The Athenian philosopher Socrates was accused of
injustice-corrupting the young and not believing in the gods of
the city, but in other new divinities. Socrates was found guilty
and executed. Plato later examined the issue of Socrates' innocence
and guilt, as well as of his philosophic way of life, by writing
a speech in which Socrates pleads his case before an Athenian jury.
After claiming that he has been slandered by prejudices against
philosophers that do not apply to him, Socrates raises the question
of why his way of life has led to his indictment.
Socrates, speaking before the jury:
Perhaps, then, someone among you will reply, "What is the matter
with you, Socrates? Where have these slanders come from? Surely,
if you did nothing different from most people, or acted the way
others do, so much talk and report would not have arisen. So tell
us what it is, in order that we do not act hastily concerning you."
The person saying this seems to me to speak justly, and I will
try to show you what has caused this reputation and slander against
me. Listen, then. Now perhaps some of you will suppose that I am
joking. Know well, however, that I will tell you the whole truth.
Men of Athens, I have gotten this reputation through nothing other
than a certain sort of wisdom. What sort of wisdom? Human wisdom.
[Others] might be wise in some wisdom greater than human wisdom,
but I am unable to say what it is. I have no knowledge of it, and
whoever says that I do lies and speaks to slander me.
Men of Athens, do not make a disturbance, not even if I seem to
you to boast. For it is not my word. Rather, I refer you to the
word of someone worthy of credit: whether I have any wisdom, and
what sort it is, I offer as witness the god of Delphi. You must
have known Chaerephon; he was my comrade from youth, as well as
a comrade of your democratic faction, for he shared in your exile,
and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous
in everything he did. He went to Delphi and dared to consult the
oracle about this-now don't make a disturbance, men, as I said-he
asked the oracle whether anyone was wiser than I , and the prophetess
answered that there was no one wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself,
but his brother, who is in court, will testify to this.
Why do I mention this? Because I am going to teach you where this
slander against me came from. When I heard the answer, I said to
myself, "What can the god mean? What riddle is he offering?
I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when
he says that I am the wisest? Surely he cannot by lying, for it
is not permitted [for a god to lie]."
For a long time I was perplexed, and then very reluctantly I undertook
to examine [the god] in this way. I went to one of those with a
reputation for wisdom, supposing that there, if anywhere, I would
refute the divination and show the oracle that "this person
is wiser than I, but you said that I was the wisest." Accordingly,
I examined him-his name I need not mention--he was one of the politicians-and
when I examined him and conversed with him, I had this experience,
Athenian men: this man seemed to be wise to many human beings, and
especially to himself, but he was not really wise. And then I tried
to show him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise.
As a result I became hated by him and by many of those present.
So I left him, reasoning, "I am wiser than this human being.
It is likely that neither of us knows anything noble and good, but
this one believes that he knows when he does not, whereas I neither
know nor think that I know. It is likely, then, that I am a little
bit wiser than he is, for I do not believe that I know what I do
Then I went to another, who had still a greater reputation for
wisdom than he, and these things seemed to be exactly the same.
I became hateful to him, and to many others besides him....
Socrates points out another problem that he encountered in his search
This too happened: the youth who followed me of their own accord,
those who had the greatest leisure, and the sons of the wealthiest,
enjoyed hearing human beings examined. They often imitated me, and
examined others themselves. And they discovered, I believe, an abundance
of people who thought that they knew something, but really knew
little or nothing. And those who were examined by them instead of
being angry with themselves became angry with me. And they said
that Socrates is disgusting and corrupts the young.
28b and 29a-30b
Socrates addresses whether he should have avoided this investigation
since as a result his life in danger:
Perhaps someone will say, "And are you not ashamed, Socrates,
of a course of life from which you run the risk of losing your life?"
Justly would I reply to him: "You speak ignobly, sir, if you
suppose that a man who is good for anything ought to take into account
the danger of living or dying, rather than consider only this when
he acts, whether he acts justly or unjustly, and does the deeds
of a good man or of a bad....
For this fear of death, men, is nothing other than to think one
is wise when one is not, for it is to seem to know what one does
not know. For no one knows whether death is not the greatest of
goods for a human being, but they fear it as if it were the greatest
of evils. And is this not that shameful ignorance of supposing that
one knows what one does not? Perhaps, men, I differ from other human
beings in this, and if I am wiser it is in this-that whereas I know
little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know. But I do
know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey
one's better, whether god or man. In contrast to those things I
know to be bad, I will never fear or avoid things that might turn
out to be good.
Suppose you were to let me go now, and reject the counsels of [my
accusers], who say that I ought not to have been prosecuted, if
I were not to be put to death, and that if I escape now, your sons
will all be utterly ruined by listening to my words. But you also
said to me, "Socrates, this time we will not listen to [your
accusers], and will let you off, but upon one condition, that you
inquire and philosophize in this way no more, and that if you are
caught doing this again you shall die." If this was the condition
on which you acquitted, I should reply, "Men of Athens, I cherish
and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and as long
as I breathe and am able to, I shall not cease philosophizing, and
exhorting you and saying to anyone whom I happen to meet, as I am
accustomed to doing, 'best of men, you are an Athenian, from the
city that is the greatest and has the greatest reputation for wisdom
and strength. Are you not ashamed to care so much about laying up
the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, while you
neglect and have no regard for prudence and truth and how your soul
will be the best possible?'"
If one of you disputes this and says he does care, I will not depart
or let him go at once, but I will speak with him and examine and
cross?examine him. And if he does not seem to me to possess virtue,
but only says that he does, I will reproach him with undervaluing
the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I shall do to everyone
whom I meet, young and old, foreigner and townsmen, but especially
to the townsmen, inasmuch as you are more closely related to me.
Know well that the god commands this. I believe that to this day
no greater good has ever happened in this city than my service to
the god. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and
young alike, not to take thought for your bodies and money, but
first and chiefly to care for your soul, how it will be the best
possible. I say that "virtue does not arise from money, but
that from virtue comes money and all other goods for human beings,
public as well as private." If I corrupt the young by saying
such things, they may be harmful. But if anyone claims that I speak
different things, he speaks nonsense. With regard to these matters,
men of Athens, I say, do as [my accusers] bid or not, either acquit
me or not. But whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my
ways, not even if I have to die many times.
Before concluding his speech, Socrates addresses the question of
why he has not pursued a political career.
It might seem odd that I go about in private, giving advice and
busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not dare to come
forward in public and advise the city. The cause of this you have
heard me speak of many times and in many places. Something divine
or daimonic comes to me, which [my accusers] mock in their indictment.
This voice that I have had ever since childhood, when it comes to
me, always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but
never urges me to do anything.
It is this voice that stands in the way of my being a politician.
And rightly so it opposes this. For I am certain, men of Athens,
that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago
and done no good either to you or to myself. And don't be annoyed
at my telling you the truth. For there is no human being who can
preserve his life who opposes you or any other multitude, and prevents
many unjust and unlawful things from occurring in the city. Rather,
if someone who fights for the just is to preserve himself even for
a short time, he must live a private life and not a public one.
I can give you as proofs of this, not words, but deeds, which you
honor more. Listen to what happened to me, so that you may know
that I would never have yielded to injustice from any fear of death,
even if by not yielding I should have died at once. I will tell
you vulgar things, characteristic of lawcourts, but true. The only
office in the city which I ever held, men of Athens, was once being
on the Council.... Then you wanted to try as a group, not individually,
the ten generals who had not taken up the bodies after the naval
battle-contrary to law, as you all thought afterwards. At that time
I was the only one of the councillors who opposed your acting contrary
to the law, and I voted against you. Even though the orators threatened
to indict and arrest me, and you urged and shouted, I supposed that
I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than
take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death....
Do you suppose that I could have survived all these years, if I
had led a public life, acting like a good man and always supporting
the just and supposing this the most important? Far from it, men
of Athens, neither I nor any other human being could have done this.
But I have been always the same in all my actions, public as well
as private, and never have I yielded contrary to what is just....