Socrates on Trial

American philosopher IRWIN EDMAN was born in New York City in the sunlight and shadow of Columbia University and there he has lived all his life teaching and writing the books (Philosopher’s Holiday is his most successful) which have helped to strengthen the philosophy of others. We turn to him for an authoritative and illuminating account of those days in Athens when Socrates, rejecting the idea of exile, faced the final and most dramatic decision in his life of reason. This is the fifth in our series of biographical essays dealing with the turning points in the lives of famous men.



THERE is on occasion a crisis in the life of a man that at the same time constitutes a crucial moment in the life of humanity. Such was what may, by not too forced a metaphor, be called the high moment in the life of Socrates, that period when he faced ultimate alternatives and had made as he had to make — an irremediable choice. The crisis was his trial; his choice was obedience to the verdict of his judges. The charges he faced were those of denying the gods of the state and inventing false gods, and corrupting youth. But he really faced, by implication, charges deeper and more serious, accusations that not only the Athenian public but the public of all times has made against philosophers, or indictments which it has vaguely felt ought to be made against them. Socrates was facing the charge that he was living a life according to reason, and that he was corrupting youth because by both doctrine and example he had been persuading them to do likewise.

Socrates, given the chance to escape, chose to obey the laws of Athens. But he was making a deeper obeisance to something that transcended merely civic obligation. He chose to carry out a more absolute imperative, to live in the light of reason whatever others might say, whatever the temptation might he to do otherwise, He chose to defend, and though his defense is labeled his apology, he did not so much apologize as justify both by argument and instance the life he had led. He was an attorney for the life of reason as well as its alleged dangerous embodiment. It was reason (as Socrates well knew) as well as Socrates himself that was being tried. He was the first martyr to the principle of freedom of thought, and to thought itself, which he placed higher than private convenience, comfort, or reputation.

All this, then, is meant by saying that Socrates’ trial, his refusal of a chance to escape, his serene behavior up to the very moment of his execution, constitute a high moment in the history of civilization. The scenes at the trial and in the prison, as we find them in essence accurately reported in Plato, capped and closed a life that had been long devoted to rigorous analysis about ultimate things and above all about ultimate good. In those final hours, Socrates deliberately chose reason as over against public opinion, duty as over against pleasure. It was a moment in the history of mankind which was to have enormous consequences. For it was the first challenging affirmation of the sovereignty of mind.

Socrates was on trial, it must be understood, not only for his life but for his way of life. It is important to understand what that mode of being consisted in. It is important to understand what was basically at issue, what one may say is always basically at issue, and why Socrates’ life and death have become a parable for those who hold the life of reason precious. For despite Socrates’ modest disclaimer (like all his denials in part at least ironic) he clearly felt that his trial and his sentence were a parable for mankind. The examined life, he declares, is the only life worth living. His one pursuit is knowledge, and the one object of knowledge the good — which reason alone discloses. He could not accept any other deliverances save those of mind, uncorrupted and unconfused, nor could he live by any other standard.

It is this which makes Socrates so peculiarly arresting a figure. For him the life of reason is an obligation; rationality is a duty, and duty is what reason commands. There have been philosophers since Socrates who were reasonable men, but reasonable in the almost casual sense of sensible. In the eighteenth century, for instance, David Hume and many of his contemporaries appealed to common sense. But they did not combine, as did Socrates, reason and conscience. To Hume and his contemporaries, reason was the mark of a civilized gentleman. In Socrates, reason was merged with the dedication of a martyr and the selflessness of a saint. For all the charge of denial of the gods, there is in the tone of Socrates’ speech the signature of a deeply religious man. The quest of the good life is, for Socrates, touched with divinity.

It is not really a relevant question how much Socrates is an invention of Plato’s, though it is instructive on this point that the report of the literal-minded historian Xenophon confirms that of the philosopher-poet. There is ground for believing that we see in the dialogues of Plato very much the same Socrates that Athenians saw walking homely and barefoot through the streets of Athens. But it would not matter even were the image that Plato creates less faithful to the facts than it actually is. For it is the Socrates of Plato that has affected the imagination of mankind in a way comparable to that in which the image of Jesus, as given in the Gospels, has become central in the imagination of generation after generation for the last two thousand years.

There is much in Plato’s dialogues that is of special interest only to technically philosophical minds. But the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo (despite the fact that the last contains an elaborate and not too convincing argument for immortality) have continued to live almost as a Gospel story. They give the narrative of a man who lived in a certain way, serious and beautiful, and died in a certain way, dignified and noble — for an ideal. There is a parallel, too, with the way in which the life of Jesus functions in the subsequent moral history of mankind. He who would live as Socrates lived takes the chance of dying as Socrates died. The way of Socrates, like the way of Jesus, is at once a suffering and a salvation. Each in its special way is an intimation of how life, free of corruption, may be lived. Indeed, there is, just as in Jesus, a calm acceptance of imminent death, and a suggestion by Socrates in the Phaedo that a philosopher would prefer death, since he would thereby escape the confusions and distractions of earthly pleasures and earthly pains. For, as Socrates intimates, if the only good life is the life of reason, then it were better that the flesh be transcended altogether and the earth on which it lives.


JUST as in the case of the Christian life, one asks, What is it to live the Socratic life? What would the “Imitation of Socrates" be? Well, it is to emulate his mission — and mission is used advisedly, for Socrates, in the Apology, tells us he had conceived himself to have had such. What is it to live as Socrates lived? The actual facts of his life are meager, and his biography is thin. When he comes to stand trial, he is seventy years old. For a generation he had been known to Athenians. His father was a stonecutter but Socrates seemed in a way an idler, if an inspired idler, an endless talker, above all an endless questioner.

To live the Socratic life is to follow the Socratic mission, to follow reason where it leads, even to death, if necessary. It is to pursue the long enterprise of trying to know one’s self, which means to know one’s mind, to follow out the implications of the things one says, of the things one thinks, of the things one thinks one wants. It is to be a perpetual asker of questions, not for the sake of confusing one’s interlocutors or confusing one’s self, but for the purpose of eliciting principles which will stand proof against further doubts and further confusions. It is to seek to know, really to know, to have sound knowledge of authentic reality, ultimately of that good which permeates the Real and is, in Socrates’ belief, identical with it. Socrates was thus the founder of a religion, but a secular religion of mind. He was the first sacrifice to that religion, and his death has endured, like that of Jesus, not as a history but as a symbol, as a permanent moral image of an absolute toward which wavering human nature may aspire and which it may emulate.

A legal charge, a legal trial, is often intelligible only in terms of a personal history and a social scene. The trial of Socrates was not only destined to become celebrated: already in its own time it was a cause eelebre, and Socrates already a celebrated and a marked man. Socrates was widely enough known to have been an object of caricature by, among others, Aristophanes. He had great friends among the Athenian democracy and among some of its leaders who had only recently tried to betray their country to Sparta. The gilded youth of the period liked to follow him about and talk with him or listen to him ask leading and devastating questions of their elders, the statesmen, the generals. They liked to hear him bait those epidemic teachers of politics and oratory, the Sophists, who were widely sought after in a political society which was small enough in numbers so that public speaking was a major talent for political advancement. Socrates, from the point o( view ol respectable opinion, was a ne’er-do-well. Though he was supposed to be a stonecutter, there is no evidence that he practiced his craft. He had small means and he preferred leisure though it meant poverty. He married late in life, and legend has it (hat he was not home much, though Xantippe was not perhaps the shrew and harridan that she has been painted. (There is certainly nothing in Plato’s picture to suggest that she was.) But Socrates, like most intellectual Greeks, moved by preference among men.

Socrates was a well-known figure long before his trial, and there is no reason for believing that the charges against him could not have been made at almost any time in the preceding quarter of a century. If he had been corrupting youth, he had been doing it for a long time. If he had been denying the gods, Aristophanes, long before his trial, in The Clouds (confusing him with the nature philosophers), had accused him of worshiping the sun, the clouds, the forces of nature — and in his youth, indeed, as he tells us in the Phaedo, he had been interested in studying what we would now call physical nature.

In any case, long before his trial he had been clearly making himself a nuisance to the orthodox. He tells us himself in the Apology that the Oracle of Delphi had told him he was the wisest man in Athens. He was, he tells us also, too modest to believe it, and yet too pious to doubt the Oracle. But on asking questions of those in Athens he found that they knew no more than he did. The generals, the poets, the statesmen literally did not know what they were talking about. Socrates at least did know one thing: that he didn’t know. In that way at least the Oracle seemed to be right; that was, perhaps, what she meant by calling him wise.

So for years Socrates had been going about Athens asking embarrassing questions. He would ask Protagoras, the celebrated teacher-sophist, what was this virtue he professed to teach. He would ask Euthyphro what was this piety in obedience to which Euthyphro was coming to prosecute his own father because the latter had killed a slave. At the home of the wealthy Cephalus, as told us in the Republic, Socrates would ask what is justice and he would not accept the reply of the ruthless Thrasymachus that justice is the right of the stronger. Nor was it simply on questions of politics and morals that Socrates would interrogate the complacent; nor was it always older persons or established conventions that he would question. His intellectual cross-examinations were often addressed to the young and concerned matters more subtle and more intimate and ultimate than politics. He would meet two young men, boys merely, playing in the palestra. He would learn that they were friends and gently make them see that they could not define friendship and could, therefore, be said not to know what it was. On being introduced to Theaetetus, like himself gifted in philosophy and like himself ugly, he would make the young man aware that there was not only the problem of knowing what was real, what was good, but what it was even to know at all.

A critical intelligence was at work here clearly, in a society uneasy in the aftermath of a disastrous war, followed by a dictatorial seizure of power by the Thirty Tyrants. It had become altogether notorious that several of Socrates’ younger friends, though not the immediate disciples of his inner circle, had tried to sell out Athens to Sparta. In one sense, Socrates for a long time then had been suspected of “corrupting the young,” and he had been doing so if corrupting them was to make them critical of the currently accepted values. As for inventing strange gods and denying the state, there was just enough in the charge to make it plausible. For Socrates had in his early days been inclined to give what we should now call a physical explanation of the universe. And though he did obeisance to the official gods, and gives evidence of a sense of conforming to, even setting store by ritual, he certainly did not, it was clear, take the gods of the Olympian religion literally.


THE Athenian public then had had for a long time accounts to settle with Socrates and, it must be remembered, it was a representative section of the Athenian public that actually tried him. The jury of his peers consisted of over five hundred men, not twelve, and the trial was like a hearing rather than in the modern sense a legal trial, in which there are all sorts of technical legal means for the protection of the accused. Socrates was his own defender; the accused could not be represented by counsel. The “jury” listened as a crowd, as an audience listens. Socrates was speaking to an assemblage who already knew much about him. He was answering them and answerable to them for more than the charges brought by Anytus, the tanner, Meletus, the minor tragic poet, and Lycon, well known as an orator. He was answering for his career, for the way he had been spending his days in Athens for longer, perhaps, than many members of the jury could remember. His defense is not an apology but an apologia.

Socrates was not only well known to his five hundred hearers; he shows clearly that what he was and what he did were well known to them. He feels it necessary to explain to them what his mission is, though it is clear he thinks they already inaccurately guess what it is. He says in so many words, “God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men.” If he “deserts his post for fear of death, that would indeed be strange,” and he might then be justly arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods. Socrates is being charged with being an atheist. He replies that his whole life has been a divinely appointed career. God commanded him to cross-question the complacent among the older people and among the innocently confused young. Nor does he propose to stop asking questions even if he is let off or let off lightly. For he was, in his famous phrase, appointed by God to be the gadfly of the Athenian state. Socrates had declared early in the Apology that that inner voice which always spoke to him, and always in warning not to do something, at crucial turns in his life, had warned him not to enter politics: —

“Some may wonder why I go about in private giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forth in public and advise the state. I will tell you why. You have heard me speak at many times and in many places of a divine sign from God which comes to me and which, I suppose, is the divinity that Meletus attacked and ridiculed in the indictment. This sign, which is a kind of voice, first began to come to me when I was a child; it always forbids but never commands me to do anything which I am going to do. This is what deters me from being a politician.”

He adds that had he become a politician he would scarcely have survived. But he took another road, not in the long run any safer, as it turned out, to make his contribution to the welfare of Athens — or more exactly, toward its improvement. He warns his hearers: —

“If you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me who will be, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, a sort of gadfly, attached to the state by God, and the state is a great and noble horse who is rather sluggish owing to his very size and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you.”

The Athenians feel out of temper, doubtless, he admits, at being awakened, and think that if they killed him they could go to sleep again, as indeed they could unless God in his care of them sent them another gadfly.

Socrates was perhaps ironic in suggesting that he kept out of politics to avoid the danger of being liquidated. He knew that in the long run there was a risk, as the event proved, in the subtler, indirect part he look in politics. For while he did not directly engage in political activity, he did take a persistent and constant part in the reformation of those ideas and attitudes which obliquely determine private and public action. There were two occasions when Socrates (as he tells us in the Apology) did have to take a minimal part in public affairs: as a senator o( his tribe, he had to preside over the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae; he stood out against the democracy who proposed to try them illegally, in a body. Once again, under the Thirty Tyrants, these demanded that Leon the Salaminian be brought from Salamis to be tried. The four others who with Socrates had been commanded to do this obeyed, but not Socrates. Had the Thirty Tyrants not just then lost their power, he would have been executed by them. In the interest of public duty he had taken the risk of death. But it was not in politics that he saw his deeper duty as well as a safer opportunity to serve the Athenians. It was in constantly awakening his fellow citizens to a critical analysis of what they did, stinging them into considering virtue, challenging them with searching questions, into preferring the “examined life.”

Socrates is quietly proud of this mission of his, and thinks, as he has no hesitation in tolling his judges, that he deserves well of the state in whose service, as thus described, he has gained nothing, for he has taken no pay, as his poverty shows.

Socrates denies the charges against him by affirming their opposite. Far from corrupting youth, he has shown them — and their elders — in what the examined life consists. Far from denying the gods, he has continued his mission in response to their commands: —

“Now this duty of cross-examining other men has been imposed on me by God; and it has been signified to me by oracles, visions, and in every way in which the will of divine power was ever intimated to anyone.” And he calls to witness the fact that not only the allegedly corrupted, but their elders and relatives as well, are ready to testify in his behalf.

There is some evidence that Socrates almost willfully caused his own condemnation. It is almost as if he felt a divine sign cautioning him not to interfere with the process by which his life was to become an example for mankind. He did nothing to conciliate his jurors. It was as if in the back of his candid mind he knew that in a profound sense the charges against him were true. He had denied the popular notions of the gods; he had corrupted youth, from complacency in convention. These were the accusations the jurors must consider. And he would not (he told the jurors he thought it shameful to do so) woo them by bringing in his family to stir their emotions of pity, or by shamelessly pretending to fear a death he did not fear. He had a reputation, oven among those who mistrusted him, of being a man of wisdom, a superior man. He was not going to play upon the sentiments of the jurors, nor deny his own convictions about the meaning of life and death by trading his integrity for a few more years of life.

Socrates had a habit, as did Plato, too, of projecting moral issues into the terms of eternity. His choice at his trial was between life and death, or, as he suspected, and as we now know, between life and deathlessness. Instead of fearing death, he has the magnificent and heroic audacity to tell those who are sentencing him: —

“So, my judges, face death with a good hope, and know for certain that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance; I see clearly thal that time had arrived when it was better for me to die and be released from trouble; and so the oracle gave no sign.”

At the very close he asks only one favor of the jury, a pointed one, for he asks them to educate his sons, as he had tried to educate Athens, and thereby do both him and his sons justice: he wishes his jurors to educate his sons by punishing them; but for what ?

“I would ask you, my friends, to punish them and I would have you trouble them, as I have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything, more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something when they are really nothing. . . . The hour of departure is arrived and we go our ways, I to die, and you to live. Which is better is known to God, and only to him.”

Part of the touching quality of the Apology, and of the Crito and Phaedo which follow, is that Socrates is deliberately making his choice to die, and seems also to wish to do so. He never is quite sure (even though he tries to prove it) that the soul is immortal. But he is sure that a man should act on the assumption that life is eternal and that right and wrong are eternal also.


BUT Socrates had another choice to make after the trial: between obeying and not obeying the laws of Athens. It is not for uncritical love of his fellow Athenians that he chose to obey the law and submit to the sentence. It is clear that all his judges wanted was his silence. He could have had his life at the cost of exile. Wealthy friends had arranged for his flight, and nobody would have thought the less of him for taking advantage of the chance to escape, say, into Thessaly.

Socrates was no blinded patriot; he had no illusions about Athens, though, as he tells us often, he could not imagine another place where he would gladly be. But there was something more deeply involved than his preference; it was his sense of moral self-respect; and his sense, too, of the importance that laws be obeyed lest there be anarchy in society and in the soul of man. He can flee, but where to? To other lawful states? There he will be an enemy, for in any well-ordered state they would know what to think of a man who broke covenants. What would he think of himself, who had preferred to live in Athens all his life as a citizen, and by so doing tacitly assented to its laws, and now violates them by escaping into exile? He could flee to anarchic and ill-governed states, but there he would have to live by conniving and servility, exchanging the birthright of a free citizen, and justice itself, “for the miserable desire of a little more life.” To escape from a sentence legally imposed would be tacitly to mock the very justice of which it had been his mission to make his fellow citizens more conscious. Athenian law might be unjust, but the observance of law itself seemed to Socrates a corollary of ideal justice, and of universal reason. For unless there is respect for law, a carrying out of the tacit contract a citizen has with the state, there is, he believes, the beginning of tyranny and anarchy in the community, there is the initiation of private dogma and fanaticism and chaos in the soul.

In the Apology Socrates is the attorney for reason; in the Crito, for social order. For what docs he plead in the Phaedo, that moving and dramatic dialogue of Socrates facing execution and surrounded by his intimate friends? A large part of the dialogue is taken up with a discussion of the arguments for immortality — in which discussion, as Socrates points out with rueful irony, he cannot be accused of meddling with something which is not his business. But the arguments for the immortality of the soul there broached hardly would convince a modern reader; they are based on considerations, both physical and logical, that seem dated and even naïve. They hardly convinced Socrates’ hearers, concerned as they were for the fate of their master now about to die. But the Phaedo is scarcely to be interpreted as primarily an attempt to prove immortality. It is rather the testament given to a group of intimates of a soul great and generous and just. He is telling his friends, in the last moments of a life sacrificed in the interests of a life of reason, how life should be lived. He is making a plea that life should be lived on earth as if the spirit were immortal. It is the case for living even, perhaps especially, while one is precariously and transiently alive as if that life were endless and as if one’s actions were to be judged with reference to eternity.

The Phaedo, then, is the projection beyond the present of an image of what the good life and the good man mean to just men anywhere. The high moment before Socrates’ execution is when he sees as in a vision what it means to live according to reason. It means among other things to live in the light of considerations which are not affected by the incidents and transient delights and sufferings of life. In another dialogue Socrates is made to maintain that it is better to undergo than to do evil, better to suffer injustice than to do injustice. In the Phaedo this proposition is made visible on a cosmic screen. After all the arguments for immortality have been made, and the young disciples, whispering in a corner, are clearly not quite convinced, Socrates tells a story of the judgment the soul receives when, arrayed in its proper being only (devoid of the ornament and clothes and honors that disguise its true nature), it stands ready to be judged. For the soul goes to the world below taking nothing with her but her training and education; and these are said to benefit or greatly to injure the departed at the very beginning of his journey thither.

The soul may or may not be immortal, but the eternal nature of judgment, the changeless character of good and evil, remain, and one should act so that if or when the final hour of judgment should come, one could face it with integrity and without fear. The reward of the just is to be delivered altogether out of the body with its confusing pleasures and pains. So death is not to be feared. What is to be feared is to arrive at death with one’s soul unjust. Socrates does not press the implication. But he is not afraid to die.

Is not this, perhaps, the lesson of the Phaedo, rather than a theory of immortality? Is not this the meaning of Socrates’ choice? He was not only the teacher of justice but the example of a just man, one who has learned by and from reason, and who thus faces death with equanimity. He knew, however the Athenians judged him, that he could face eternal judgment serenely. In the light of the eternal he was innocent, and he chose to face the verdict of all time whatever the verdict of his timeserving contemporaries.

The closing scene of the Phaedo is as simple as it is moving. It does nothing but recount the facts: the bringing of the poison; Socrates brushing aside delay; the uncontrollable tears of the beloved disciples— tears which Socrates gently rebukes; the calm of Socrates himself in the very face of death. Stretched out on his bed, while the poison begins to paralyze his body, Socrates’ last words are a brief request: to pay a cock to Aesculapius, patron of medicine. For Socrates has been healed—of life. He has chosen immortality, not the endlessness of time, but the timelessness of reason and justice. We have seen the death of one whom the narrator of the Phaedo at the close calls “the best and wisest and justest of men.”

It is a high moment of literature and civilization. Reason has faced annihilation and reason has triumphed, and with it justice, too, even in the teeth of injustice. Socrates’ choice is a recurrent choice of intelligence and integrity. It is an alternative chosen only by those who share these virtues in a rare and extreme degree.