Monday, December 26, 2011

"The Trial and Death of Socrates"

Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates (translation of Apology, Crito, and Phaedo by Benjamin Jowett) (introduction by Emma Woolerton) (Arcturus Publishing Ltd. 2010)

Next to the trial of Jesus, the trial of Socrates is probably the most famous blasphemy trial in Western history. In Apology, Plato provides an account of Socrates' statement in his own defense. The exact nature of the charges are unclear, but Socrates sums them up generally as consisting of allegations that he is "a doer of evil, and corrupter of the youth, and [that] he does not believe in the gods of the state, and has other new divinities of his own." (p. 17) In true Socratic fashion, there is little in the way of direct rebuttal and much in the way of rhetorical extravagance that addresses the charges in a discursive fashion. Socrates states that the charges are motivated by malice against him for his success in exposing the follies of many men who considered themselves wise. (p. 14) He cross-examines one of his accusers, a man named Meletus, and demonstrates an inconsistency in Meletus accusing him simultaneously of being an atheist and of believing in new divinities (p. 21). To his accuser Anytus, Socrates states that he would rather die now than be released on the condition that he stop teaching: "Wherefore, O men of Athens, I say to you, do as Anytus bids or not as Anytus bids, and either acquit me or not; but whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times." (p. 25) Socrates goes on to state that Athenians will regret it if he is convicted, and concludes by stating "I do believe that there are gods, and in a far higher sense than that in which any of my accusers believe in them." (p. 31) After the jury condemns Socrates to death, he proceeds to expound on why death is a good rather than an evil. In Crito, Socrates explains why he would rather submit to the laws of the state than escape, and in Phaedo Socrates further explains his views on death and on his belief in the immortality of the soul; neither has anything pertinent to the blasphemy charges.

From an historical perspective, of course, we have no way of knowing for certain how much of Socrates' statement in the Apology actually took place and how much is Plato's creation of what could have or should have been said. From a legal perspective, the charges and facts underlying them are so vague in the Apology that little analysis is possible. If nothing else, however, Plato's work serves as a useful reminder that the concept of blasphemy existed long before the three major monotheistic religions became fully formed.

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