What Did Socrates Do Wrong?

Socrates, father of western philosophy, was executed by his government, not for murder, assault, or robbery, but because of several non-violent charges brought against him. Here are the three main charges.

1. Teaches Falsehood

One accusation brought against Socrates was that he “is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.”

The phrase “makes the worse appear the better cause” is the first specific accusation, though its interpretation here is not obvious. However, looking at the logic contained within the statement, that which is “the worse” cannot be made to appear “the better” by truthful means; hence, Socrates is teaching falsehoods.

One interesting thing is that this quote implies a negative association with curiosity, particularly in the part “who searches into things under the earth and in heaven.” Reading this isolated phrase brings to mind the search for occult or taboo knowledge, and one has to wonder why this kind of mentality might have prevailed in the case against Socrates. No, I don’t think Socrates dabbled in witchcraft, but perhaps his relentless pursuit of the higher truths was viewed as an unhealthy curiosity at the time. The counter to this idea is that plenty of philosophers concerned with truth-finding preceded Socrates, so he wouldn’t have been the first curious Greek.

2. A Misleader of the Youth

The second accusation against Socrates was that he was a “villainous misleader of youth” because he inspired the youth to mimic his challenging of the presumably wise citizens. This accusation casts Socrates as a disturber of the social order, whereby youth begin questioning their elders. Does the state have a duty to maintain a prescribed social order or beliefs of the youth?

To understand the seriousness of the this accusation, though ridiculous by modern law, we have to visit another work of Plato: Crito. In the work, Socrates says to his old friend Crito in the hypothetical scenario where “The Laws” interrogate him, saying “In the first place did we not bring you into existence?” and “…since you were brought into this world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you?”. These quotes highlight the Athenian idea of the relationship between man and the State, or The Law. Everything the Athenian citizen had was by allowance from The Law, including their very existence (through the State’s regulation of marriage, which begets children). Furthermore, the education of Athenians was also credited to the State. Thus, the average Athenian probably would assent to the idea that the State had the duty to protect its progeny (i.e. the youth) from “bad” ideas put in their head by Socrates.

As a side note, it’s worthwhile to contemplate how very different the idea of the relation between man and the State is now compared to ancient Athens, though the Athenian concept still remains in large swaths of politics (unfortunately). In my opinion, the rights of man are not given to an individual by government. Rather, the rights of man are divine or naturally inherent, whereas the rights of government are limited. For example, marriage is not something that should require a “license” since marriage is not merely a product of the government. Rather, we have a divine or natural right to marry, and thus to produce children. In Socrates world, children are a product of the State, and hence owe their entire existence to the State.

3. An Atheist

The third accusation, made by Meletus, against Socrates was that he “does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” Now, Meletus didn’t really believe that Socrates had “new divinities of his own” in the sense of gods different from those of Athens at large; instead, the accusation is that Socrates held other things, like Truth and Justice, in place of gods.

Meletus goes on to say, “I assure you, judges, that he does not: for he says that the sun is stone, and the moon earth”. Socrates’ response to this charge is one of the best parts of Apology:

“Did ever man, Meletus, believe in the existence of human things, and not of human beings? … I wish, men of Athens, that he would answer, and not be always trying to get up an interruption. Did ever any man believe in horsemanship, and not in horses? or in flute-playing, and not in flute players? No, my friend; I will answer to you and to the court, as you refuse to answer for yourself. There is no man who ever did. But now please to answer the next question: Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demi-gods?”

Socrates in Plato’s Apology

Socrates argument here is that he clearly believes in the spiritual and the divine; hence, he believes in the gods. Despite this and the other two reasons given above, Socrates was truly killed for another reason.

The Real Reason Socrates Was Killed

Socrates was the “great gadfly” in his own words, to stir up Athens and awaken it when it falls asleep. Our protagonist sees himself as a disturber of the peace for a noble reason – to realign Athens in terms of greater virtue, justice, and wisdom, though he humbly refrains from claiming knowledge of these ideals. Nonetheless, Socrates’ efforts to better Athenian society led to him becoming a pesky, unwelcome “gadfly” in the eyes of the elite. Ultimately, he poked gaping holes in the egos of those who pretended to know true wisdom and paid the price for daring to call out the arrogant.

Socrates is a hero to remember in modern times for his dedication to truth above falsehood, despite the consequences. In our modern era, when Truth itself is an ever controversial matter, we could learn a thing or two from the father of philosophy.

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Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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