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Metadata of Note
Type: 🍃 Leaf [Nomenclature present here.]
Tags: #Socrates #philosophy #history #Balance Q1: What Is A Balanced Life?
Date: July 23rd, 2022
I had heard this phrase many times in the past, suspiciously so a lot in the past few months, but had never “examined” it to understand where it came from.
What does it mean? Where does it come from?
This statement is said to be uttered by Socrates in his famous trial in Athens, Greece in 399 BC, captured by Plato in “Apology.”
“The Apology of Socrates (Greek: Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους, Apología Sokrátous; Latin: Apologia Socratis), written by Plato, is a Socratic dialogue of the speech of legal self-defense which Socrates (469–399 BC) spoke at his trial for impiety and corruption in 399 BC.”
Socrates’ life mission and prime directive were to examine Pythia’s response to Chaerephon’s question. He took this as communication from god Apollo that it’s his mission to now live up to the response.
“Chaerephon asked the omniscient oracle if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the priestess replied that there was not. Socrates recounts how he took this news with great puzzlement: he knew the oracle could not lie, and yet he was only too aware that he had no particular wisdom or specialized knowledge at all.”
On the surface, the phrase is pretty self-evident. It calls for humanity to ask questions; to examine how we live our lives and whether it measures up to the principles we set for ourselves; and of course, all that is preceded by first thinking about what the principles and guidelines should be to live a just and moral life.
When Socrates uttered these words in the trial, he specifically meant that “to be separated by elenchus (the Socratic method of eliciting truth by question and answer, especially as used to refute an argument.) by exile was a fate worse than death. He preferred to continue to seek the truth to the answer to his question, in the after-life, than live a life not identifying the answer on earth.”
The reason for Socrates’ trial
Led by curiosity, I wanted to understand what prompted Socrates to be on trial in the first place.
Wikipedia states that “the trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: “failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges” and “introducing new deities”.”
However, further down on the page, there is a passage quoted from Larry Gonick, creator of the “Cartoon History of the Universe”,
“The trial of Socrates has always seemed mysterious … the charges sound vague and unreal … because behind the stated charges was Socrates’s real crime: preaching a philosophy that produced Alcibiades and Critias … but of course he couldn’t be prosecuted for that under the amnesty [which had been declared after the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants] … so his accusers made it “not believing the Gods of the city, introducing new gods, and corrupting the youth”.”
Both Alcibiades and Critias were disciples (and friends?) of Socrates who caused great distress for Athens, Greece.
- Alcibiades was an Athenian general who had been the “main proponent of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian Wars, where virtually the entire Athenian invading force of more than 50,000 soldiers and non-combatants (e.g., the rowers of the Triremes) was killed or captured and enslaved.” He was eventually assassinated in Phrygia in 400 BC (a year before Socrates died).
- Critias was a “leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the ruthless oligarchic regime that ruled Athens, as puppets of Sparta and backed by Spartan troops, for eight months in 404–403 BC until they were overthrown). Several of the Thirty had been students of Socrates, but there is also a record of their falling out.”
Interpretations of the phrase
As evidenced in the art above, the trial of Socrates (based on Plato’s representation) inspired many writers, artists, and philosophers to revisit the matter and take the side of Socrates.
“For some, the execution of the man whom Plato called “the wisest and most just of all men” demonstrated the defects of democracy and of popular rule; for others, the Athenian actions were a justifiable defence of the recently re-established democracy”
In modern times, there are a few interpretations,
- “In The Trial of Socrates (1988), I. F. Stone argued that Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death, to justify his philosophic opposition to the Athenian democracy of that time, and because, as a man, he saw that old age would be an unpleasant time for him.”
- “In the introduction to his play Socrates on Trial (2007), Andrew Irvine claimed that because of his loyalty to Athenian democracy, Socrates willingly accepted the guilty verdict voted by the jurors at his trial”
- “In Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009), Robin Waterfield wrote that the death of Socrates was an act of volition motivated by a greater purpose; Socrates “saw himself as healing the City’s ills by his voluntary death”. Waterfield wrote that Socrates, with his unconventional methods of intellectual inquiry, attempted to resolve the political confusion then occurring in the city-state of Athens, by willingly being the scapegoat, whose death would quiet old disputes, which then would allow the Athenian polis to progress towards political harmony and social peace.” This interpretation reminds me of Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat Mechanism.