The Apology: Socrates' Defenseby Daniel Marrow
At the trial for his life in 399 BC, Socrates defense is recounted in Plato's Apology. Here Socrates appeared, despite his lengthy defense, not to acquit himself from all accusations, but rather to deliberately ensure that he would be found guilty and thus condemned to death. If Socrates believed his moral purpose was to achieve philosophical virtue, justice and truth by examining life to its fullest, why then would he willingly give his life on the charges of crimes that he did not commit? The answer lies in Socrates realization that taking the right course of action is more important than one that will save him. For he states: "Someone 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" This is Socrates most cherished principle, that in dying for his beliefs he would be choosing the most noble action and not the most obvious.
Throughout the Apology, Socrates puts forward his views of wisdom, virtue, and nobility he believes to be moral truths, not to clear his name, but to reveal the ignorance of his prosecutors, judges, and fellow citizens. Against the charges of corrupting the youth, atheism, and introducing new deities, Socrates states that has been doing Athens a service by improving its beliefs of wisdom and virtue. "He [Socrates] regarded the charges as wholly unjustified; he claimed to reform and improve both his own moral outlook and other people's. He devoted his life to cross-examining other people about virtue; he urged them to pay attention to their souls... not to wealth, power and other external advantages." Socrates states that this was his true purpose, for "The unexamined life is not worth living." Later on in the trial Socrates remains steadfast on his views and refuses to give up his philosophical pursuit, even if it costs him his life. He tells the jury, "Therefore if you let me go now... and say to me: Socrates, this time we will not mind Anytus [a prosecutor], and will let you off, but upon one condition, that you are not to inquire and speculate in this way any more, and that if you are caught doing this again you shall die; - if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy..."
Socrates died for a noble cause: the belief that one should never change their beliefs because of their fear of death. He chose to give up his life as an example for generations after as he declares to the jury, "Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whatever you do know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times" This is why Socrates meant to be prosecuted, he was not afraid of death, and believed if he died for a noble cause it was justified. However, once accused, Socrates does not escape from prison and later, execution, for: "Socrates is confident that justice and morality are always in our interest. He insists that a just person will allow nothing to count against doing the just action, no matter what the cost may be. If Socrates were to choose an ordinary good over the just course of action he would be choosing an action that is bad for him, and he refuses to do this; this is why he refuses to propose an alternative to the death penalty."
Thus, Socrates chooses to accept his fate and, doing so, secures his place as "the greatest hero in the history of philosophy." Socrates' primary concern in life was arete `excellence', not in the Sophistic sense of practical efficiency in public life, but as moral excellence of soul, that is, virtue. This belief sets the foundations for ethics and philosophy, that Socrates died, not in vain, but for that which he most valued: the pursuit of virtue.
Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Routledge, 2001), 1623.
“Plato, The Apology”, trans. Benjamin Jowett. (1871), 9. in The Internet Classics Archive, MIT and Web atomics, accessed 18 February 2008
Frank N. Magill, ed., World philosophy: essay-reviews of 225 major works (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, c1982).