Socrates At the elderly age of seventy, Socrates found himself fighting against an indictment of impiety. He was unsuccessful at trial in the year 399 B.C. The charges were corrupting the youth of Athens, not believing in the traditional gods in whom the city believed, and finally, that he believed in other new divinities. In Platos Apology, Socrates defends himself against these charges. He claims that the jurors opinions are biased because they had probably all seen Aristophanes comedy The Clouds.
The Socrates portrayed in Aristophanes Clouds is an altogether different character than that of the Apology. The two different impressions of Socrates lead to quite opposite opinions with regard to his guilt. In The Clouds, Socrates actions provide evidence of his guilt on all three charges. However, in the Apology, Socrates is fairly convincing in defending his innocence on the first two charges, but falls short on the third charge. Socrates, in The Clouds, is portrayed as an idiot who thinks hes walking on air and is interested primarily in gnats rumps. He is delineated as a natural philosopher/sophist.
He is hired to teach Pheidippides to make the “worse argument”, the argument that is really incorrect and unjust the “better”to his fathers creditors so that Strepsiades, Pheidippides father, will not have to pay his debts. While this in itself is corrupt, it was that he changed Pheidippides from the time he entered Socrates “Thinkery” into a corrupt scoundrel, completely devoid of morality that was even more deplorable. At the beginning, Pheidippides is a respectful son who loves his father, but after “graduating” from the Thinkery he is beating his father with a stick (lines 1321-1333). Socrates was so successful in corrupting Pheidippides that he even attempts to justify his behavior using rhetorical techniques learned from Socrates. In response to his father questioning his actions he claims “Yes by God; whats more, Ill prove its right to do so..with unbeatable arguments.” He has obviously been extremely corrupted if he could talk in this manner to his father.
Not believing in the traditional gods, which is the second charge fits the Aristophanic Socrates perfectly. Socrates explicitly frowns upon the gods when he exclaims, “what do you mean, the gods? In the first place, gods arent legal tender here” (lines 247-248). Later, when explaining the elements to Strepsiades, Socrates exclaims “Zeus you say? Dont kid me! Theres no Zeus at all” (lines 368-369). He is undoubtedly saying that he does not believe in the traditional gods. The claim that Socrates believed in new divinities, the third charge, is clearly seen when he “enter (s) into communion with the clouds, who are our deities” (lines 253-254). Socrates proves methodically how it could not be Zeus who causes phenomena such as rain, thunder, and lightening, but rather is merely the work of the Clouds.
For, if it were indeed the work of Zeus, then he would bring rain in absence of any clouds. The fact that the clouds are always present during precipitation attests to their power as opposed to that of Zeus. As the Clouds were not traditional gods, Socrates guilt on this charge is rather evident. Even as Socrates is presented as a blabbering fool, full of hubris, in the Clouds, an entirely different perspective on this alleged sophist is given to us in the Apology. Throughout Platos works including the Clouds, Socrates himself claims not to have any wisdom (he did not have any knowledge of arete) so he could not possibly have been a sophist.
In terms of the charges he seems to absolve himself of the first two charges of corrupting the youth of Athens, and not believing in the traditional gods; though he is less convincing in his claim that he has no allegiance to other gods. Socrates claims he could not possibly be guilty of the first charge for several reasons. He feels the charge arises out of anger towards him for when he applies his “Socratic method” while questioning others beliefs, it often has the effect of leaving them feeling embarrassed and ridiculed. However, Socrates maintains that his objective is merely to ascertain the ultimate truths, a noble act for sure. In fact, Socrates believes that the pursuit of truth is the most important work of man. Besides, the youth following is not as a result of recruitment but rather “of their own free will” (23cl-2).
And on the actual charge of corrupting the youth, when prodded by him to give an example of these acts, none is forthcoming. They present it in a general sense lacking any specific incidence. Furthermore, it is illogical for one to willingly corrupt ones companions, for “if I make one of my associates wicked I run the risk of being harmed by him so that I do such a great evil deliberately, as you say?” (25e 3-5). Socrates further argues that if he truly did corrupt the youth, it may explain why his “students” did not accuse him of such, but it wouldnt account for the absence of inquiry from their distraught families. If those closely involved have not shown any concern, this is further evidence of his innocence (33 d1-34 e3). Perhaps, most telling is that Socrates was willing to sacrifice his life for his convictions instead of pleading for clemency by detracting from his views.
This shows the high character of Socrates who holds steadfast to his beliefs under even the most trying of circumstances. The second charge of not believing in the traditional gods seems to be a trumped up charge as well. Socrates tells of his mission to discern the enigmatic statement that Chairephon, his friend, had received from the oracle at Delphi, stating that he is wisest among men (20e6-22e5). The temple at Delphi was a shrine to Apollo, a traditional god. He was impoverished and hated because of it.
If Socrates did not believe in the traditional gods, he would not have devoted his life to realize the ultimate truths using his unsurpassed wisdom, which would thereby confirm the claim of the oracle at Delphi. Believing in new divinities, though, the third charge, is perhaps legitimate. Socrates claims to get a divine sign every once in a while and says “whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never encourages me to do anything” (31d2-3). This goes against the prevailing notion that the gods control the behavior of mortals like puppeteers as was often espoused in Greek lore. But rather, that gods are benevolent towards their human subjects. Thus, Socrates seems to have conjured up a new kind of divinity, thereby making him guilty of Meletus third charge.
Although neither depiction of Socrates is entirely accurate, they each illustrate some guilt on Socrates part. The Aristophanic Socrates is completely guilty while the Platonic Socrates is only guilty on one account. In both works, he probably did not deserve to be condemned to death but more so in Platos work it seems that Socrates has wrongfully been put to death. For an argument can be made that not only was Socrates not guilty of the charges, (at least most of them), but that his pursuit of morality and his view of the gods was invaluable to the society at large.