Socrates’ Defense

I’ve just finished reading the first of Plato’s dialogues in the collected works edition that I mentioned yesterday. I must say, “Very interesting.” I didn’t realize just how interesting it would be. Maybe the “dry philosophical parts” come in later. I’ve run into a couple of issues I could use some help on, so if you have any thoughts, I crave your commentations.

First, a Summary

This dialogue deals with the trial of Socrates. He’s been accused by the Athenians of being an atheist and of corrupting the Athenian youth. The dialogue doesn’t begin with the case against him, but with his defense. He lays out the reasons, both past and present, why these charges have been brought against him, and gives reasons why they are not based on truth. At one point he questions his main accuser, Meletus. He goes on to argue that far from doing harm to Athens, he has actually been of invaluable service to its citizens by prodding them towards truth and goodness. I love the following quotations (sorry they are kind of long):

… Are you not ashamed that you give your attention to acquiring as much money as possible, and similarly with reputation and honor, and give no attention or thought to truth and understanding and the perfection of your soul?
     And if any of you disputes this and professes to care about these things, I shall not at once let him go or leave him. No, I shall question him and examine him and test him; and if it appears that in spite of his profession he has made no real progress toward goodness, I shall reprove him for neglecting what is of supreme importance, and giving his attention to trivialities. I shall do this to everyone that I meet, young or old, foreigner or fellow citizen, but especially to you, my fellow citizens, inasmuch as you are closer to me in kinship. This, I do assure you, is what my God commands, and it is my belief that no greater good has ever befallen you in this city than my service to my God. For I spend all my time going about trying to persuade you, young and old, to make your first and chief concern not for your bodies nor for your possessions, but for the highest welfare of your souls, proclaiming as I go, Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state.

And this gem:

… For this reason, gentlemen, so far from pleading on my own behalf, as might be supposed, I am really pleading on yours, to save you from misusing the gift of God by condemning me. If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place. It is literally true, even if it sounds rather comical, that God has specially appointed me to this city, as though it were a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly. It seems to me that God has attached me to this city to perform the office of such a fly, and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen, and if you take my advice you will spare my life. I suspect, however, that before long you will awake from your drowsing, and in your annoyance you will […] finish me off with a single slap, and then you will go on sleeping till the end of your days, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.

However, the jury finds him guilty. In the sentencing phase, he is given the opportunity to suggest his own sentence. His response: “Well, what is appropriate for a poor man who is a public benefactor and who requires leisure for giving you moral encouragement? Nothing could be more appropriate for such a person than free maintenance at the state’s expense.” (You’ve got to love his boldness.) The jury has different ideas, however, and sentences him to death. But Socrates goes on to state how he does not fear death and it will actually be a great benefit to him, at worst like a dreamless sleep and at best like a conversation with all of the great heroes of the past.

Now, the Questions

First, since I don’t know classical Greek, I’m entirely dependent upon the translator for what he’s given me here. This one is Hugh Tredennick in 1954. (Incidentally, he’s given some great words like “effrontery”). Anyway, what I’m mostly wondering is how to take Socrates’ use of the term “God.” I don’t think the Greeks were monotheists, so I’m a bit confused by this. At other points in the dialogue, he even seems to acknowledge other deities. What was Socrates’ view of God? Is the translator smuggling in the majuscule title of God from Christianity? Or is that something that is there in Socrates.

The second question somewhat pertains to this as well. I quoted several sections above because I thought they really captured some great thoughts. The first is about not placing wealth above a pursuit for truth. (That is certainly a message needed in modern America.) The second is about prodding our neighbors from their sleep. I can see some distinctly Christian applications for both of these statements. But to what extent am I taking these out of context to make Christian applications from them? Is that something that is okay to do? Or is it just as wrong as when people take the Bible out of context? I guess I could use some pointers on how to appropriate non-Christian writers to make Christian points.

Comments about these questions, or the quotations, or anything else are very welcome.


1 Response to “Socrates’ Defense”

  1. 1 For Prez '24 May 16, 2008 at 11:36 PM

    You are certainly free to draw parallels to Christianity, most people consider Socrates’ virtue in facing death second to only one other. However I would agree that such ideas are not merely Christian in origin. Buddhism and Hindu both teach that the goal is to awaken yourself and others from the illusion of duality (Parallel being the illusion, the children of Abraham aren’t so big on stepping out of duality except to say the god [and demons/angels/spirit] is above it).

    There is some debate if Socrates truly was as Plato recalls. Its hard to be certain if much or little is known of him. Socrates is thought to follow the basic tenants of Orphism but abandoned much of the ritual and superstition. He held that the sun and moon were rock and earth which was definitely odd for those days when they were still thought of as gods, but I don’t believe he was the first to suggest it. He was claimed to have been led by an oracle or “daimon” but if it was an actual voice or just conscience, we don’t know. There are a few accounts of him slipping into cataleptic trances.

    Socrates and Plato held a close connection between knowledge and virtue which is a general feeling of Greek ethics they took maybe a step or two further than most. Christian ethics is thought to be found in both the wise and ignorant though so there is a bit of a difference.

    Russell’s History of Western Philosophy is a great book for tracing the development of thought. Seeing how Christianity arose out of the Jewish religion, the ideas that influenced and infused both along side relevant history.

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