Christopher Koranda


Gustavus Adolphus College


May 2000



Socrates and the Distribution of Moral Arms



Part I:  Background

            This paper will look at Socrates as he is presented in both Plato’s Apology and the first book of the Republic.  It will argue that Socrates did not do everything within his power to assure his acquittal, choosing instead to use his trial as a test of the jurors.  It will then contrast this idea with one of Socrates’ ideas in the republic, and will finally suggest some possible conclusions produced by this comparison.

            It is important to mention that most scholars believe that Plato wrote both the Apology and Book I of the Republic fairly early in his career, despite the fact that the rest of the Republic is considered to be a later work.  Book I, also called the Thrasymachus, is more closely related to Plato’s earlier works—both in literary style and in philosophical approach—than the rest of the Republic.  It will be assumed here that the Apology and Book I of the Republic were written in the same period.

            The Socrates presented in Plato’s writings is not considered by most to be true to the actual historical man.  As Plato’s writing career advanced, he seems to have placed more and more of his own ideas into Socrates’ mouth, until in the end the character of Socrates resembled his historical counterpart in little more than his name.  The point in assuming that the Thrasymachus and the Apology were written in the same stage of Plato’s life is to be assured that the Socrates character is consistent—tainted by Plato’s views, but tainted to roughly the same degree, and thus essentially the same character. This paper is not concerned with reconstructing a historically accurate picture of Socrates, but rather with examining a representation of Socrates that is not greatly different in the two works.


Part II:  The Apology

            The Apology is Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates.  Believing that he is on a divine mission to find someone wiser than himself, Socrates has made a practice of exposing the ignorance of those who are wrongly convinced that they are wise.  After years of questioning the wisdom of the leading citizens and powerful men of Athens, he is finally brought to court.  Although he is formally charged with such crimes as corruption of the youth and atheism, the true reason for his prosecution is that he is an annoying presence for those in power.  Socrates demonstrates to the jury that he is innocent of the formal charges and that the ‘real’ charges against him have no legal base, but nevertheless he is convicted and sentenced to death.

            Many explanations of Socrates’ behavior in the Apology have been advanced.  Among the more popular are the following:  Perhaps Socrates is incompetent.  He makes a sincere and earnest attempt to convince the jury to acquit him, and even though he seems to have a ‘sure-win’ case, he fails.  His lack of experience with legal argumentation and the politics of the court have handicapped his defense.  Or, perhaps Socrates actually wants to die, either because he desires to be a martyr for philosophy, or because he fears the mental and physical decline that old age will bring.  On this view, he is seen to be deliberately sabotaging his own case in the hopes of a death sentence. 

            The interpretation we will look at here is substantially different from those listed above, but includes elements of both.  It will be granted that Socrates does indeed have a case that would be easy to win.  It will be further assumed that Socrates is not incompetent, and that he deliberately chooses to do things that make his release less likely.  However, this paper maintains that Socrates does not have a death wish, and that he wants very much to be acquitted.  These seemingly contradictory assumptions make sense within this interpretation of the Apology:  Socrates is using his own trial as a moral test for the jury.  It is the jury, not Socrates, that is on trial, and it is not the life of one man but the moral health of hundreds of Athenian souls that is at stake.  He himself says,

Gentlemen of the jury, I am far from making a defence on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing. 1


            The formal charges against Socrates are not convincing.  He shows his innocence by revealing contradictions within the charges themselves.  For example, he counters the accusation that he deliberately corrupted the youth of Athens with the famous argument that to harm another is really to harm one’s self, which no one would purposely do.  He treats the other charges in a similar manner, exposing the logical fallacies of each.  This is not sufficient to guarantee his release, though, as the formal charges are merely an excuse to bring Socrates to court.  His true offense, he explains, is that in carrying out his divine mission he has aggravated and embarrassed powerful men.  He has done nothing illegal; he has merely been supremely annoying.  He reminds the jury that although they might not be happy with this, they must remember that his is not a legally punishable offense.

            Even though he deals with the formal charges so well, a great deal of evidence can be found to support the idea that Socrates is not doing everything he can to avoid being convicted.  The most obvious is his rough, abrasive speaking style.  He does initially apologize for speaking in his usual, market-place manner, reminding the jury that he has no court experience.  He asks the jury to ignore his unusual speaking style, that they might focus instead on the truth of his words:

My present request seems a just one, for you to pay no attention to my manner of speech—be it better or worse—but to concentrate your attention on whether what I say is just or not. 2


He then presents his case, taking no great pains to smooth his approach, or even to tone down some of his more aggravating comments.  His treatment of the subject of the oracle’s proclamation provides a good example of this.  He reminds the jury of a story that many are tired of hearing, of how the oracle at Delphi said that there is no man wiser than Socrates.  He is honest and forthright throughout, and is not reminding them of this in order to boast, but surely he could have provided the same information in a less annoying way.

            Later, after his conviction, Socrates makes another crushing blow to his hopes of release.  The prosecution recommends a penalty of death, and the defense is required to suggest a counter-penalty.  The jury must choose one or the other; there is no option for a compromise.  Socrates’ first counter-suggestion sounds ludicrous:  the privilege of dining in the Praetaneum for the rest of his life, an honor that is reserved for great heroes and Olympic champions.  He then suggests a fine of one mina of silver—a very small sum of money.  Although he finally proposes a more reasonable fine, and then only at the urging of his friends, his first two proposals must have sounded like a mockery of the trial, and surely they damaged Socrates’ hopes of being released.

            Some view the points mentioned so far as mistakes on Socrates’ part—accidents.  The following strategies, on the other hand, appear to be intentional attempts to make the jury think twice about acquitting him.  First is his declaration that he has no intention of altering his behavior if he is acquitted.  To stop questioning the wisdom of those around him would be to ignore his divine mission.  If he is released without penalty, he will only return to his old behavior.  To say that he is not only unrepentant, but to go as far as to declare that he intends to repeat his ‘offense’ hardly seems likely to help his odds of acquittal.

            Not only does Socrates use tactics that would seem to undermine his chances of being acquitted, but he also bluntly tells the jury that it cannot set him free out of pity.  He reminds the jury that, unlike many defendants of his time, he will not ask his family to appear before the jury to put on a pitiful display, saying that such behavior would be base and shameful.

I will not beg you to acquit me by bringing [my family] here.  Why do I do none of these things?  . . . Whether I am brave in the face of death is another matter, but with regard to my reputation and yours and that of the whole city, it does not seem right to me to do these things. 3


Many are inclined to view this as a rather obvious and cheap approach, believing that Socrates is trying to reap the benefits of such a tactic while at the same time claiming to be above such low behavior; however, if we dare to take Socrates’ words at face value, we see that what he is doing is anything but.  He does indeed remind the jury that he has a family that will be deprived of a father and husband, but he then denies the jury the option to release him because of this.  The members of the jury are not to be guided by emotional appeals.

            In summary, then, we have made the following claims: 1) Socrates demonstrates that he is innocent of the legal charges brought against him; 2) he does not make any special effort to endear himself to the jury; and 3) he even goes as far as to deny the jury an easy excuse to acquit him.  In his own words:

I do not think it right to supplicate the jury and to be acquitted because of this, but to teach and persuade them.  It is not the purpose of a juryman’s office to give justice as a favour to whomever seems good to him, but to judge according to law, and this he has sworn to do. 4


In effect, he makes it clear that this is an important ethical decision, not merely a political one, and he makes sure the morally correct choice cannot be arrived at without careful thought. The jury is denied any convenient, conscience-assuaging technicalities.  If it is to make the right decision, it must do so not because of any outside incentives, but because it is the right decision—and in spite of the fact that he often annoys them.

            This, then, is the first of the two positions this paper will compare.  The second is found in the Republic.


Part III:  The Republic

            In Book I of the Republic, we find Socrates in the company of Cephalus, his family and friends.  Socrates and various speakers weave through a discussion in search of a definition of justice. This first book, like so many of Plato’s early dialogues, finds more success in rejecting flawed definitions than in setting any final answers of its own.  They start out by suggesting possible definitions of justice, and then discussing the flaws in each.

            The first proposed definition is that justice is “speaking the truth and repaying whatever debts one has occurred.” 5  This is an understandable common-sense answer, and Socrates responds with what sounds like a common-sense rebuttal:

Everyone would surely agree that if a sane man lends weapons to a friend and then asks for them back when he is out of his mind, the friend shouldn’t return them, and wouldn’t be acting justly if he did. 6


According to the proposed definition, the friend should obviously return the weapon—after all, he does owe his friend the weapon, since he is only watching after it for its rightful owner.  This, Socrates points out, presents a problem.  How could it be just to give a friend the means to hurt himself or others, when the scenario implies he will do just that, given the chance?  Having been shown this problem, the others admit that this definition is flawed, and the conversation moves on.  Socrates does little to explain this, as he thinks his point is too obvious to need expanding—or perhaps it seems so obvious, it does not even occur to him that the point could be expanded.  We will briefly look at this implied reasoning.

            Socrates does not want the weapon to be returned because he does not want the crazy man to hurt himself or another.  Notice that in this paper’s view, he is concerned in this situation with hurt—not harm.  If the madman physically injures himself or another, he is not actually harming anyone.  The injured party’s soul is as healthy as it was before the injury.  In fact, it could even be argued that if the man kills himself or another he is not actually harming any one’s soul.  Granted, Socrates does not condone physical hurt simply because it does not damage the soul, but throughout his teachings he is more concerned with the well being of the soul than with the well-being of the body. 


Part IV:  Synthesis

            Although they may seem unrelated, the topics just discussed in the Apology and the Republic can be juxtaposed, with interesting results. Socrates says in the Republic that he does not want our hypothetical man to return the weapon to his friend, even though it is clear to both that the weapon is property of the friend.  Socrates’ wish to prevent the physical damage which might result from the return of the weapon is strong enough to overrule what is seen by some as a just agreement between the two friends.  The need to prevent physical damage is so obviously important that it does not require in-depth explanation.

            If we subscribe to our earlier interpretation of the Apology, it would seem to run contrary to this simple idea presented in the Republic.  Socrates has numerous reasons to do his best to be acquitted.  We have already assumed that he does not wish to die.  He says in the Apology that he does not fear death, but neither does he have a death wish.  He has committed no crime according to the law.  Even without his own life to think of, he would want to be acquitted, because the laws were written in the spirit that if a man is innocent of crime, he should not be punished.  Socrates wanted that the Athenians should remain faithful to their own laws, and thus the correct action would be to let him go.  Finally, he has a wife, children and friends that would be left behind, and out of consideration for them he surely must want to live.  Granted, he chastises his friends for reminding him of this, but Socrates, who refuses to return the weapon to the madman for fear of physical hurt, obviously appreciates the importance of avoiding unnecessary pain.

            But is the testing of the jury necessary?  Socrates removes the jury’s chance to avoid the wrong decision through convenient moral technicalities.  This makes it less likely that the jury should make the right decision accidentally, but it also makes it more likely that the jury should make the wrong choice.  In what way does this differ from returning the weapon to the mad friend?  Casting a vote may be less physically violent than swinging an axe, but the consequences for the souls of the jury members can be seen as far more serious.  The jurors are, after all, assumed to be sane and fully responsible for their actions, whereas some would say that the crazy friend has lost the ability to reason, and thus is somewhat exempt from blame.


Part V:  Conclusions

            A number of conclusions could be drawn from this comparison.  What could Socrates have done differently in order to remain consistent?  The first and least promising option would be that Socrates ought to have endorsed returning the weapon.  Granted, this allows for the possibility of unnecessary physical damage, but this is not the same as moral harm.  If we assume that Socrates believed in the immortality of the soul, which admittedly is a point of some contention, then we would have to conclude that the armed mad person could not influence any other’s soul negatively.

            This position could only be held by one who firmly believes in a deontological system of morality, and this person would have at least one major objection to answer, which has already been mentioned:  perhaps the mad friend is unable to make the correct decision.  They may have lost the ability to reason, and would no longer be able to make rational decisions.  This could open up another large realm of questioning:  is the jury any better off?  As a whole, it made the wrong decision; most of the jurors voted for Socrates’ execution.  Is this evidence that they were ill equipped to make the decision in the first place?

            It is now apparent that our interpretation of Socrates’ behavior in the Apology calls into question the idea that to know the good is to do it.  This idea seems to leave the possibility of free choice out.  One either possesses the proper knowledge, and thus acts properly, or one lacks the knowledge and acts poorly.  If one truly knows and understands what is right, one will do it unfailingly.  But if this is the case, then what possible good could testing a person do?  This question leads to another conclusion:  Socrates ought not to have tested the jury.

            One formulation of this would be to say that Socrates should have merely been honest and straightforward at his trial, and then left it up to the jury to decide what was best.  The idea here is that he could have chosen not to remind the jury of the moral ramifications of its decision, and could rather have placed his trust in the responsible decision-making of the jurors.  But another possibility exists:  perhaps Socrates should have done his best to influence the jury to acquit him.  This option relies on much more of a utilitarian approach to the problem:  assuming that the outcome of the jury’s action is more important than its underlying motivation, that the results trump all.  To influence, or even trick, the jury into making the correct decision might not encourage good character development on the part of the jurors, but perhaps the most important factor should be the avoidance of damage and hurt.

            Yet another question follows from this:  it may not be possible, according to Socrates, to better another person save through imparting knowledge, but could it be possible to prevent another person from harming themselves?  If the jury was prepared to wrongfully convict Socrates, and he managed to persuade them to do otherwise, would they be better for his intervention?  Or failing that, would they be “less bad” than they would have become if left to their own devices?  This suggests an interesting idea:  if it is possible to prevent another’s downfall, then Socrates could have chosen to be a ‘moral martyr’.  He could have presented his case in a less-than-totally-honest manner, or even lied outright, and saved the jury from itself.  He could have taken the weapon from the hands of the jury.  This begs a kind of moral calculus that I will not attempt, but it is an interesting question


Part VI:  Final comments

            It is not the intention of this paper to reveal some flaw in the character of Socrates, or to belittle his teachings in any way.  On the contrary, whatever interest this topic holds is due to the monolithic integrity and sincerity of Socrates.  Few historical figures believed so sincerely in their own teachings and possessed such an clear understanding of their own role.  Socrates deserves to be remembered as a great teacher that gave his life for his beliefs.









Works Cited


Grube, G.M.A.  Plato’s Republic.  Revised by C.D.C. Reeve.  Indianapolis:  Hacket

Publishing Company, 1992.


Grube, G.M.A.  The Trial & Death of Socrates.  Indianapolis:  Hacket Publishing

Company, 1975.




1.  Apology, 30d

2.  Apology, 18a

3.  Apology, 34d-e

4.  Apology, 35b-c

5.  Republic, 331c

6.  Republic, 331c