“The unexamined life is not worth living”

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469 - 399 BC

The unexamined life is not worth living”

Socrates was born in Athens, his father Sophroniscus was a sculptor, his mother Phaenarete a midwife. In his youth, Socrates was a pupil of the philosopher Archeleus, and thereafter practised philosophy without ever writing any of it down. He did not charge for his lessons and so slid into poverty, though he had little concern for material possessions. He wore the same cloak throughout the year and almost always walked barefoot (it was said that he had been born to spite the shoemakers). By the time of his death he was married and the father of three sons. He spent much of his time out of the house, conversing with friends in the public places of Athens. They appreciated his wisdom and sense of humour. Few can have appreciated his looks. He was short, bearded and bald, with a curious rolling gait, and a face variously likened by acquaintances to the head of a crab, a satyr or a grotesque. His nose was flat, his lips large, and his prominent swollen eyes sat beneath a pair of unruly brows.

But his most notable feature was a habit of approaching Athenians of every class, age and occupation and bluntly asking them, without worrying whether they would think him eccentric or infuriating, to explain with precision why they held certain common-sense beliefs and what they took to be the meaning of life. As one surprised general reported:

“Whenever anyone comes face-to-face with Socrates and has a conversation with him, what invariably happens is that, although he may have started on a completely different subject first, Socrates will keep heading him off as they are talking until he has him trapped into giving an account of his present day lifestyle and the way he has spent his life in the past. And once he has him trapped, Socrates won’t let him go before he has well and truly cross-examined him from every angle.”

Socrates’ Trial

In Socrates’ seventieth year three Athenians – the poet Meletus, the politician Anytus and the orator Lycon – decided that he was a strange and evil man. They claimed that he had failed to worship the city’s gods, accused him of introducing new gods, and corrupting the young men of Athens.

Athens had established procedures for distinguishing right from wrong. The Court was a large building with wooden benches for a jury at one end and a prosecution and defendant’s platform at the other. Trials began with a speech from the prosecution, followed by a speech from the defence. Then a jury numbering anything between 200 and 2,500 would indicate where the truth lay by a ballot or a show of hands. This method of deciding right from wrong by counting the number of people in favour of a proposition was used throughout Athenian political and legal life. For the city, the opinion of the majority was equated with the truth.

On the day of Socrates’ trial there were 500 jurists. The prosecution stated their case; Socrates admitted that he had led what might seem a peculiar life: – “I have neglected the things that concern most people – making money, managing an estate, gaining military and civic honours, or other positions of power.”

He denied all the charges. An Athenian courtroom was no forum for the discovery of the truth1. It was a rapid encounter with a collection of the aged and disabled. Members of the jury fell asleep during trials, rarely had experience of similar cases or relevant laws, and were given no guidance on how to reach verdicts. The water clock ran out and he was found guilty by a modest majority of 280 to 220. Although he had a brief opportunity to plead for leniency, he affirmed:

“…So long as I draw breath and have my faculties, I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and elucidating the truth for everyone that I meet… and so gentlemen, whether you acquit me or not, you know that I am not going to alter my conduct, not even if I have to die a hundred deaths.”

He was condemned to death – by drinking a cup of crushed hemlock. Amongst other friends, a 29-year-old Plato was at his side.

“The wisest man knows he does not know”

The Clouds
By Aristophanes

Written 419 B.C.

Dramatis Personae

PASIAS, a Money-lender
AMYNIAS, another Money-lender


In the background are two houses, that of Strepsiades and that of Socrates, the Thoughtery. The latter is small and dingy; the interior of the former is shown and two beds are seen, each occupied.

He knocks and calls.

A DISCIPLE from within A plague on you! Who are you?

STREPSIADES Strepsiades, the son of Phido, of the deme of Cicynna.

DISCIPLE coming out of the door You are nothing but an ignorant and illiterate fellow to let fly at the door with such kicks. You have brought on a miscarriage of an idea!

STREPSIADES Pardon me, please; for I live far away from here in the country. But tell me, what was the idea that miscarried?

DISCIPLE I may not tell it to any but a disciple.

STREPSIADES Then tell me without fear, for I have come to study among you.

DISCIPLE Very well then, but reflect, that these are mysteries. Lately, a flea bit Chaerephon on the brow and then from there sprang on to the head of Socrates. Socrates asked Chaerephon, "How many times the length of its legs does a flea jump?"

STREPSIADES And however did he go about measuring it?

DISCIPLE Oh! It was most ingenious! He melted some wax, seized the flea and dipped its two feet in the wax, which, when cooled, left them shod with true Persian slippers. These he took off and with them measured the distance.

STREPSIADES Ah! Great Zeus! What a brain! What subtlety!

DISCIPLE I wonder what then would you say, if you knew another of Socrates' contrivances?

STREPSIADES What is it? Pray tell me.

DISCIPLE Chaerephon of the deme of Sphettia asked him whether he thought a gnat buzzed through its proboscis or through its anus.

STREPSIADES And what did he say about the gnat?

DISCIPLE He said that the gut of the gnat was narrow, and that, in passing through this tiny passage, the air is driven with force towards the breech; then after this slender channel, it encountered the rump, which was distended like a trumpet, and there it resounded sonorously.

STREPSIADES So the arse of a gnat is a trumpet. Oh! What a splendid arsevation! Thrice happy Socrates! It would not be difficult to succeed in a law-suit, knowing so much about a gnat's guts!

(And so on…)

Socrates and The Apology

Socrates' "apology" is not a statement of regret or sorrow for his way of life and his actions in seeking wisdom but is, rather, a statement of defence of his position. A "philosopher," not a "theologian" or "learned" person, Socrates has spent his time searching for truth in order to discover what it means to live a truly good life. And, through probative questioning of those whom Athenian society had identified as "wise" and capable of directing Socrates towards his quest, Socrates endeavours to attain divine (or eternal) wisdom rather than human (or temporal) wisdom.

Socrates' search, however, pits him against the ruling powers of the allegedly democratic Athenian city-state and its entrenched oligarchs and plutarchs. In particular, his search has exposed the Sophists' complicity in propping up this anti-democratic regime. Now, facing a jury of 500 of his fellow citizens, Socrates must argue his position to sway a simple majority of the jury from judging him guilty of the charges against him condemning Socrates to death. The task is not easy as Socrates himself admits: "I must surely defend myself and attempt to uproot from your minds in so short a time the slander that has resided there so long".

Socrates' apology is not simply a defence of his search for wisdom and a demonstration of his innocence. That it is, at least, at the literal level. At the symbolic level, Socrates' apology is a challenge to the authoritarianism of any ideology whose purpose is to shelter human beings from recognizing the peril confronting them when they are unwilling to face the truth. In this sense, The Apology is a classic treatment of perennial themes of importance to human existence and to living a truly good life, namely, the confrontation of good (virtue, wisdom) against evil (vice, ignorance), of speaking the truth versus testing public opinion, of possessing true self esteem rather than seeking adulation from the crowd, and of honestly accounting for one's actions versus slandering others so as deflect any consideration away from holding one accountable.

There is yet a third and more substantive level to The Apology. At the moral level, Socrates' apology speaks not only to his jury and places its members on the "hot seat." Because Socrates is dealing with the truth, his apology puts any and all of his progeny who seek wisdom and are concerned about the future of democratic freedom in any time and place on the hot seat as well. Perhaps that is why so many people would prefer to live in the illusory world of blissful delusion than to seek wisdom and to test one's beliefs and behaviour under the searing heat of its light.

Concepts to consider...

Socrates’ “Apology”: A self-defence setting out one's purpose

The problem for society implicit in Socrates' quest for wisdom

The importance of words and how questioning the use words by influential citizens can enflame passion and debilitate the power of reason

Why society educates youth: The difference between "instructing" youth and "indoctrination" and "educating" youth and "intellectual and moral formation"

The Sophist approach and its long-term impact upon Athenian society

The philosopher as teacher

The fear of death: Distinguishing between "feelings" and "reason" and "ignorance" and "knowledge"

The reasonableness of not fearing death

The futility of self-preservation in light of the fact of death,

The importance of living virtuously

Death as a blessing

The concept of "self esteem" and living life

"It was to my advantage to be as I am" versus what I allow others to make me true "self-acceptance" and "self-esteem" versus self-definition based upon public opinion

The use of irony and paradox in The Apology

Speaking the truth versus using carefully crafted words

Those esteemed as teachers (Sophists) who actually indoctrinate youth and the problem presented by the philosopher (Socrates) who simply seeks wisdom

The jury condemning Socrates to death as a just act (virtue) and the jury demonstrating its slavery to wickedness (vice)

Philosophy as a search for wisdom and religion as superstitious belief

It is better to die for the truth than it is to live a lie


The Socratic Method (1)

Or How to Think for Oneself

NB. Socrates wrote nothing down; this method is described by Plato in his early and middle Dialogues.

The correctness of a statement cannot be determined by whether it is held by a majority, asserted by experts or believed for a long time by Important People.

A correct statement is one incapable of being rationally contradicted.

A statement is true only if it cannot be disproved. If it can be disproved, it must be false however many people believe it, however grand they may be.

Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.

Imagine, despite the confidence of the person proposing it, that the statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where the statement would not be true.

If an exception is found, the definition must be false or at least imprecise.

Adjust the original statement to take the exception into account.

Try to find another exception and repeat the process. The truth, as far as it is possible to achieve it, lies in a statement that seems impossible to disprove. It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.

The product of thought is superior to intuition.
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