Five Lessons from the Trial of Socrates

In 399 BCE, Socrates was on trial on two charges—impiety and corrupting youth. With nearly 2,500 years of hindsight, his self-defense serves as a goldmine of lessons to be learned. These are lessons we can garner, not just from Socrates’ philosophy in general, but, rather, from the trial itself.

Steelmanning the Opposing Argument

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

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

From the outset, then, Socrates summarizes his perceived wrongdoings and goes on to rebut all of the claims. Unfortunately, this did not change the philosopher’s fate. But the steelmanning technique has outlived him. I cannot think of a single debate that would not benefit from each interlocutor steelmanning his opponent’s position before the pair embark on a verbal sparring match.

Ideas Can Improve People More Than Laws Can

During a back-and-forth between Socrates and Meletus, one of his primary accusers, the philosopher asks his adversary who is the improver of the youth? Meletus’ answer reveals a mindset that is still prevalent today. He thinks that it is the laws which cause young people to advance. But laws cannot be the source of anyone’s improvement, youthful or otherwise. Someone has to conceive of a law before that law can be passed. Furthermore, the fact that a given law has attained legislative status—and hypothetical alternative laws have not—implies that someone believed that law to be good and useful. So, even if a law is beneficial, those benefits originate from the creativity of one (or more) people. And those people could have attempted to directly persuade people to behave in accordance with that law, even if the law has never been passed.

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

All people, not just young people, are influenced by the ideas that surround them. If people obey laws, it is because they consider such obedience a good idea (for moral, economic or other reasons).

Unintended Consequences

People often mistake their intentions for solutions: I aim to achieve goal x. I therefore propose solution y. If you disagree with my solution, you must disagree with my goal. Someone who agrees that goal x is worthwhile may dispute solution y as the means of achieving it. One common reason for this is that the opponent foresees unintended consequences of solution y, which the proposer has failed to consider.

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

Socrates recognizes the benefits he brings to society. He warns that, although his death may satisfy his accusers, there will be a cost to bear as well. It is never enough to have good intentions. One must consider all the consequences of a proposed solution, both good and bad.

Consistency is of Fundamental Importance

The principle of explosion states that if there is a contradiction within a set of logical axioms, then those axioms can prove anything at all. This is why consistency is so important when pursuing truth. A single inconsistency, no matter where it is situated within a chain of reasoning, can invalidate any conclusion. We should therefore seek only consistent theories, systems and explanations of reality. The principle of explosion constrains the types of knowledge edifices we can erect. Dismiss it, and, quite literally, anything goes.

Socrates expatiates on Meletus’ inconsistent accusations: namely, that Socrates simultaneously disbelieves and believes in gods. The philosopher knew that this inconsistency had been snuck into the accusations incognito, so that observers might not notice it. “[Meletus] said to himself,” Socrates tells us, exposing his accuser’s trickery, “I shall see whether this wise Socrates will discover my ingenious contradiction, or whether I shall be able to deceive him and the rest of them.”

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

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

Do Not Bend to Unrighteousness

There are two seemingly contradictory virtues in the pursuit of truth. On the one hand, one ought to subject one’s worldview to criticism, and moreover, to modify it if a particular criticism mandates. On the other hand, if one does not adhere to a set of principles, one is forever vulnerable to tyrannical forces, be they intellectual or physical. But these two seemingly opposed tenets are actually quite compatible. We may unify them into a single maxim: one ought to retain the principles of one’s worldview unless superior arguments for alternatives are discovered.

Socrates’ poignant speech following his death sentence is perhaps the main reason why his name is still entrenched in the West’s collective consciousness. He does not accept the jury’s condemnation as an affirmation of his guilt. The philosopher’s actions, which he regards as righteous, have not, to his mind, received legitimate criticism from those who deem them evil. The mere declaration of Socrates’ guilt is not reason enough for him to acquiesce. Furthermore, he recognizes that his fate was already sealed before the trial had even begun:

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

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

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