Socrates is one of the most prominent Greek philosophers of the Hellenistic Age. His powers of logical reasoning and the invention of the Socratic Method have left an enduring legacy on Western philosophy. The ideas spawned by him were given further life and shape by his bright pupil Plato, who also documented much of what Socrates orated to his audience. Although he was a prominent member of the Aristocratic class, his lack of deference to authority would ultimately lead to his tragic end. In this tragedy lies heroism and moral fortitude. Although deemed guilty by the then prevailing laws of Athens, he stands righteous in spirit. Even when given the choice between a life in exile or immediate execution, he chose the latter as a matter of adhering to principle. The following passages will elaborate this assessment.
Socrates was brought to trial by the democratic Athenian jury, which had scores to settle with prominent members of the previous regime. Socrates’ association with the previous regime made him a target of persecution, irrespective of the veracity of the alleged charges. He was accused of undermining religious and state authority and for also corrupting the minds of young Athenians. But in reality, Socrates made no deliberate attempts to bring down the religious and state authorities. Instead, he encouraged his students to adopt a critical approach to moral actions, also suggesting that the Athenian rulers themselves are not exempt from such scrutiny. Even when sentenced to death by the Athenian court, Socrates did not try to evade his fate, but rather accepted it with equanimity. Even though he is termed ‘guilty’ by the Athenian court, his rationale for accepting the verdict reveals the moral soundness of his decision, thus, in effect, vindicating his moral righteousness. (Vlastoc, 1991, p.114)
For example, “At 49c-d Socrates elaborates his leading premise to ‘one should not wrong any person’, adding to this ‘not even if one has been wronged by him’. At 49e5-7 he states a further premise ‘one should do what one has agreed to do, provided that it is not wrong’. He then proposes that it follows from these premises that it would be wrong for him to escape (49e9-50a3)”. (Bostock, 1990, p.2) By reasoning in this fashion, Socrates puts principles ahead of self-interest. In this broad sense, he is really not guilty.
Moreover, his concern for law and order among Athenian civilians made him put public interest ahead of his own. For example, “if Socrates tries to escape, he will be attempting, for his part, to destroy the Laws, and (thereby) the whole city; for a city could not survive if the verdicts reached by the courts were set aside and rendered powerless by individuals. (50a8-b8).” (Bostock, 1990, p.2)
Socrates reasons that one should do nothing wrong, further adding that his own life till that point was lived in accord with this premise. Since disobeying Athenian laws would amount to doing wrong, he argues against his own bodily interest and surrenders to the court. He thus accepts the death penalty imposed on him as a matter of righteous conduct and lawful behavior. It is easy to extend this logic and come to the conclusion that Socrates thought that it would always be wrong for any citizen of Athens to disobey any law of the city. But a detailed analysis of all of Socrates’ sayings shows that this is not the case. Moreover, there is ambiguity and contradiction within the set of Athenian law that creates sufficient doubt about the ‘guilty’ verdict:
“The Laws say that if Socrates escapes he will have both failed to obey and failed to persuade (52a3-4). Now quite a natural way of taking this charge would be to suppose that it claims that Socrates has not obeyed the law against impiety and corrupting the young, and also has not persuaded the jury that he should not be condemned on this account. If that is the correct way of taking it, then our proposed third interpretation must certainly be rejected, since Socrates evidently did try to persuade the jury that he should not be condemned. However, it may well be that this ‘natural’ way of taking the remark is mistaken, for after all our personified Laws do admit that the verdict was incorrect, and so apparently they should concede that Socrates has obeyed the Law against impiety and corrupting the young.” (Bostock, 1990, p.3)
Hence, Socrates sacrificed his life as a way of standing by the principles he endorsed to others. Despite his tragic death in this fashion, the event has acquired him a martyr status among subsequent generation of intellectuals and philosophers. And despite the official ‘guilty’ verdict, he stands acquitted of moral wrongdoing in its true spirit. Starting with Plato – his most illustrious disciple – intellectuals have taken inspiration and strength from Socrates’ choice and have contributed to positive social change.
David Bostock, The Interpretation of Plato’s “Crito”, Phronesis, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1990), pp. 1-20, Published by: BRILL, Stable URL: <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4182345>, Accessed: 06/01/2010 19:31
Vlastos, Gregory (1991). Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.