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ClassicsOnline Home » PLATO: Trial and The Death of Socrates (The) - Apology / Phaedo (Unabridged)
The Trial and Death of Socrates remains a powerful document, partly because it was a true—perhaps in certain parts verbatim—account of the end of one of the greatest figures in history. In Apology, Socrates defends himself before the Athenian court against charges of corrupting youth. Phaedo is the account, by a young man, of the actual last words and moments of Socrates. These are presented with scene-setting introductions to the historical situation. They are performed, unabridged, by a cast led by Bruce Alexander as Socrates, following his successful reading of The Republic for Naxos AudioBooks.
The Trial &
The Death of Socrates
Apology · Phaedo
The Apology and Phaedo describe the trial, conviction and
of Plato’s friend and mentor Socrates. Why, we may ask, was
there a trial? What was Socrates accused of? Was he guilty? And if he wasn’t
(as Plato clearly thinks he wasn’t), why was he accused? Is
this a verbatim report of the speeches he gave? More generally, what is it
dialogues, and about Socrates himself, that has exercised
such a fascination over later ages?
To take these questions in order:
He was accused of two things:
believing in the gods the city believed in; and
corrupting the young.
Was he guilty? Well, it depends on your point of view. You
could say, with some justice, that very few people in late 5th century Athens
believed in the gods the city believed in; Certainly not in the Olympian gods
such as Zeus, or Aphrodite, or Apollo. There were still those who believed the
sun and the moon were gods. Indeed, the catastrophic loss of the Athenian
expeditionary force to Sicily 14 years earlier had in the end been caused by
its commander’s superstitious refusal to abandon an untenable position for 28
days following an eclipse of the moon. But then Socrates was prepared to accept
the sun and the moon as gods, as he explains in the Apology.
Did he corrupt the young? In a sexual sense, no. Alcibiades,
the best-looking young man in Athens, famously attempted to seduce Socrates
sexually, and failed. But in a different sense, maybe the answer could be yes.
What Socrates did was to teach the young to ask questions, which their elders
found difficult or impossible to answer. If you were one of those elders, you
might well have thought that he was making young people into worse people than
they would otherwise have been. In that sense, from the point of view of their
elders, maybe he did corrupt the young. It’s a common enough argument, now as
then: ‘when I was young we respected our elders; these days there’s no respect
any more; someone must be to blame.’
Was that a sufficient reason for him to be accused? In
normal times, no. But these were not normal times. Within the last five years
the Athenians had lost a war and an empire, and been deprived of their
democratic rights. Many of the people who had taken away those rights had been followers
of Socrates in their youth. When democracy was restored, there were those who
wanted their revenge.
Is the Apology the speech Socrates actually made? And did he
spend his last hours in the way Plato describes? It is hard to say with
certainty. As far as we know, Socrates never wrote anything, and if he did
write anything, it hasn’t survived. Almost everything we know about him comes
from Plato, though there is a hint in Xenophon, which suggests that what he
actually said at his trial was a bit different from what Plato has given us. It
may be we have to take Plato’s account as colored by what he thinks Socrates
should have said, or what he would have liked Socrates to have said.
We can, however, say with confidence that the way Socrates
talks and acts in the Apology and Phaedo is wholly in character with the way he
talks and acts in every other Platonic dialogue. Beyond that, we have to accept
that the Socrates who has been admired for more than 2000 years is the Socrates
presented to us by Plato, just as the Jesus who has been admired for 2000 years
is the Jesus presented by the New Testament.
And finally, what is it about Socrates that has so
fascinated later ages?
Two things, principally: an ethical standpoint and a method
The ethical standpoint can be summed up in two of Socrates’
most famous beliefs: It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, because
only doing wrong can harm you. And no one does wrong on purpose; people do
wrong only from a failure to perceive what is right. More striking still is the
method of argument: it annoyed the ancient Athenians, and it annoys a lot of
people today, but it is revolutionary for all that – and as needed now as it
was then. Before Socrates there were three ways of resolving a disagreement: by
force, by appeal to authority or by competitive oratory. What all three have in
common is that they produce a winner and a loser, and that the loser is even
less convinced at the end than at the beginning. Socrates’ method – arguing by
agreed steps from agreed premises – necessarily results in an agreed
conclusion. If you don’t like the conclusion, you can go back and amend the
So – a new ethical position, and a new method of argument.
And nowhere will we find either more clearly and movingly exemplified than in
the Apology and the Phaedo.
Notes by Tom Griffith
The Cast of The Trial & The Death of Socrates
BRUCE ALEXANDER is best known as Superintendent Mullett in
A Touch of Frost and has appeared in many other television
shows such as Berkeley Square, Casualty and Peak Practice. He has also played
major roles in the theater, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is a
director of ACTER, which annually tours Shakespeare to US campuses. Alexander
has read numerous recordings for Naxos AudioBooks.
JAMIE GLOVER trained at the Central School of Speech and
Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a number of
other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir Peter
Hall. His television appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and
NEVILLE JASON trained at RADA where he was awarded the
Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co.,
the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as in films,
television and musicals. He is frequently heard on radio. He has abridged and
read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as well as many other titles for Naxos
DAVID TIMSON has performed in modern and classic plays across
Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The
Man of Mode and The Seagull. He has been seen on television in Nelson’s Column
and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House. A familiar and
versatile audio and radio voice, Timson is a popular reader for Naxos
GORDON GRIFFIN has recorded over 220 audiobooks. His vast
range includes nine Catherine Cookson novels, books by Melvyn Bragg, David
Lodge, the entire Wycliffe series by W. J. Burley and his award-winning
recording of A Tale of Two Cities. Gordon also appears regularly on television
and in films. He was dialogue coach (Geordie) on Byker Grove and Kavanagh QC.
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