Reconstructing the Great Speeches – Socrates: “The Defense Speech”

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It was said that Socrates was the “Wisest Man” in the world.  Actually, Socrates was not that smart.  If he had been smart, he would have realized that teaching people to question authority was not such a good idea.  Socrates was the epitome of Greek philosophy.  He was born in 470 BCE and died in 399 BCE at the age of 71.  He died or rather was executed by taking the poison hemlock after being found guilty of “corrupting” the youth of Athens.  Corrupting should be thought of as a euphemism for actually getting the youth to “think for themselves.”  A characteristic no more desired two thousand and five hundred years ago than it is today.  (See my blog “Are Americans Brainwashed.”)

Hundreds of years later and schools are still not able to teach critical thinking skills to students.  I have been in education for over 45 years and I can testify to fact that rote learning is valued ten times more than critical thinking in any school in America.  True, there are many educators who will tell you how important critical thinking skills are.  However, when push comes to shove standardized tests, SAT tests, ACT tests, GRE tests, GMAT tests, LSAT tests, MCAT tests, diploma requirements and graduation exams all demand facts and data.  The quest for the holy grail of critical thinking goes down the toilet.

Socrates might not have actually been the smartest man or even the smartest philosopher, but he certainly knew the value of critical thinking.  The Socratic Method is still widely revered as perhaps the best method for teaching critical thinking.  Socrates did not leave a large body of writings or principles or admonitions for success and greatness.  Socrates simply left us the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions, also known as a dialectic.  The Socratic method accomplished this by questioning everything.  Wikipedia defines the method as follows:

“The Socratic method (also known as method of Elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate), is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presuppositions.” —- Wikipedia

If I am sounding critical of Socrates, this is not my intent.  If any man in history was my hero, it would be Socrates.  Not only did Socrates value critical thinking and actually practice it with his pupils, but he had the audacity and courage to stick to his guns right up to the end.  To understand the integrity of the man, you must read and understand his Defense Speech given at his trial.

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The Trial of Socrates and His Defense Speech:

The fathers of Athens and the Athenian leaders had finally had enough of Socrates.  Socrates had created many enemies along the way.  Other philosophers resented his methods and his denigration of their supposed wisdom.  Prominent leaders thought he challenged democracy because Socrates believed that democratic decision making did not always result in the best decisions.  When it came to their children questioning them and their authority, this was the final straw.

Socrates was hauled into an Athenian court and charged with two counts.  Corrupting the youth of Athens and impious acts.  His impious acts involved questioning the Greek gods.  The Athenians did not have a strict separation of church and state.  Socrates really pissed them off by failing to respect their gods.  Even today, such disrespect will get you killed in many countries across the globe.

Now of course, no one has an exact transcript of Socrates trial.  It has also been generally acknowledged that despite Socrates being found guilty by five hundred Athenian jurors of both charges and sentenced to death, they were willing to let him escape to another country or face a voluntary exile.  This is where it gets really interesting and where you see the courage and integrity of Socrates.  His speech is a defense of everything Socrates finds important in life including his self-respect.

Most of what we know about Socrates and his Defense Speech is found in the following documents:

download“Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens, who had been his student; contemporary interpretations include The Trial of Socrates (1988) by the journalist I. F. Stone, and Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009) by the Classics scholar Robin Waterfield.”  —- Wikipedia

I highly recommend the “Apology of Socrates” by Plato and “The Trial of Socrates” by I.F. Stone.  The following speech excerpts are taken from “The Apology” by Plato.  The Translation is by Benjamin Jowett.

“Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairly answer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”

Socrates is declaring that virtue in life comes not from living or dying but from doing what you think is right or wrong.  Virtue does not come from living a long life but from living a good life.  If you suffer ill consequences from doing the right thing, it should not matter.  Your conscience is more important than your body.  Imagine for a second if the US Congress was full of men and women who adhered to this belief.

“They in their fear (of death) apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good. Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance? And this is the point in which, as I think, I am superior to men in general, and in which I might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men, – that whereas I know but little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do know that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good rather than a certain evil.”

Years before Caesar noted that “Cowards die many deaths and heroes die only once”, Socrates was admonishing the Athenians to not fear death but to fear ignorance and to fear a hubris that was overly proud of knowledge and wisdom.  Socrates asserted that if he was wise, it was because he did not try to act as though the knew everything.  He was humble in the face of his own ignorance of the world.

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Consider today the experts that surround us and try to act like they are miniature gods.  Doctors, lawyers, engineers, military planners, intelligence experts and of course academicians all like to parade their wisdom and knowledge that in actuality is far surpassed by what they do not know.  Nevertheless, advice is rendered, fees collected and the sheep among us march passively towards a perhaps ignominious fate buoyed by a firm belief in whatever nostrum has been sold to them.

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“O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you not ashamed of this?”

Socrates knew that money, honor, and fame often had little to do with wisdom and truth and the improvement of the soul.  Several centuries later, and we have a populace that has elected a leader because many of the voters believed that “A rich man was a wise man.”  Socrates knew this was false and so has every major prophet quoted in both the Old Testament and the New Testament and every holy book every written in history from the Hindu Vedas to the writings of   Abdu’l-Bahá.

“He who hath knowledge and power will rather seek out the glory of heaven, and spiritual distinction, and the life that dieth not. And such a one longeth to approach the sacred Threshold of God; for in the tavern of this swiftly-passing world the man of God will not lie drunken, nor will he even for a moment take his ease, nor stain himself with any fondness for this earthly life.”  — Abdu’l-Bahá

It is amazing to me that the greatest works in history all tell us the same thing.  We must seek out the truth.  We must live a virtuous and moral life.  We must take success with a grain of salt.  We must not be seduced by greed and fame.  We must not judge others by how much they own or do not own.  Jesus said we must feed the hungry and take care of the sick.  Major religions all over the world are predicated on these basic ideas.  Yet, everywhere we look, we see adherents to these same religions practicing the very opposite of what their prophets have espoused.

“If this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply: Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.”

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Socrates was more afraid of being a hypocrite than he was of dying.  He would not forfeit his integrity for his life.  Contrast that with the cowards and sycophants we see every day in the news, on TV, in the Congress and in the White House willing to forfeit their soul and anything they say they believe in to support lies, misinformation, disinformation and immoral intrigues that surpass anything imaginable.  People with more money than they can ever spend but still willing to accept bribes for power and position and more money rather than look for the truth or support a goal of knowledge driven leadership.

Socrates did not leave Athens even when his supporters offered to spirit him away.  Socrates saw such flight as cowardice and a repudiation of everything he believed in. Socrates was a martyr to integrity.  Fame for Socrates was not a fifteen-minute exercise in tweeting or attacking someone with less power than he had.  Socrates attacked the very heart and soul of all evil.  He attacked ignorance and offered a search for truth instead.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jane Fritz
    Jul 03, 2020 @ 17:56:43

    John, your posts don’t seem to be recorded in WordPress’s Reader, so other WordPress bloggers can’t find your engaging posts (or easily reblog them). Do you know why that is?

    Reply

    • Dr. John Persico Jr.
      Jul 03, 2020 @ 18:54:11

      Hi Jane, I did not know that. I appreciate your letting me know. Can you tell me how to create the settings for this? Thanks for your advice. John

      Reply

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