The character of Socrates

As important as any doctrine or method which can be traced back to Socrates is the influence on later thinkers of his character. That character is inevitably seen against the background of the trial and death of Socrates and it is there that we must begin. In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of speaking against the official religion, of introducing new gods and of leading youths astray. Here is Socrates reaction in the Euthyphro of Plato.

What is the charge! Well, a very serious charge, which shows a good deal of character in the young man, and for which he is certainly not to be despised. He says he knows how the youth are corrupted and who are their corruptors. I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am the reverse of a wise man, he has found me out, and is going to accuse me of corrupting his young friends. And of this our mother the state is to be the judge. Of all our political men he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way, with the cultivation of virtue in youth; like a good husbandman, he makes the young shoots his first care, and clears away us who are the destroyers of them. This is only the first step; he will afterwards attend to the elder branches; and if he goes on as he has begun, he will be a very great public benefactor.

Socrates is here speaking of Meletus, his chief accuser; Meletus was joined by Anytus, a champion of Athenian democracy and Lyco. In the Apology, Plato gives us Socrates at the trial, replying to his accusers.

The Apology is, of course, a literary piece, but one in which the character of Socrates is revealed by the claim that he will not defend himself by means of a carefully written speech prepared by a professional rhetorician – the usual courtroom procedure.

For I am more than seventy years of age and appearing now for the first time in a court of law, I am quite a stranger to the language of this place; and therefore I would have you regard me as if I were really a stranger, whom you would excuse if he spoke in his native tongue . . . (Apology 17)