in history. His commitment to his beliefs, justice, duty, and his hope of an afterlife are all revealed quite well. There are a few places, however, where I question Plato s choice of wording and editing. Plato could have changed the writing to leave out the almost conceited statements of Socrates that appear in some of the dialogue. During his discussion with Euthyphro, sometimes Socrates comes off as if he thinks himself superior and almost is playing with Euthyphro.
In one part of a conversation Socrates teases Euthyphro by saying, You re taking it easy, basking in the wealth of your wisdom. Make a bit of an effort, it s actually not hard to grasp what I mean (20). This seems to show Socrates as a man full of himself and his thoughts. Also during the trial, Socrates states to the jury that does not further his case, but only show his pride. In one statement to the jury, Socrates says, It seems I really am wise (41). A few moments later, Socrates tells the jury, so what can he (the oracle) mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world? He cannot be telling a lie (42). These statements not only present a man who has much respect for his own wisdom, but how wise is it to say such things in front of a jury of men who probably think they are wise in their own degree?
The Last Days of Socrates talk about the culture of Athens and gives a look at Socrates the person, but what I found to be most important was the relationship of individual and state. Consider the fact that a Western Civilization class is reading the works of Plato about Socrates thousands of years after the events described happened and were recorded. The element of a man, falsely accused, dying for his beliefs is a crossover into an idea understood by all cultures. Even the way the works are presented, in the form of dialogue, make them stand out to history. Perhaps the first time in history are such deep thoughts written about and discussed in such a way. This also speaks of the times of the philosophers. If the inhabitants of Athens had time to think about such deep thoughts as What is holiness? they must have lead lives of ease compared with those of earlier people. These certain thoughts might be precedents in history, just because the Athenians cherished thought, rhetoric, and some had the time and willingness to practice these pursuits. Civilizations that followed the Greeks often imitated them. The Romans based many of their values, rules of citizenship, and even religion on the Greek system. Men and women of the Enlightenment could have read the same dialogues that we read today. Why would anyone continue to read these stories? I believe it is the dialogues discussion of individual verses state and state verses religion. These are the truly enduring issues that we will always face.