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The Trial

The Search for Wisdom

Acting the Part of the Good Man

The Sentence

The Greatest Good





Socrates is said to have been born in 469 BCE and died in 399 BCE. Whether this information and his whole life are fictional creations or not is unclear. There are experts who argue for a historical Socrates; there are other experts who claim that he was a fictional character created independently by Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon—each of whom fashioned a different type of Socrates. Nevertheless, philosophers are generally agreed that if Socrates did not exist, it would be necessary for Plato to create him, because of Socrates' remarkable contribution to philosophy. He argued that by subjecting our moral beliefs to logical scrutiny we could gain a better understanding of ourselves and of the proper way of life. To him, the life that is unexamined is not worth living.

Socrates was said to enter daily into public argument with anyone who would consent to talk with him, examining a person's beliefs by a series of questions directed towards bringing internal contradictions to light. His scrutiny of beliefs underlying suppositions of moral superiority probably made him enemies in the political and religious hierarchies of his time. At the age of 70 he was brought to trial on the charges that he refused to recognize the gods of the city, proposed other new divinities, and corrupted the youth of the city. He was found guilty by a small margin among about 500 jurors, and was sentenced to death by poison. He was a pious man, professing belief in the Athenian gods. However, he claimed that a divine voice gave him guidance. People receiving direct guidance from a deity are always a threat to established political and religious institutions; so, by undermining his city's exclusive control over religious matters, Socrates may have precipitated the charges against him.

Plato is said to have been a pupil of Socrates, and his descriptions of the dialogues between Socrates and various eminent Athenians are considered in some cases to based on fact. This is a tenable supposition for the early dialogues, but not for later dialogues written some fifteen years after the death of Socrates. In the latter there is a clear development of Plato's theory of ideas and ideal forms, in which Socrates showed little interest, even when he was alive. So that in the later dialogues, Plato appears to be using Socrates' reputation to promote his own agenda. In the earlier dialogues, The Apology is a record of Socrates' testimony at his trial, and provides one of the best descriptions of his beliefs. Extracts from this follow.


The Trial

  1    How you have felt, men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but 1 know that their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was, such was the effect of them. And yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth. But many as their falsehoods were, there was one of them that quite amazed me. I mean when they told you to be upon your guard, and not to let yourselves be deceived by the force of my eloquence. They ought to have been ashamed of saying this, because they were sure to be detected as soon as I opened my lips and displayed my deficiency. They certainly did appear to be most shameless in saying this, unless by the force of eloquence they mean the force of truth; for then I do indeed admit that I am eloquent. But in how different a way from theirs!

       Well, as I was saying, they have hardly uttered a word, or not more than a word, of truth; but you shall hear from me the whole truth: not, however, delivered after their manner, in a set oration duly ornamented with words and phrases. No, indeed! I shall use the words and arguments which occur to me at the moment; for I am certain that this is right, and that at my time of life I ought not to be appearing before you, men of Athens, in the character of a juvenile orator—let no one expect this of me.

      And I must beg of you to grant me one favor, which is this. If you hear me using the same words in my defense which I have been in the habit of using, and which most of you may have heard in the agora, and at the tables of the money-changers, or anywhere else, I would ask you not to be surprised at this, and not to interrupt me. For I am more than seventy years of age, and this is the first time that I have ever appeared in a court of law, and I am quite a stranger to the ways of the place; and therefore I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue, and after the fashion of his country.

  2    I will begin at the beginning, and ask what the accusation is which has given rise to this slander of me, and which has encouraged Meletus to proceed against me. What do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors, and I will sum up their words in an affidavit:

   Socrates 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.

  3    That is the nature of the accusation, and that is what you have seen yourselves in the comedy of Aristophanes, who has introduced a man whom he calls Socrates, going about and saying that he can walk in the air, and talking a deal of nonsense concerning matters of which I do not pretend to know either much or little—not that I mean to say anything disparaging of any one who is a student of natural philosophy. I should be very sorry if Meletus could lay that to my charge. But the simple truth is, Athenians, that I have nothing to do with these studies. Very many of those here present are witnesses to the truth of this, and to them I appeal. Speak then, you who have heard me, and tell your neighbors whether any of you have ever known me hold forth in few words or in many upon matters of this sort . . . You hear their answer. And from what they say of this you will be able to judge of the truth of the rest.

  4    There is as little foundation for the report that I am a teacher, and take money; that is no more true than the other. Although, if a man is able to teach, I honor him for being paid. There is Gorgias of Leontium, and Prodieus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis, who go the round of the cities and are able to persuade the young men to leave their own citizens, by whom they might be taught for nothing, and come to them, whom they not only pay, but are thankful if they may be allowed to pay them.  
    There is actually a Parian philosopher residing in Athens, of whom I have heard; and I came to hear of him in this way. I met Callias, the son of Hipponieus, a man who has spent a world of money on the sophists, and knowing that he had sons, I asked him: “Callias, if your two sons were foals or calves, there would be no difficulty in finding some one to put over them; we would hire a trainer of horses, or a farmer probably, who would improve and perfect them in their own proper virtue and excellence. But as they are human beings, whom are you thinking of placing over them? Is there any one who understands human and political virtue? You must have thought about this as you have sons; is there any one?”  
    “There is,” he said.  
    “Who is he?” I asked, “and of what country? and what does he charge?”
    “Evenus the Parian,” he replied, “he is the man, and his charge is five minae.”  
    Happy is Evenus, I thought, if he really has this wisdom, and teaches at such a modest charge. Had I the same, I should have been very proud and conceited; but the truth is that I have no knowledge of the kind, men of Athens.


The Search for Wisdom

    5    Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in all his doings, and he went to Delphi and boldly asked the oracle to tell him whether—as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt—he asked the oracle to tell him whether there was any one wiser than I was, and the Pythian prophetess an­swered that there was no man wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself; but his brother, who is in court, will confirm the truth of this story.

  6    After long consideration, I at last thought of a method of trying the question. I reflected that if I could only find a man wiser than myself, then I might go to the oracle with a refutation in my hand. I would say to him, “Here is a man who is wiser than I am; but you said that I was the wisest.”

  7    Accordingly I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed himhis name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination—and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.

  8    So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is; for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another who had still higher philosophical preten­sions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him.

  9 After this I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity that I provoked, and I lamented and feared this: but necessity was laid upon me. . . And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear!— for I must tell you the truth—the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men of highest repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better.

  10  When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them—thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same situation; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the poli­ticians.

  11  At last I went to the artisans, for I was conscious that I knew nothing at all, as I may say, and I was sure that they knew many fine things; and in this I was not mistaken, for they did know many things of which I was ignorant, and in this they certainly were wiser than I was. But I observed that even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets—because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom—therefore I asked myself on behalf of the oracle, whether I would like to be as I was, neither having their knowledge nor their ignorance, or like them in both; and I made answer to myself and the oracle that I was better off as I was.

This investigation has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind, and has given occasion also to many calumnies. And I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others. . .

  12  There is another thing—young men of the richer classes, who have not much to do, come about me of their own accord; they like to hear the pretenders examined, and they often imitate me, and examine others themselves. There are plenty of persons, as they soon enough discover, who think that they know something, but really know little or nothing; and then those who are examined by them instead of being angry with themselves are angry with me. This confounded Socrates, they say, this villainous misleader of youth! And then if somebody asks them, Why, what evil does he practice or teach? They do not know, and can not tell. But in order that they may not appear to be at a loss, they repeat the ready-made charges which are used against all philosophers about teaching of things up in the clouds and under the earth, and having no gods, and making the worse appear the better cause; for they do not like to confess that their pretence of knowledge has been detected—which is the truth. And as they are numerous and ambitious and energetic, and are all in battle array and have persuasive tongues, they have filled your ears with their loud and inveterate calumnies.


Acting the Part of the Good Man

    13  Some one will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong—acting the part of a good man or of a bad.

  14  For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is there not here false display of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?

  15  Men of Athens, do not interrupt, but hear me; there was an agreement between us that you should hear me out. And I think that what I am going to say will do you good: for I have something more to say at which you may be inclined to cry out; but I beg that you will not do this. I would have you know, that if you kill such an one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me. Meletus and Anytus will not injure me: they can not; for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure a better than himself. I do not deny that he may perhaps kill him, or drive him into exile, or deprive him of civil rights; and he may imagine, and others may imagine, that he is doing him a great injury. But in that I do not agree with him; for the evil of doing as Anytus is doing—of unjustly taking away another man's life—is greater far.

  16  Now do you really imagine that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life, supposing that like a good man I had always supported the right party and had made justice for them, as I ought, the first thing? No indeed, men of Athens, neither I nor any other. But I have been always the same in all my actions, public as well as private, and never have I yielded any base compliance to those who are slanderously termed my disciples, or to any other. For the truth is that I have no regular disciples: but if any one likes to come and hear me while I am pursuing my mission, whether he be young or old, he may freely come. Nor do I converse only with those who pay, and not with those who do not pay. But any one, whether he be rich or poor, may ask and answer me and listen to my words; and whether he turns out to be a bad man or a good one, that can not be justly laid to my charge, as I never taught him anything. And if any one says that he has ever learned or heard anything from me in private which all the world has not heard, I should like you to know that he is speaking an untruth.

  17  Well, Athenians, this and the like of this is nearly all the defense which I have to offer. Yet a word more. Perhaps there may be some one who is offended at me, when he calls to mind how he himself on a similar, or even on a less serious occasion, had recourse to prayers and supplications with many tears, and how he produced his children in court, which was a moving spectacle, together with a posse of his relations and friends; whereas I, who am probably in danger of my life, will do none of these things. Perhaps this may come into his mind, and he may be set against me, and vote in anger because he is displeased at this. Now if there be such a person among you, which I am far from affirming, I may fairly reply to him: My friend, I am a man, and like other men, a creature of flesh and blood and not, as Homer says, of wood or stone; and I have a family, yes, and sons, men of Athens, three in number, one of whom is growing up, and the two others are still young; and yet I will not bring any of them hither in order to petition you for an acquittal.

      And why not? Not from any self-will or disregard of you. Whether 1 am or am not afraid of death is another question, of which I will not now speak. But my reason simply is, that I feel such conduct to be discreditable to myself, and you, and the whole state. One who has reached my years, and who has a name for wisdom, whether deserved or not, ought not to demean himself. At any rate, the world has decided that Socrates is in some way superior to other men. And if those among you who are said to be superior in wisdom and courage, and any other virtue, demean themselves in this way, how shameful is their conduct!

  18  I have seen men of reputation, when they have been condemned, behaving in the strangest manner. They seemed to fancy that they were going to suffer something dreadful if they died, and that they could be immortal if you only allowed them to live. And I think that they were a dishonor to the state, and that any stranger coming in would say of them that the most eminent men of Athens, to whom the Athenians themselves give honor and command, are no better than women. And I say that these things ought not to be done by those of us who are of reputation; and if they are done, you ought not to permit them; you ought rather to show that you are more inclined to condemn, not the man who is quiet, but the man who gets up a doleful scene, and makes the city ridiculous.

  19  But, setting aside the question of dishonor, there seems to be something wrong in petitioning a judge, and thus procuring an acquittal instead of informing and convincing him. For his duty is not to make a present of justice but to give judgment; and he has sworn that he will judge according to the laws and not according to his own good pleasure; and neither he nor we should get into the habit of perjuring ourselves—there can be no piety in that. Do not then require me to do what I consider dishonorable and impious and wrong, especially now, when I am being tried for impiety on the indictment of Meletus.


The Sentence

  20  There are many reasons why I am not grieved, men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected this, and am only surprised that the votes are so nearly equal; for I had thought that the majority against me would have been far larger. But now, had thirty votes gone over to the other side, I should have been acquitted, and I would be able to say that I have escaped Meletus. And I may say more; for without the assistance of Anytus and Lyeon, he would not have had a fifth part of the votes, as the law requires, in which ease he would have incurred a fine of a thousand drachmae, as is evident.

  21  And so he proposes death as the penalty. And what shall I propose on my part, men of Athens? Clearly that which is my due. And what is that which I ought to pay or to receive? What shall be done to the man who has never had the wit to be idle during his whole life; but has been careless of what the many care about—wealth, and family interests, and military offices, and speaking in the assembly, and magistracies, and plots, and parties. Reflecting that I was really too honest a man to follow in this way and live, I did not go where I could do no good to you or to myself; but where I could do the greatest good privately to every one of you, there I went, and sought to persuade every man among you, that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the state before he looks to the interests of the state; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions.

  22  What shall be done to such an one? Doubtless some good thing, men of Athens, if he has his reward; and the good should be of a kind suitable to him. What would be a reward suitable to a poor man who is your benefactor, who desires leisure that he may instruct you? There can be no more fitting reward, men of Athens, than maintenance in the Prytaneum [the religious and political center where dignitaries were entertained at the expense of the state]—a reward which he deserves far more than the citizen who has won the prize at Olympia in the horse or chariot race, whether the chariots were drawn by two horses or by many. For I am in want, and he has enough; and he only gives you the appearance of happiness, and I give you the reality. And if I am to estimate the penalty justly, I say that maintenance in the Prytaneum is the just return.

  23  Perhaps you may think that I am braving you in saying this, as in what I said before about the tears and prayers. But that is not the ease. I speak rather because I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged any one, although I can not convince you of that—for we have had a short conversation only; but if there were a law at Athens, such as there is in other cities, that a capital cause should not be decided in one day, then I believe that I would have convinced you; but now the time is too short. I can not in a moment refute great slanders; and, as I am convinced that I never wronged another, I will assuredly not wrong myself.

I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil, or propose any penalty. Why should I? Because I am afraid of the penalty of death which Meletus proposes? When I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I pro­pose a penalty which would certainly be an evil?  Shall I say imprisonment? And why should I live in prison, and be the slave of the magistrates of the year —of the eleven?

Or shall the penalty be a fine, and imprisonment until the fine is paid? There is the same objection. I should have to lie in prison, for money I have none, and can not pay. And if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life, if I do not consider that when you, who are my own citizens, can not endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you would fain have done with them, others are unlikely to endure me. No indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely.

  24  And what a life should I lead, at my age, wandering from city to city, living in ever-changing exile, and always being driven out! For I am quite sure that into whatever place I go, as here so also there, the young men will come to me; and if I drive them away, their elders will drive me out at their desire; and if I let them come, their fathers and friends will drive me out for their sakes.


The Greatest Good

  25  Some one will say: Yes, Socrates, but can you not hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I can not hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that, concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living—that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.

  26  Moreover, I am not accustomed to think that I deserve any punishment. Had I money I might have proposed to give you what I had, and have been none the worse. But you see that I have none, and can only ask you to proportion the fine to my means. However, I think that I could afford a mina, and therefore I propose that penalty: Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, my friends here, bid me say thirty minae, and they will be the sureties. Well, then, say thirty minae, let that be the penalty; for that they will be ample security to you.

  27  Not much time will be gained, Athenians, in return for the evil name which you will get from the detractors of the city, who will say that you killed Socrates, a wise man. For they will call me wise even although I am not wise when they want to reproach you. If you had waited a little while, your desire would have been fulfilled in the course of nature. For I am far advanced in years, as you may perceive, and not far from death. I am speaking now only to those of you who have condemned me to death. And I have another thing to say to them: You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words—I mean, that if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone, nothing unsaid, I might have gained an acquittal. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping mid wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hear from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me.

  28  But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defense, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live. For neither in war nor yet at law ought any man to use every way of escaping death. For often in battle there is no doubt that if a man will throw away his arms, and fall on his knees before his pursuers, he may escape death; and in other dangers there are other ways of escaping death, if a man is willing to say and do anything.

The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death, and they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong. And as I must abide by my award, let them abide by theirs. I suppose that these things may be regarded as fated—and I think that they are well.

  29  And now, you men who have condemned me, I would like to prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power. And I prophesy to you who are my murderers that immediately after my death punishment far heavier than you have inflicted on me will surely await you. Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose—far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them. For if you think that by killing men you can avoid the accusers censuring your lives, you are mistaken. That is not a way of escape which is either possible or honorable. The easiest and the noblest way is not to be crushing others, but to by improving yourselves. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure to the judges who have condemned me.



  30  Friends who would have acquitted me, I would like also to talk with you about this thing which has happened, while the magistrates are busy, and before I go to the place at which I must die. Stay then awhile, for we may as well talk with one another while there is time. . .Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see .that there is great reason to hope that death is a good, for one of two things. Either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.

Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man—I will not say just a private man, but even the great king—will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night.

But if death is the journey to another place, and there—as men say—all the dead are, what good, my friends and judges, can be greater than this? If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there . . .What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer?

  31  Wherefore, my judges, be of good cheer about death, and know this of a truth—that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.

  32  When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, my friends, to punish them (and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you) if they seem to care more about riches, or anything else, than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing. Then, reprove them, as I have reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought to care, and thinking that they are something when they are really nothing. And if you do this, I and my sons will have received justice at your hands.



  Adapted from The Works of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Vol. 2,  Tudor Publishing Company, New York, N.Y. p 101 et seq. An electronic text version is available from Project Gutenberg via FTP.

          Selection and adaptation Copyright © Rex Pay 2000