Socrates’ Defence

The ancient Greek thinker Socrates (c.469–399 BCE) is regarded as one of history’s greatest philosophers. For millennia, people have regarded the special intensity of effort put into knowledge-making practices as a kind of virtue. This was Socrates’ virtue, and tragedy:

There is no evidence that he ever wrote. Instead, he involved others in ‘dialogues’ in which fundamental questions of meaning and virtues were explored through a process of questioning called ‘dialectic’. These dialogues were recorded by his student and protégé, Plato. Socrates was regarded with suspicion by the most powerful men in the Athenian democracy. He was accused, tried, then condemned to death for corrupting young men with his views. Here, Plato reports Socrates’ speech after the ‘guilty’ verdict was handed down. He criticises the lifestyles of his accusers directly, and contrasts this with the way he has tried to live his life as a philosopher:

There are many reasons why I am not grieved, O men of Athens, at the vote of condemnation. I expected it, 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 …

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 everyone of you, thither 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 …

Perhaps you may think that I am braving you in saying this … I speak rather because I am convinced that I never intentionally wronged anyone, although I cannot convince you of that …

Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you 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 cannot 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.


Plato. c.399–347 BCE. The Apology [Defense] of Socrates: Wikisource.


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