Socrate’s First Accusers and Athenian Law Of all confrontations in political philosophy, the biggest isthe conflict between philosophy and politics. The problem remainsmaking philosophy friendly to politics. The questioning of authoritativeopinions is not easily accomplished nor is that realm of philosophy – thepursuit of wisdom.
Socrates was the instigator of the conflict. While thepolitical element takes place within opinions about political life,Socrates asks the question “What is the best regime and how should I live?”Ancient thought is riddled with unknowns and can make no such statement as”how should I live.” The Socratic philosophy offers an alternative andprepares the way for the alternative of absolutes. This alternative is notwithout its faults.
Socratic philosophy is plagued by a destructiveelement. It reduces the authoritative opinions about political life butreplaces it with nothing. This is the vital stem from which the “Apologyof Socrates” is written. Because of the stinging attack on Athenian life,and the opinions which they revere so highly, Socrates is placed on trialfor his life.
The question now becomes why and in what manner did Socrates refutethe gods and is he quilty’socrates, himself, speaks out the accuserscharges by saying “Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, byinvestigating the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and bymaking the weaker the stronger and by teaching others these things” (Plato,19b;c). This is the charge of the “old” accusers. It is seen from anexample in “The Clouds”. Strepsiades goes to Socrates in order to learnhow to pursuade his son by “making the weaker speech the stronger”(Aristophanes, 112).
Why does Socrates remind the assembly about the oldaccusers? It appears improper for a man on trial to bring about his other’crimes’. Aristophanes, in particular, is implicated by Socrates as an oldaccuser. “For you yourselves used to see these things in the comedy ofAristophanes” (Plato, 19c). The poets helped to shape Greek culture.
Poetry was passed on and perpetuated the city where thought constantlychanged.Philosphy begins in debunking what the city thinks they know inorder to refute the god. It is evident that Socrates is not guided by thegods of the city. Socrates says “it is not part of the same man to believein daimonian and divine things” (Plato, 27e).
Socrates is subtly admittinghis guilt. Perhaps Socrates believs in gods, but if so, they are not thegods of the city. Socrates simply denies that he has had any part incelestial or subterranean inquiry – he simply speaks “elsewhere”. Socratesgoes on to say that those who do are reported to be atheists.
However,Socrates says that “Zeus does not eveeen exist” (Aristophanes, 367).Socrates replaces Zeus with nature, the permanent and necessary thingsaccessable to reason. This is an outrage to any Athenian. To deny thegods is to deny faith and ultimately the authoritarian opinions on whichtheir politics is based.
Why does Socrates think that he is being unjustly punished?Chaerophon had told Socrates that the Pythian Oracle had said that Socrateswas the wisest man. Socrates admits that “I am conscious that I am notwise, either much or little” (Plato, 20b). Socrates wonders what theriddle is and sets out to “refute the divination” (Plato, 20c). This is aprime example of Socrates’ impiousness as is his statement in “The Clouds”where he states “we don’t credit Gods” (Aristophanes, 248).
He isattempting to refute the god at Delphi. Socrates tries to aid his owndefense by charging that what he does is in devotion to the god. “Even nowI still go around seeking and investigating in accordance with the god”(Plato, 23b). Socrates makes this brash statement yet it is unfounded anduntrue because it is not a devine order for Socrates to pursue this line ofinvestigation.
In opposition, Socrates asserts that the daimonian did notoppose him.Socrates’ impiety is not the only thing that resulted in histrial.Socrates was “the gadfly” stinging the city of Athens. When Socratesproposes that the god sent him on his quest, he set out to prove it wrong.
In the process, he questioned “the politicians and those reported to bewise” (Plato, 21c). After finding that no one reported to be wise, wasworthy of being called wise, Socrates investigated further “all the whileperceiving with pain and fear that I was becoming hated” (Plato, 21e). Theartisans, poets, and politicians all thought they were knowledgable in “thegreatest things” but, in fact, did not know anything at all. “They all saynoble things but they know nothing of which they speak” (Plato, 22c).
Socrates, in affirming that he reanked above them in wisdom, because heknew nothing, in fact became the oracles main supporter. It must be notedthat Socrates’ support of the cities god is based solely on his ‘testing’of the oracle. Socrates accepts the oracles words, not on divine authoritybut because it passes his test of reason.The hatred of Socrates is extended, as the youth of Athens imitatehim and make the elders look foolish by engaging in Socratic dialogue andshowing up their ignorance.
This led to the charge that Socrates corruptedthe youth. This too was added to the impiety charge. Socrates says thatthe youth follow him “of their own accord” (Plato, 23c).In any event, one concludes that the Delphic Oracle was a definiteturning point in Socrates’ life.
Perhaps it changes Socrates’ interestfrom the physical and astronomical studies with moral and politicalthought. This turning point brings Socrates into conflict with the city ofAthens. His doubt of the opinions taken on authority also concerned thecities god and the cities laws. That made him dangerous in the eyes of theleaders.
Socrates’ thought was a painful sting to the glorifiedconvictions of human conduct that meant so much to the city. Socrates madethe political and moral questions the focus and theme of his “secondsailing” as he suggested in Aristophanes’ “Clouds”. By virtue of Socrates’turn, philosophy now becomes political. The “Apology” presents a critiqueof political life from the view of philosophy.
Socrates disruptsprevailing opinions without providing a substantial opinion to replace it.This may be intentional as to let man decide between his longings and thenecessity of political life. The problem now is how to make philsoophyfriendly to politics. Whether or not that can be done is not to beanswered here.