Why the trial of Socrates is the trial of all philosophy, and the Socratic response

At the beginning of Apology, Socrates makes clear that he must address the arguments of two “Accusers”. The second group are those accusing him in court, but there is a first group that has been accusing him for a long time by mocking him in plays, talking behind his back, and casting aspersions on his life. Socrates specifies three main arguments of this first group:

1.) That Socrates does not believe in gods

2.) That he busies himself with things other than the affairs of earth.

3.) That he makes weaker arguments appear the stronger.

The accusations aren’t crazy, and have parallels for us: philosophers do tend to be overwhelmingly atheist (the most well-known survey shows at least a 4 to 1 margin, and this is before one includes agnostics). For his own part, Socrates admits that he does not believe that the Hellenic myths of the gods are true (Euthyphro, 6b). Again, philosophy will always be accused of being useless – viz. what are you going to do with that? We should all, so the second charge goes, strive to study and practice something that will have be of more value to the everyday affairs of life. The final charge is the accusation that philosophy is nothing but clever word games, which consist mostly in taking things that everyone knows (“the stronger argument”) and making them seem to be baseless or contradictory. It’s all but impossible to teach philosophy for fifteen minutes without having the students raise at least the last two objections, and it’s difficult to teach religious students without hearing some variation on the first question, since there will always be a tendency in such a group to think that faith or myth has neatly solved many of these problems and there is something suspicious, defiant, and even wicked in seeking to interrogate them by reason.

IOW, the charge of the “first accusers” is simply the perennial charge against philosophy. So what does Socrates say?

Briefly, Socrates claims that his mission is done in piety and obedience to the Gods, and that he seeks what is more useful than anything, since he seeks for something without which nothing can be useful to human life.

Socrates begins philosophy when an oracle tells his friend that no one is wise than Socrates. His response is to go out and try to find someone wiser than himself, though he gives various accounts of why he is doing so. At first, he appears to just be confused and he is striving to figure out what the god meant; later his mission changes into an attempt to vindicate what the god said; and his final conclusion is that the God did not mean to lift up Socrates above the common run of men, but rather humble the common run of men down to the level of Socrates, whose only “wisdom” is his awareness that he is unable to answer the sort of question that a wise man should be able to answer. Specifically, he has no answer to the question Who makes human beings good? We are told of a time when he posed this question to Callias:

“Callias,” I said, “if your two sons were foals or calves, there would be no difficulty in finding someone to put over them; we should hire a trainer of horses or a farmer probably who would improve and perfect them in their own proper virtue and excellence; but as they are human beings, whom are you thinking of placing over them? Is there anyone who understands human and political virtue? You must have thought about this as you have sons; is there anyone?”

If you want a good horse, you know who to go to, and more or less what process will make one; likewise if you want a good dog or a good car. This even generalizes to the the physical parts of the person: if you want a well- sculpted body, the steps to it are pretty well defined, even if not altogether easy to follow. But what process does one follow to become a good person? The perennial debates over curricula testify to insuperable difficulties at solving even the less controversial aspects of being a good person – and this is before we raise the issue of social justice, sexual ethics, the right music to listen to, the right religion to practice, the right role for a person within that religion etc. Who is the one who has worked all of this out? Would we even know him if we saw him? And even if he had worked it out in general, what would that mean for me? even if the height of human excellence was in desert asceticism or dying for the polis or quietly contemplating or achieving enlightenment or vanquishing ones enemies, this would tell me almost nothing at all about what should be doing with my life.

In the face of this question, we can recognize 1.) that Socrates is right to say that no one is wise since no one has worked this out and 2.) that it is precisely in relation to our answer to this question that anything is useful at all – for nothing is useful except what confers some benefit, but nothing counts as a benefit except in relation to our pre-existent idea of what human excellence is. It is the recognition of this intellectual destitution, and its principal significance, that Socrates calls “philosophy”. All later developments start from here.



  1. September 27, 2013 at 6:15 pm

    This is quite good. In a sense I think the Gorgias is nothing other than Plato’s version of exactly this argument.

    • September 28, 2013 at 7:59 am

      I had to think about what you said for a bit but I think I see it now: the discussion with Gorgias can be read as “what does it mean to have a skill that’s useful to the polis?”; and the one with Callicles includes this and something more intimate, like “what does it mean to be a mature, rational human being?”

      If Gorgias serves as the model of the city, the citizens are consumers moved about by rhetoric/ marketing, though without any rational plan governing their interactions (not that there aren’t attempts to justify this sort of arrangement – Libertarianism seems to be one) if Callicles is the model, then the mature citizen is the sophisticated, urbane elite mind whose enlightenment consists largely in seeing that goodness, purpose, and a rational structure to things are illusions that the educated man has learned to see through.

      • September 28, 2013 at 10:03 am

        Yes, I think this is exactly right.

        I think, though, that one can take it even farther: Plato is also directly tying this to the trial of Socrates and providing his version of a Socratic response to it. We get a hint of it at the very beginning with Socrates’s statement about Chaerephon keeping him in the marketplace, which is almost certainly symbolic of his entire mission as well as giving a reason why Socrates is late to Gorgias’s demonstration; and we see this as well given that jury trials keep coming up as imagery, and even more explicitly when Callicles, in his big speech, raises the issue of Socrates’s trial — as a prediction — and the second and third of your points seem to be both part of Callicles’s attack on Socratic philosophizing. This also seems to be why the dialogue ends by discussing death — the trial and death of Socrates can be seen either as a refutation or a vindication of his approach, depending on whether we view it through Calliclean or Socratic lenses — and the fact that the dialogue ends not so much with a definite answer as with a challenge (although, of course, Plato often does that).

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