Accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates stood trial and prepared to defend his case. Sharing his story, however, did no good. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the chance to offer a counter penalty with the potential to keep his life, he chose to ask for the highest honor one could receive instead. The court would obviously not accept his offer and he was executed. Some may say he was a martyr, dying for a philosophical cause. Others might say he took his sarcastic manner too far and unwisely “asked for” his death. Before jumping to one side of the argument or the other, it is important to consider what purpose he sought to live out in his career as a philosopher.
Several of the statements from Plato’s Apology, the written dialogue of Socrates’ defense and counter penalty, indicate intentionality in his life’s work. What he is reported as saying in conjunction with his actions provide reason to believe that Socrates found meaning in his dialogues and thought he was serving a greater purpose through his death than would be realized through continuing to live.
In sharing his story to those present in court, he tells a tale of a divine nature. “I shall call upon the god at Delphi as witness to the existence and nature of my wisdom, if it be such” (Cohen p114 21a). An unnamed friend asked an oracle who was the wisest man. “Socrates,” was the reply. Believing this to be false, and actually thinking the opposite to be true, Socrates determined to find someone who proves to be wiser than he, in order to correct the oracle in his decree. “For a long time I was at a loss as to his meaning; then I very reluctantly turned to some such investigation as this: I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: ‘This man is wiser than I, but you said I was’” (Cohen 115 21c). Finding this first person to not be wise, Socrates set out to interview every person who was known to be wise to discern if they were as wise as they were considered. Of everyone to whom he spoke, though, he found none to be truly wise. Yet in doing so, he made many an enemy. This chain of events is what led him to his accusations in court.
Recognizing the origins of his life mission, gives insight into what exactly that mission was. He attributes this initial point of questioning wisdom to a god. This provides a base reason for assuming a higher purpose to his work. The god’s statement was what drove him to seek out those who are considered wise. Without reading any further into the Apology, we can propose a mission at this point: To prove to the Oracle at Delphi that he, Socrates, is not the wisest man.
Socrates continues in his speech, addressing the issue raised by many observers. Why did he not cease making enemies? “Someone might say: ‘Are you not ashamed, Socrates, to have followed the kind of occupation that has led to your being now in danger of death?’ However, I should be right to reply to him: ‘You are wrong, sir, if you think that a man who is any good at all should take into account the risk of life or death; he should look to this only in his actions, whether what he does is right or wrong, whether he is acting like a good or bad man’” (Cohen 120 28b). In this latest statement, we see Socrates begin to hint at the righteousness of a man’s actions as more important than the fear of death. Many people thought he was just being a bother or raising mischief, “What is your occupation? For surely if you did not busy yourself with something out of the common, all these rumours and talk would not have arisen unless you did something other than most people” (Cohen 114 20c). Socrates, however, sees rightness in his actions and a striving to act like a good man. From just this excerpt, we could propose another mission: To live right and do good.
Socrates, never seeming to be short of breath, keeps speaking, saying, “This is the truth of the matter, gentlemen of the jury: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger, without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace (28d). To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think onf knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of all evils” (Cohen 120-21 29a). In these few short sentences, Socrates expresses some important personal beliefs. First, he values standing firm in a held belief and respecting authority. Second, he reiterates his previous stance on the importance of not claiming wisdom that one is actually lacking.
Coming to the end of his defense, Socrates speaks honestly. If he were to be allowed life, but told to not practice philosophy, he would say, “Gentlemen of the jury, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy…” (Cohen 121 29d). He distinguished the most important things in life as wisdom or truth and states that the god ordered him to make those known. He thinks there is “no greater blessing for the city than [his] service to the god” (Cohen 122 30a). That concludes his defense argument, to which the jury gives its verdict of guilty. Socrates, in his counter penalty says, “If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest food for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for man, you will believe me even less” (Cohen 127 38a). These propose a final possible mission: To serve/obey the god by practicing philosophy.
Throughout the duration of his defense and counter penalty, Socrates offers three possible missions for his life:
- To prove to the Oracle at Delphi that he, Socrates, is not the wisest man.
- To live right and do good.
- To serve/obey the god by practicing philosophy.
As this speech is a whole, all of these possible missions need to be read in consideration of each other. Combined, they provide a potential overall life mission of Socrates:
To serve god by pursuing virtue through the practice of philosophy
According to Socrates, the pursuit of virtue involves the avoidance of ignorance. It is ignorant to fear death because the value of the state of death is unknowable to man. Therefore Socrates does not fear death. He also values the authority of the god greater than the authority of man. As such, he would choose to obey the god over any court ruling that tells him otherwise. Holding such high beliefs, he sees no other way to live. An attempt to live in any other manner would not be a life of any worth and would instead be a sort of living death. He found it greater to die in accordance with a purposeful life, by serving god in the pursuit of virtue through the practice of philosophy, than to live in a wasted existence.
Cohen, S Marc, Patricia Curd, C.D.C. Reeve. Reading in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle (2000)