From Socrates' Defense (Apology) (by Plato)


"You know Chaerephon, of course.  He was a friend of mine from boyhood, and a good democrat who played his part with the rest of you in the recent expulsion and restoration.  And you know what he was like; how enthusiastic he was over anything he had once undertaken.  Well, one day he actually went to Delphi and asked this question of the god (as I said before, gentlemen, please do not interrupt) he asked whether there was anyone wiser than myself.  The priestess replied that there was no one....

Please consider my object in telling you this.  I want to explain to you how the attack upon my reputation first started.  When I heard about the oracle's answer, I said to myself 'What does the god mean?  Why does he not use plain language?  I am only too conscious that I have no claim to wisdom, great or small; so what can he mean by asserting that I am the wisest man in the world?  He cannot be telling a lie; that would not be right for him.'

After puzzling about this for some time, I set myself at last with considerable reluctance to check the truth of it in the following way.  I went to interview a man with a high reputation for wisdom because I felt that here if anywhere I would succeed in disproving the oracle and pointing out to my divine authority 'You said that I was the wisest of men, but here is a man who is wiser than I am.'

Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person (I need not mention his name, but it was one of our politicians that I was studying when I had this experience) and in conversation with him I formed the impression that although in many people's opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not.  Then when I began to try to show him that he only thought he was wise and was not really so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present.  However, I reflected as I walked away: 'Well, I am certainly wiser than this man.  It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows some­thing which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance.  At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.' (... )

After I had finished with the politicians, I turned to the poets, dramatic, lyric, and all the rest, in the belief that here I should expose myself as a comparative ignoramus.  I used to pick up what I thought were some of their most perfect works and question them closely about the meaning of what they had written, in the hope of incidentally enlarging my own knowledge.  Well, gentlemen, I hesitate to tell you the truth, but it must be told.  It is hardly an exaggeration to say that any of the bystanders could have explained those poems better than their actual authors.  So I soon made up my mind about the poets too: I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. (... )

The effect of these investigations of mine, gentlemen, has been to arouse against me a great deal of hostility, and hostility of a particularly bitter and persistent kind, which has resulted in various malicious suggestions, including the description of me as a professor of wisdom. (...) But the truth of the matter, gentlemen, is pretty certainly this: that real wisdom is the property of God, and this oracle is his way of telling us that human wisdom has little or no value.  It seems to me that he is not referring literally to Socrates, but has merely taken my name as an example, as if he would say to us 'The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless.'

(Translated by Hugh Tredennick)


Despite the eloquence of his defence, Socrates was convicted. He had then to speak again, before the jury decided on the sentence. He refused absolutely to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong, rather blaming the citizens for their persistent blindness and ignorance; as a result, the number of jurors voting for his death was higher than the number that had declared him guilty. He could not be executed at once, since a sacred boat had just left for Delos and there was a tradition that until it returned, in a month's time, no executions could take place.



From Plato's Phaedo: The Death of Socrates


(Socrates is talking about what happens to the soul after death) "Those who are judged to have lived a life of surpassing holiness are released and set free from confinement in these regions of the earth, and passing upward to their pure abode, make their dwelling upon the earth's surface.  And of these such as have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live thereafter altogether without bodies, and reach habitations even more beautiful, which it is not easy to portray (nor is there time to do so now).  But the reasons which we have already described provide ground enough for leaving nothing undone to attain during life some measure of goodness and wisdom; for the prize is glorious and the hope great."

With these words he got up and went into another room to bathe; and Crito went after him, but told us to wait.  So we waited, discussing and reviewing what had been said, or else dwelling upon the greatness of the calamity which had befallen us; for we felt just as though we were losing a father and should be orphans for the rest of our lives.  Meanwhile, when Socrates had taken his bath, his children were brought to see him; he had two little sons and one big boy; and the women of the household arrived.  He talked to them in Crito's presence and gave them directions about carrying out his wishes; then he told the women and children to go away, and came back himself to join us.

It was now nearly sunset, because he had spent a long time inside.  He came and sat down, fresh from the bath; and he had only been talking for a few minutes when the prison officer came in, and walked up to him.  'Socrates,' he said, 'at any rate I shall not have to find fault with you, as I do with others, for getting angry with me and cursing me when I tell them to drink the poison, carrying out Govern­ment orders.  I have come to know during this time that you are the noblest and the gentlest and the bravest of all the men that have ever come here, and now especially I am sure that you are not angry with me, but with them; because you know who are responsible.  So' now, you know what I came to say, goodbye, and try to bear what must be as easily as you can.' As he spoke, he burst into tears, and turning around, went away. (... )

Crito made a sign to his servant, who went out and after spending a considerable time returned with the man who was to administer the poison; he was carrying it ready prepared in a cup.  When Socrates saw him he said 'Well, my good fellow, you understand these things; what ought I to do?'

'Just drink it,' he said, 'and then walk about until you feel a weight in your legs, and then lie down.  Then it will act of its own accord.'

As he spoke he handed the cup to Socrates, who received it quite cheerfully, without any change of colour or expression, and said, looking up under his brows with his usual steady gaze, (... ) 'I suppose I am allowed, or rather bound, to pray the gods that my removal from this world to the other may be prosperous.  This is my prayer then; and I hope that it may be granted.' With these words, quite calmly and with no sign of distaste, he drained the cup in one breath. 

Up till this time most of us had been fairly successful in keeping back our tears; but when we saw that he was drinking, that he had actually drunk it, we could do so no longer; in spite of myself the tears came pouring, out, so that I covered my face and wept broken­heartedly-not for him, but or my own calamity in losing such a friend.  Crito had given up even before me, and had gone out when he could not restrain his tears.  But Apollodorus, who had never stopped crying even before, now broke out into such a storm of passionate weeping that he made everyone in the room break down, except Socrates himself, who said:

'Really, my friends, what a way to behave!  Why, that was my main reason for sending away the women, to prevent this sort of disturbance; because I am told that one should make one's end in a tranquil frame of mind.  Calm yourselves and try to be brave.'

This made us feel ashamed, and we controlled our tears.  Socrates walked about, and presently, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down on his back-that was what the man recommended.  The man kept his hand upon Socrates, and after a little while examined his feet and legs; then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it.  Socrates said no.  Then he did the same to his legs; and moving gradually up­wards in this way let us see that he was getting cold and numb.  Presently he felt him again and said that when it reached the heart, Socrates would be gone.

The coldness was spreading about as far as his waist when Socrates uncovered his face-for he had covered it up-and said (they were his last words): 'Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius.  See to it, and don't forget.'

'No, it shall be done,' said Crito.  'Are you sure that there is nothing else?'

Socrates made no reply to this question, but after a little while he stirred; and when the man uncovered him, his eyes were fixed.  When Crito saw this, he closed the mouth and eyes. Such, Echecrates, was the end of our comrade, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.

(Translated by Hugh Tredennick)