What actually happened at the trial of Socrates? Did the speeches of Socrates at his trial reflect the actual speech of Socrates, or were they Plato’s version of a Thucydides speech, a speech that, even if it does not directly reflect the speaker’s actual words, is the speech that the speaker surely would have said, according to Plato?
We have two versions of the trial of Socrates, one by his brilliant and clever student Plato, and a second by the staid and traditional “just the facts” Xenophon, who is appreciated far more by his peers than by modern scholars. Xenophon wrote his account after reading Plato’s account, and he does not dispute Plato’s account, but rather emphasizes the piety of Socrates and his respect for the traditional gods of Athens.
Although these are historical accounts of an actual event that appears to be somewhat accurately recorded, they are also philosophical works about the teachings and motives of a philosopher, which means the more interesting and relevant question is:
What lessons can we learn from the accounts of the trials of Socrates?
Socrates in his “Apology,” which is his defense speech at his trial as recorded by Plato, feels he must first defend himself from the slanderous impressions many in Athens formed when they watched the comic play by Aristophanes, “The Clouds.” Socrates is introduced to the audience of the play as a buffoon in a basket hoisted high where he looks to the skies to ponder meaningless questions like: What is the moon? How far do fleas jump? Do gnats buzz through their mouth or their anus? Socrates and his students ponder that useless questions rather than the practical questions that they encounter in their life on the ground.
See our blog on Aristophanes and The Clouds:
The slanders against Socrates in “The Clouds” mirror the false charges brought against him at his trial: first, that Socrates corrupts the youth with his teachings, and second, that Socrates displays impiety towards the gods. Not only does Socrates defend himself from the slanders of “The Clouds” in his defense speech, but many of the early dialogues of Plato are a continuing defense against the slanders of Aristophanes, as he parries with the selfish and opportunistic Sophists, who betray philosophy by charging substantial sums for their lessons on rhetoric.
XENOPHON DEFENDS SOCRATES
Xenophon adds to Plato’s defense of Socrates by bluntly and clearly demonstrating his explicit piety and respect towards the traditional gods. Modern scholars prefer Plato for the endless philosophical puzzles he poses by his intentional lack of clarity in his dialogues, but many of his contemporaries preferred Xenophon for his Stoic Socrates who offers to all of us clear moral philosophical messages. We will start with Xenophon’s account since his more boring account may be the more accurate account, because, well, it is the more boring account.
Xenophon, in the first paragraph of his “Socrates’ Defense,” was that Socrates was intentionally arrogant in his tone at his trial not because he was foolish, but because he decided that at that point in his life, death was preferable to life. At the time of his trial he was healthy in spite of his advanced seventy years of age.
We must surmise that Xenophon must have discussed the trial and execution with his friend Plato. Perhaps Plato had discussed with Xenophon his feelings that their teacher Socrates was being foolish by needlessly bringing death upon himself by the arrogance and hubris of his defense speech and his sentencing speech.
One of themes of stoic philosophy, and the Homeric tradition from which it drew, was the desire, in a warrior culture, to die the good and noble death. Socrates tells a friend, “Do you really think it’s remarkable that God should decide that it is better for me to die now?” Being a true stoic, he continues, “Nothing could be more pleasant than knowing that I have lived my whole life respecting the gods and acting morally towards men.”
Being truly arrogant, Xenophon’s Socrates shows his hubris by proclaiming that “if revealing the opinion I have of myself annoys the jurors, than I will be choosing to die rather than to remain alive with freedom and beg, as an alternative to death, a vastly inferior life.” Here Xenophon is discussing the incredibly arrogant suggestion of an alternative sentence that Socrates offers to replace his death sentence at his sentencing hearing. He suggested that the Athenian citizen jurors should award him the honors of an Olympic athlete by providing him meals in the city square for a year. Many more citizens voted to sentence Socrates to death than pronounced him guilty.
One accusation is the personal daemon, or divine voice, that warns Socrates when he is about to say or do something that may anger the gods, is an introduction of a new deity. Xenophon argues that this is no more a new deity than is the oracle at Delphi.
Xenophon ends his work “Socrates Defense” that although his arrogance in court forced the jurors to condemn him, that he did die the good stoic death. “His fortitude was obvious: since he decided that death was better for him that life, he showed no weakness in the face of death, just as he had never turned his back on any other good thing in his lifetime, but waited for death cheerfully and discharged his final duty in good spirits.”
Please read our blog on Xenophon’s Stoic Socrates:
PLATO AND THE DEATH OF SOCRATES, APOLOGY AND CRITO
In our blogs on Plato’s dialogues of the trial and execution of Socrates, the “Apology” and “Crito”, we pondered the puzzle of the answer given by the Oracle at Delphi. In the defense speech at his trial, Socrates said that his close friend traveled to Delphi to ask the oracle if Socrates was the wisest of men, and the oracle simply affirmed that Socrates was the wisest of men. We wondered if a legitimate Delphic oracle would respond with such a blunt answer rather than a riddle. Subsequent reading in Greek history revealed that although usually the Delphic oracle answered in riddles, sometimes simple answers were given, maybe when there was a substitute priestess on duty that day.
The more basic question is: Even if the account were true, why would Socrates be so arrogant by including the answer to this oracle in his defense speech? We can only surmise that Plato is revealing that indeed, Socrates is always the gadfly, even when arrogantly acting as a gadfly gets him killed, like during his trial speech and his sentencing speech.
My current project is to use my blogs as basis for videos on my YouTube channel. When contemplating a video on the Platonic dialogues on the trial and execution of Socrates I decided to revisit the interesting moral questions raised by these dialogues. With the minor elaboration above, I am still happy with these blogs, so they are really part of this discussion:
And our blog on Plato’s dialogue on Euthyphro:
These works on the trial and execution of Socrates by Xenophon and Plato testify to their anger at the citizens of Athens for condemning their gadfly teacher and friend. Xenophon and Plato also show their anger at Socrates for the hubris and arrogance displayed in full force in his trial speech and his sentencing speech. They want to remind us that just as the Homeric heroes of the battle of Troy showed their hubris at the battlefield, so too did their hero Socrates show hubris in the public courtroom of Athens.
The wife and son whom Socrates left behind after his execution had every reason to remain angry at his hubris he displayed at his trial. How about Xenophon and Plato? We would not have these dialogues on his death had he chosen not to die. Would Socrates have had the immense influence on Western Philosophy if he did not have a death wish at his trial?
We want to conclude with some additional passages from Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates speech to the jury of Athens, showing both his wisdom and his hubris.
Socrates addresses the jury, “I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is, men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer He intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing,” “as if he said, He, men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing,” and so, in abject poverty, Socrates spends his life as the gadfly prodding both citizen and stranger as to whether they truly possess wisdom.(23a)
Socrates finds his true purpose in being a gadfly: “I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your properties, but first and chiefly to care about the greatest improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not given by money, but that from virtue comes money and every other good of man, public as well as private.”(30b)
In the concluding paragraphs Socrates shows he is prepared to die the good stoic death. “Wherefore, judges, be of good cheer about death, and know for certain that no evil can befall a good man, either in life or after death.” Socrates concludes, “I am not angry at my condemners, or with my accusers; they have done me no harm, although they did not mean to do me any good; for this I may gently blame them.”(41d)
 Xenophon, “Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates,” translated by Hugh Tredennick and Robin Waterfield (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), Socrates’ Defense, pp. 41-49.
 Plato, “Apology,” from “Essential Dialogues of Plato,” translated by Benjamin Jowett and updated by Pedro de Blas (New York: Barnes and Nobles Press, 2005), pp. 282, 288, 298.