BMCR 2002.09.35

Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial

, Socrates against Athens : philosophy on trial. New York and London: Routledge, 2001. xi, 266 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 041592653X $22.95.

Though the target audience is not explicitly stated, this book is clearly intended for a general audience with little or no classics background. One can easily imagine it being used in a large undergraduate survey course, perhaps such as the author teaches (he is described as specializing in Great Books of the Western and Eastern Traditions at New York University). The stated goal of the book is “to provide an interdisciplinary examination of the conflict between Socrates and Athens, focusing upon the Apology and the Crito” (9). Where it may be less satisfactory, at least from a classicist’s viewpoint, is in the representation of Socrates as a pioneer of modern civil disobedience (Colaiaco — hereafter C. — has also written a book on Martin Luther King, Jr.). Also problematic is C’s explanation for the apparent discrepancy between the Apology and the Crito, in regard to Socrates’ attitude towards the law.

C. states right away his view that “Socrates represents individual conscience, freedom of expression, and the moral claim that one’s duty to obey God is superior to one’s duty to obey the state” (1-2). C. further lays the groundwork for his civil disobedience argument by comparing Socrates’ trial to the confrontation between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone. In spite of this subtle polemic, however, C. does a commendable job throughout of providing both historical and cultural context for the lay reader attempting to read the Apology and the Crito. For example, in the course of introducing the Antigone parallel, C. rightly emphasizes the importance of tragedy in shaping Athenian thought. The centrality of the Homeric epics to Athenian education and culture is also emphasized, so that the reader can appreciate the jury’s outrage in the Apology, when Socrates claims the status of a new kind of hero, supplanting the Homeric model. C., following Vlastos, describes this new hero: “[t]he new hero that Socrates represented was not one who excelled on the battlefield or one who surrendered his life unthinkingly to the polis, but one who remained steadfast in his commitment to justice” (134).

The representation of the Sophists in Chapter Three is also very useful to the uninitiated. It is gratifying to see such a moderate view of the Sophists in a mainstream text, replacing the old Plato-inspired invective against morally delinquent ‘guns for hire’. C. does note the general disfavor and suspicion in which the Sophists were held by the average Athenian but depicts them as nothing more or less than professional teachers of rhetoric. C. also observes that the Socrates of the Apology is a master of rhetoric as well, delivering a brilliant rhetorical tour-de-force for the purpose of subverting rhetoric.

Other pieces of cultural-historical context are also supplied by such essays as a description of the ‘Athenian polis ideal,’ which draws heavily on Pericles’ Funeral Oration. C. describes recent Athenian history as well, bleakly characterizing the Athens of 399 B.C.: “Its great empire and mighty fleet that had ruled the Aegean were lost, its fortifying Long Walls demolished, its economy crippled, its population desolated. The glory that was Athens during the Age of Pericles was no more” (13). Recent scholarly opinion has lightened the traditional gloomy picture of postwar Athens, however, drawing on such sources as Plato’s Seventh Letter. This letter, written by Plato or at any rate by a fourth-century author, describes the political atmosphere of the restored democracy in a more positive light: “the restored exiles [democrats] displayed great moderation.” The author assigns the blame for Socrates’ trial to “some of those in control,” not to a general atmosphere of suspicion and malaise in the defeated city.1

In matters closely relating to the Apology itself, C. furnishes valuable background information on Athenian trial procedure, a biographical sketch of Socrates, and addresses the question of the ‘historicity’ of Plato’s Apology, subscribing to the conventional view that the Apology must represent fairly closely the actual words of Scrates in his trial. C. also elaborates upon Socrates’ mention of the Clouds, describing the play and why it might have prejudiced the jurors, claiming that “[w]hile the effect of the Clouds was relatively innocuous when first produced in 423 B.C., its portrayal of Socrates as a dangerous stargazer and Sophist, now emblazoned upon the minds of the Athenians, would, in a later, more precarious political climate, endanger the philosopher’s life” (43). Again, this is rather too gloomy a picture of Athens in 399 B.C., and the depiction of such a ‘witch-hunt’ atmosphere does little credit to the intelligence of the Athenian citizens sitting on Socrates’ jury. It also does little credit to the fact that Socrates does his best to irritate the jurors in the course of his trial. While reduced to using rhetorical devices in addressing such a massive audience, Socrates stays true to the one-on-one, ‘in-your-face’ spirit of the elenchus. The elenchus is not a ‘feel-good’ process; Socrates compares philosophy to medicine and rhetoric to pastry-cooking in the Gorgias, and declares that rhetoric is ‘flattery’. The medicine of the elenchus is not pleasant-tasting. In another context, C. himself notes the ‘paralyzing’ effect Socrates had upon his interlocutors in the elenchus (64-5). To suppose that the negative reactions of Socrates’ jury are due mainly to their postwar fall from enlightenment is to cushion the intentional shock of the elenchus.

In evaluating Socrates’ claims to be obeying the Delphic oracle in his examination of his fellow citizens, C. paints most fully the picture of civil disobedience, viewing Socrates’ execution as the result of a tragic collision course between individual conscience and the sovereignty of the state (following Hegel). The oracle’s declaration that “no one is wiser than Socrates” resulted, in C.’s view, in Socrates’ lifelong and profoundly serious “mission on behalf of Apollo to examine anyone who professed wisdom” (61). Socrates refuses to desert the post assigned to him by the god: “Socrates thus regards himself as a soldier of Apollo, the god of wisdom and truth, who has imposed on him a philosophic mission that cannot be overridden by the authority of the state” (135). Thus C. agrees fundamentally with Reeve, who finds that “Socrates has been ordered to philosophize by Apollo, who is, in the relevant sense, his better”.2 It should be noted, however, that some scholars (like T.G. West and Hackforth) have asserted that Socrates’ testing of the Delphic oracle means that he does not take it seriously and that his avowed obedience to it is therefore ironical. C. does briefly consider this possibility but quickly discards it en route to constructing Socrates the conscientious objector.

In this way, C. forms a Socrates who, like later conscientious objectors, values obedience to ‘a higher moral law’ over obedience to the state. Socrates is allied with more overtly religious figures as well: “[l]ike the great Hebrew prophets, he believed that he had a duty to God to promote morality and justice” (70). C. acknowledges that a command to embark upon a religious mission is a strong and unnecessary interpretation of the Delphic oracle, but assigns this interpretation to Socrates himself. For example, C. refers to “Socrates’ illogical leap from the oracle’s declaration of his wisdom to the inauguration of a philosophic mission” (71). Brickhouse and Smith, on the other hand, while finding too that “neither the oracle itself nor Socrates’ subsequent understanding of it plausibly generates a divine command that he spend the rest of his life philosophizing with his fellow Athenians”,3 do not speak of an “illogical leap” on Socrates’ part. Reeve sensibly argues that reason takes precedent over religion for Socrates: “[t]he general reason Socrates pays such heed to the Delphic oracle, therefore, the reason he is guided by the approval of elenctic examination he discovers in it, is not fundamentally a religious reason but an elenctically based ethical reason” (66). Again, C.’s emphasis on a divinely ordained (though self-appointed) mission is intimately bound to his view of Socrates as proto-conscientious-objector.

Likewise, C. interprets Socrates’ defiance of a hypothetical ban on philosophizing, to be imposed by the jury, as the prototypical act of defiance by a conscientious objector to the government. In Socrates’ promise to continue his irritating ‘gadfly’ behavior if freed, his “missionary concern for the soul” (137) is seen as overriding his obligations to the state. In fact, this behavior is seen as fulfilling these obligations: “[t]he philosopher served the state, the common moral good, with his conscience” (165). In contrast, Brickhouse and Smith are highly sceptical of the plausibility or legality of such a ban as Socrates envisions. They elaborate on Socrates’ point: “Athenian law proscribed impiety, without proscribing particular acts or beliefs. A conflict between law and god in Socrates’ thought would thus become conflicts within the laws themselves” (151). Kraut suggests that the hypothetical ban serves merely to make it clear to an ambivalent jury that Socrates would continue philosophizing even if acquitted on the present charges.4 So there are definite alternatives to C.’s view of Socrates as conscientious objector in this particular scene. Since C. depicts Socrates as deliberately disobeying a law (though an imaginary one) in the Apology, he has found a troublesome contradiction between this dialogue and the Crito. In the Crito, Socrates presents himself as loyal son and servant of the laws of Athens, laws of which, by C.’s interpretation, Socrates had flaunted his disobedience in the Apology. While C. believes that Socrates is being sincere and uncompromising in the Apology, he presents Socrates in the Crito as resorting to rhetorical tricks, making arguments which he himself does not believe, in order to ease the mind of a close but conventionally-minded friend. As C. puts it: “To convince his friend Crito to accept the consequences of a legal verdict, Plato’s Socrates successfully employed sophistic rhetorical strategies that he had often denounced” (211). Though it is true that Socrates often tailors the elenchus to his interlocutor, it is frankly unacceptable to believe that he is making an empty argument just to comfort a friend. Socrates considered it a public service to challenge the cherished beliefs of total strangers so it is hardly likely that he would withhold the same service from a loyal friend and follower.

C. is certainly not the first to attempt to explain this apparent discrepancy between the Apology and the Crito. Reeve also asks whether “the Apology doctrine” conflicts with “the famous Persuade or Obey doctrine” from the Crito (117). His answer applies to the particular case of the imaginary law against practicing philosophy in the Apology : “[Socrates] would violate Persuade or Obey only if, having been called before a court to account for his disobedience and having failed to persuade it that his disobedience was just, he tried to escape the sentence it imposed. Persuade or Obey continues to come into play in this manner as long as the court continues to impose sentences which require a defendant to do something he believes to be unjust” (120). Kraut offers the view that a citizen who has agreed to abide by a court’s decisions must accept its punishments, so long as they do not involve committing injustice. Socrates does not view dying as committing an injustice, and so accepts the jury’s sentence (85-7). These alternative interpretations may have their own problems, but are preferable to C.’s picture of a Socrates who lies to a friend just to make him feel comfortable.

In sum, I would highly recommend this book for a ‘literature in translation’ sort of class, with the caveat that the civil disobedience angle is somewhat anachronistic. I would also caution against the simplistic view of the Crito as a superficial attempt to help a friend come to terms with Socrates’ fate. For teaching a class of students with some classical background, I would also consider Brickhouse and Smith and Reeve for the Apology, supplemented by Kraut for the Crito, since they give more consideration to opposing viewpoints of classical scholars. They also are not burdened by the (admirable) concern to make the Apology‘relevant’ to a modern non-classical audience, which seems to be the ultimate source of C.’s emphasis on civil disobedience.


1. This passage discussed by J. Ober in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, pp. 162-5.

2. C.D.C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology, p. 114.

3. T.C. Brickhouse and N.D. Smith, Socrates on Trial, p. 90.

4. R. Kraut, Socrates and the State, pp. 16-17.