Trial and Death of Socrates

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Benjamin Jowett. The Trial and Death of Socrates (Dover Edition). New York: Dover Publications, 1992

“What is the charge? Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. And I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am anything but a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends. And of this our mother the state is to be the judge. Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of virtue in youth; he is a good husbandman, and takes care of the shoots first and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. That is the first step; he will afterwards attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor” (p. 2). This quote from Socrates states, in a brief but precise way, what the entire book is about. Socrates constant search for an answer to the meanings of piety, impiety, virtue, what is just or unjust, all while being put on trial for an accusation of corrupting the youth of Athens by teaching them to believe in new gods and not to believe in the gods established in the state religion. Socrates is not only on the quest for himself, but also on a quest to make his fellow Athenians question their own preconceived notions of said meanings. I will now use the Euthyphro, the Apology, and the Crito dialogues as three examples of how Socrates—either speaking with someone directly or to an audience of patrons—is in constant search to find answers, not only for him but also for others.

“By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to this” (p. 3). This quote from Socrates comes after he asks Euthyphro what he is doing on the porch of King Archon. Euthyphro responds by telling Socrates that he is there to bring up a charge of murder against his father. When Socrates points out that, according to accepted beliefs, it is wicked to harm or bring disgrace on one’s father, Euthyphro counters that that makes no difference. According to accepted beliefs, harboring a manslayer is wrong and pollutes those who associate with him. This response is what leads into a discussion of the main topic of the dialogue: piety. “And what is piety, and what is impiety?” (p. 4). Since Euthyphro is an expert in religion and seems capable of finding the right course to pursue in what appears to Socrates a dilemma (the prosecution of Euthyphro’s father), and since Socrates is facing a religious charge, he proposes that he become Euthyphro’s student in religion. This is why he asks Euthyphro to define piety, so that he himself will have a measure for deciding what is religious and what is not, thus be able to defend himself in court. Euthyphro answers that what he is doing in prosecuting his father is religious, and he cites the precedent of Zeus punishing his own father (Cronos). Socrates then questions many of the stories about strife among the gods over the next few passages as Euthyphro continues to defend the gods. This questioning of the stories about the gods is what leads to his trial in the first place, that he questioned them and that because he was a teacher it caused the youth to question the gods. If you question the gods and the gods are pious, you are in turn acting with impiety. “Remember that I did not ask you to give me two or three examples of piety, but to explain the general idea which makes all pious things to be pious. Do you not recollect that there was one idea which made the impious impious, and the pious pious?” (p. 6). After Euthyphro confesses that he is unable to make any progress with this question—having had...
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