Socrate's First Accusers and Athenian Law

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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

oppose him.

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

answered here.