When Socrates was asked to suggest an alternative to his death sentence, he said he should be given free room and board for life, just like the Olympians. Unfortunately, the 501 jurors deciding his case didn’t agree, and Socrates was executed by poison in 399 BC. The charges? Corrupting the youth and not acknowledging Athen’s gods.
No doubt the charges were trumped up and Socrates was executed for his radical philosophies that criticized the practices of the Athenian elite and attracted a following that included throngs of youth. He saw politicians as corrupt, full of pumped up political self-importance and he wasn’t afraid to say so. Democracy, he believed, was a disaster.
At his trial, Socrates confronted his accusers with the following question, "are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom and truth, or the best possible state of your soul?” According to Socrates, the corruption of a democratic system results in men striving for wealth, power, and other shallow pursuits rather than for truth, wisdom and the state their souls. This was during a critical time in Athenian history, when the Greeks were trying to stabilize democracy after their humiliating defeat in the Peloponnesian War.
Because Socrates didn’t write anything down, what we know of him and his trial mostly comes from the writings of his student Plato. Some people have even gone so far as to claim that Socrates was a character invented by Plato, as legendary as the lost city of Atlantis.
But the wandering, minimalist Socrates, who appeared to have been homeless, was real and whether or not Plato gives us an accurate description of his unusual teacher is secondary to how much of Plato’s original philosophical writings were directly influenced by Socrates, particularly his most famous work, Plato’s Republic, which I believe is in response to Socrates’ hatred of democracy but with which Socrates would disagree.
In American society today, the pursuit of wealth and power may not be on everyone’s mind, but with the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor widening in the United States, with the burden of taxes aimed at eradicating the middle class, and an untouchable, super rich elite, Socrates’ words still mean as much today as they did over two-thousand years ago. If men do not strive for virtuous things, we’ll end up in Plato’s Republic: where the individual exists for the state and the masses are ruled by a small group of elite (philosopher kings) who control the flow of knowledge and use force to inflict upon society a totalitarian, socialist government.
From Plato’s speech to his accusers, it would seem that he represented everyday man, and that he insisted it be everyday man who pursues a pious life, one full truth, wisdom and the inner workings of the soul. If this were to happen, if everyone on Earth followed Socrates’ advice, there would be no need for government, for every man would rule himself.
But as we take a good look at American culture today, where children want to be rich and famous when they grow up, where they think they too can become reality TV stars, it seems government will continue to grow bigger and bigger while a new generation of unsuspecting Americans are kept distracted with what Socrates would call lower pursuits.
Know Your Enemy (Part 45- Republics). Retrieved Oct. 25, 2012 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PB4bHN_9m34
Putting Socrates on Trail. Retrieved Oct. 25, 2012 from http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/putting-socrates-on-trial.html
Trial of Socrates. Retrieved Oct. 25, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trial_of_Socrates