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The Last Days of Socrates
Plato
Hugh Tredennick
Harold Tarrant
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INTRODUCTION

Toward the end of The Apology, Socrates makes a statement that resonates even with those who have never read Plato: "I tell you that...examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living" (p. 63). The Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo, which depict Socrates' activities just prior to his trial until his death, hold a central place among the works of Plato. They sum up the philosophical career of Socrates, protagonist of most of the Platonic dialogues. But this summing up does not imply the end of the examinations Socrates pursued. On the contrary, during his last days, Socrates rigorously continued the kind of inquiries he had pursued all his life, even at the risk of execution, and he enjoined his companions to continue them when he was gone.

In Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo, we come to know a cast of characters through the opinions they express in conversation with Socrates and one another. Each of these dialogues is an inquiry into a central problem. The Euthyphro examines what holiness is and how it can be recognized, the Crito is concerned with duty under law, and the Phaedo explores the nature of the human soul. The Apology shows Socrates speaking to the Athenian court, defending himself against charges of introducing new religious beliefs and misleading the younger generation. Although The Apology reads as essentially a monologue, Plato casts Socrates' speech as an implied dialogue with his accusers, the assembly, and the larger community of the city. And because the charges call into question Socrates' lifelong public career as a philosopher, The Apology is Plato's most explicit defense of philosophical inquiry as essential to the well-being of society.

In a Platonic dialogue, no single character represents the author's opinions. Instead, we encounter a series of conversations and speeches in which the characters affirm and deny one another's statements while engaging in cross-examination. Every statement is subjected to ongoing inquiry; at its conclusion, a dialogue leaves the impression that more avenues for investigation have been opened than existed at the beginning. The character of Socrates, the most likely spokesman for Plato, is typically the sharpest questioner and often seems to have the upper hand. However, even when he presents fully formed theories, they are put forward only as hypotheses to be examined, not as doctrine. In fact, Socrates repeatedly insists that his only wisdom is in knowing what he does not know and in his willingness to join with others in the pursuit of truth. In addition, other characters with strong positions, such as the title character in the Euthyphro and Simmias in the Phaedo, present ideas that receive careful attention. And Crito, when he implores Socrates to accept the help of his friends and escape from prison, makes a strong argument that appeals to our emotions and common sense.

The dialogues are not philosophical treatises laying out Plato's own position in explicit terms. Rather, they are dramatic representations of living philosophical investigations in which the collaborative activities of the characters help to clarify the problems under examination. An essential aspect of these investigations is that opinions are put forth by distinct individuals who have willful intentions, emotions, and physical bodies, as well as thoughts. No thought is expressed except by a character. No disembodied author's voice guides us to a definitive point of view. Plato directs our attention to the real consequences that ideas have, which is especially poignant in Socrates' response to his accuser Anytus in The Apology. Living in a disrupted society that had relied for its values on received dogma and exemplary myths, such as the Homeric stories of heroic lives, Socrates and Plato introduced the critical examination of these values through philosophical inquiry. It was, and always is, a brave undertaking. The dialogues invite us to enter into the conversations that Plato presents, as active participants and contemporaries of Socrates and his companions. By engaging in, and not maintaining a respectful distance from, the discussion of holiness in the Euthyphro, or the argument for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, or the sensible but discarded argument for expedient personal safety in the Crito, we begin to participate in the activity Socrates most recommends.

 

ABOUT PLATO

Plato was born in Athens, Greece, in about 427 B.C. His family had long been prominent in the civic life of Athens, and as a young man Plato anticipated a political career. But the violence and corruption he observed in Athenian politics following the destruction of the Athenian empire in the Peloponnesian War and the execution of his friend Socrates in 399 B.C. repelled Plato, and he put aside his political ambitions. His association with the followers of Socrates led Plato to found the Academy, a school dedicated to philosophical and scientific research that survived in Athens for more than nine hundred years. In 367 B.C., Plato was invited to Sicily to educate the young monarch Dionyisus II as a philosopher ruler, but the visit ended in political infighting and complete failure. Returning to Athens, Plato officiated at the Academy and devoted himself to teaching and writing until his death in approximately 347 B.C. One of Plato's most accomplished students was Aristotle.

By initiating the critical examination of values, human institutions, and knowledge, Plato defined Western philosophy's central problems. His dialogues immortalize Socrates, who left no writings of his own, and combine masterful literary art with philosophy that has profoundly influenced the course of Western intellectual history. Unlike the works of most ancient authors, virtually all of Plato's known writings have survived intact.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Euthyphro

  1. Why can't Socrates and Euthyphro come to a satisfactory definition of holiness?

  2. Does Socrates believe it is possible to define holiness?

  3. Why does Socrates think that holiness must be "the same in every sphere of activity" (p. 11)?

  4. Why does Socrates consider "the most ingenious feature" of his art to be his ability to make the products of Euthyphro's mind not "stay put" (p. 20)?

  5. Since his conversation with Euthyphro moves in a circle, ending where it began, does Socrates intend it to teach us something other than a definition of holiness?

For Further Reflection
  1. Is Euthyphro justified in prosecuting his father for the worker's death?

  2. Do you agree with Socrates that there is only one standard by which all things are holy and unholy?

The Apology

  1. Is the tone of Socrates' defense humble or proud?

  2. Why does Socrates mention as part of his defense his belief that he will be convicted?

  3. Why does Socrates tell the judges, even before they have found him guilty, that he is not afraid of the death penalty? Why does he say things that are likely to enrage his jurors?

  4. Why does Socrates think that no greater good has ever befallen Athens than his examination of its citizens?

  5. Why do the gentlemen of Athens find Socrates guilty and condemn him to death?
For Further Reflection
  1. Do you agree with Socrates that "the true champion of justice must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone" (p. 56)?

  2. How does knowing that you don't know anything promote virtue?

  3. Would you have condemned Socrates?

Crito

  1. Why doesn't Socrates escape?

  2. Why is it important to Socrates that he act with Crito's assent?

  3. Is Socrates unconcerned about what most people will think if he escapes?

  4. Why does Socrates believe he will injure the laws if he refuses to obey those who unjustly apply them?

  5. In accepting death, is Socrates recognizing the authority of the multitude to decide what is just and unjust?
For Further Reflection
  1. Should Socrates accept Crito's offer?

  2. Is the state, or are individual people, the best judge of what is just and unjust?

  3. Does living in a state amount to agreement with its laws?

Phaedo

  1. On the day of his death, why does Socrates remark on the connection between pleasure and pain?

  2. Why is Socrates uncertain whether he has been heeding the voice in his dreams by practicing philosophy? Why does he try his hand at poetry?

  3. Why does Socrates believe that those who apply themselves to philosophy are preparing themselves for death?

  4. According to Socrates, why do the senses only distract the soul from the acquisition of knowledge?

  5. Why does the Phaedo shift from philosophical argument to a mythology of the underworld?
For Further Reflection
  1. Has Socrates proven that there is a soul, and that it is immortal?

  2. Is Socrates right to eschew bodily pleasures as doing more harm than good?

  3. Of what value do you find philosophy in preparing for death?

Related Titles

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Socrates' trial and execution has certain parallels to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Both men are falsely accused and condemned to death, both refuse to defend themselves, both willingly accept death, and both preach the immortality of the soul.

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (1962)
This play is about the conflict between King Henry VIII of England and Sir Thomas More, his lord chancellor, who was executed when he would not compromise on a matter of conscience.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Plato; or, The Philosopher" (1850)
In this rich appreciation of Plato's philosophical achievement, Emerson emphasizes Plato's work on the nature of the human soul, while at the same time offering Plato as the preeminent example of the philosophical mind.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
This treatise defends the value of rational free inquiry and its importance to the well-being of society.

Plato, The Republic
The aims of the Academy that Plato founded and its blueprint for a just society are laid out in The Republic. Books VII and VIII explore the role of the philosopher ruler. Book XI deals with the immortality of the soul and the rewards of virtue.

I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (1988)
An independent journalist offers a contemporary and controversial reading of Socrates' trial, invoking the larger question of how democratic societies should respond to "traitors in their midst." Stone maintains that Socrates upheld the profoundly undemocratic Sparta and Crete as his favorite models of good government while he lived comfortably in Athens, where his role as a perpetual gadfly was better tolerated.

Henry David Thoreau, "Civil Disobedience" (1849)
Thoreau argues for the individual's right and obligation to protest unjust laws.