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'The unexamined life is not worth living': The trial of Socrates
The events of this extraordinary trial in 399 BC saw the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, credited as the founder of Western philosophy, fighting for his life and the reputation of philosophers everywhere. The 70-year-old passionately defended himself and is alleged to have goaded the jurors to find him guilty.
The Socratic Method
The standard practice for debate we know today came from this blueprint for discourse and finding truth in relation to the examination of a subject. The Socratic Method involved an expert and an audience of debaters, where the expert’s definition of the subject was questioned.
The three-step process continually asked questions of the definition, in the hope that the expert would trip themselves up and expose contradictions. Socrates himself used the method as a means to test his own opinions.
Socrates faced two sets of charges known as the ‘old’ and ‘new’ accusations. The latter was presented by Meletus, who was determined to bring about a guilty verdict against the philosopher for alleged atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens.
The Old Accusations
- He used rhetorical tricks to make weak arguments appear strong.
- He studied things in the sky and below the earth that had no relevance to normal living.
- He taught such views to others as a teacher.
The New Accusations
These argued that Socrates was guilty of corrupting the young and the more serious charge of not believing in the gods. The second charge could put Socrates to death as atheism was seen as a threat to the welfare of citizens in Ancient Greece.
Socrates realised his accusers were persuasive speakers. He denied that he was an accomplished speaker or purposely deceived others because he was just a truth-teller, speaking in a simple manner.
Socrates pointed out that he was a victim of misrepresentation by biased playwrights who had influenced his judges since childhood. Regarding the accusation that he was an atheist, he protested that such charges were based on malicious slander.
On the charge that he taught wisdom, Socrates denied he had taken a fee from anyone and that he only sought the truth. In response to the charge of promoting himself as wise, Socrates argued that he was wise simply because he did not pretend to know what he didn’t know, unlike other self-proclaiming wise men who saw themselves as wise in all things. ‘When I do not know, I do not think I know’ was Socrates’ brilliantly astute reply to his judges.
He admitted that his investigations had ruffled feathers and made him unpopular in Athenian society causing him to appear in court due to false accusations.
Socrates knew that the odds were stacked against him because many citizens of Athens didn’t understand or appreciate philosophy. They saw it as a waste of time and impractical. The search for wisdom to many Athenians was baffling.
Despite Socrates’ impressive oratory skills in court and his use of insightful parables and stories to argue his case, the final verdict was a damning one, but perhaps not unexpected.
The jury voted 280 to 221 against Socrates who was said to have looked surprised that the vote was so close. The result indicated that the long-term bias against the philosopher, and philosophy in general, was incredibly strong.
Following tradition, Socrates was allowed to present his preferred punishment. He initially considered imprisonment, banishment for life, or a fine as alternatives to execution. In the end, he rejected them all as impractical. Socrates admitted that if he was allowed to live he could never stay quiet and desist from continuing to ask questions.
His famous quote reflecting on his decision for self-sacrifice was: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.' He believed that non-reflective people weren’t really living because being reflective is what made people human. He chose death.
Execution by self-poisoning
The death of Socrates in 399 BCE, as reported by Plato in the Phaedo, was one carried out by taking poison, possibly by drinking hemlock. The progressive paralysis that the condemned philosopher experienced, causing him to lay on his back as his legs gave way, is indicative of the drug’s effects on the body. The growing paralysis eventually reached his heart and killed him.
Socrates’ philosophical legacy to his people was that he gave them the tools to be happy, not just pretend to be contented. His many famous quotes such as ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’ and ‘There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance’ are still relevant in today’s modern world of politics and social relationships.