Socrates’ life seemed to be trivial, particularly in his final days, when he was forced to choose between what is right in his opinion and what is right to do often in any situation. The universe lies somewhere in his philosophy, which he shared with Plato, in the insightful question of what is ‘just.’ Men and law sometimes view just or fairness differently, with the law seeing it as the right thing to do as long as it benefits the majority, while men see it as an idea that outweighs the harm done to society or individuals. It, thus, brings one to the question of whether a person is obligated to obey the law no matter how unjust or evil it offers to be as long as it is a valid rule dictated by the legal system. Civil disobedience concerning law and ethics is not something new, and it is traceable back to the era of Socrates, when he was faced with an ultimatum of either accepting his fate of a trial that ended in his conviction or fleeing from the country of his residence. However, Socrates agreed that the sentence he received outweighed the option of banishment or fleeing from the country; it, thus, leads one to the aim of the paper of analyzing why he accepted this outcome over his life.
The death of Socrates offers a moral dilemma linked to civil disobedience in trivial times, and it presents a suitable structure that can help in considering moral basis when one is obeying the law. The dialogues between Socrates and Crito imply three probable bases when ethically under the obligation of obeying the law. First is that an individual may have consented with the law in that it is easy to find that there is an implied agreement to obey the law. Secondly, it is minimal of an implied agreement, whereby it is the actions that of an individual that binds him to disobey the law. Finally, it is the absence of any action by the person himself, as he may only have been a recipient of benefits bestowed by the citizens. In a logical perspective, these three possibilities ultimately communicate any existing source of the obligation to the law. However, after exhausting these options, it is important to examine the trial of Socrates in the framework of the Athenian legal system, from which it will be able to understand both legal system and the motivations of Socrates.
Before his sentence, Socrates was accused of corrupting the minds of his followers with his philosophical teachings, which was considered a capital crime during his time. He was tried before a panel of 500 judges, who found him guilty, then sentenced to death (Grafton et al. 997). All through the proceedings, Socrates never denied the fact that corrupting the mind of youth was indeed a criminal offense punishable by death. In this time, the Athenian trials dictated that both the accused and the accusers were allowed to refer to recent trials that occurred recently that were familiar with the tribunals. However, to both Socrates and Athenians, trials and judgments only meant the tribunal is simply applying the law, which was independent and unchangeable by circumstances.
It is quite natural to find it that the law and the state would, by all means, do whatever it takes to protect the youths, and Socrates agreed with it; if indeed he was found guilty by the law, then he should be punished accordingly by the law. Ethically, it is correct, but the basis of finding Socrates guilty was based on what he believed in all his life, which, in certain cases, would not align to what some of the Athenians believed. The life of Socrates was filled with the philosophy of asking questions to anyone while examining their logic as a means of arriving at the truth. In doing so, most of his listeners had the courage of thinking for themselves and questioning different aspects of the society such as equality and justice. Additionally, he majorly preached to both young and old to cease worshiping wealth and their bodies, but instead, strive to improve their minds and soul. Despite his force in the society, Socrates never forced anyone to listen to him, and he never charged anyone to hear to his teachings as well; his way of teaching was persuading the listeners.
A society that thinks for itself is a nation that threatens the governing body and its laws, and Socrates’ accusation was based on corrupting the youths, and thus, it made his teachings equal to the crime he was accused. From this perspective, it only meant that his philosophy on the unexamined life being not worth living was illegal. Based on the fact that Socrates whole life was to teach and promote his philosophy, it meant that if he was found guilty for doing what he lived for, it then supposed that he was as well guilty for living. It is at this point that one begins to understand why Socrates never declined the judgment placed on him by the law. One of his defenses during his trial was that there was no youth harmed by his teachings, as no one had previously complained about his way of life (White 451). It was not his pupils that were harmed, but rather the politicians, who were often cross-examined by his pupils, as they found many people, who claimed to be intelligent, but apparently only knew a little or nothing at all. Therefore, Socrates accusations were driven by individuals, who were embarrassed by his pupils, and thus, chose to eliminate him, their source of nuisance.
Another driving force that led to his sentence might have been his constant teachings against worshiping of the gods recognized by the city. At first, it is evident Socrates was unaware of whether his charges were based on corrupting the youths from worshipping the gods or on promoting the idea of atheism. However, to Socrates, it was not that his teachings against the gods that troubled his accusers, but rather the establishment of Athens that was at stake (Andrea 146). It is because most youths became smart and started questioning everything around them; it opened their eyes to the fact that worshipping the gods was, in real sense, worshipping the interests of the city. In turn, any citizen, who thinks for themselves and questions the law, is someone, who cannot obey the commands of the states, and in a way, Socrates was found guilty of building a nation of free thinkers and those, who would not obey the law without questions.
In the Athenian society, they already recognized particular gods, duties, and lifestyles; it has institutionalized the community by keeping them together; these steps made the society both peaceful and prosperous. In this sense, Socrates’ life, which was devoted to questioning what happens in people’s lives and society, was seen as a threat to the Athenian state; thus, it was not a random act that Socrates was sentenced to death. But just because he was prosecuted and executed for what looked like the righteous ground, does it mean that Socrates believed he had a fair end? In general perspective and the trial, this decision does not seem just, and that is why he even countered the accusations made on him by proving that no one had complained about his teachings.
Regardless of the end, Socrates often believed in preaching what is right and not the easy way out. Socrates’ philosophy believed in liberating the people of Athens, so that they could free themselves from the love earthly things that do not add value to their mind and soul; it also meant not worshipping the body. Additionally, to Socrates, the law was just, and he believed that the system was just as well. It is at this point that he acquainted himself with the familiarity that if the law found him guilty for awakening the Athenians, then he would gladly accept his fate. An important fact here is that Socrates believed that his proceedings were led and promoted by people, who are unjust; however, it did not mean that he disregarded the morality of the legal procedures; they were just to him, and he would obey them accordingly. In accepting his fate, Socrates accepted the verdict of the law, despite the fact that he believed he was unjustly accused. Plato, on the other hand, saw that even the law itself was corrupted. It was the reason why his friend was found guilty, and that all through the proceedings, the law was never in favor of Socrates (Morris 79). Because of this aspect, he should have chosen to be exiled instead of being executed. Socrates, nevertheless, believed that he had been put in that particular place by the gods for a purpose, and by selecting exile over the poison, he would be cheating his way through life; because of it, he believed that the laws were just, and thus, stood his ground.
In conclusion, Socrates lived a life of philosophy, and the aim of his teachings was to liberate and enlighten people from the previous foundations of the society, whereby man was governed by the things he owned, which, in turn, dictated men’s lives. His teachings encouraged people to question their purpose of existence while justifying why certain things were the way they existed. Though the society seemed to become better from his teaching, those, who fostered the law such as the politicians, believed that he was corrupting the youth, and he would have started a rebellion against the state. Socrates believed and respected the law, and therefore, even at the point, where felt that his accusers were corrupted, he believed that the law was just, and the law would determine the right course of action. It is because of his faith in the just law that he decided that the sentence he received was better than banishment from Athens.
Andrea, Alfred J. World history encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif., ABC-CLIO, 2011.
Grafton, Anthony, et al. The classical tradition. 1st ed., Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.
Morris, Thomas F. “Why Socrates Does Not Request Exile in the Apology.” The Heythrop Journal, vol. 55, no. 1, 2011, pp. 73-85., doi:10.1111/j.1468-2265.2011.00719.x.
White, Francis C. “Socrates, Philosophers, and Death: Two Contrasting Arguments in Plato’s Phaedo.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 02, 2006, pp. 445-457., doi:10.1017/s0009838806000450.