How did Socrates break the conventions of Athenian society?

Mohamed asked:

How did Socrates break his society’s conventions? Was this what that led to his death?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Mohamed, this is an interesting question to which the answer to the second part is yes, it was in virtue of his going against Athenian society’s conventions that led, ultimately, to Socrates’ death. The first part of the question, however, probably needs a bit more explanation.

Plato’s dialogue Apology professes to be the speech made by Socrates in his own defence at his trial – or rather it is an account of Plato’s recollection of Socrates’ defines given some time after his trial. In a typical Athenian trial of that period the defendant was given a limited time (measured by a water-clock) to answer the charges and, although he had to defend himself, he could, if he so desired, buy a suitable speech from a professional speech writer – a Sophist. Socrates, of course, rejects this approach and declares that he will speak plain and unvarnished truth. It can be argued, of course, that his disavowal of any knowledge of rhetoric (rhetoric is the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively) and that his ambition is to tell nothing but the truth, is itself a form of rhetoric in that it implies that his statements can be trusted implicitly.

Socrates had been accused of being an ‘evil – doer and a curious person, searching into things under the earth and in the sky, and of making the worse seem the better cause, and of teaching all this to others’. In short, by going against society’s conventions, he was found guilty by a majority and was, in accordance with Athenian law of that time, to propose an alternative penalty to death. The judges had to choose, if they found the accused guilty, between the penalty of demanded by the prosecution and that suggested by the defence. Therefore, it was in Socrates interest to suggest a penalty that would be accepted as a reasonable alternative to death. However, he chose the sum of 30 minas. While this was much more than Socrates could possibly afford (the sum was guaranteed by Plato, Crito, Critoboulus and Apollodorus) it was considered insufficient by the court and he was sentenced to death. From this we can conclude that Socrates actively sought this verdict, since, to suggest an alternative penalty that would be acceptable to the court was tantamount to admitting that he was guilty of the charges against him – this of course he could not do for central to the charges made against him were that he was guilty of not worshipping the gods that the State worshipped, but of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the minds of the young by instructing them accordingly.

The Apology, then, is, according to Plato, Socrates’ answer to these charges. Socrates opens his defence by accusing his prosecutors of eloquence (what he means by this is rhetoric- the art off speaking persuasively), and rebutting the same charge which was made against him. The only eloquence he admits to, he says, is that of the truth. If this approach offends the court, he says, the court must forgive him for, not being familiar with the ways of the court: he is not familiar with its un-forensic way of speaking. Socrates goes on to relate the incidence where the Oracle of Delphi was once asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which the Oracle answered that there was not. Socrates claims to have been bemused by this statement, since he always claimed that he knew nothing. However, he also accepts that the god cannot lie so he set out to see if he could find someone wiser than himself. This sequence is central to the Apology because it is from here that Socrates infers his raison d’etre derives. That is, he regards the Oracle’s reply as a puzzle that has to be resolved.

Therefore he sees it as his life’s mission to expose false knowledge. The first person he goes to is a politician, who is thought to be wise by many people, and even wiser by himself. He soon discovers that the man was not wise at all, and as a consequence is hated by the politician for exposing his ignorance. Next he visits to the poets, and asks them to explain passages of their writings. When they were unable to do so, Socrates concludes that it is not in virtue of being wise that they write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration. Then he tries his luck with craftsmen, but he finds them to be equally unwise. They think they are wise, he discovers, because they know their own trade, but in reality that is all they know. Finally he concludes that only God is wise, and that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.

It is worth mentioning that the Socratic method of enquiry, by its nature, had the effect of undermining the basic assumption of ancient democracy – that is, that all men had the knowledge necessary for the conduct of public affairs. Therefore, by exposing the ignorance of those who were most powerful in Athenian society, not only to themselves, but, since these investigations were carried out in public, to all and sundry – particularly the young aristocrats who had nothing else to do but follow Socrates around all day.

The second part of Plato’s Apology concentrates on charges made against Socrates by Meletus, that he was guilty of corrupting the minds of the young, and that he did not acknowledge the gods of the city, and even introduces new divinities. Since Meletus is in court, Socrates can question his charges directly – which is legally entitled to do. With regard to the first charge, Meletus is forced into the absurd position of claiming that every Athenian citizen improves the minds of the young and only Socrates corrupts them. The conclusions to this premise are self-explanatory. That is, the outlandish claim by Meletus shows that he had never thought seriously about the education of the young, that his charge against Socrates is not based on any concern for their welfare, and that even Socrates, regardless of his wisdom, was no match for the collective wisdom of the entire Athenian community.

The charge of introducing new divinities must be understood against the background of the official religion of the state. In contrast to monotheistic religions (one god religions), Greek religions were polytheistic (they had many gods) and undogmatic in the sense that they had no bible or set of orthodox beliefs that the faithful were obliged to accept. The only written accounts of the Greek gods were found in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, but these stories did not have to be believed by those who performed the prescribed rituals to appease these deities. However, while there was no set of orthodox beliefs, each city had its own pantheon of divinities – its own group of gods and goddesses – that had been gradually accepted over the ages. Athens, for example, was named after the warrior goddess Athena, who was born out of the head of Zeus. Many of the public buildings on the Acropolis were dedicated to her; the temple of Athena Nike was built to celebrate the defeat of the Persians, and her festivals would have been the most important in the Athenian official calendar.

All these public rituals had a profound significance, and Greek religion may be regarded as a kind of worship of their native city by its citizens. There was an officially sanctioned set of gods in each city, and their festivals were carefully regulated, since that was part of the political order. There was also a strict ban on blaspheming against the accepted divinities, and the introduction of new gods was strictly forbidden. This was the legal basis for the charge of impiety brought against Socrates who had often spoken in public about his personal daimon, describing it as it was a warning sign against any kind of wrongdoing. When Meletus is forced by Socrates to clarify the charge of introducing new divinities, he goes to the extreme of accusing him of not acknowledging any gods. Socrates is able to point out that he is being confused with Anaxagoras (one of the natural philosophers) whose book denied that the sun and the moon were gods. Furthermore, Meletus contradicts himself because he also accuses Socrates of introducing new gods (like his daimon) which implies that he does believe in some deities.


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