Unit 2: Metaphysics
A Critical Comparison between Plato’s Socrates and Xenophon’s Socrates in the Face of Death
Dr. Pankaj Singh
The trial and death of Socrates are some of the most tragic chapters in philosophical history. Socrates was put on trial in 399 BC for allegedly corrupting the minds of Athens’ youth and for impiety. Socrates tried unsuccessfully to justify himself. A jury of hundreds of male Athenian residents convicted him guilty by a majority vote. The main official charges were: (1) worshipping false gods; and not worshipping the state religion (2) corrupting youth . The main goal of the chapter is to compare and contrast two versions of Socrates’ defense in the face of death, one as described in Plato’s The Apology of Socrates and the other as presented by Xenophon in his The Apology of Socrates to the Jury. However, the goal isn’t only to uncover distinctions; it’s also to emphasize the significance of those differences. The following sections discuss some of the most significant distinctions.
Approach to Socrates as a Person
Both texts have taken a distinct approach to portray Socrates as a person. Plato’s and Xenophon’s personalities are mirrored in Socrates’ depiction in the respective texts. Plato, as a philosopher, emphasized the philosophical parts of Socrates’ defense, but Xenophon, as a practical man who wrote about practical subjects like as hunting, horsemanship, estate management, cavalry command, and military history, threw light on Socrates’ practical features. Even when addressing the representatives, Plato’s Socrates employs the dialectic approach to defend himself by asking questions regarding the allegations leveled against him. On the other hand, Xenophon’s Socrates is aggressive in temperament, and rather than asking questions, he gives his side of the story.
Focus of the Texts
The focus of these texts should also be kept in mind. While Plato concentrated on presenting a complete description of the entire episode as it unfolded in the court, Xenophon focused his inquiry on the question of whether Socrates’ rebellious tone was intentional or not. Xenophon appears to be focusing on strengthening the character of Socrates in the practical direction as a person of tough character like a warrior who is not afraid in the face of death, whereas Plato appears to be focusing on highlighting the philosophical aspect of his personality through a detailed description of the trial.
Objections to the First Accusation
Socrates has been put on trial on two primary accusations. To the first accusation, Plato and Xenophon both presented different types of arguments and proofs. They have presented the accusations in different ways, in addition to their diverse responses to the accusation. Plato writes about the first accusation:
Socrates is guilty of wrongdoing in that he busies himself studying things in the sky and below the earth; he makes the worse into stronger argument and he teaches the same to others”. While Xenophon writes, “ his opponent has accused him of not acknowledging the gods the city acknowledged, introducing new daimonic activities instead ( Grube et al., 1981, p.24).
For example, in response to the charge of studying objects in the sky, Socrates emphasizes that the ideas published by others, such as Anaxagoras concerning the Sun and Moon, are theories that may be found in a bookstore. He has read these theories, even if he does not agree with them. He further argues for his belief in god and sprits by asking Meletus:
“Does any man, Meletus, believe in human activities who does not believe in humans? … Does any man who does not believe in horses believe in horseman’s activities? Or flute playing activities but not in flute players? Does any man believe in spiritual activities who does not believe in spirits? ( Grube et al., 1981, p.31-32).
He goes on to say that if he believes in spirits who are said to be the children of gods, then I must believe in God as well.
Socrates’ reply against the charge of not believing in God is different in Xenophon’s narrative, less rational but more pragmatic. He discusses the rituals of offering sacrifices to the city god. He says:
The first thing I find amazing about the Meletus is what evidence he could ever had for saying that I don’t acknowledge the god that city acknowledges. Because anyone who happened to be around would see me making sacrifices at the state festivals and on the public altars (Reeve, 2002, p.179).
As a result, he apparently believes in city gods, proving that the charges are incorrect. To clear up the allegation, he adds that his belief in the daimonic voice does not deny the God’s power. Socrates uses the example of other people who claim to receive messages from God through other sources, which are acceptable in society and are not seen as acts of disobedience toward God. He says:
But while they speak of bird omens, chance sayings, signs, and seers as prophetic warnings, I call mine a daimonic thing. Actually, I have the following proof that I am not falsely attributing things to the god: for I have reported the god’s advice to very many of my friends, and I have never yet been shown to be wrong (Reeve, 2002, p.179).
Objections to Second Accusation
Contrary to the presentation of the first accusation, there is no major difference in framing the second accusation between Plato and Xenophon’s accounts. According to Plato and Xenophon, the second main accusation leveled against Socrates is to corrupt young minds. However, the evidence and reasoning presented in support of Socrates’ claim that he does not corrupt the youth are significantly different. Plato’s Socrates denies ever teaching anyone anything. His Socrates believes that it is his responsibility to study persons who profess to be wise to determine if they truly know or are merely pretending to know. Socrates also says that his talk is private, but many young people would follow him out of curiosity to observe individuals being examined, and they like it. They love witnessing it. Therefore they may occasionally try to do the same with others who profess to be intelligent. Socrates says:
I have never been anyone’s teacher. If anyone, young or old, desires to listen to me when I am talking and dealing with my own concerns , I have never begrudged this to anyone, but I do not converse when I receive a fee and not when I do not. I am equally ready to question the rich and the poor if anyone is willing to answer my questions and listen to what I say. And I can not justly be held responsible for the good and bad conduct of these people, as I never promised then to teach anything and have not done so ( Grube et al., 1981, p.37).
To the second accusation, Xenophon gives a completely different narrative of defense. Socrates asks his accuser whether they have any evidence of someone becoming a worse person as a result of his teachings. Xenophon writes:
So why don’t you say whether you know anyone who has gone from reverence to impiety because of me, or from modesty to arrogance, or from temperance to extravagance, or from moderate drinking to drunkenness, or from diligence to negligence, or has been overcome by any base pleasure? (Reeve, 2002, p.181).
It is apparent that Xenophon’s Socrates acknowledges that he teaches people, but Plato’s Socrates categorically rejects that he teaches anybody. Socrates in Xenophon’s Socrates not only accepts instructing young minds, but he also thinks it’s a good thing that they’re being taught by someone who is solely focused on education. On the charge that people whom Socrates trains begin to obey him more than their parents in this manner, he believes that if this occurs, Socrates sees nothing wrong with it. He uses the metaphor of a doctor and a patient to argue that it is beneficial for young people seeking answers to various concerns to come to him for education since he is more suited for them than their parents. Xenophon writes:
Don’t you think it amazing that whereas the best practitioner in other areas of expertise are not only given an appropriate reward, but are also highly esteemed, I myself who and considered by some to be the best judge about the greatest good for men, I mean education (Reeve, 2002, p.182).
When Socrates responds to the allegations by citing the practical components of his argument, Xenophon’s portrayal of him appears to be more human. Plato’s Socrates, while more rational, appears to be less credible in the court.
Wisdom of Socrates
Plato’s Socrates claims that the deity has given him a duty to question those who profess to be smart, whether they be politicians, poets, craftsmen, affluent or poor. This quest began with the Oracle of Delphi’s revelation that Socrates was the wisest of all the Greeks. Socrates sought to put this prophecy to the test by questioning those who claimed to be intelligent. During his investigation, he found no one who claimed to be intelligent was truly wise. Socrates observed that because of their accomplishment in a particular profession or subject, people mistook it for wisdom and understanding. They had the delusion that they knew something when, in fact, they didn’t, as Socrates discovered when he questioned them about their expertise. Socrates concluded that, while it is difficult to state anything with certainty about knowledge, he was better than all others with whom he inquired about wisdom in that he is at least conscious of his ignorance, whereas others are not. Their claims were false. As Plato writes about Socrates:
I am wises than this man; it is likely that neither of us know anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I don’t know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know ( Grube et al., 1981, p.26).
Plato’s Socrates, based on the oracle’s prophecy, comes to the conclusion after investigation that he is wiser than others owing to the above-mentioned line of reasoning.
In Xenophon’s version, the Oracle of Delphi says that no man was freer, more just, or more moderate than Socrates. Socrates tries to question the Delphi prophecy once more, but this time he evaluates his own character and activities rather than comparing wisdom with others. Oracle’s assertion that he is a free, wise, and righteous man is confirmed via his self-analysis and evaluation. Xenophon mentions about Socrates:
Well then, who do you know who’s less enslaved by the body’s appetites than myself? And who is freer that I, since I take neither gifts nor pay from anyone? And who on the earth could you reasonably consider more than someone who is so well adopted to his circumstances that he has no need of anyone else’s possession? And how could anyone reasonably deny that I am a wise man since as soon as I could understand speech, I began seeking out and learning whatever good things I could and I have never stopped doing so since (Reeve, 2002, p.181).
It is clear that Plato’s philosophical bent has proven that Socrates’ knowledge is generated by constant questioning of those around him who are thought to be clever. And Socrates in Plato’s Socrates does not pretend to have absolute knowledge; rather, he appears to be a sincere admirer of wisdom, a philosopher in particular. On the other hand, Xenophon does not hesitate to list all of Socrates’ remarkable characteristics that make him a certain intelligent person. Socrates, as depicted by Xenophon appears to be more sophist in nature.
Deliberation to Die
The rebellious tone of Socrates’ defense is one of the central points of debate among scholars. Plato’s Socrates does not appear to be attempting to avoid a death sentence on purpose. All he wants to do is tell his side of the story without sympathy since it obstructs genuine justice. There is no question that his defense approach appears to be suicidal in character, as when Socrates appears to be baiting the Jury after the guilty verdict and before the death sentence, as seen by his contemplation of other options if he does not get the death penalty. He claims that exile will do him no good because philosophizing is a god-given job. He reflects about his acquittal based on his lack of speech, and comes to the conclusion that an unexamined life is not worth living. Apart from that, the fact that Socrates states to his friends and followers after his death sentence that it must be for the purpose of good because his inner voice does not contradict him at any time throughout the trial is often emphasized in favor of deliberation. However, few subtle statements in Plato’s Socrates indicate that he did not intend to be executed. For example, Socrates’ statement of the trial’s brief duration hampered his ability to persuade more people of his innocence. As he said:
If it were law with us, as it is elsewhere, that a trial for life should not last one but for many days, you would be convinced, but now it is not easy to dispel great slanders in a short time ( Grube et al., 1981, p.26).
His assessment of penalty of thirty mina also cannot be ignored. It shows that the attempt of his defense was genuine without any deliberation to die. Although the outcome was not in Socrates’ favor, he handled it graciously as a great man. I believe his grace should not be seen as a deliberate decision to die but rather as an example that a good man and message cannot be hurt even by an unjust death.
Xenophon’s account of Socrates’ defense, which is premised on Socrates’ contemplation for death, now presents the opposing side of the narrative. The concept of Xenophon is based on Hermogene’s description of a discussion with Socrates prior to his execution. Three points from the conversation have been highlighted to support Socrates’ claim of death deliberation: first, he had lived a just and fulfilled life and was ready to die; second, he wanted to avoid the suffering of old age; and third, his daimonic voice did not prevent him from saying anything else in the trail. These three factors persuade Xenophon that Socrates’ defense was premeditated since he decided to die. However, if we examine these three arguments in the context of Socrates’ overall nature, we can contradict them. To begin with, there is no doubt that Socrates appears to have lived a fulfilled life, but this does not imply that he desired to die. In confessing his love for philosophy, Socrates stated that even if he dies and there is such a thing as spirit that goes to another place after death, he would be very happy to examine people there as well, implying that had he been alive, he would have continued his mission of examining people as it would have greatly aided him.
Second, his portrayal of old age suffering does not necessarily imply that he was about to commit suicide in response to his accusations. As a just man, Socrates would not have been afraid of death or old age. He was not an escapist and would have lived his old age as gracefully as he lived the rest of his life. Xenophon took the third point of no indication from the daimonic voice as it was good for Socrates to die at that point in his life, but the interpretation of no daimonic intervention comes later when Socrates is found guilty and sentenced to death, implying that he later connected the dots and discovered why such an unjust thing had happened to him. Nevertheless, that does not mean he presented deliberate defiance to the jury in order to die. Instead, the tone of defiance should be taken as a sign that he was committed to truth only even in the face of death. He could have appealed to pity, manipulated the jury through oratory, but he chose to be brave Socrates, as he had been all his life and spoke everything he thought fit to defend himself, regardless of any concern about the outcome of his defense.
The above sections discussed that there is a substantial difference between Plato’s and Xenophon’s accounts of Socrates’ trial and defense, but, as is the characteristic of philosophy in general, there is no conclusive solution. Thus we cannot say who’s story is closest to the reality of the true occurrence at the time. We should not place too much emphasis on whether he intended to die on purpose or not, but rather on what he really stated through those challenges of living an examined life and not stray from the truth even in the face of death. Whether Oracle said so or not, his serenity at the time of death qualifies him as a wise man.
Grube, George Maximilian Anthony, and John M. Cooper. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Hackett Publishing, 1981.
Reeve, C. D. C. The trials of Socrates: six classic texts. Hackett Publishing, 2002.