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The dialogues of Plato stand alongside the Bible and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as foundational texts of Western civilization. The works of Plato collected under the title The Trial and Death of Socrates have been particularly influential because they provide both an excellent point of entry into Plato’s vast philosophy and a strikingly vivid portrait of Plato’s mentor, Socrates – one of the most uncompromising intellectuals in the pantheon of human history and culture. While arguments presented in some of Plato’s other dialogues add essential dimensions to our understanding of his thought, it is possible to find the core elements of Plato’s system in Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, and it is predominantly through Plato’s account in these works of the words and actions of Socrates during his trial and execution for impiety that the latter’s nobility and profound integrity have become known to succeeding generations.
Plato was born to an aristocratic Athenian family in 427 BC, became an adherent of the already notorious arguer Socrates in his youth, and likely abandoned Athens for several years following Socrates’ execution in 399 BC. Back in Athens, he founded his infamous school, the Academy, on his estate of the same name, probably in the 360s. Though the curriculum of Plato’s Academy changed significantly during the years after his death, the school itself remained an important center of learning until AD 529, when the Eastern Roman Emperor dissolved it during a purge of non-Christian institutions. There is no consensus on precisely when or why Plato began writing the incomparably thought-provoking collection of dialogues and letters that has come down to us. Some commentators suggest that his earliest writings were set down prior to Socrates’ execution as aids to the memory of those who witnessed or participated in the latter’s arguments, while many others believe that it was Socrates’ death that stimulated Plato to begin documenting for posterity the intellectual achievements of his friend and teacher. In any event, Plato’s sweeping and multifaceted philosophy, as documented in his voluminous writings, has never ceased to exert a remarkably pervasive influence upon the intellectual culture of the West. It decisively shaped the thought of St. Augustine (AD 354 - 386) and through him infiltrated virtually all subsequent Christian theology. Moreover, from ancient times until the present, there have been few great Western thinkers – religious or secular – who have failed to acknowledge an unparalleled debt to Plato.
It is customary to divide Plato’s dialogues into early, middle, and late periods. In the early writings it is believed that Plato was strongly under Socrates’ influence and, therefore, that the characterization of Socrates’ thought and method of discourse in these so-called “Socratic dialogues” accurately reflects Plato’s recollections of his teacher. In Plato’s middle period, Socrates is made the spokesman for a philosophy that notably differs from anything articulated in the early writings. Here it is suspected that Plato is setting forth his own philosophy – one that grew out of reflection upon unresolved dilemmas raised by Socrates’ philosophical activity and by the traumatic experience of Socrates’ untimely demise. This middle-period philosophy can be viewed as Plato’s effort to produce a defense of Socrates’ virtue and a metaphysical system explaining the structure of a reality in which a good and just man can be executed for publicly seeking the truth. In the late writings, the metaphysics of the middle period is subjected to withering criticism and, though not jettisoned, recognized as seriously problematic. Of the four dialogues in the present volume, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito are all widely agreed to belong to the early period. Phaedo, conversely, is regarded as belonging to the middle period or as a transitional work marking the beginning of the middle period. This is of importance because it provides insight into what is taking place in The Trial and Death of Socrates in the subtext of Socrates approaching his trial for impiety and corrupting the youth (Euthyphro), giving an unsuccessful defense (Apology), rejecting an offer to escape Athens before his execution (Crito), and, on his final day, discussing the merits of belief in an afterlife and then drinking his poison (Phaedo).
Socrates, the central figure in most of Plato’s dialogues, left no written record of his ideas. The image we have of him is almost entirely the product of his depiction by Plato, though he also figures prominently in the dialogues of Xenophon and other contemporary authors and is caricatured in Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. And though, in the last analysis, it is Plato’s “Socrates” who has influenced mankind through the ages and with whom we are rightfully concerned, we should be aware that other sources give alternative accounts of Socrates’ character, beliefs, and actions, and that the historical veracity of Plato’s depiction is doubtful.
The events of Socrates’ life, however, take place against a well-documented historical background, though this is largely left implicit in Plato’s writings. What is most essential for the reader to know about this background is that Socrates’ native city-state, Athens, was once ancient Greece’s flagship democracy. Despite the facts that the right of citizenship was granted only to a fraction of Athenian inhabitants and that during Socrates’ lifetime the Athenian democracy succumbed twice to the rule of tyrannical oligarchs, the onetime power and prosperity of democratic Athens signaled a major political innovation in the ancient world. Coinciding with the rise of democracy in Greece came an increasing prioritization of oratory skills. For in the agora, where citizens met to decide upon the affairs of state, the majority needed to be persuaded of appropriate courses of action. And so, in the century prior to Socrates’ execution, traveling teachers of a peculiar type of oratory began to appear. These teachers, famously known as “Sophists,” received payment for teaching prominent aristocratic youths techniques for winning arguments, regardless of the correctness of the arguer’s position, and thus they were widely regarded as parasites and public nuisances. This is an important point in relationship to the narrative of The Trial and Death of Socrates because though Socrates was officially accused of impiety and corrupting Athenian youth with his blasphemous ideas, his defense in the Apology consists essentially of a denial that he was a Sophist – something with which he was not explicitly charged.
In Euthyphro we find Socrates, on the way to his trial, pausing to engage in his typical form of inquiry with a theologian named Euthyphro, who claims to know with certainty the nature of “piety” or “holiness.” Socrates’ method is to pose to Euthyphro the question, “What is piety?” and when Euthyphro offers an answer, to ask him probing questions about it until he retreats. Once again, Socrates asks, “What is piety?” A new answer is offered, and the cycle begins again. Ultimately this leads Euthyphro – as it did many of Socrates interlocutors – to give up and slip away. This portrayal of Socrates’ activity coincides with what Aristotle – a student at the Academy during the last two decades of Plato’s life – has to say about it: “Socrates was occupying himself with the excellences of character, and in connection with them became the first to raise the problem of universal definition. . .two things may be fairly ascribed to Socrates – inductive arguments and universal definitions, both of which are concerned with the starting-point of [knowledge].” The first observation to make here about the agreement between Aristotle’s comments on Socrates and the latter’s depiction in Euthyphro (and other early dialogues) is Socrates’ preoccupation with “excellences of character,” i.e., with morality. Thus the inquiry here is about piety, and in other early dialogues it is about virtues such as justice, courage, and temperance. The next point is that what Socrates seeks as a valid answer to his question “What is piety?” is a universal definition, not an example or even a whole collection of examples of piety. Socrates’ criteria for a valid definition are implicit in his objections to Euthyphro’s answers: It must be the characteristic which is the same in all instances of the thing inquired about; it must be the distinguishing characteristic marking those things off from other things; it must be the “essence” of those things – i.e., that which makes them be what they are – and as such, a standard by which one could measure whether or not something was an example of this kind of thing. Lastly, Aristotle credits Socrates with inventing inductive argument in the course of his search for the starting-point of knowledge, and in Euthyphro and other early dialogues Socrates’ inquiries begin with a truth claim and work backward to find the basis upon which this claim rests. Only if such a basis could be discovered would the claim to “know” what was originally asserted be considered valid. This exemplifies a quest for the ground upon which certain knowledge stands and the starting-point from which all genuine knowledge must descend. Euthyphro exhibits another common characteristic of Socrates’ inquiries as portrayed in the early dialogues: It ends at an impasse. No adequate basis for knowledge of any of the proposed answers to the question, “What is piety?” is discovered. The typical outcome of the early “What is X?” inquiries is negative.
This last point is a key to understanding Socrates’ famous claim in Apology that he is the wisest of men because he knows that he does not know. However, as Socrates explains to the court in Apology, he could not stop at establishing the extent of his own ignorance. Rather, he believed himself divinely called upon to demonstrate to all others who thought they possessed knowledge of moral virtues that they were actually as ignorant as he. This activity he defends as essential to the well-being of the state on the basis that those who act in the belief that they possess knowledge that in actuality they lack are likely to steer the ship of state aground. The larger implication is that Socrates believes this is not only what has occurred in recent Athenian history, it is the natural trajectory of human governments. In this context Socrates’ invocation at trial of the inscription “know yourself” on the Oracle at Delphi is a politically charged remark and a disguised accusation that those orchestrating his trial and execution are doing so because they benefit from the majority’s ignorance of which kinds of actions are genuinely right or wrong. One last quotation from Apology belongs in this context. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” according to Socrates, at least in part because ignorance invites forms of political manipulation and exploitation that cannot be deployed successfully against populations in which every citizen “knows himself.”
In Crito, the method of inquiry is not of paramount importance. What is central is the fact that Socrates, having agreed to live according to Athenian laws with full knowledge of their flaws and their susceptibility to abuse, accepts his obligation to obey them even when they have been used unjustly and in a way that is going to cost him his life. Thus he satisfies his conscience and sets a definitive example of moral consistency by courageously refusing Crito’s offer to arrange his flight from prison and a comfortable life in exile.
The politically motivated conviction and execution of Socrates obviously had a profound effect on Plato, and Phaedo, while on the surface marks the conclusion of the story of the trial and death of Socrates, on a deeper level signals an important step in Plato’s efforts to provide a philosophical defense of Socrates’ actions and a metaphysical explanation for why goodness and justice do not necessarily prevail.
In Phaedo, Socrates’ inquiries do not end negatively. This dialogue’s Socrates is not ignorant of that which he is seeking. He possesses knowledge. This is a crucial point because it indicates that Plato believes Socrates’ inquiries did not have as their intended goal the revelation that nobody knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to matters of morality but, rather, that Socrates was seeking knowledge of something that no one had yet conceived. We noted that Socrates’ questions in Euthyphro point to his criteria for an adequate answer to questions of the form: “What is X?” In Phaedo Socrates expounds the theory of “Ideas” – Plato’s technical term for disembodied intelligible entities, the discovery of which, Plato implies, was the true objective of Socrates’ inquiries, and knowledge of which provides the sound basis on which knowledge of everything else must rest. The Ideas are said to be unchanging, everlasting and immortal, independent of the unstable world of particular things which we experience, constant, invisible, and pure. Human souls, it is argued, possess the same characteristics and before becoming trapped in bodies, they dwell in communion with the Ideas. But the material world corrupts our minds, flooding our sense organs with ever-fluctuating data, and so, when a soul is attached to a body, it has but a dim recollection of the Ideas. Mankind’s confused recollection of the Ideas of justice, courage, and piety is what causes reprehensible human behavior. And in this light Socrates’ inquiries can be understood to have been attempts at cultivating among fellow citizens a purer recollection of the original “patterns” or “forms” of virtuous actions so that they may know, understand, and act in accordance with them. The failure of Socrates’ enemies to know the Ideas of virtue that he taught can thus be seen as the cause of their ignorance of the goodness of his actions and, in turn, as the cause of their own wicked actions against him. Plato’s belief in the righteousness of the actions of Socrates can ultimately be seen to rest on a conviction that he and Socrates’ shared: namely, that ignorance is the root cause of evil.
These and other profound thoughts and arguments from the works comprising The Trial and Death of Socrates have affected virtually all aspects of Western culture and belief throughout the centuries since the deaths of Socrates and Plato and have helped elevate these two men to the status of near-legend. But it is their genuine humanity and the perennial relevance of their animating concerns that keeps them alive in mankind’s collective memory and validates twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s famous remark that “the European philosophical tradition. . .consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
David Taffel is the author of Nietzsche Unbound: The Struggle for Spirit in the Age of Science and managing editor of The Conversationalist, a global news and culture website. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Graduate Faculty of the New School University where his dissertation was awarded the Hans Jonas Memorial Prize for Philosophy.