Socrate's First Accusers and Athenian Law
Of all confrontations in political philosophy, the biggest is
the conflict between philosophy and politics. The problem remains
making philosophy friendly to politics. The questioning of authoritative
opinions is not easily accomplished nor is that realm of philosophy - the
pursuit of wisdom. Socrates was the instigator of the conflict. While the
political element takes place within opinions about political life,
Socrates asks the question 'What is the best regime and how should I live?'
Ancient thought is riddled with unknowns and can make no such statement as
'how should I live.' The Socratic philosophy offers an alternative and
prepares the way for the alternative of absolutes. This alternative is not
without its faults. Socratic philosophy is plagued by a destructive
element. It reduces the authoritative opinions about political life but
replaces it with nothing. This is the vital stem from which the 'Apology
of Socrates' is written.
Because of the stinging attack on Athenian life,
and the opinions which they revere so highly, Socrates is placed on trial
for his life.
The question now becomes why and in what manner did Socrates refute
the gods and is he quilty? Socrates, himself, speaks out the accusers
charges by saying 'Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by
investigating the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by
making the weaker the stronger and by teaching others these things' (Plato,
19b;c). This is the charge of the 'old' accusers. It is seen from an
example in 'The Clouds'. Strepsiades goes to Socrates in order to learn
how to pursuade his son by 'making the weaker speech the stronger'
(Aristophanes, 112). Why does Socrates remind the assembly about the old
accusers? It appears improper for a man on trial to bring about his other
'crimes'. Aristophanes, in particular, is implicated by Socrates as an old
accuser. 'For you yourselves used to see these things in the comedy of
Aristophanes' (Plato, 19c). The poets helped to shape Greek culture.
Poetry was passed on and perpetuated the city where thought constantly
Philosphy begins in debunking what the city thinks they know in
order to refute the god. It is evident that Socrates is not guided by the
gods of the city. Socrates says 'it is not part of the same man to believe
in daimonian and divine things' (Plato, 27e). Socrates is subtly admitting
his guilt. Perhaps Socrates believs in gods, but if so, they are not the
gods of the city. Socrates simply denies that he has had any part in
celestial or subterranean inquiry - he simply speaks 'elsewhere'. Socrates
goes on to say that those who do are reported to be atheists. However,
Socrates says that 'Zeus does not eveeen exist' (Aristophanes, 367).
Socrates replaces Zeus with nature, the permanent and necessary things
accessable to reason. This is an outrage to any Athenian. To deny the
gods is to deny faith and ultimately the authoritarian opinions on which
their politics is based.
Why does Socrates think that he is being unjustly punished?
Chaerophon had told Socrates that the Pythian Oracle had said that Socrates
was the wisest man. Socrates admits that 'I am conscious that I am not
wise, either much or little' (Plato, 20b). Socrates wonders what the
riddle is and sets out to 'refute the divination' (Plato, 20c). This is a
prime example of Socrates' impiousness as is his statement in 'The Clouds'
where he states 'we don't credit Gods' (Aristophanes, 248). He is
attempting to refute the god at Delphi. Socrates tries to aid his own
defense by charging that what he does is in devotion to the god. 'Even now
I still go around seeking and investigating in accordance with the god'
(Plato, 23b). Socrates makes this brash statement yet it is unfounded and
untrue because it is not a devine order for Socrates to pursue this line of
investigation. In opposition, Socrates asserts that the daimonian did not
Socrates' impiety is not the only thing that resulted in histrial.
Socrates was 'the gadfly' stinging the city of Athens. When Socrates
proposes that the god sent him on his quest, he set out to prove it wrong.
In the process, he questioned 'the politicians and those reported to be
wise' (Plato, 21c). After finding that no one reported to be wise, was
worthy of being called wise, Socrates investigated further 'all the while
perceiving with pain and fear that I was becoming hated' (Plato, 21e). The
artisans, poets, and politicians all thought they were knowledgable in 'the
greatest things' but, in fact, did not know anything at all. 'They all say
noble things but they know nothing of which they speak' (Plato, 22c).
Socrates, in affirming that he reanked above them in wisdom, because he
knew nothing, in fact became the oracles main supporter. It must be noted
that Socrates' support of the cities god is based solely on his 'testing'
of the oracle. Socrates accepts the oracles words, not on divine authority
but because it passes his test of reason.
The hatred of Socrates is extended, as the youth of Athens imitate
him and make the elders look foolish by engaging in Socratic dialogue and
showing up their ignorance. This led to the charge that Socrates corrupted
the youth. This too was added to the impiety charge. Socrates says that
the youth follow him 'of their own accord' (Plato, 23c).
In any event, one concludes that the Delphic Oracle was a definite
turning point in Socrates' life. Perhaps it changes Socrates' interest
from the physical and astronomical studies with moral and political
thought. This turning point brings Socrates into conflict with the city of
Athens. His doubt of the opinions taken on authority also concerned the
cities god and the cities laws. That made him dangerous in the eyes of the
leaders. Socrates' thought was a painful sting to the glorified
convictions of human conduct that meant so much to the city. Socrates made
the political and moral questions the focus and theme of his 'second
sailing' as he suggested in Aristophanes' 'Clouds'. By virtue of Socrates'
turn, philosophy now becomes political. The 'Apology' presents a critique
of political life from the view of philosophy. Socrates disrupts
prevailing opinions without providing a substantial opinion to replace it.
This may be intentional as to let man decide between his longings and the
necessity of political life. The problem now is how to make philsoophy
friendly to politics. Whether or not that can be done is not to be