Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Last Days of Socrates by Plato.

Socrates Bust at Rubens House, Antwerp (© Corbis).

I promised myself this weekend I would get some of my more intimidating reviews on my pile done; yesterday was Aristotle's Ethics, and today Plato's The Last Days of Socrates which, I dare say, is marginally less tricky, but still it's very dense. The book is made up of four parts:
  1. Euthyphro (Εὐθύφρων)
  2. The Apology of Socrates (Ἀπολογία Σωκράτους)
  3. Crito (Κρίτων)
  4. Phaedo (Φαίδων)
They were written in the early 4th Century B.C. and are concerned with the trial and death of Socrates (399 B.C.).
This is largely a dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, a religious man who has brought charges against his father for manslaughter: one of his workers died as a result of Euthyphro's negligence, and that same worker in fact murdered a slave earlier. Euthyphro greets Socrates who informs him he is being prosecuted for impiety, and the charges were brought by Meletus. In this short section (it's about 20 pages) the two discuss holiness: a holy deed, argues Euthyphro, is that which is agreeable to the gods, but as Socrates points out the gods frequently argue (which is the basis for many a great Ancient Greek play). Euthyphro then suggests that a holy deed is one that would approved by the gods, to which Socrates argued that the two cannot be the same. Instead, then, Euthyphro speaks of justice, arguing that the holy 'look after' the gods, which, as Socrates points out, undermines the argument that the gods are all-powerful. Finally, when Euthyphro loses his temper, he speaks of holiness, prayers and sacrifice, as pleasing the gods. The argument comes full circle and Euthyphro stalks off in anger. Socrates is left alone calling after Euthyphro,
Look what you're doing, my friend! You're going off and dashing me from the great hope which I entertained; that I could learn from you what was holy and what not and quickly have done with Meletus's prosecution by demonstrating to him that I have now become wise in religion thanks to Euthyphro, and no longer improvise and innovate in ignorance of it - and moreover that I could live a better life for the rest of my days.
There Euthyphro ends.
The Apology of Socrates
The Apology makes up the first of two sections on justice and duty. In this Socrates defends himself against the charges of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youth, beginning by pointing out his lack of legal training, and declaring instead that he will speak as he best knows how - directly and honestly. He refuses to accept that he is the wisest of men, as, apparently, the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed, saying that famous line - "I know that I know nothing". In espousing this 'wisdom' Socrates, whilst gaining the admiration of the youth, brought him contempt, perhaps, he says, leading to his trial. He then defends himself against Meletus' claim that he is an atheist, picking out contradictions in Meletus' argument, and then the matter of obedience (to the state, to people, or to the gods) is discussed. Socrates is then found guilty (by a narrow margin) and sentenced to death. True to form, he is philosophical, saying he ought not fear that which he does not know, and bears no ill-will to the jurors. 
This is another small section (it is the final section that takes up the bulk of The Last Days of Socrates), and is the second part that deals with the ideas of justice and duty. As Socrates sits in his prison cell awaiting execution he and his friend Crito (Crito of Alopece) discuss justice. Crito has arranged to smuggle Socrates out of prison to safety, yet Socrates won't budge. Crito presents a variety of arguments, such as the fact that he believes Socrates' sentence was unjust, and thus to kill him would be wrong, therefore by remaining Socrates is enabling his executors to act immorally. Also Crito reminds Socrates of his children who Socrates would effectively be abandoning if he was to ignore a way out. Socrates however is not persuaded and argues the importance of obeying the law; also he will be judged badly by the gods in the afterlife and be an outcast in this life. Socrates therefore remains in his cell.
This last part of The Last Days of Socrates is very moving with the odd moment of distress shown from his friends. Phaedo of Elis, who was present at Socrates' death, meets Echecrates who asks him what happened. Phaedo tells him that Socrates' friend were present, including himself, Crito, Simmias and Cebes, and Socrates told them that a philosopher ought to look forward to their death (not suicide). He speaks of the immortal soul, and on how the philosopher detaches himself from life. He goes on to describe the cycle of life and the 'argument of opposites' (life comes from death and death from life), the Theory of Recollection (rather than learning new facts we in fact recollect them, suggesting we are born with innate knowledge), the Argument from Affinity (the eternal soul in the transient body), and the life of the soul. It's pretty tricky and I can't honestly say I fully grasped this section. Phaedo finishes, as expected, with Socrates' death: he climbs into the bath, drinks hemlock, and passes away.

That is my very brief description of The Last Days of Socrates. It is very difficult, though I do enjoy the dialogues more than, say, Aristotle (only just, mind). These four books aren't simply philosophy however, there is the biographical element which was very interesting, and it was at times fairly descriptive giving the whole work more warmth than other by Plato's contemporaries. I'm glad to have finally read it, been meaning to for quite a while now, but the struggle and my tenuous grasp of it is frustrating.


  1. Apology was my first dialogue of Plato's and I so enjoyed it. Socrates is quite a character! I do need to get to the rest of them at some point. Good intentions, and all that ..... ! ;-)

    1. I did love Socrates! He is indeed quite a man. I did like this, but this section of my challenge is such a struggle. My good intention is to finish it before the year is out - just four books left of 4th Century BC, but.... ah, I find them so hard!


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