The Lost Plato Volume 1: Plato's Struggle With Socrates
Chapter 11: Socrates in the Euthyphro and the Apology
In the Euthyphro, Socrates encounters Euthyphro at the Porch of the King Archon. They both have dealings with the King: Socrates because Meletus has indicted him for corrupting the young (2a-c), Euthyphro because he intends to press charges against his father for murder (3e7-4a10). Euthyphro asks Socrates how he is supposed to have corrupted the young, and he answers: ‘Meletus says that I am a maker of gods, making new gods and rejecting the old ones’ (3b1-4), re-phrasing the charge at 5a7-8 as follows: ‘he charges me with rash speculations and innovations in religion’. Socrates does not reject the charge out of hand. He says that if he is in the wrong, it is because of his ignorance, which he wants to overcome. The dialogue radiates confidence that because of his admission of ignorance and his willingness to be taught better there is for him no case to answer and the accusation must fail. I therefore date the Euthyphro prior to Socrates’ trial, in the interval between the institution of proceedings against Socrates and the trial itself.(1)
The modern dating of Plato’s dialogues, and of the Euthyphro in particular had a staunch precursor in the 19th century; G. Grote believed that Plato did not write any dialogues during Socrates’ lifetime, for only ‘the death of Socrates left that venerated name open to be employed as spokesman in his dialogues.’(2) Concerning the Euthyphro Grote finds it ‘altogether inadmissible’ to suppose that Plato ‘should publish such a dialogue while the trial of Socrates was impending, for ‘the effect of it would be to make the position of Socrates much worse on his trial.’ (Grote p. 316, n.1). I will show that when Plato wrote the dialogue, he believed the very opposite; he wrote it in the belief that Socrates’ position presented in the Euthyphro was invincible. (3)
In the Euthyphro Socrates does not agree with the accepted view of the gods, which he views as a likely reason for his indictment, whereas in the Apology he simply denies the charge. Written after the trial, the Euthyphro would have to be read as a corroboration of the charge, but the whole tenor of the dialogue speaks against such a supposition.To make this point clearer, let me compare the relevant passages. In the Euthyphro, Euthyphro considers himself to be an expert on religiosity, and Socrates therefore asks him what is piety(to hosion)and impiety (to anosion). Euthyphro answers:
‘Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime – whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be – that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety. ... For do not men regard Zeus as the best and most righteous of the gods? – and yet they believe (tunchanousi nomizontes) that he bound his father because he devoured his sons and thus committed a crime (hoti tous huieis katepinen ouk en dikêi, 5d8-6a2).’
‘May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I have been indicted (tout’ estin houneka tên graphên pheugô), that I show some resentment (duscherôs pôs apodechomai) when someone speaks about gods in this way? For this reason (dio dê), I suppose (hôs eoike), people think me wrong’ (phêsei tis me examartanein, 6a6-9).
At Euthyphro 5a7-8 Socrates re-formulated Meletus’ charge ‘he charges me with rash speculations and innovations in religion’ (me ekeinos autoschediazonta phêsi kai kainotomounta peri tôn theiôn). At the end of the Euthyphro, full of irony, Socrates expresses his regret that Euthyphro did not teach him what piety was and thus deprived him of his hope that he could go to Meletus and tell him that ‘I had been enlightened by Euthyphro on religion (sophos êdê par’ Euthuphronos ta theia gegona) and given up rash innovations and speculations in which I indulged only through ignorance’ (kai hoti ouk eti hup’ agnoias autoschediazô oude kainotomô peri auta, 16a1-3). Socrates’ irony ought not distract us from the fact that he here clearly admits that he does in fact have very idiosyncratic (autoschediazô) and innovative (kainotomô) views on religion, as charged by Meletus.
In the Apology Socrates opens his Defence by declaring that his accusers ‘have hardly uttered a word of truth’ (alêthes ge hôs epos eipein ouden eirêkasi, 17a4), and goes on proclaiming that the charges raised against him are false (pseudê katêgorêmena, 18a8). Diogenes Laertius in his Life of Euclides (ii. 106) and in his Life of Plato (iii.6) informs us on the authority of Hermodorus, a disciple of Plato, that after the death of Socrates Plato and the other Socratics feared prosecution and retired to Megara, the home of Euclides (ii. 106).(4) Writing the Euthyphro after the trial would have only served to confirm the charges against Socrates, and aggravat the danger of further prosecutions directed against Socrates’ disciples.
In his Life of Euclides Diogenes says that Plato and other Socratics retired to Megara because they were ‘alarmed at the cruelty of the tyrants’ (ii. 106), which might cast doubts on the accuracy of his information, for it could be argued that his source appears to have mixed up the Democrats, under whose reign Socrates was accused and sentenced to death, with the preceding reign of the Thirty Tyrants. But the information that Socrates’ friends were ‘alarmed at the cruelty of the tyrants’ is far from being confused, for Socrates speaks of Meletus in terms that are intended to evoke the image of the Thirty Tyrants. When Euthyphro asks Socrates about the charge against him, Socrates replies sarcastically:
‘Meletus begins by purging away us (Melêtos isôs prôton men hêmas ekkathairei) whom he accuses of corrupting the young shoots. Clearly, afterwards taking care of the elder branches he will become a great benefactor of the city, as is likely to happen if he goes on as he has begun (2d4-3a5)
These words resemble the words with which Lysias spoke of the Thirty in his speech Against Eratosthenes, which at the time of Socrates’ indictment must still have been ringing in the ears of the Athenians:
‘When the Thirty were established in the government, evil and slander-mongers as they were, they declared that the state must be purged of unjust men (phaskontes chrênai tôn adikôn katharan poiêsai tên polin) and the rest of citizens inclined to virtue and justice (kai tous loipous politas ep’ aretên kai dikaiosunên trapesthai, 5).
Euthyphro underlines the gravity of the situation by proclaiming that by unjustly attacking Socrates (epicheirôn adikein se) Meletus is aiming his blows at the city’s very foundations (atechnôs gar moi dokei aph’ hestias kakourgein tên polin, 3a6-8).
Euthyphro’s qualification of Meletus’ indictment of Socrates as an attack aimed at the very foundations of the city suggest that Plato wrote the Euthyphro to defend not only Socrates; defending Socrates was tantamount to protecting the source of the city’s moral and political health and strength.The charge against Socrates was composed of two parts, the charge of corrupting the youth and of impiety. In the Euthyphro Plato sets these two charges in opposition to each other, transforming the charge of impiety into its opposite in the course of the dialogue. Socrates’ refusal to accept the traditional views about the Olympian gods enables him to open Euthyphro’s eyes to true piety. For the pious Euthyphro is determined to prosecute his father for murder, modelling his action on the actions of the Olympians, notably Zeus, ‘the best and the most righteous of gods’. His intention to indict his father is abhorrent to the Athenians with their sense of piety; Euthyphro admits that all his friends and relatives wanted to dissuade him from his action, arguing that it was impious to prosecute one’s father for murder (anosion gar einai to huion patri phonou epexienai, 4d9-e1), but he could shrug off their arguments as contradicting their religious beliefs about gods (houtôs autoi hautois ta enantia legousi peri te theôn kai peri emou, 5e-6a). Only Socrates with his refusal to accept the traditional beliefs about gods could in the end dissuade Euthyphro from his impious action by undermining his conviction that he knew what true piety was and what actions it involved.(5)
It is clear from Euthyphro’s own account that the death, for which he held his father responsible, was anything but a straightforward case of murder. Euthyphro narrates:
‘The man who is dead was a poor dependent of mine who worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos, and one day in a fit of drunken passion he got into quarrel with one of our domestic servants and slew him. My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch, and then sent to Athens to ask an expositor of religious law what he should do with him. Meanwhile he never attended to him and took no care about him, for he regarded him as a murderer; and thought that no great harm would be done even if he did die. Now this was just what happened. For such was the effect of cold and hunger and chains upon him, that before the messenger returned from the expositor, he was dead.’ (4c3-d5, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates refers to the concrete circumstances of the death for which Euthyphro holds his father responsible as the basis for his probing into Euthyphro’s presumed knowledge concerning piety:
‘Good heavens, Euthyphro! and is your knowledge of religion and of things pious and impious so very exact, that, supposing the circumstances to be as you state them, you are not afraid lest you too may be doing an impious thing in bringing an action against your father? (4e4-8, tr. B. Jowett).
In his first attempt to define piety Euthyphro defined it as ‘doing what I am now doing’ (to men hosion estin hoper egô nun poiô), ‘indicting the unrighteous’ (tôi adikounti ... epexienai), and ‘impiety as failing to indict’ (to de mê epexienai anosion, 5d8-e2) such a man. To bring him to his senses, Socrates compels Euthyphro to admit that according to his beliefs gods differ among themselves as to what they consider to be just, and what unjust:
‘Gods have differences of opinion, as you say (kata ton son logon), about good and evil, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable: there would be no quarrels among them, if there were no such differences – would there now?’. (7e1-4, tr. B. Jowett).
When Euthyphro cannot but agree that this is so, Socrates evokes the concrete circumstances of the case of Euthyphro’s father with renewed urgency:
‘Well then, my dear friend Euthyphro, do tell me, for my better instruction and information, what proof have you that in the opinion of all the gods a servant who is guilty of murder, and is put in chains by the master of the dead man, and dies because he is put in chains before he who bound him can learn from the expositors of religious law what he ought to do with him, is killed unjustly; and that on behalf of such an one a son ought to proceed against his father and accuse him of murder. How would you show that all the gods absolutely agree in approving this act? Prove to me that they do, and I will applaud your wisdom as long as I live.’ (9a1-b3, tr. B. Jowett).
Socrates does so once again, in the closing scene, after Euthyphro had failed in all his attempts to define piety:
‘Then we must begin again and ask, What is piety? That is an inquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies (hôs egô prin an mathô hekôn einai ouk apodeiliasô); and I entreat you not to scorn me, but to apply your mind to the utmost, and tell me the truth. For, if any man knows, you are he; and therefore I must hold you fast, like Proteus, until you tell. If you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident that you would never, on behalf of a serf, have attempted to prosecute your aged father for murder (ouk estin hopôs an pote epecheirêsas ... diôkathein phonou, 15d5-6). You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods, and you would have had too much respect for the opinions of men. I am sure, therefore, that you know the nature of piety and impiety. Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide your knowledge.’ (15c11-e2).(6)
At this point Euthyphro realized that he had nothing to say in defence of his action; instead of entering the King’s office to indict his father, as he had intended, he hastens away (15e3-4). The dialogue leaves little doubt that had Euthyphro proceeded with his accusation, his life would have been blighted; he would have transgressed against the proper son-father relationship as sanctioned by custom, law, and religion. Socrates immediately realized the serious situation in which Euthyphro found himself, subjected him to questioning that undermined his confidence, dissuaded him from his course of action, and he did so by shaking the notion of piety that Euthyphro derived from his faith in the traditional deities.
It is worth noting that in his final appeal Socrates’ true piety transpires throughout all the insistence on his own ignorance. In his view of the gods there are no differences of opinion among them concerning the just and the unjust, the good and the bad, and true piety would preclude Euthyphro from indicting his father for murder respecting the given circumstances of the case. Socrates is confident that in this respect his view of true piety fully coincides with the most deeply cherished opinions of his fellow-Athenians. When Plato wrote the dialogue, he was confident that Socrates would win the case against him, and that from then on his view of piety would prevail and would form the basis of moral and political renewal in which he believed and for which he intended to work as a politician.
The claim that Socrates succeeded in dissuading Euthyphro from prosecuting his father needs defending, for the modern view of the dialogue is to the contrary. P.T. Geach concludes his article on the Euthyphro by saying that ‘Mr Right-Mind [i.e. Euthyphro] was not to be led a-wandering from the straight path’.(7) Anthony Kenny takes Geach’s interpretation for granted and founds on it his interpretation of Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics:
‘The service of the Gods which Euthyphro has in mind includes prayer and service: but it includes also acts of justice such as Euthyphro’s attempt to punish a murderer – the endeavour which gives the whole dialogue its framework... It is certainly not alien to Aristotle’s manner in the Eudemian Ethics to defend the moral opinions of the plain man against the paradoxes of Socrates.’(8)
Let us consider the text more closely to see if any indication can be found there that after leaving Socrates Euthyphro is going to pursue the course of action which he describes to Socrates. We can deduce that Euthyphro has just arrived at the Porch of the King to indict his father, and is not leaving the office of the King after having indicted his father, from his first words to Socrates: ‘What happened Socrates that you have left your activities (diatribas) at the Lyceum and are now spending your time (diatribeis) here in the Porch of the King?’(9) The word diatribeis, which I have translated as ‘spending your time’, suggests that Euthyphro watched Socrates as he himself was approaching the Porch of the King, which would not be the case if he were coming out of it. (Jowett’s ‘what are you doing in the Porch of King Archon’ does not do justice to the Greek.) In response to Socrates’ questioning, at the end of the dialogue the young man does not confess that Socrates succeeded in shaking his self-confidence, but he shows by his actions that this was the case:
Socrates: ‘So we must start our enquiry again at the beginning and ask what is piety ... Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide what you think it to be.’
Euthyphro: ‘Another time, Socrates, for now I am in a hurry to go somewhere, and it is time for me to go away.’ (15c11-e4)
Euthyphro pretends that there is something urgent that forces him to abandon any further discussion for the moment. He says that he is willing to resume the discussion ‘another time’, but the very fact that he is hastening away instead of entering the office of the King indicates that he has abandoned his purpose.
Again, Jowett’s translation allows a very different interpretation of the given passage, for he translates Euthyphro’s final words Eis authis toinun, ô Sôkrates; nun gar speudô poi, kai moi hôra apienai(15e3-4) as ‘Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now’. This permits the view that Euthyphro simply brushes away Socrates’ paradoxes and goes straight to the King to perform his religious duty by handing in his indictment of his father. But this would be manifestly erroneous, for the Greek speudô poimeans ‘I am in a hurry to go somewhere’, the indeterminacy of which does not allow us to interpret these words as Euthyphro’s going to enter the building in front of which both he and Socrates stand, and the words kai moi hôra apienai mean ‘and I must go away now’.(10)Luckily, there exists an independent testimony that Euthyphro’s rushing away was not a temporary moment of ‘weakness’ on his part. For Diogenes Laertius says in his Life of Socrates that ‘when Euthyphro had indicted his father for manslaughter, Socrates, after some conversation with him upon piety, diverted him from his purpose (apêgage, ii. 29)’.(11) And even without Diogenes’ testimony it ought to be clear that this must have been the case, for it was only Euthyphro’s ultimate bowing to Socrates’ moral and intellectual authority that allowed Plato to employ him in the dialogue to express his own deepest conviction that by prosecuting Socrates Meletus was aiming his blow at the very heart of the city (3a6-8). Euthyphro expresses this conviction as soon as he hears from Socrates about Meletus’ accusation, and it is Euthyphro’s giving up on his self-injuring course of action under the pressure of Socrates’ questioning that gives the dialogue its proper balance; the end of the dialogue points to an outcome that is worthy of Socrates and of his position at the heart of the city.
In the Euthyphro Socratesdoes not discuss his defence let alone consciously engage in preparing it, although Euthyphro all but provokes him to do so, exhorting both himself and Socrates to go on the attack (homose ienai, 3c5), expressing his hope that Socrates would win his cause (su te kata noun agôniêi tên dikên, 3e5), and suggesting the course of action that he himself would take if accused by Meletus: ‘I would find out where his weakness lies, so that the argument in the court would be much rather about him than about me’ (5b8-c3). Socrates responds to his suggestion with irony ‘And I, my dear friend, knowing this, am desirous of becoming your disciple’ (5c4-5), which can hardly be construed as Socrates’ intention in this way to prepare himself for his Defence. Yet, it is interesting to see that Euthyphro’s advice to turn the jury’s attention away from Socrates, focusing on Meletus, is precisely what Socrates endeavoured to achieve at the trial. For at the trial Socrates begins his interrogation of Meletus by stating that it is Meletus who commits injustice (adikein phêmi Melêton, Ap. 24c5), goes on to show ‘that Meletus is reckless and impudent, and that he has brought in this indictment in a spirit of mere wantonness and youthful bravado’ (26e7-9), and concludes it by proclaiming: ‘you either made this indictment with an intention to test all of us or because you could think of nothing true of which to accuse me’ (ê aporôn hoti enkalois emoi alêthes adikêma, 27e3-5).
These are not the only passages that suggest that in his discussion with Euthyphro Socrates alighted on themes that reappear in his Defence speech. Euthyphro suggests that Meletus accuses Socrates of bringing in new deities (kainotomountos sou peri ta theia, 3b6-7)‘for he knows that accusations of this kind are readily believed by the many. For in my case as well,when I speak in the assembly about divine things, and foretell the future to them they laugh (katagelôsin, 3c2) at me’. The young man is too preoccupied with himself to see that there is no connection between his being laughed at in the assembly and Meletus’ accusation of Socrates. Socrates’ initial reaction is simply to say ‘But to be laughed at is surely not a matter of much consequence’ (alla to men katagelasthênai isôs ouden pragma, 3c6-7). On second thought, Socrates establishes an unexpected and very relevant connection between Euthyphro’s words and his own case. For after expressing a fear that the Athenians might hold it against him that he is readily sharing his views with everybody (panti andri legein, 3d8), he returns to the theme of being laughed at: ‘Now if, as I just said, they would only laugh at me, as you say that they laugh at you, it would be quite pleasant to spend the time in the court having fun and laughing’ (ouden an eiê aêdes paizontas kai gelôntas en tôi dikastêriôi diagagein, 3e1-2). In the Apology Socrates introduces his actual defence by evoking Aristophanes’ comic misrepresentation of him as a wise man preoccupied with the investigation of natural phenomena (19c2-5). Such misrepresentation was dangerous and it must have been widespread before Aristophanes turned it into a joke on stage. Yet, it was Aristophanes’ turning it into comedy that protected Socrates for more than a quarter of a century against men of Meletus’ ilk.
In the Euthyphro Socrates remarks that if the Athenians in the court get serious (ei de spoudasontai, 3e2), they might hold it against him that he appeared to be sharing his views with everybody ‘not only without obtaining any pay but being even prepared gladly to pay anyone willing to listen to me’ (ou monon aneu misthou, alla kai prostitheis an hêdeôs ei tis mou ethelei akouein, 3d8-9). In the Apology Socrates exorcized this worry by ironically praising the famous sophists for being capable of earning handsome money by educating the young who would do better if they drew benefit from the company of their fellow-citizens (19e-20a). With this move Socrates set himself on a par with any other citizen of Athens who had the good of the city at heart and was therefore willing to advise and educate the young without any remuneration.
In the Apology, ridiculing Callias ‘who has spent more money on the sophists than all other men taken together’ (20a4-5), Socrates does his best to turn his defence into a comedy. In a recent meeting, Socrates had asked him:
‘Callias, if your two sons were foals or calves, we would have no difficulty in finding and hiring a qualified overseer (epistatên) who would make them beautiful and good (hos emellen autô kalô te kagathô poiêsein) concerning their proper virtue (tên prosêkousan aretên); it would be an expert in horsemanship or a farmer. But as they are human beings, whom do you intend to hire as their overseer?’ (20a6-b4).
Callias, by then impoverished, suggested Euenus, praising him as a worthy teacher of the young who offered his services on the cheap: ‘he teaches for the fee of five minae’. Socrates ends the story with the words
‘And I proclaimed Euenus a blessed man (kai egô ton Euênon emakarisa) if he truly has this craft (ei hôs alêthôs echoi tautên tên technên) and teaches at such a moderate charge’ (kai houtôs emmelôs didaskei, 20b9-c1).
The Athenians loved puns on names, and so they would not have missed the pun on the name Meletus in Socrates’ emmelôs ‘at a moderate charge’.
Making puns on Meletus is again something that Socrates had already taken recourse to in his discussion with Euthyphro, ironically envisaging him as a great politician and educator (2c-d):
‘Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation (epimelêthênai, 2d2) of virtue in youth ... he makes the young shoots his first care (epimelêthênai, 2d3) ... afterwards Melêtos (2d4) will assuredly attend (epimelêtheis, 3a3) to the elder branches.’ (2c2-d2, tr. Jowett).
The name Meletus suggests a man of ‘care’, and so Socrates in the Apology goes on making fun of him for his pretending to care (emelêsen, 24c7-8; melon,24d4; memelêken, 24d9; Melête) about matters about which he has in fact never cared at all (ameleian, hoti ouden soi memelêke, 25c1-4, hoti Melêtôi toutôn oute mega oute mikron pôpote emelêsen, 26b1-2).
There is yet another line of thought in the Euthyphro that has found its place in the Apology. Euthyphro’s professing himself an expert on religious matters prompted Socrates to express a desire to become his disciple and learn from him what piety and impiety truly was so that he might go to Meletus and tell him:
‘ “Meletus, if you acknowledge that Euthyphro is an expert in these things, then accept that I too have the correct belief (orthôs nomizein kai eme hêgou)and do not have me into court (kai mê dikazou). If not, then begin by indicting him, who is my teacher, for corrupting the elderly, me and his father, in my case by teaching me, in his father’s by vituperating and chastising him.” And if he refuses to be persuaded to drop the indictment or shift it from me to you, should I not repeat this challenge in the court?’ (5a9-b7).
At the end, when Euthyphro is rushing away to avoid any further questioning, Socrates hammers his lesson in:
‘Alas! my companion, and will you leave me in despair? I was hoping that you would instruct me in the nature of piety and impiety; and then I might have cleared myself of Meletus and his indictment. I would have told him that I had been enlightened by Euthyphro, and had given up rash innovations and speculations, in which I indulged only through ignorance, and that now I am about to live a better life (15e5-16a4, tr. B. Jowett).’
Socrates’ desire to discuss the charges face to face with Meletus and thus do everything in his power to avoid the trial was not a ploy invented by Plato to spice up with humour an elementary lesson in dialectic with which Socrates undermines Euthyphro’s certainty.(12) It becomes clear from Socrates’ words addressed to Meletus in the Apology that he did attempt to approach him:
‘Either I do not corrupt the young, or do so unintentionally, so that you are wrong in either case (hôste su ge kat’ amphotera pseudêi, 26a1). If my offence is unintentional, it is unlawful to bring here actions of this kind; one ought to be instructed and admonished privately; for it is clear that if I learn better (ean mathô) I shall refrain from doing what I do involuntarily (akôn). But you had avoided meeting me and did not want to teach me (su de sungenesthai men moi kai didaxai ephuges kai ouk êthelêsas), but have brought me here, where according to the law only those ought to be brought who need punishment and not those who are in need of instruction’ (25e6-7).
Xenophon says in his Apology of Socrates that Hermogenes was worried when he saw Socrates ‘discussing any and every subject rather than the trial’ (peri pantôn mallon dialegomenon ê peri tês dikês), and asked him: ‘Ought you not to be giving some thought to what defence you are going to make?’ Socrates replied ‘Why, do I not seem to you to have spent my whole life in preparing to defend myself?’ ‘How so?’ asked Hermogenes, and Socrates explained: ‘because all my life I have been guiltless of wrong-doing; and that I consider the finest preparation for a defence’. (Xen. Ap. Soc. 2-3). This did not alleviate his friend’s worry:
‘Do you not observe that the Athenian courts have often been carried away by an eloquent speech and have condemned innocent men to death, and often on the other hand the guilty have been acquitted either because their plea aroused compassion or because their speech was witty?’ (Xen. Ap. Soc. 4).
Socrates replied that he was well aware of it, that he had tried already twice to think about his defence (dis êdê epicheirêsantos mou skopein peri tês apologias), but each time his divine sign intervened (enantioutai moi to daimonion, 4). Then he gave a rational interpretation of the divine intervention:
‘But now, if my years are prolonged, I know that the frailties of old age will inevitably be realized, –that my vision must be less perfect and my hearing less keen, that I shall be slower to learn and more forgetful of what I have learned. If I perceive my decay and take to complaining, how could I any longer take pleasure in life?’ (Xen. Ap. Soc. 6, tr. O.J.Todd).
Socrates’ reply could not but enhance his friends’ apprehension, and we may safely presume that Hermogenes was not the only friend of Socrates who was worried. Plato in particular must have been, for the accusations against Socrates came at the time when he still hoped that he could enter politics; if Socrates were to be found guilty, his hopes would suffer a severe blow.(13)
Though Xenophon’s testimony depicts Socrates’ friends as being worried when they saw him making no preparations for his defence, on the testimony of Plato’s Apology and the Crito, in the days preceding the trial Plato’s friends were not worried in the least, regarding a not guilty verdict as a fore-gone conclusion. After the guilty verdict had been pronounced and it became clear that Socrates was not proposing any punishment for himself that might save his life, Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus made him bid 30 minae as a penalty, for which they would be the sureties (Ap. 38b6-8). In all its hopelessness, this last minute intervention shows how unprepared and unwilling Socrates’ friends had been to contemplate the real possibility that he might lose the case. In the Crito it is said that the indictment and the trial might have been prevented, or at least managed differently, if Socrates’ friends had not been negligent (45e).
The discrepancy between Xenophon’s and Plato’s testimonies requires explanation, as does the apparent negligence of Socrates’ friends. Something must have happened that made them confident not only that he would not lose his case, but that the case would powerfully enhance his influence within the city, especially his influence on promising young citizens. That this was indeed so transpires from Anytus’ argument for the death sentence as referred to by Socrates in the Apology:
‘Anytus said that either, in the first place, I ought never to have been prosecuted at all (ê tên archên ou dein eme deuro eiselthein), or, since I had been prosecuted (ê, epeidê eisêlthon), I must be put to death (ouch hoion t’ einai to mê apokteinai me), for if I escape now (hôs ei diapheuxoimên), your sons will be utterly ruined by practicing what I teach (êdê humôn hoi huieis epitêdeuontes ha Sôkratês didaskei pantes pantapasi diaphtharêsontai).’ (29c1-5)
Anytus’ words shed the required light on the Euthyphro. As soon as Plato heard about Socrates’ encounter with Euthyphro, he took to his pen and changed the atmosphere of worry and doom into that of confident hope. Those who read the Euthyphro before the trial could not possibly conceive of Meletus as a man who might win the case against Socrates. The way in which the chances of Meletus were discussed in Socratic circles prior to the trial can be gleaned from Socrates’ words in the Apology after the jury delivered the guilty verdict. Reflecting on the small size of the majority against him, Socrates says:
‘And I may say, I think, that I have escaped Meletus. I may say more; for without the assistance of Anytus and Lycon, anyone may see that he would not have had a fifth part of the votes, as the law requires, in which case he would have incurred a fine of a thousand drachmas’ (36a7-b2, tr. B. Jowett).
It is noteworthy that in the Euthyphro Socrates is silent about Anytus and Lycon. This must mean that at that stage Anytus and Lycon did not openly endorse the charges, although they may have stood in the background.(14)
Socrates in his discussion with Euthyphro radiates confidence that the death sentence was not the lot that awaited him. Challenging Euthyphro to demonstrate that all gods approve of his intended course of action, Socrates says: ‘If you prove this to me, I shall never cease applauding your wisdom’ (enkômiazôn se epi sophiai oudepote pausomai, 8b2-3). Had he expected to die in a few weeks, he would hardly have used these words to strengthen his argument. The same is true concerning his closing words, in which he expresses disappointment that Euthyphro failed to tell him what piety was ‘so that I might lead a better life for the rest of my days’ (kai dê kai ton allon bion hoti ameinon biôsoimên, 16a3-4). These words were spoken by Socrates to strengthen his appeal to Euthyphro, and in that spirit they were written by Plato, but they could be written thus only at the time when both Plato and Socrates were firmly convinced that Meletus would lose the case. Written after the death sentence, those words would be a mockery directed against Socrates. This is the reason why Stallbaum in the 19th century declared that the dating of the dialogue after the death of Socrates, however far removed from the trial, would taint Plato’s name with a charge of grave inhumanity.(15)
As the Phaedrus reveals, Plato was as opposed to the accepted beliefs concerning the gods as Socrates was; according to the Phaedran Palinode the true beings (ta onta ontôs, 247e3), the Forms, reside in the realm of Truth (alêtheias pedion, 248b6). These beings are truly divine, for from them Zeus and the other traditional gods derive their divinity (pros hoisper theos ôn theios estin, 249c5-6).It is noteworthy that the Forms that Plato explicitly mentions in the Phaedrus are Beauty (kallos, 250b5), Justice (dikaiosunê, 249b1), Temperance (sôphrosunê, 249b2), and Wisdom (phronêsis, 250d4); there is no place for Piety among them. The Euthyphro suggests the reason why it was so; piety was too closely associated with the religious beliefs to which Plato and Socrates were opposed. Socrates in the dialogue assumes the Phaedran role of Euthyphro’s philosophic lover and speaks to Euthyphro as his beloved: ‘But the lover must follow the beloved wherever he leads him’ (nun de anankê gar ton erônta tôi erômenôi akolouthein hopêi an ekeinos hupagêi, 14c2-3). Playfully, Plato thus presents them both in the roles that are central to the quest for the Forms in the Phaedrus. Euthyphro considers himself to be an expert on everything that concerns divine matters, and this is why Socrates asks him to teach him what the Form of piety is (me autên didaxon tên idean tis pote estin, 6e3-4), but since in fact Euthyphro is the one who really needs help, Socrates the one who helps and leads, Socrates focuses his and Euthyphro’s eye on ‘piety as part of justice’ (meros to hosion tou dikaiou, 12d5-6).
It is important to note that both in his intention to prosecute his father, and in his intention to follow Zeus, ‘the best and the most righteous of the gods’ (ton Dia tôn theôn ariston kai dikaiotaton, 5e6-6a7), Euthyphro is in fact deeply influenced by Socrates. To understand the first point we may look at the Gorgias where Socrates views injustice as a most serious ailment, and maintains that if a man commits injustice he ought not to use his rhetorical skills to defend himself so as to escape punishment, but do the opposite:
‘he should denounce most of all himself, then his relatives, and whatever other friend does injustice; and should not conceal the unjust action, but bring it into the open, to pay justice and become healthy’ (480c1-5, tr. T. Irwin).
This is Plato’s depiction of the historical Socrates, not that of Socrates invented by him. Incredulous, Socrates’ interlocutor Callicles asks Chaerephon, Socrates’ close friend and follower:
‘Tell me, Chaerephon, is Socrates serious or is he joking?’
‘It seems to me, Callicles, that he is extremely serious.’ (481b6-9).
Chaerephon is most closely associated with Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds (104, 144, 156, 503, 831, 1465) staged in 423. In the Wasps, staged in 422, Chaerephon figures as a klêtêr, a summoner, to whom a woman selling bread appeals for legal assistance when a drunken Philocleon overturns her stall (1406-1408). In the Birds, staged in 414, a proverbial coward Peisander went to Socrates ‘asking to see his soul that had left him’ (deomenos psuchên idein hê zônt' ekeinon proulipe) and what came up from from the underworld was Chaerephon (kait’ anêlth’ autôi katôthen ... Chairephôn, 1553-1564): in 415 Peisander had taken a principal part in the infamous investigation into the mutilation of Hermae.(16) In Plato’s Apology Socrates remembers Chaerephon – ‘a friend of mine from my youth’ (emos te hetairos ên ek neou, 21a1) – for he played an important role in his life. It was he who went to Delphi to ask the oracle whether there was any man wiser than Socrates (Ap. 21a4-7). There can therefore be little doubt that having Callicles appeal to him in the Gorgias Plato wants to emphasize the centrality of the views on justice expressed in the dialogue to the whole life of the historical Socrates.
It was because Euthyphro knew that this was Socrates’ view concerning truly moral obligations that he expressed his surprise when Socrates appeared to disapprove of his prosecuting his father:
‘It is ridiculous (geloion) that you think it makes a difference whether the dead man is a member of the family or not, and that the only thing one ought to consider is not whether the man who killed did it justly (en dikêi), and if justly, to leave the matter alone, but if not, to prosecute him, especially if the man lives under the same roof with you and eats at the same table, for the pollution is the same if you know about it and do not clear yourself and him by proceeding against him (ean mê aphosiois seauton te kai ekeinon têi dikêi epexiôn, 4b7-c3).’
Euthyphro was as keen on clearing his father from pollution by prosecuting him, as on clearing himself.
By dissuading Euthyphro from persevering in his course of action Socrates saved the young man from becoming a victim of blindly following Socrates’ own precepts. In the Theaetetus, which is dramatically closely associated with the Euthyphro, Plato sheds light on Socrates’ seemingly un-Socratic intervention concerning Euthyphro. In this dialogue Socrates says about those who resort to the courts that they
‘are always short of time when they speak, because they are hurried on by the clock; and they aren’t allowed to make speeches about anything they please, but the opposing counsel stands over them, equipped with compulsion in the shape of a document specifying the points outside which they may not speak, which gets read out while they’re speaking. Their speeches are always about a fellow slave, and addressed to a master, who sits there with some suit or other in his hand. And their contests are never for some indifferent prize, but always for one that concerns themselves; often they’re running a race for life itself. Because of all that, they become tense and sharp, knowing how to flatter their master with words and fawn on him with deeds, but small and crooked in their minds. The reason is that they have been deprived of growth, straightness and freedom, by the slavery they have suffered since they were young. It forces them to do crooked things, and imposes great dangers and fears on their minds while they’re still soft; and because they’re unable to withstand them with the help of justice and truthfulness, they turn at once to falsehood, and to retaliating against injustice with injustice, and they get twisted and stunted in many ways. The result is that they finally come from youth to manhood with nothing healthy in their intellects; though what they think is that they have become clever and wise.’(Theaet. 172d9-173b3, tr. John McDowell).
It is because Plato wants us to read the Euthyphro in the light of these lines that he sets the Theaetetus dramatically on the same day as the Euthyphro, just prior to it.(17)
The second point, that is Euthyphro’s intention to follow Zeus, ‘the best and the most righteous of the gods’, is in tune with the Phaedrus in which Socrates says that those who are devoted to philosophy follow Zeus (252c-253a), with the Cratylus, in which Socrates playfully (ton paidikon tropon 406c2) investigates the names of the gods, thereby imitating gods in their playfulness (philopaismones gar kai hoi theoi, 406c2-3), and with the Theaetetus, where he says that striving ‘to become as nearly like god as possible’ (homoiôsis theôi kata to dunaton, 176b1-2) is his guiding principle. In the Theaetetus the imperative of ‘becoming like god’ guides Socrates in all his activities, and those who do not understand this simply do not understand him. This comes to the fore early in the dialogue, in his reflections on the art of midwifery. Exhorting Theaetetus to offer himself for maieutic treatment, Socrates warns him that some of his intellectual progeny, brought to life by the art, might prove to be false, a mere phantom with no truth in it (eidôlon kai mê alêthes):
“If I then take the abortion from you and cast it away, do not be savage with me like a woman robbed of her first child. People have often felt like that towards me and been positively ready to bite me for taking away some foolish notion they have conceived. They do not see that I am doing them a kindness. They have not learnt that no god is ever ill-disposed towards man, nor is such action on my part due to unkindness; it is only that I am not permitted to acquiesce in falsehood and suppress the truth.” (151b7-d3).
In other words, whoever knows that no god is ever ill-disposed towards man knows that Socrates is never ill-disposed towards them.
The theme of imitating God is equally central to Xenophon’s picture of Socrates. Xenophon narrates the incident in which Antiphon the Sophist addressed Socrates with the following words:
‘Socrates, I supposed that philosophy must add to one’s store of happiness. But the fruits you have reaped from philosophy are apparently very different. For example, you are living a life that would drive even a slave to desert his master. Your meat and drink are of the poorest: the cloak you wear is not only a poor thing, but is never changed summer or winter; and you never wear shoes or tunic. Besides you refuse to take money, the mere getting of which is a joy, while its possession makes one more independent and happier.’ (Xen. Mem. I.vi.2, tr. E.C. Marchant).
‘You seem, Antiphon, to imagine that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance. But my belief is that to have no wants is divine (theion einai); to have as few as possible comes next to the divine (engutatô tou theiou); and as that which is divine is supreme, so that which approaches nearest to its nature is nearest to the supreme.’ (Xen. Mem. I.vi.10, tr. E.C. Marchant).
Euthyphro was right in wanting to follow Zeus, the best and the supremely just god. What was mistaken was the image of Zeus that he had derived from the traditional beliefs about Zeus. These traditional beliefs were about to plague Euthyphro’s whole subsequent life, were he to follow them, and Socrates’ entire effort is therefore concentrated to undermining these beliefs. And it is because Plato fully agreed with the moral and political importance of the view of the God worth imitating, of the God that every citizen and the whole city ought to follow, and because he grasped the momentous opportunity of bringing the picture of the God worth imitating home to all Athenians in the course of Socrates’ trial and his expected victory, that he conceived of writing the Euthyphro.
When Plato wrote the Theaetetus, more than thirty years after Socrates’ death,(18) he obviously had strong reasons to shed light on the Euthyphro: that facing the most serious charges, Socrates devoted all his attention to the predicament in which the young Euthyphro found himself. In the Theaetetus Socrates addresses Theodorus, a mathematician from Cyrene, expressing his passionate concern for the youth of his native city:
“If I took more interest in the affairs of Cyrene, Theodorus, I should ask you for the news from those parts and whether any of the young men there are devoting themselves to geometry or to any other sort of liberal study. But really I care more for our young men here and I am anxious rather to know which of them are thought likely to distinguish themselves. That is what I am always on the look-out for myself, to the best of my powers, and I make inquiries of anyone whose society I see the young men ready to seek. Now you attract a large following, as you deserve for your skill in geometry, not to mention your other merits. So, if you have met with anyone worthy of mention, I should be glad to hear of it.” (143d1-e3, tr. F.M. Cornford)
If it were not for Socrates’words ‘Now I must go to the Porch of the King Archon to face the indictment that Meletus has brought against me’ (210d1-3) at the end of the dialogue, we would have no idea whatsoever that Socrates holds the whole discussion with Theodorus, and Theaetetus, Theodorus’ most promising young disciple, while himself under the threat of a possible death sentence. He is totally committed to the intellectual and moral improvement of the young man he discovers with the help of Theodorus, and his very last words in the dialogue re-emphasize this overriding concern of his: ‘But in the morning, Theodorus, let us meet here again’ (210d3-4).
Another point that needed elucidation was Socrates’ negative response to Euthyphro’s insistence that in prosecuting his father he follows the example of Zeus, ‘the best and the most righteous of the Gods’ who ‘bound his father because he unjustly (ouk en dikêi) devoured his sons’. Socrates’ words
‘May not this be the reason, Euthyphro, why I am charged with impiety – that I cannot bear these stories about the gods? that, I suppose is where people think I go wrong’ (6a7-9)
could be taken as Socrates’ outright rejection of the gods in which the Athenians believed. After the trial, somewhat belatedly, Plato found it imperative to show that Socrates’ rejection of the stories about Zeus’ punishment of his father Cronus, and Cronus’ even more horrific punishment of his father Uranus, did not mean his rejection of the Olympian gods, and that quite to the contrary, Socrates took to his heart all that he could view as truly divine about the traditional gods. In the Theaetetus Socrates says that his mother Phaenarete was a midwife, and that he himself practices the same art (149a4):
‘People say that Artemis, being herself childless, is the patroness of childbirth. She did not allow barren women to be midwives, for it is beyond the power of human nature to achieve skill without any experience; she assigned the privilege to women who were past child-bearing, out of respect to their likeness to herself (149b9-c3) ... God compels me to perform midwifery, but has prevented me from giving birth (maieuesthai me ho theos anankazei, gennan de apekôlusen, 150c7-8, tr. J. McDowell)’(19)
Socrates’ concern is not with the body but with the soul that is in travail of birth; just as midwives cannot bear children, he cannot give birth to wisdom (agonos eimi sophias, 150c4). In this he is guided by Artemis and Apollo: his life is centred around and determined by the gods worshipped by the city, which means that he is manifestly innocent of the accusations contained in Meletus’ indictment.
This point is thus touched upon, but not elaborated in the Theaetetus, for Plato dealt with it extensively in an earlier dialogue also dramatically closely associated with the Euthyphro, the Cratylus. This association is indicated by Socrates’ references to Euthyphro, who is to blame for the enthusiasm with which Socrates in the Cratylus interprets the names of Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. In what way Socrates’ soul was affected by Euthyphro can be seen from the way in which he speaks about these deities:
‘The name of Zeus has also an excellent meaning, although hard to be understood, because it is really like a sentence, which is divided into two parts, for some call him Zêna, and use the one half, and others who use the other half call him Dia; the two together signify the nature of the God, and the business of a name, as we were saying, is to express the nature. For there is none who is more the author of life to us and to all, than the lord and king of all. Wherefore we are right in calling him Zêna and Dia, which are one name, although divided, meaning the God through whom (dia hon) all creatures always have life (zên aei pasi tois zôsi huparchei). There is an irreverence, at first sight, in calling him son of Cronos [who is a proverb for stupidity], and we might rather expect Zeus to be a child of a mighty intellect. Which is the fact; for this is the meaning of his father’s name: Kronos quasi koros not in the sense of a youth, but signifying the purity of undefiled reason (to katharon kai akêraton tou nou). He, as we are informed by tradition, was begotten of Uranus, rightly so called, for the sight directed upward (hê es to anô opsis) is rightly called heavenly (ourania), inspecting the things that are up in the high (horôsa ta anô), from where (hothen) pure reason is derived (ton katharon noun paragignesthai) as the philosophers of nature inform us (hoi meteorôlogoi), and the name of Uranus is therefore correct. If I could remember the genealogy of Hesiod, I would have gone on demonstrating that the names of the remoter ancestors of the Gods are given to them correctly, – then I might have seen whether this wisdom, which has come to me all in an instant, I know not whence (ouk oid’ hopothen), will or will not hold good to the end.’ (395e5-396d1).(20)
The last sentence brings into play the Socratic self-examination and irony, which triggers Hermogenes’ remark:
‘You seem to me, Socrates, to be quite like a prophet newly inspired, and to be uttering oracles.’ (396d2-3, tr. B. Jowett).
The reference to prophesying has very little to do with Socrates’ preceding etymological expositions, but a lot with Plato’s reminding the reader of the Euthyphro, in which Euthyphro spoke of his prophesying the future in the assembly (3c1-2). Just prior to Hermogenes’ remark Socrates said that he did not know the source of the sudden ‘influx of wisdom’ that overwhelmed him. It was Hermogenes’ reference to prophesying that reminded Socrates of Euthyphro:
‘I blame for it Euthyphro most of all. I was with him for quite a time since early in the morning, listening to him. With his enthusiasm he appears to have filled not only my ears with religious wisdom (tês daimonias sophias), but touched my soul.’ (396d4-8)
Socrates’ remark ‘If I could remember the genealogy of Hesiod, I would have gone on demonstrating that the names of the remoter ancestors of the Gods are given to them correctly’ (hôs orthôs autois ta onomata keitai, 396c5-6) points on the one hand to the subsequent reference to Euthyphro, whose views about the gods, of which we learnt from the Euthyphro, derive from Hesiod, and on the other to the theme of names developed in the Cratylus. Socrates in the Cratylus maintains that the name is correctly given if the essence of that which is named is correctly expressed by the name (393d); the names of Gods lead us to the notion of the Gods held by the original name-maker, and can thus claim a much more ancient provenance than the speculations found in Hesiod’s Theogony. But even these morally and intellectually incomparably superior notions of the Gods, derived from their names, are hazardous speculations, as Socrates avers:
‘I think we must do it in this way. Today we shall use this wisdom and investigate the remaining names. But tomorrow, if you agree with me, we shall drive it away completely and purify ourselves (katharoumetha). (396e1-4).
Clearly, when Plato wrote the Cratylus, he wanted on the one hand to present to the readers some samples of Socrates’ ‘rash speculations and innovations in religion’ alluded to in the Euthyphro, and on the other he was anxious to present these speculations in an irreproachable manner. In the Euthyphro Socrates grounded his rejection of the traditional views of the Gods in his ignorance, but his ignorance was tinged with too much irony to protect him against the accusation of impiety. In the Cratylus Plato protects Socrates’ refined speculations about the Gods with the appeal to ignorance free from any admixture of irony. Socrates says in the Cratylus:
‘There is one excellent principle which, as men of sense, we must acknowledge, – that of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names which they give themselves; but we are sure that the names by which they call themselves, whatever they may be, are true ... Let us then, if you please, in the first place announce to them that we are not enquiring about them; we do not presume that we are able to do so; but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names, – in this there can be small blame.’ (400d6-401a5, tr. B. Jowett).
This appeal to ignorance concerning Gods and their names transcends the specifically Socratic ignorance; it finds a prominent place in Aeschylus’ prayer to Zeus in the Agamemnon:
‘Zeus, whosoever indeed he be, if that name will gain his favour, I will call him Zeus’ (160-162).
Socrates’ words in the Cratylus are intended more to protect the living Plato, as the author of the Euthyphro, and Socrates’ other disciples and followers, than Socrates’ memory. I therefore date the composition of the Cratylus to the early years that followed Socrates’ death. This dating is in harmony with Socrates’ repeated references to Euthyphro throughout the dialogue (399a1, 400a1, 407d8). The reference in Cratylus 400a1 is especially telling. Socrates speculates about the soul, psuchê, as the source of life, giving the body the power of breath and revival (anapsuchon), but then he stops himself in his tracks:
‘But please stay a moment; I fancy that I can discover something which will be more acceptable to the disciples of Euthyphro (tois amphi Euthuphrona), for I am afraid that they will scorn this explanation. What do you say to another?’ (399e4-400a3, tr. B. Jowett).
In the Euthyphro there is no sign of any ‘disciples of Euthyphro’; in the dialogue Euthyphro complains that everybody around him is against him and his understanding of his religious duties. It would appear that after his being chastised by Socrates Euthyphro refined and deepened his religious thinking and acquired some disciples in consequence. It is noteworthy that the explanation Socrates offers as the one that the disciples of Euthyphro might find more plausible is akin to Plato’s own Phaedran conception of the soul as the principle of movement, that is the view of the soul as ‘that which holds and carries and gives life and motion (periienai) to the entire nature of the body’ (Crat. 400a5-6, tr. B. Jowett). In order to derive this interpretation out of the word psuchê Socrates in the Cratylus takes recourse to the wildest etymological speculation: the soul, psuchê is a refined version of phusechê derived from hê phusin ochei kai echei ‘that which carries and holds nature’ (400b1-3), making it intentionally ridiculous, just something that Euthyphro and his acolytes might favour. This indicates that when Plato wrote the Cratylus, he had temporarily(21) abandoned his Phaedran notion of the soul as the self-moving principle of motion (kinêseôs archê to auto hauto kinoun, Phdr. 245d7), for Socrates on his last day insisted on the soul’s affinity with the Forms, as an entity that reposes in itself, which in its true nature is exempt from movement and change (Phaedo 78c-d, 79d).
What Plato thought of Euthyphro in later years can be derived from the closing words of Socrates in the Theaetetus. Just before his announcing that he must end the discussion and go to the Office of the King Archon Socrates made two remarks:
(1) ‘Supposing you should ever henceforth try to conceive afresh, Theaetetus, if you succeed, what you conceive will be the better as a consequence of our present investigation.’ (2) ‘And if you stay barren, your companions will find you less tiresome and gentler, because you will have the sense not to think you know things which in fact you don’t know. This is all my art can achieve.’ (210b11-c5)
The first remark fits Theaetetus, the second points to Euthyphro.
As a final point, let me take on Grote’s argument that it is altogether inadmissible to suppose that Plato should publish the Euthyphro while the trial of Socrates was impending, for ‘the effect of it would be to make the position of Socrates much worse on his trial,’ to which I referred at the beginning of this chapter. A closer look at Socrates’ Defence speech in the Apology reveals that Socrates’ failure to win his case was not the fault of Plato’s writing the Euthyphro but the result of Socrates’ own doing. In the opening stage of his Defence Socrates contrasts his ignorance with the self-proclaimed wisdom of the sophists who advertised themselves as teachers of virtue. He says with biting irony that the leading sophists
‘go around the cities, and are able to persuade the young men to leave their own citizens by whom they might be taught for nothing (hois exesti tôn heautôn politôn proika suneinai hôi an boulôntai, 19e5-6), and come to them whom they not only pay, but are thankful if they may be allowed to pay them’. (Tr. B. Jowett)
These words are in stark agreement with Anytus’ view in the Meno that ‘any Athenian gentleman, taken at random (hotôi an entuchêi Athênaiôn tôn kalôn kagathôn), if Meno will mind him, will do far more good to him than the sophists’ (92e4-6, tr. Jowett). On this point not only the majority of the jurors, but many of the readers of the Meno presumably agreed with Anytus, and when therefore Socrates begins his Defence by making this point, he shows that he intends to do justice to the confidence with which his followers and friends expected him to win the case against Meletus.
Socrates then subjects Meletus to interrogation concerning the education of the youth. Overwhelmed by his elenctic zeal, Socrates asked Meletus ‘Tell these men, who makes the young better?’. Meletus answers ‘The laws’. Socrates ripostes ‘But this is not what I ask; I ask what man, who in the first place knows the laws?’ Meletus answers ‘These men, the judges’ (Houtoi, ô Sôkrates, hoi dikastai, 24e3). Casting aside all his intentions ‘to be good’, and win the case as Plato and all his other followers and friends wanted and expected him to do, Socrates asks ‘What, do you mean to say, Meletus, that these men are able to educate the young and improve them? (Pôs legeis, ô Melête; hoide tous neous paideuein hoioi te eisi kai beltious poiousi, 24e4-5). This in itself would have sufficed to ruin Socrates’ chances of victory, but once Socrates found himself on his familiar territory of elenctic questioning, he could not desist from continuing in the same vein. He asked Meletus whether all members of the audience were capable of educating the young, then he asked the same concerning all the members of the city council, all members of the assembly, and finally all Athenians (24e10-25a10). Meletus answered positively to each of these questions, and ended by saying ‘This is what I strongly affirm’ (25a11). Socrates then asked Meletus whether all men were capable of improving horses and only one man did them harm: ‘Is not the very opposite the case, that only one man or very few can improve them, the expert trainers of horses, and others, if they handle them, harm them?’ (25b2-4). Extending the lesson drawn from the case of horses to all other living beings (kai peri hippôn kai tôn allôn hapantôn zôôn, 25b5-6), Socrates won an easy dialectic victory, but lost his case. His attempts to pass the time in court merrily by making the jury laugh – the idea which he found so attractive in his discussion with Euthyphro, and which he successfully applied in the initial stages of his Defence – were over. It was not Plato with his Euthyphro who irreparably damaged Socrates’ prospects of success against his accusers, although Euthyphro apparently misfired: instead of compelling Anytus to stay away from the trial by treating Meletus as the only accuser of Socrates, it may have prompted Anytus to step in and put all his political weight behind the accusation. From Socrates’ surprised comment after he had been found guilty – ‘I had thought that the majority against me would have been far larger’ (36a4-5) – we may infer that had Socrates remained true to his initial intention to properly defend himself, instead of letting himself to be carried away by his elenctic zeal, he would have won notwithstanding Anytus. Moreover, he might have highlighted and properly defended his views on religion, instead of avoiding the issue.
As we have seen, Socrates in the Apology treated with scorn Meletus’ insistence that the jurors, the audience assembled at the court, and indeed all the Athenians were improving the young with the sole exception of Socrates, who was corrupting them, and in the course of his elenctic questioning proved that the very opposite must be the case. Only after that did he come to the substance of the charge against him:
‘But still I should like to know, Meletus, in what way am I corrupting the young according to your view. I suppose you mean, as I infer from your indictment, that I teach them not to believe in the gods in which the state believes (theous didaskonta mê nomizein hous hê polis nomizei), but some other new divine agencies (hetera de daimonia kaina, 26b2-5). Don’t you maintain that I am corrupting the youth by teaching this?’
Meletus readily agrees: ‘yes, this is what I say very emphatically.’ Socrates wants to know whether Meletus accuses him of teaching the young to believe that there are some gods (poteron legeis didaskein me nomizein einai tinas theous, 26c1-2) – ‘so that therefore I do believe in gods, and am not an entire atheist’ (kai autos ara nomizô theous kai ouk eimi to parapan atheos, 26c2-3)– or of not believing in any gods and of teaching others the same (ê pantapasi me phêis oute auton nomizein theous tous te allous tauta didaskein, 26c5-6). Meletus rises to the bait, undoubtedly considering the latter as more damnable: ‘This is my charge – that you do not believe in gods at all’ (hôs to parapan ou nomizeis theous, 26c7). This makes it easy for Socrates to prove in the course of another lengthy interrogation of Meletus that he contradicts himself:
‘This man certainly does appear to me to contradict himself in the indictment as much as if he said that Socrates is guilty of not believing in the gods, and yet believing in them – but this befits a man who is joking (27a4-7) ... whether new or old, at any rate I believe in divine agencies’ (eit’ oun kaina eite palaia, all’ oun daimonia ge nomizô, 27c6-7).
Socrates then focuses discussion on the sun and the moon, which he views as divine beings, as other people do (nomizô theous einai, hôsper hoi alloi anthrôpoi, 26d2-3), completely avoiding any discussion concerning the traditional beliefs about the Olympian gods and of his reasons for rejecting those beliefs as morally unacceptable.
By exposing to doubt the educational credentials of all the Athenians, of the audience assembled at the trial, and of the jury itself, Socrates aroused such a hostile reaction, that from then on the best he could do was to avoid any discussion of his views that might turn the anger of the Athenians against his friends and followers, and concentrate all the anger of the Athenians against himself, in which he succeeded. This is not an empty conjecture. In the Apology itself there are clear indications that the jury and the audience interrupted Socrates by indignant shouting the moment he displayed his superiority as a philosopher: ‘I must beg you not to interrupt me’ (mê thorybêsête, 20e4), ‘as I was saying, I must beg you not to interrupt’ (hoper legô, mê thorybeite, 21a5). In the Gorgias, presumably written at the time when Plato had finally renounced his dream of a political career in Athens,(22) that is almost ten years after the death of Socrates, Plato sheds light on the trial, viewing it through Socrates’ evocative presentiment of his indictment, trial and death:
‘I must be indeed a fool, Callicles, if I do not know that in the Athenian State any man may suffer anything. And if I am brought to trial and incur the dangers of which you speak, he will be a villain who brings me to trial – of that I am very sure, for no good man would accuse the innocent. ... I think that I am the only or almost the only Athenian living (Oimai met’ oligôn Athênaiôn, hina mê eipô monos) who practices the true art of politics; I am the only politician of my time (epicheirein têi hôs alêthôs politikêi technêi kai prattein ta politika monos tôn nun, 521d6--8). Now, seeing that when I speak my words are not uttered with any view of gaining favour, and that I look to what is best and not to what is most pleasant, having no mind to use those arts and graces which you recommend, I shall have nothing to say in the justice court (ouch hexô hoti legô en tôi dikastêriôi, 521e2).... I shall be tried just as a physician would be tried in a court of little boys at the indictment of the cook. What would he reply under such circumstances, if someone were to accuse him saying, “O my boys, many evil things has this man done to you: he is the death of you, especially of the younger ones among you, cutting and burning and starving and suffocating you, until you know not what to do; he gives you the bitterest potions, and compels you to hunger and thirst. How unlike the variety of meats and sweets on which I feasted you!” What do you suppose that the physician would be able to reply when he found himself in such a predicament? If he told the truth he could only say, “All these evil things, my boys, I did for your health,” and then would there not just be a clamour among a jury like that? How they would cry out!’ (521c7-522a7, tr. B. Jowett).
With these words Plato intends to see Socrates at the trial as positively as he can. Ever since Plato succeeded in finding the way how not only to reconcile himself to Socrates’ ignorance but to view it as the source of Socrates’ positive political function and influence – the event he immortalized in the Meno, as seen in the preceding chapter –he could view Socrates as ‘the only or almost the only Athenian living who practices the true art of politics; the only politician of his time’. In view of that high calling and expectations attached to it, Socrates in his Defence speech had nothing of significance to say in the justice court.