The Trial and Death of Socrates

book: The Trial and Death of Socrates
author: Plato

general overview

when you think of “philosophy” you probably imagine a dry, intellectually demanding university course led by a professor whose greatest achievement is his outstanding collection of tweed coats. actually reading the works that started the whole philosophy business is an entirely different – and far more rewarding – experience.

The Trial and Death of Socrates is a collection of four of Plato’s shorter dialogues (the whole thing is half the length of Plato’s most famous work, The Republic), all of which revolve around the discussions his teacher Socrates had in the days leading up to his execution.

you might be wondering whether you can really learn anything of relevance to today’s society from a bunch of old white men arguing with each other several thousand years ago. the answer is a categorical, resounding “yes absolutely”. mostly because so many fundamental qualities of today’s society originate right here, in these works.

by focusing on the four dialogues that offer a biographical look at Socrates’ character, readers get a clear picture of a thinker so dangerous and subversive that his own city put him to death.

you get to look at the fundamental paradox of religious faith (the Euthyphro dilemma), the value of self-integrity even when taken to its most extreme (Socrates refusing the flee the city in the Crito), the importance of seeking wisdom no matter how hard it may be (Socrates haranguing the jurors at his own trial instead of defending himself), and a powerful argument for the immortality of the soul (three actually, all contained within the Phaedo).

summary notes

unsurprisingly, there’s a lot to unpack here. many of history’s sharpest minds have spent their lives dedicated to reading and commenting on these works. i’ll just summarize some of the most outstanding points:

  • It’s easy to see that major parts of both Christian and Islamic religious doctrine is taken, almost wholesale, from the Euthyphro and the Phaedo. if you want to understand the intellectual forces that shaped the Bible or the Quran, it’s all right here.
  • the dialogue format makes it easy to understand the deep implications of the subjects Socrates and his colleagues are talking about. Plato’s writing (and Jowett’s translation) is far clearer and easier to understand than the average philosophical work.
  • in ancient Athens, condemned criminals had the option of proposing their own punishment. Socrates’ suggestion? free meals at public expense for the rest of his life.
  • in the Crito, Plato has Socrates defend an unusual idea: that doing wrong is more harmful to the perpetrator than the victim. this isn’t because of an external force like karma (a term that Plato never heard of), but because our actions affect our souls’ integrity.
  • the description of Socrates’ death by hemlock in the Phaedo will move more sensitive readers to tears. on purely literary terms, it is masterfully written.
  • throughout the dialogues (and the rest of Plato’s works) Socrates’ main point is that we should submit our beliefs to rigorous questioning, and always try to align ourselves with the truth. if we can’t apprehend the truth our own (which is expected – not even Socrates can), then we should seek out the advice of people wiser than ourselves, and subject their beliefs to the same set of rigorous questions.

ultimately, despite a couple thousand years of development in the field, reading Plato remains the most accessible and rewarding introduction into philosophy. if you want to develop your ability to think critically about your own thoughts, beliefs, and actions, there is no better place to start than at the beginning.