Five Lessons from the Trial of Socrates

The renowned philosopher of ancient Athens, Socrates, was held on trial in 399 BCE for two charges — impiety and corrupting the youth. With nearly 2500 years of hindsight and a lack of emotional attachment, his self-defense serves as a goldmine of lessons to be learned, a few of which are briefly outlined in this article. These lessons are not those we might learn from Socrates’ philosophy in general, but rather, those we might glean from the trial itself.

Steelmanning the Opposing Argument

Many contemporary arguments fail to progress because at least one interlocutor does not even understand the opponent’s position. The cause of such misunderstanding are manifold. The defender of a position could be inarticulate. The opponent of a position could be “jumping the gun”, reading information into the position that is either unintended or nonexistent. Either way, there is a beautiful solution known as “steelmanning.” This is the technique whereby the opponent of a position must communicate exactly what it is that the defender is endorsing, and why. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett put it, “Attempt to re-express the other person’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.””

Socrates employed the steelman technique early on in his trial. “What do the slanderers say?” He asks before the court. “…I will sum up their words in an affidavit. “Socrates is an evildoer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.”” He anticipates further attacks when he says, “…someone among you will reply, “…what is the origin of these accusations of you: for there must have been something strange which you have been doing?” With sober clarity, Socrates admits, “Now I regard this as a fair challenge, and I will endeavor to explain to you the origin of this…evil fame.”

At the outset of his trial, Socrates summarizes his perceived wrongdoings and goes on to rebut all of them. Unfortunately, this did not change the philosopher’s fate. But the steelmanning technique has gone on to outlive his mortal coil. I cannot think of one debate that would not benefit from each interlocutor steelmanning her opponent’s position before the pair enter a verbal sparring match.

Ideas, more so than Laws, Can Improve People

During a back-and-forth between Socrates and one of his primary accusers, Meletus, the philosopher asks Meletus who is the improver of the youth. Meletus’ answer reveals a particular mindset that is still prevalent 2500 years later. He thinks that the laws are what cause the youth to advance. But laws cannot be the source of anyone’s improvement, youthful or otherwise. Someone had to have ideated the law before the law could come to pass. Furthermore, the fact that a given law has reached legislative status, and hypothetical alternative laws have not, implies that someone believes the law to be good and useful. So, even if a law does benefit anyone, the source of said benefit had to have been the creativity of one (or more) mind. And that mind(s) can go on to persuade people directly to behave in accordance with the law, even if the law is never passed.

Socrates understands this bottom-up approach to teaching. After Meletus expresses his reverence for “the laws” as the teacher of the youth, Socrates responds, “I want to know who the person is, who, in the first place, knows the laws.” Meletus is forced to admit that those who know the laws include all of the judges present, senators, and even members of the citizen assembly. Socrates finally asks, “Then every Athenian improves and elevates [the youth]; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter?”

All people, not just the youth, are influenced by the milieu of ideas that surrounds them. To the extent that people obey laws, it is because they consider such obedience a good idea (for whatever reason, be it moral, economic, or otherwise). Bottom-up thinking is counterintuitive, and it must have been even more so before the days of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith. Any trace of it in ancient Greece, however slim, is quite an achievement.

Unintended Consequences

In arguments about goals, people often mistake their intentions for solutions. The misstep runs as follows: ‘I aim to achieve goal X. I therefore propose solution Y. If you disagree with my solution, you must disagree with my goal.’ Someone who agrees that goal X is worthwhile may dispute solution Y as a means by which goal X may be achieved. A primary reason is that the disputer foresees unintended consequences of solution Y that the proposer has not considered.

Socrates makes just this point in his trial defense. “I would have you know that, if you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me…[f]or if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who…[is] a sort of gadfly…I am that gadfly which God has given the state…always…around and persuading and reproaching you.” Here, the philosopher warns of the unintended consequence of killing him, namely, that an intellectual stimulant will be gone and difficult to replace.

Socrates recognizes the benefit he brings to society. He warns that, although removing a gadfly such as him may satisfy the annoyed accusers, there is a cost to bear as well. It is never enough to have good intentions. One must consider all of the consequences of a proposed solution, both good and bad.

Consistency is of Fundamental Importance

The principle of explosion states that if there is a contradiction in a set of logical axioms, then from those axioms, one can prove anything at all. This is why consistency is so important when pursuing Truth. A single inconsistency, no matter where it is in a chain of reasoning, can allow for the derivation of any conclusion one desires. We therefore seek only consistent theories, systems, and explanations of Reality. The principle of explosion is totalitarian in its constraint on the knowledge edifices that we erect. Dismiss it, and, quite literally, anything goes.

And so Socrates expatiates on Meletus’ inconsistent accusations of Socrates, namely, that he simultaneously disbelieves and believes in gods. The philosopher knows that the inconsistency had been snuck into the accusations incognito, so that observers may not notice. “[Meletus] said to himself,” Socrates says, as he begins to expose the accuser’s trickery, “I shall see whether this wise Socrates will discover my ingenious contradiction, or whether I shall be able to deceive him and the rest of them.”

Then, in typical Socratic fashion, he asks Meletus, “Can a man believe in spiritual and divine agencies, and not in spirits or demigods?” At Meletus’ admission that a man cannot, Socrates completes the unmasking. “…[N]evertheless you swear…that I teach and believe in divine…agencies…the demigods or spirits are gods, and you say first that I don’t believe in gods, and then again that I do believe in gods; that is, if I believe in demigods.

It is telling that Socrates closes his defense with this. Although the principle of explosion may not have been explicitly known in ancient Athens, the intuition that logical consistency is of paramount importance likely held sway so long as humans have engaged in reason.

Do not Bend to Unrighteousness

There are two seemingly contradictory virtues in the pursuit of Truth. On the one hand, one ought to subject one’s worldview to criticism, and moreover, to modify it if some particular criticism so mandates. On the other hand, if one does not adhere to some set of principles in accordance with one’s worldview, then one is forever vulnerable to tyrannical forces, be they intellectual or physical. But the two tenets are quite harmonious. We may unify them as one maxim –

One ought to retain the principles of one’s worldview unless superior arguments for alternatives are discovered.

It is perhaps Socrates’ poignant speech following his death sentence that is the reason why his name is yet entrenched in the West’s collective consciousness. He does not accept that the jury’s condemnation is an affirmation of his guilt. The philosopher’s actions, which he regards as righteousness, do not, to his mind, receive sufficient criticism from those who deem them as evil. As such, a mere declaration of Socrates’ guilt is not reason for him to acquiesce. Furthermore, he recognizes that his fate had been sealed before the trial had begun.

“You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words…Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words…I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked…saying and doing many things which…are unworthy of me…I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live…The difficulty, my friends, is not in avoiding death, but in avoiding unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death.”

There are today, and always will be, temptations to bend principles for the wrong reasons — for social cachet, for fear of the mob, for psychological ease. I shall not tell others how to live; if you’d rather speak untruths, or engage in acts you know to be wrong, that is your prerogative. But Socrates chose differently. His ideas have survived him in the very fabric of our civilization. Any one of us can, too, contribute to that beautiful fabric. We only have to choose to do so.

Note — this was originally published with Areo.



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Logan Chipkin

Writer for Quillette, Areo, Physics World, and others| Science, history, philosophy, and economics | @ChipkinLogan