Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

2.3: Pre-Socratics and Socrates

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)


    The underlying assumptions of the early philosophers, the early scientists of Greek culture were:

    • There is an intelligible coherence in the phenomenal world
    • The universe is an intelligible whole
    • There is an order, a cosmos, that underlies the chaos of our perceptions and that
    • The Order of the universe is comprehensible to reason

    In the works of the pre-socratics there is obviously the progression from mythopoetic thought to a primitive scientific thinking in the form of speculative inquiry and from that form of thought to philosophy as rational inquiry. These thinker were searching for the arche or the very first or most fundamental principles or causes. They wondered about the immanent and lasting ground for existence. They were critical of the cosmogony they had in the mythopoetic tales. They were looking for a cosmology (an explanation for the order of the universe) that did not rely on the gods.They did not base their thinking on belief but on reason.

    These thinkers were naturalists and materialists as they sought answers to physical questions that were rooted in the physical itself. They were looking for the stuff out of which the universe was composed and they wanted an answer that was itself made of the same stuff. The matter of the universe would have its explanation in matter. They were, for the most part, materialists, rejecting spiritual or religious explanations for the causes and stuff of the universe.

    Introduction to the Presocratics


    Thales was looking for the basic stuff (physis) out of which all else is made. He expressed his idea concerning the basic stuff in his claim that “All things are made of water” Now at first you might think that his idea is pretty silly and definitely wrong, however, that would be the wrong approach. What do you suppose was meant by that claim? Thales was attempting to express an idea at a time when his language was not developed to the point where he could express an abstraction. We are accustomed to thinking in abstraction and we are that way in part because we have a language with many words that are linked with abstractions. The Greeks at this time did not have that to work with. For example, if someone wanted to call for justice, they would call upon the goddess who in their tales represented what today we consider in the abstract as justice. So instead of saying” I want justice” or “Give me justice” they might say something of this sort ”May the goddess Themis settle this by sending us a sign”

    Thales claim is most likely the claim that there is “Unity in Difference” In other words, Thales was attempting to claim that there was some basic stuff out of which all things are made. He selects water perhaps because it has properties which enable all the people of his time and our time to experience water in three different states: Liquid, solid and gas. Now if one thing such as water can exist in three very different forms then there must be something , like water, that is the basic stuff, physics, of the universe. Today, scientists make a similar claim. All reality, all that exists in the universe is made of or composed of or manifests as: energy. So from Thales comes the idea that no matter how things may appear, all things are made up of the same stuff: Everything is one thing!

    Anaximander: (ca. 612-545 BC)

    Anaximander rejected Thales basic stuff, water, and speculated that the ultimate reality could not be identified with any one particular element. He came up with the basic stuff being the boundaries or the infinite or the unlimited. This basic stuff was infinite and without a beginning. He also conceived of the theory of species evolving from one another through time in response to the need to adapt. He thought of the earth as revolving. He speculated that all life originated in the sea and moved onto the land. With this thinker abstraction and materialism developed further.

    Anaximenes (585-528 BC)

    Anaximenes hypothesized that it was not water but AIR that was the fundamental stuff of the universe and that air can be condensed or rarefied to take on the properties of what appear to be other elements. He sought to simplify and clarify the model of the universe.

    Anaxagoras (500-428 BC)

    Anaxagoras appears to have taught that all that is can be explained with a combination of nous and matter. For him the universe of matter was set into its form and motions by Nous or mind. This mind is immortal, homogeneous, omnipotent, omniscient and orders all phenomena. He did not believe in gods and goddesses. He did not think that the sun was a god and the moon a goddess. He thought the sun was a ball of fire and the moon a rock which reflected light from the sun. He was to be executed for blasphemy by the Athenians but escaped to another land. Socrates was interested in his theories until Socrates learned that for Anaxagoras the nous acted at the beginning of the universe, setting all in motion, and was not invoked by Anaxagoras to explain motions including those of humans. Socrates was to focus on the actions of humans and believed that their minds had a great deal to do with their actions.

    Introduction to Thales, Anaximenes, and Anaximander

    Empedocles (450 BC)

    Empedocles conjectured that there are four basic elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. They were moved about by the two basic forces: Love and Strife. Together these ideas explained everything that was physical.

    Leucippus (450 BC) and Democritus (460-370 BC)

    These men believed that there were an infinite number of ever moving atoms (indivisible-not separable) that composed all that is. Each was imperceptible. The atoms exist in a void. They move and interact through necessity and chance.

    Pythagoras (580-496 BC)

    Pythagoras not only quests after the basic stuff of the universe but his works reveal that he explored truth itself and the idea of the good life; questions of ethics. He was concerned with the nature of reality and of life. He developed spiritualism in contrast to the materialist schools of his time. He was a mathematician, spiritualist, mystic, musician and leader of a cult. His fundamental contribution to the world of thought was that the world is really not material at all but made up of numbers Numbers are things and in some way constitute the essence of reality. All things are, despite appearances, made up of numbers. The original number, the one, being as with fire, is in motion and set all else into being. He was inspired in this mode of thought by his observations. The sound made by a string pulled tight and picked will vary with its length. So he thought the amount of a thing leads to its properties and its very being. His is a naturalistic explanation. How far off is it from contemporary science which instructs us that all things are made up of energy and take on different properties depending on the amount of energy. Consider that the difference between hydrogen and oxygen is the number of protons in the nucleus of the atoms of each.

    The more important contribution made by Pythagoras was in his thinking that is to be in what is reached by REASON over and against what is given to the senses. Truth is reached through reasoning. Reasoning reveals that mathematics is in all things. Numbers relate to shapes and all that exist has or takes on shape. The individual who develops reason is on the correct path for the truth and the path to realize the proper destiny for the reasoning soul. Reason is the source of the world itself. Pythagoras taught that people should surrender to their higher self, the soul, the reasoner. It is the reasoning part of the person that can contact reason itself, the logos, or universal reason that generates the universe. The reasoning principle is in all things. For Pythagoras that principle, god, is the hidden measure in all that is real.

    Heraclitus (535-475 BC)

    Heraclitus believed that all things are in perpetual flux. Becoming is the basis for all that is real. Being is unreal. All is changing. Permanence is an illusion. All things are one and one-in-many. That which is the essence of all is FIRE. The logos is the universal principle of reason through which there is a law like process in the universe that provides its existence and order.

    Parmenides (540-470 BC)

    Parmenides taught that all that is has always been and always will be. Reality is that which never changes. Reality is being and not becoming. Changelessness is the nature of all reality. This is not obvious to our senses. Parmenides trusted in his reason over his senses. The appearance of things can be deceiving, so trust in reason. All change is illusion for Parmenides. Change cannot be real. The truth is what is arrived at by thought and the truth is set over and against opinions based upon sense impressions and common beliefs. The REAL is changeless.

    He arrives at his ideas through a process of reasoning. Consider the following:

    • If something exists, it must come from something.
    • Something can not come from nothing. If there ever were nothing, there would need to be nothing forever.
    • Something can not come from nothing.
    • There is something now.
    • The something from which the present something comes must always have been.
    • There must always have been something, because something can not come from nothing.
    • So that which is has always been and will always be.
    • Change is an illusion.
    • Permanence is real.
    • All is one, permanent and at rest.

    Being never comes into existence, nor does it cease to be. Being always is. It cannot be added to or divided. It is whole and complete in itself, one. It is unmoved and unchangeable. Being is. Being does not become. Becoming is not. Becoming is unreal. Being is and is self-identical and uncaused.

    Absolute Idealism

    So with Parmenides Philosophy comes to trust in reason over the senses. His thought liberates reason from the senses. There is in his work the recognition of the autonomy of thought and the use of independent criteria for judging thought; namely, coherency & consistency over probability.

    Philosophy is born in the recognition of the importance of abstract general principles. Philosophy develops as a rigorous process of inquiry involving insights and deductive reasoning. In Philosophy the human mind comes to recognize its own creation.


    We now will now turn to look at the life and thought of Socrates. It was he who developed the philosophical process of thought and who focused on matters of great concern to humans. He was concerned with the question: How do I live a Good Life? He was concerned with questions of knowledge, truth, beauty and Goodness. He was executed for his beliefs and virtues. An interesting story and a life that produced such a great impact on the world that it is true to say that what Socrates did changed the world. If Socrates had not lived as he did you and I would not be as we are today. In fact we probably would not exist at all. Socrates led to Plato who led to Aristotle who together produced an impact on how people in the West thought about life and the world and reality and ethics. The ideas for which they provided the foundation and methodology led to movements and actions and creation of institutions that shaped the history of the world.

    Socrates spent most of his life speaking with his fellow Athenians and anyone else who wished to speak with him. He spoke about matters of great importance to him, he sought after answers to important questions. He was not a Sophist as he never charged anyone for any lessons concerning anything. He did not claim to know the answers. He did not attempt to win contests with prizes. He was seriously interested in learning about truth, beauty, goodness and virtue. He entered the public spaces of Athens each day to speak with and question his fellows and pursue after wisdom to know the difference between what he knew and what he did not know.

    Socrates seeks after the wise to learn what their wisdom is and how one could acquire it. He questions those who claim to have knowledge. In the Ion Socrates is questioning someone who has won a prize for public speaking (recitation and who thinks that because he has memorized some lines on a subject that he really understands what it is all about. Socrates questions show that he doesn't.

    Socrates left the town limits of Athens only three times in his entire life. All three times was as a soldier to defend Athens! Socrates acts heroically. Alcibiades is a handsome young man and great warrior, a soldier of fortune, who enjoys himself a great deal.


    On his way to the trial Socrates comes across a young man named, Euthyphro, who is returning form the courthouse. Socrates learns that he is returning from posting charges against someone and so Socrates inquires as to the defendant. He is shocked to learn that the young man has brought charges against his own father! Socrates inquires as to why he is doing this and does he think that he is correct in doing so. The young man informs him that he has charged his father with murder for allowing a servant who killed another servant to die while tied up awaiting for the authorities to arrive to arrest him.

    Socrates asks the young man why he thinks it is a good thing to bring charges against his own father. The young man replies that it is the pious thing to do. Socrates asks him if he knows what piety is. Euthyphro responds by saying that he believes that piety is to please the gods. Socrates asks how we know how to do that and Euthyphro responds that to do as the gods do is to please them. He cites passages from the epic tales that describe a god taking actions against his own father and provides this as a justification for doing what he is doing. Socrates presses on with his questions. For Socrates this is a most important matter. Socrates is attempting to learn how one knows what is good. How do you know what the right thing to do would be. It must be good. We all want to do good. We want good answers, good friends, and a good life. So how do you know what is good. Euthyphro thinks he knows what is the good. It is whatever is pleasing to the gods. The gods are the standard for goodness. Now Socrates has a major problem with this approach. There are problems with it. Socrates asks Euthyphro the key questions. Which gods are we to please. Not all the gods agree. The stories report that they war among themselves. So what is pleasing to one may be displeasing to another. There were stories of gods respecting their parent s and stories of the gods killing their own parents. Likewise there were stories of the gods killing their own children, committing murder, lying, raping and every other horrible act.

    So what is the basis for the good. Here is the question that set Socrates apart from all others of his day. A question that sets Philosophy apart from religion and a question that Socrates could not answer. He died without an answer. Plato devised an answer but Socrates had not reached that point at his death.

    Do we call those acts good because the gods do them or do the gods do them because they are good? Are acts good just because the gods do them and whatever a god does is good just because the god did it? Or, are certain acts good and that is why a god does it?

    Euthyphro can’t even understand the question and states that he must be going and thus ends the dialogue. Most people of Socrates time could not understand the importance of the question. If the gods do what they do because it is good then there would be a standard for goodness, which even the gods would answer to and it would exist apart from the gods to be held over them for the sake of judgment. But for the Greeks there was nothing above the gods. The theory that Euthyphro put forward is called the Divine Command Theory. Many people who believe in a single deity also hold for such a theory. Perhaps you think so too.

    Consider This:

    For those who believe in the One God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Tradition are the commandments of this God good because God commands them or is there a standard of Goodness which even God must follow? Do all rules come from God? Does everything come from God?

    • Can God make a square circle?
    • If God makes a universe with blue in it and with yellow in it can it exist without green in it?
    • Can God make 2+3= something other than 5?

    If God were to do something horrible would it make it good because God was doing it, say killing an entire town, killing nearly every living being on earth, including innocent beings, ordering a father to kill his son? These are all in the Bible. Are these good things?

    • Are the laws and rules of the physical universe and mathematics rules that even God must follow?
    • Do they exist above or before God?
    • Where would they exist or come from?

    Consider This:

    You hear a story about a mother who has killed her own daughter. She claims she heard God order her to do so. This happens! Do you think that yes, she heard God say that and so it was good for her to kill her daughter or do you think that there is something wrong with that woman? Do you think she may be suffering from a chemical imbalance in her brain or some other ailment but that it can not be true that God told her to do it because God would not do such a thing, because it is wrong, even horrible and God just would not do evil things?

    Well when people make judgments about what God would or wouldn’t do, make judgments about actions as to whether or not they are “evil” acts they are thinking that there is a standard for goodness by which they will even judge God! Well, where does this standard come from? Where are the rules about what is Good? If they are from God, God can make them and God can change them.

    Socrates and many other Greeks were making judgments about the stories of the gods. They knew that certain acts of the gods should be followed and others definitely avoided. Socrates was searching for a basis to affirm the existence of a moral standard or set of rules that even the gods are subject to. This is known as Ethics in Philosophy. Socrates was one of the very first humans to pursue the answer to the question, “What is the good?” using reason alone and not belief.

    Socrates and Plato would use reasoning and commend others to do so in the pursuit of the good life, answers to the question “What is the good?” They moved away from memorizing and repeating as the path to a good life. The stories of the gods had too many contradictions in them and it became too difficult to believe in them. As many must eventually give up a belief in Santa Claus, so too did they need to give up their belief in the gods. But just as a belief in Santa Claus is comforting and brings physical gifts, belief in the gods was comforting for it provided a basis for a moral order. Once belief in the gods was removed, what would the Greeks put in its place? What would serve as the basis for the social and moral order? Socrates was searching for it at the time of his death. Plato thought he had found it. More on this later.

    The Trial of Socrates

    Socrates is just over 70 years of age at the time he is accused of a crime. He had never before been accused of anything wrong or criminal. He had served as a justice but never been a defendant. He was very well known. He was at least regarded as a great thinker, something of a scientist for his musings on the nature of the universe and as a moralist for all his talk about virtue. Who were his accusers and why did they charge him?

    The accuser, Meletus, went to the town hall and presented the charge along with a requested penalty. The charge was impiety-disbelieving in the gods of the Athenians and corrupting the young, the penalty was death.

    When the Democratic Party overthrew the tyrants, the “Thirty”, they needed to bring about a harmony within the polis. They declared an amnesty for any and all crimes that may have been committed during the previous few years that the tyrants had been inducing people into crimes in order to silence their criticisms and gain their support. No one was to mention anything that had occurred or any one’s relation to the thirty tyrants. Now the democratic order did not rest upon the leaders being noble born. It did not rest upon the power of the military. The Athenians had governments run by kings, military commanders and wealthy people. Now they were ruling themselves -- Democracy. They rested that form of government on the will of the people and their willingness to accept that whatever the majority wanted would be the correct thing to do. This democracy did not involve the voting of all Athenians. The voting in Athens included only: males, born of Athenian mothers, born free, and born legitimate, no bastards. Those men would vote on all matters and the majority would rule.

    Socrates presented a threat to the Democratic Party and form of government. Socrates had for many years been asking questions and he kept asking questions hoping to get the correct, final and truthful answer. He asked a series of questions that were threatening to the political order because they focused directly on the basic principle underlying the democratic rule. The answers to the questions below were the same in 399 BC as they are today. Even today to push this issue would result in someone be criticized for being anti-democratic or anti-American! Socrates would ask questions such as:

    Is there any guarantee that whenever a majority of the people votes on something declaring that it is true, that that vote makes it true ?

    The answer was, NO, there is no such guarantee!

    Is there any guarantee that whenever a majority of the people votes on something declaring that it is beautiful, that that vote makes it beautiful?

    The answer was, NO, there is no such guarantee!

    Is there any guarantee that whenever a majority of the people vote on something declaring that it is good, that that vote makes it good?

    The answer was, NO, there is no such guarantee!

    Is there any guarantee that whenever a majority of the people votes on something declaring that it is justice, that that vote makes it justice?

    The answer was, NO, there is no such guarantee!

    Now this was a threat to the system of government and Socrates was seen as a danger to the state, a clear and present danger, that needed to be dealt with and removed in a manner that would not injure the state. Socrates questioning was a threat to national security.

    What was at stake here was a clash between the way of adventure that had characterized the history of Athens with its open door policy and the way of safety that had characterized the development of the state of Sparta with its rigid discipline and narrow range of variations permitted. Socrates was the past of Athens and now in a precarious condition, some Athenians wanted to make the state more secure and the questioning of the old man, Socrates, was threatening to the order and security of the people.

    Socrates was not accused of crimes because of his association with the thirty young tyrants. Although several of the thirty had known Socrates and had listened to him, he did not encourage or teach them to be tyrants. In fact when they attempted to silence him for his criticisms of them he refused to arrest Leon of Salamis on their orders and he refused to observe their ban against teaching people to speak in public.

    So, why was he indicted and why was he found guilty and sentenced to die? There are a number of factors that probably contributed to a sizable amount of public opinion being set against Socrates.

    1. Socrates was seen as a dangerous intellectual innovator, on the order of Anaxagoras, who had been driven out of Athens.
    2. Socrates speculated about the universe. He was practicing the “new science” and was suspected of atheistic tendencies.
    3. Socrates did question people in a manner similar to the Sophists. He cross examined many who claimed to have knowledge or wisdom in the hope of gaining what they had. Socrates used the dialectical method of inquiry. He, unfortunately, showed that many people who claimed to know things actually did not. He embarrassed the poets, statesman, and artisans of his day. Many people thought of Socrates as they did the Sophists, although he was not one of them.
    4. Socrates was indiscriminate in his associations. He would allow anyone to question him and observe him. He did not care who they were. Over time, foreigners, mathematicians, the young, the Thirty who later became tyrants, Sophists, politicians all would come to speak with Socrates. Many Athenians might have harbored suspicions or distrust of Socrates associates and wonder about Socrates’ true plans or role in their actions.
    5. Socrates questioning process was a threat to the democratic ideal, the foundation of the political and social order.

    What was really on trial then were the social values to be found in the actions and inquiries of Socrates.

    Both Plato and Xenophon report on the trial itself. There is no text indicating that Plato has distorted what occurred at the trial. The prosecutor presented his charges and then Socrates was given his chance to speak. He knew that he had until sundown of that day to present whatever he wanted to present. He has taken an oath, sworn to the gods, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He has sworn an oath to accept the verdict of the jury and the penalty imposed by the jury. It is his desire to keep these oaths that will be his undoing. His desire to be faithful to his oaths make him say things that disturb many of the jurors and make him remain in prison to die when he could have left and gone into exile.

    Socrates opening points out that it is his duty to speak the truth and it is the duty of the jury to provide for justice. Socrates will speak in his normal manner and he maintains that he is not a clever speaker (in the fashion of the Sophists). He is not accustomed to dealing with courts, as he has never been a defendant. He attempts to deal with the two sets of charges. He fears that the rumors concerning him are more damaging than the charges. He can’t deal with them, as he would want because the charges are not made specific. He thinks he is there due to the suspicions surrounding him that he is involved in strange investigations and that he is associated with sophistry. There were no witnesses to support these charges and no evidence to show that Socrates ever charged money for instruction as Sophists did. The god, the oracle at Delphos, has given him his business. When the oracle said, “There is no one wiser than Socrates”, he took it to be giving him the charge to seek after wisdom. He began to question all who may have had wisdom in any form only to find that it was not so. His questioning of the statesmen, poets and artisans did find them guilty of pride (hubris) for thinking that they were wise when they were not. This also won Socrates their enmity. Socrates does not believe that he can deal with all the antagonisms by which he was disliked by so many. He does not believe that he can deal with the prejudices of so many in so short a time allotted. So he turns to the specific charges.

    Corruption of the young

    Socrates questions Meletos concerning this charge. Apparently, Meletos believes that Socrates is the only guilty of this. Socrates makes light of that idea. Socrates inquires as to whether or not the alleged corruption is deliberate or accidental and notes that either option leads to a course of action other than to charges and a death penalty.

    Meletos could name no individuals that Socrates had corrupted. No one in the court room named a single corrupted child.


    The charge is explained by Meletos to mean that Socrates is an atheist and believes in no gods. Socrates points out that he is not like Anaxagoras who did not believe in the gods. Meletos admits under questioning that Socrates teaches about “spiritual” things and when he does so, Socrates forces Meletos to admit that Socrates must then believe in spirits if he teaches about spiritual things and that spirits are gods and so Socrates must believe in the gods.

    Had Socrates concluded his defense at this point, he might have been acquitted, as the jury was most likely laughing at the prosecutor. But Socrates did not stop there. Under oath to tell the whole truth, Socrates proceeded to inform the jury as to the real reasons he believed he was charged with crimes. He informed Meletos and the Jury that Meletos and his conspirators did not know he true charge to place against him. They could not even bring up his loose association with some of the thirty tyrants due to the amnesty. Socrates knows why he is disliked by so many and now begins to make a defense of the type of life he has lived. He has only to consider whether one does right or wrong. The god has posted him to be a philosopher to test himself and others. He does not fear death. It is unknown. He fears disobeying god, this is definitely bad. He is not afraid to speak the truth as so many others are. He will act as the god has posted him to act. He will always be a philosopher, a seeker after wisdom. He will do this and obey god rather than the mob. He will always question others concerning truth and virtues and persuade them to care for its soul and its virtue rather than for fame or money or power. He has acted always according to what he thought to be right. If he considered doing otherwise, an inner voice (daemon) would speak to him to warn him away from doing wrong. He has done so and shall continue to do so in his private and public life. In public he has never done wrong. He never took money and his finances show it. In public he refused the demand of the mob for a trial of ten generals together and instead insisted on separate trials. He refused the tyrants order to arrest Leon of Salamis. He does not believe that he has done wrong anywhere. He does not believe that he corrupted anyone.

    Socrates informs the jury that he is asking for justice and not mercy or charity. He would not resort to appeals for mercy as many others had done before him. He would not bring his wife and small children out to remind them of his family obligations. These appeals make Athens look ridiculous in the eyes of others. This encourages the jurors to disrespect their oaths to provide for justice. These are oaths they swore to the gods as jurors.

    Nevertheless, Socrates is found guilty. 281 to 219!

    At this point the prosecutor was to present a penalty and the defendant could either accept it or he would offer an alternative and defend it. Meletos asks for death. Socrates’ friends are horrified. They encourage him to propose an alternative. Socrates speaks aloud wondering what is the punishment befitting his crime. As he does not believe that he hasn’t committed a crime, how can he propose a punishment? Socrates states that it would appear that his “true’ crime was not having the sense to live an idle life; neglecting his own household affairs, not making money, not pursuing military appointments and for believing himself too honest to involve himself in tawdry business affairs and political plots as so many others had done. For that “crime” he thinks the fitting punishment should be free room and board for he, his wife and children in the town hall for the rest of their lives! He could not recommend anything that was negative as a consequence of leading a good life. Many of the jurors become incensed over this offering. Socrates’ friends on the jury encourage him to propose another penalty. Socrates considers alternatives. Death is not that upsetting since Socrates does not know for sure what that is, prison, fines and exile are considered. Exile is not acceptable since Socrates would be labeled as a criminal and wherever he went he would not be able to follow the instruction of the god for he would not be allowed to speak with others and continue his pursuit of wisdom. Socrates reconsiders a fine but he has no money. His friends take up a collection and he offers to pay that amount as a penalty for his crimes. The jury votes and he is sentenced to die by a larger vote than found him guilty. 360-140!. That meant that there were men on the jury who voted that he was not guilty and then voted to put him to death anyway! The old man had offended them with his brazen stance affirming his virtue over their practices.

    Socrates now chastises the jurors who are putting him to death, pointing out that their deed will allow non-Athenians to criticize them. They will call Socrates wise and Athens foolish. He is an old man and they could not wait for him to die. They needed to go out of their way to kill him. Socrates spoke to his friends and encouraged them not to fell so badly for him. He was not afraid of death but of wickedness. He is confident that the result has been a good one since that inner voice or daemon had not spoken to him and warned him away from attending the trials and speaking as he did. He says it is far harder to out run wickedness than death. Death comes to us all but wickedness is what we should be concerned with and avoid. We can’t avoid death. Death was either a dreamless sleep or a journey to another place. If it was a dreamless sleep, Socrates thought that it would not be bad at all. If it were a journey to another place where the gods and goddesses and heroes were he would be happy to be with them and question them and learn the answers that had eluded him.

    Socrates was convinced that no harm can come to a good man either living or dead! He was taken away to prison to await his execution. In prison he is invited to flee and live in exile but refuses to do so!

    You can read along with Plato's account of Socrates defense in the Apology.

    Or you can watch the cartoon version below

    Questions from the Apology Video and the Reading

    1. Why was he there? What was it all about?
    2. Why did he make the defense that he did?
    3. Why did they convict him? Why did they sentence him to death?
    4. If Socrates was such a good person, someone who was pursuing truth and goodness and wisdom, how could it be that he would be executed by fellow citizens?

    Prison, Death, and Legacy of Socrates

    Socrates awaits his execution in prison. The Athenians have sent a boat laden with offerings to the gods in order to insure a better future for Athens. The Athenians won’t execute him until the boat returns. Socrates and his friends know that there will be several days until the boat returns. While in prison Socrates is visited by his friends. One of his friends is an old and wealthy Athenian named Crito. Crito visits one day and informs Socrates that he has arranged for Socrates’ escape. The guards have been bribed and he wants Socrates to leave with him. Socrates will go off and live in another town. Socrates is not eager to go off with his friend. He asks him why he should do this. Crito responds by informing Socrates that he loves him and does not want him to die. He asks Socrates to think of what people will say about Crito. They expect the old man to help out his friend. He has a great deal of money and people would think poorly of him if he did not assist Socrates. Crito’s reputation is at stake. Socrates does not accept Crito’s appeals to his emotions. Socrates again asks why he should leave. Crito informs Socrates that:

    1. it is not a great deal of money.
    2. Crito’s reputation is at stake.
    3. Socrates’ children would be let down by his leaving them.
    4. Socrates should remain alive to raise his children in a virtuous manner.

    Socrates is not quick to give in. Instead he reminds Crito that they had agreed through all the years that a person should act according to what reasoning seems to be the best and not give in to emotions or to what the mob wants. Socrates shall not respect the opinions of the many or even the all, only the reasons given by the few who have positions resting upon knowledge of justice and the good.

    For Socrates the only consideration is whether or not he would be doing the right thing by leaving. Socrates wants to do no wrong at all. Crito reminds Socrates that he has been done wrong by the jury. Socrates is not guilty of the crimes he was charged with and is being asked to die. Crito urges him to leave. He does not need to accept the verdict of a jury that has wronged him. Socrates responds by pointing out that we must do no wrong at all even in return for a wrong. The laws did not wrong Socrates the jury did. Socrates does not want to harm the Laws by doging wrong to them. Two wrongs do not make a right! Do not return a wrong for a wrong. Crito does not quite understand Socrates point. In order to make it easier to understand Socrates asks Crito to consider the Laws of Athens as a being standing at the doorway as Socrates is about to leave. The Laws ask Socrates why is he leaving and Socrates repeats Crito’s reasoning. The Laws would object that it was not the understanding that the Laws had with Socrates. The Laws were like a father in assisting Socrates as he grew. They educated him and enriched him. They gave him a share in all the beautiful things of the city, citizenship and the right to leave at any time. Socrates in particular is bound to them because for all his life he remained in the city, leaving only to defend it in battles. He could have emigrated at any time but he choose to remain and in so doing to obey its Laws.

    1. hurting the Laws, as they are as Parents to him
    2. defying the laws, who were his nurturers
    3. he would be breaking his agreement to obey

    Socrates cannot leave. He swore an oath to accept the verdict and penalty. He swore to the gods. If he leaves he will not convince anyone that he was right and they were wrong. No, rather it would be proof that they were right in convicting and executing him. If he leaves he would become guilty of the two crimes he had been accused of:

    If Socrates were to leave he would be disobedient and wrong toward the Laws in different ways:

    1. Impiety- he would be breaking his oath to the gods and thus show that either he disbelieves in them or is insulting them deliberately
    2. Corrupting the young- he would be setting a very bad example for the youth of Athens as they would see Socrates run off into exile and think that they could do likewise in a similar situation and thus did not need to keep their oaths.
    3. Socrates believed in the Law that said if you make an oath, keep it. If you make a promise, keep it.
    4. Socrates must stay and die to prove that he is innocent. In order to remain innocent he must die. He stays to die because he is innocent and wants to remain innocent and virtuous. If he leaves he becomes guilty and deserves to die!
    5. Men and not the Laws wronged Socrates. He sees no reason to harm the Laws now. He does not want to do wrong and thereby deserve the penalty. He wanted always and everywhere to do what reason directed him to see as the good, the virtuous.

    Plato's Crito outlines Socrates arguments for why he would not leave prison and run away.


    The decision made by Socrates changed the course of events for the entire world! If Socrates had left the prison there would have been no Plato and had there been no Plato there would have been a different course of events in the Western world and therefore in the entire world. The development of science and ideas of political reform were as they are because of the works of Plato. Had Socrates not remained in prison to die, Plato would not have become a Philosopher and would not have written the dialogues that impacted history. If Socrates had not remained to die in prison, I would not have been born! Socrates remains in prison and is executed by drinking hemlock. He offers arguments for the existence and immortality of the soul in the last hours of his life

    These arguments can be found in Plato's Phaedo.

    Philosophical Applications

    f-d:8b0d44895d1f81666f9ee08e1867b89f6556d19df19920cc99176880 IMAGE_THUMB_LARGE_TINY IMAGE_THUMB_LARGE_TINY.1

    Answer and discuss at least ONE of the following questions.

    1. Socrates believed that no one does wrong voluntarily. Evil is the result of ignorance. If people knew what was the right thing to do they would do it. We always choose what we think is the best or good for us. So, if someone chooses to do what we think is wrong, then that person made a mistake and must be educated to see the error. They mistook good for the evil. Do you agree? Why or why not?
    2. If Socrates had the same principles at the age of 37 that he had at the age of 72 do you think that he would have remained in prison to be executed or would he have accepted the offer of his friends and left the prison and gone into exile? Why or why not? Give reasons.
    3. If Socrates had left the prison Plato would not have become a philosopher and the Western world would have developed along other lines and at a different pace. The entire world would be different and you and I would not exist! Plato's ideas contributed to science, religion, to Locke , Rousseau, Jefferson and Adams and to Hegel and to Marx and to communism. The world would be different. Socrates' decision not to escape prison was one of those moments that changed all of history! Do you agree? Why or why not?


    Vocabulary Quizlet 2.3

    This page titled 2.3: Pre-Socratics and Socrates is shared under a CK-12 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

    CK-12 Foundation
    CK-12 Foundation is licensed under CK-12 Curriculum Materials License
    • Was this article helpful?