Socrates was accused by Meletus of two crimes, namely that he was guilty “of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes”. This means that there were both moral and religious reasons behind the charges brought against them…
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Socrates was accused by Meletus of two crimes, namely that he was guilty “of corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes”. This means that there were both moral and religious reasons behind the charges brought against them. A closer analysis of the documents written by Plato reveals, however, that these two charges reveal a great deal about the state of Athenian democracy at that time, and they demonstrate how much of a danger Socrates and his teaching represented to those in power. The first charge of corrupting the young relates to the habit that Socrates had of gathering his pupils around him and engaging in long discussions about a wide range of subjects. His method of teaching was to construct dialogues with his pupils, urging them to question everything and use their minds to think through the issues of the day and their implications. He did not write things down, or require his students to repeat his ideas, but instead he concentrated on helping people to formulate their own ideas. He taught a method of arguing that led people into illogical conclusions, so that they could learn about how to think and argue. This necessarily brought Socrates and his students into conflict with people who had high status and authority. D’Amato (1975, p. 1082) explains that the type of radical training that Socrates offered was perceived as a way of encouraging young citizens to challenge their elders. This was frowned upon because it caused embarrassment when these supposedly clever elders did not have the counter-arguments to defeat their younger critics. It seems, then, that Athenian society was not ready for the wit and courage that the young people acquired from Socrates, and that this was one of the main reasons why he was brought to trial. Young people were expected to defer to the wisdom of their elders, and to adhere to the long traditions of the city, whereas Socrates was perceived as a disturbing element who threatened to upset the natural order. The second charge relating to the way that Socrates allegedly did not adhere to the worship of the gods of the city suggests that there was a fundamental issue in the teachings of the philosopher which ran counter to the prevailing ideology of the city. Socrates attempts to clarify whether he is being accused of atheism (Plato, 2000, p. 29) which he denies, or of teaching students to worship a wider range of gods than the ones preferred in Athenian society. It is confirmed that Meletus accuses him of “impiety” (Plato, 2000, p 37) which implies a denial of the existence of the gods altogether as well as bad behaviour resulting from this alleged lack of respect for the traditional gods. This accusation reveals that it is the practice of philosophy itself which is perceived by the authorities as a crime. Socrates argues that here have been many different gods in Greek history, and many different thinkers have suggested a myriad outlandish ideas which do not necessarily fit exactly with prevailing opinion (Plato, 2000, pp. 9-10). The dialogues which Plato records show Socrates as a man concerned precisely with “moral virtues like justice, courage, moderation and wisdom (the four “cardinal virtues” of the Ancient Greeks)” (Roochnik, 2004, p. 82). By bringing these matters into a debate, he suggests that the truth is not yet truly known about them, and this in turn can be interpreted as a criticism of the prevailing customs and habits in the world around him. Greek society was not perfect by any means, and Socrates was trying to encourage reflection, rather than promoting immoral conduct. Socrates taught more than just the obedience to the laws and traditions of Athenian society, or literal belief in every point of the old stories about the gods. He wanted his students to think about what it actually meant to lead a virtuous life and to turn that theoretical knowledge in to practice by changing the way that
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