I just finished reading Plato’s breathtakingly unapologetic “Apology,” on the trial of Socrates. Socrates is on trial for his life, which (spoiler alert) he loses, yet he cannot bring himself to treat the accusations against him as anything more than an interesting logic puzzle. The charges against Socrates are two-fold: he is accused of being a man “who speculated about the heaven above, and searched in the earth beneath, and made the worse appear the better cause”; and “is a doer of evil, who corrupts the youth; and who does not believe in the gods of the state, but has other new divinities of his own.” Both charges, apparently, being capital crimes in 399 B.C. Athens.
Now Socrates, at over 70, is hopelessly arrogant. In his youth, the Oracle of Delphi prophesized that he was the wisest of all men. He has spent all the intervening years attempting to prove the gods false, failing miserably in the process, and alienating half of Athens while he does so. He spends all his time quizzing politicians, poets and artisans on their respective levels of wisdom, and always finds them wanting. He found the politicians not wise at all; the poets could not even explain their own poetry; and the artisans, while knowledgeable about their craft, made the mistake of thinking that they were wise about things they knew nothing about. To be fair, Socrates’ enemies always thought he was putting himself forward as being the wisest of them all, but he claims nothing could be further from the case.
“…for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find wanting in others: but the truth is … that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing, … he is only using my name by way of illustration. He… is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.”
Socrates answers the second charge by pointing out that it would be foolish to corrupt a man, because in all likelihood, the corrupted man would harm him in turn. His insistent questioning of his accusers brings them step by step to agreement with his thesis, thus angering them even further. He appears genuinely confused that he is accused of not believing in gods at all, and also of believing in other gods; a charge he believes only serves to identify the illogic of his accusers.
Through the entire trial, Socrates has little to no consideration for the final verdict. He feels that a good man should not calculate the cost of doing the right thing, even if the cost is death. After all, no one knows if dying is a good or bad thing, so doing something bad to avoid death is clearly not wise.
Socrates is convicted, of course, and refuses to be exiled or to promise to stop his offending behavior. He believes that death is actually either just a nice long rest, or that the gods (of whom he was convicted of not believing) shall care for him in the afterlife because he has always attempted to do their bidding. He reminds us that avoiding unrighteousness is far more important than avoiding death, especially since death comes to all men anyway… and he’s already old!