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In the Apology, Socrates tries to convince the jurors that, if they kill him, they will only be harming themselves. This argument is part of Socrates’ larger defense of his actions as he seeks to avoid drinking the hemlock. Socrates makes two claims: (1) that the jurors cannot harm him, and (2) that by executing him, they will only be harming themselves. To strengthen his position Socrates relies on an idea of the universe as having an inherently rational order. This idea is at the foundation of many of the premises in his argument. Socrates requires us to accept his perspective of the universe if we are to validate his logic. Unless we take issue with his pre-conditions, there is no flaw in the logic of his argument. Thus while his argument is valid, it is not sound; the premises upon which Socrates builds his argument are faulty.
Socrates’ first claim — that the men of the jury cannot harm him – rests on the premise that a better man cannot be harmed by a worse one. It does not seem plausible to Socrates that the order of things would allow for evil to triumph over good; it would not be “permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse,” (Plato, Apology, 30d, p.35). Though this argument takes place in the Apology, the Phaedo gives more insight into why Socrates believes that the universe must be ordered so as to preclude evil from prevailing over good. Socrates states his belief that “it is the Mind that directs and is the cause of everything,” (Plato, Phaedo, 97c, p. 135). He finds the nature of the Mind to be such that it would require the universe to be rationally governed. As part of that rationality, the Mind would only allow for things to occur in “the way that was best,” (Plato, Phadeo, 97d, p. 135). According to this conception, good cannot triumph over evil because rationality tells us that it would not be “best.” It is this very intuition, from the Phaedo, which supplies the evidence for Socrates’ assertion in the Apology: that the nature of the universe is such that, just as evil cannot trump good, it would not be permitted “that a better man be harmed by a worse,” (Plato, Apology, 30d, p. 35).
Once Socrates has established by his logic that a better man cannot be harmed by a worse one, Socrates claims that he is the better man, and as a result the jurors cannot harm him. The success of Socrates’ assertion that the jurors cannot harm him rests upon the validity of his claim to be a better man. Throughout his trial, Socrates denies the charges against him and argues that, rather than attempting to corrupt the youth, he has only been searching for truth. According to Socrates, his mission is god-given: “Be sure that this is what the god orders me to do, and I think there is no greater blessing for the city than my service to the god,” (Plato, Apology, 30a, p. 35). So from his own perspective, Socrates has been pursuing the highest good. He is living the life that everyone should strive for. As such a man, sitting in front of a jury of men ready to convict him, Socrates considers himself to be the better man. As a result, the jurors cannot harm him because they cannot be better than him, and something that is “worse” cannot be harmed by something that is “better”.
This conclusion, that the jurors cannot harm him, is applicable to Socrates’ later, broader claim that he has nothing to fear from death. Since the jury cannot harm him, Socrates has nothing to fear from any punishment it might invoke upon him. They could tar and feather him and they would still be unable to cause him harm. This is a position that Socrates explores further in the Phaedo. According this logic, death could never entail harm because harm is impermissible given the natural order of good over evil – the natural order that prevents a worse man from harming a better one. If Socrates’ reasoning in the Apology is sound, then he would, indeed, be correct in finding nothing to fear in the prospect of death.
This final claim can be invalidated by taking a closer look at why Socrates believes that the jurors cannot harm him. Socrates believes that the jurors cannot harm him, the better man. His argument rests on two premises; that he is a better man than the jurors, and that there is some inherently rational order in the universe that requires better men to triumph over worse ones, and good always to prevail over evil. This first claim is weak, if only because it stands in direct opposition to the accusations he is facing on trial. Of course Socrates considers himself to be a good man – he is defending himself on trial! But it is not at all clear how he arrives at the conclusion that he is a better man than the jurors. His relies on the notion that his mission is god-given, and so inherently good. But the use of the words “better” and “worse” in his argument seem somewhat arbitrary because we don’t know how Socrates discerns that he is better than the jurors. The only justification for this intuition is Socrates’ assertion that he is following the gods. This is not sufficient, though, because we have no way of knowing that Socrates is actually following the gods. He could be lying. As a result, we lack a logically defensible understanding of how to qualify what is “better” or “worse.” Since we cannot arrive at these judgments without relying on Socrates’ intuition, his argument is not sufficient.
The second premise Socrates uses to support his initial assertion (that the jurors cannot harm him) is that a better man cannot be harmed by a worse one. But this is not sufficient; even if we were to concede that Socrates is a better man than any of the jurors, this does not prove that he could not be harmed by them. This intuition comes from Socrates’ belief in a rational, orderly universe in which good would not be allowed to triumph over evil. He describes this intuition when he asserts that the Mind “would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best,” (Plato, Phaedo, 97c, p. 135). Socrates believes the Mind to operate based upon pure rationality. Rationality dictates that good must always triumph over evil. But Socrates’ conviction is mere intuition. He does nothing more than describe those convictions which cause him to believe in a rationally ordered universe, and never tries to justify them. Socrates provides no proof that “the Mind” must operate in such a way. We have no more reason to believe in Socrates’ vision of the universe than to believe in one that sees the world as inherently arbitrary and unfair. We can wonder if Socrates’ belief in a rationality that is “good” is based upon his belief in the gods. Perhaps he is confidant that the gods would only order the universe in such a way so as to ensure that good always wins over evil. But this is merely Socrates’ belief. It is not something for which there is any kind of proof. Ultimately, then, his argument that the jurors cannot harm him is valid, but not sound, because the structure of its argument is logical, but he does not provide compelling evidence to justify his premises.
The arguments that Socrates employs to defend his assertion that the jurors cannot harm him are intuitively valid but not logically sufficient. Socrates seems to see a natural order in the universe, and seeks to use it as justification for his case. For him, good always trumps evil and rational people always do what is best. But Socrates does not reach these conclusions through any sort of logical argument; they are purely intuitive. It is not clear whether Socrates relies on anything other than that intuition when he asserts that the Mind arranges everything such that evil could not triumph over good. He claims first that the Mind “would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best,” (Plato, Phaedo, 97c, p. 135). Socrates believes the Mind to operate purely based upon rationality. And he does not see it as rational that the Mind would allow evil to trump good. But this is nothing more than an intuition; Socrates provides no proof that the Mind must operate in such a way. And even if we grant him the assumption that the Mind is purely rational, it is still not clear how rationality necessarily demands such an ordering of good and evil. We can wonder if Socrates’ belief in a rationality that is “good” is based upon his belief in the gods. Perhaps he is confidant that the gods would only order the universe in such a way so as to ensure that good always wins over evil. But this is merely Socrates’ belief. It is not something for which there is any kind of proof. Still, Socrates stands firm with conviction, and proceeds with his argument without justifying his intuitions. Neglecting to justify the premises of his argument causes it to collapse under the weight of critical analysis. Consequently it is impossible to confirm the logical soundness of Socrates’ conclusions.
Socrates’ second main claim is that the jurors will only be harming themselves if they kill him. This claim relies on a similarly feeble premise that can also be easily discredited. Socrates argues that, though the jurors “might kill [him], or perhaps banish or disenfranchise [him]” they will ultimately be harming themselves, (Plato, Apology, 30d, p.35). He sees himself as a great asset to the city, and believes that Athens would be mistreating “god’s gift” if they condemned him, (Plato, Apology, 30d-e, p. 35). Socrates’ assertion is that, contrary to popular opinion, he has been doing the people of Athens a great service, and they will be greatly harming themselves by removing him from their presence. In addition to harming themselves by eliminating a source of truth, convicting Socrates would also be an act that would harm the jurors because they would be condemning a good man. Since, according to his own calculation, Socrates is better than the jurors, they will be incapable of causing him harm.
This second claim is again valid, but also unsuccessful because it relies on premises that Socrates does not prove. We have no reason to believe that Socrates is the god-driven truth-seeker he claims to be. We cannot test whether or not god ordained that Socrates should act as he does. Because it is not necessarily the case that Socrates is who he says he is, it is also not necessarily the case that he is better than the jurors. Consequently, Socrates’ argument that the jurors will only be harming themselves by executing him is logically valid, but not necessarily the case that its premises are true.
These arguments from the Apology are ultimately thwarted by Socrates’ unjustified conviction in the natural, rational order of the universe. It is difficult for us to imagine the conviction with which Socrates must have declared his truth-seeking mission to be god-given. But in the days of Athens, the gods were the ultimate authority. Socrates is able to avoid having to justify some of his intuitions by cleverly appealing to this authority. Though it may have been a useful rhetorical tactic against a group of jurors who shared his religious conviction this method is ultimately insufficient to prove the arguments Socrates sets out to make. His characterization of the consequences to the jurors of putting him to death is untenable. Still, Socrates stands firm with conviction. And even if, as readers, we can see the invalidity of his rationale, Socrates takes his arguments with him to the grave.
Plato. Five Dialogues: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Trans. G. M. A. Grube.
Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.
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