Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Condemnation of Socrates
By George Grote (17941871)
From History of Greece
THERE are two points, and two points only, in topics concerning man and society, with regard to which Socrates is a scepticor rather, which he denies; and on the negation of which his whole method and purpose turn. He denies, first, that men can know that on which they have bestowed no conscious effort, no deliberate pains, no systematic study, in learning. He denies, next, that men can practise what they do not know; that they can be just, or temperate, or virtuous generally, without knowing what justice, or temperance, or virtue is. To imprint upon the minds of his hearers his own negative conviction on these two pointsis indeed his first object, and the primary purpose of his multiform dialectical manuvring. But though negative in his means, Socrates is strictly positive in his ends: his attack is undertaken only with distinct view to a positive result; in order to shame them out of the illusion of knowledge, and to spur them on and arm them for the acquisition of real, assured, comprehensive, self-explanatory knowledge, as the condition and guarantee of virtuous practice. Socrates was indeed the reverse of a sceptic: no man ever looked upon life with a more positive and practical eye; no man ever pursued his mark with a clearer perception of the road which he was travelling; no man ever combined, in like manner, the absorbing enthusiasm of a missionary, with the acuteness, the originality, the inventive resource, and the generalising comprehension of a philosopher.
His method yet survives, as far as such method can survive, in some of the dialogues of Plato. It is a process of eternal value and of universal application. That purification of the intellect, which Bacon signalised as indispensable for rational or scientific progress, the Socratic elenchus affords the only known instrument for at least partially accomplishing. However little that instrument may have been applied since the death of its inventor, the necessity and use of it neither have disappeared, nor ever can disappear. There are few men whose minds are not more or less in that state of sham knowledge against which Socrates made war: there is no man whose notions have not been first got together by spontaneous, unexamined, unconscious, uncertified associationresting upon forgotten particulars, blending together disparates or inconsistencies, and leaving in his mind old and familiar phrases, and oracular propositions, of which he has never rendered to himself account; there is no man, who, if he be destined for vigorous and profitable scientific effort, has not found it a necessary branch of self-education, to break up, disentangle, analyse, and reconstruct, these ancient mental compoundsand who has not been driven to do it by his own lame and solitary efforts, since the giant of the colloquial elenchus no longer stands in the marketplace to lend him help and stimulus.
To hear of any man, especially of so illustrious a man being condemned to death on such accusations as that of heresy and alleged corruption of youth, inspires at the present day a sentiment of indignant reprobation, the force of which I have no desire to enfeeble. The fact stands eternally recorded as one among the thousand misdeeds of intolerance, religious and political. But since amidst this catalogue each item has its own peculiar character, grave or light, we are bound to consider at what point of the scale the condemnation of Socrates is to be placed, and what inferences it justifies in regard to the character of the Athenians. Now if we examine the circumstances of the case, we shall find them all extenuating; and so powerful indeed, as to reduce such inferences to their minimum, consistent with the general class to which the incident belongs.
First, the sentiment now prevalent is founded upon a conviction that such matters as heresy and heretical teaching of youth are not proper for judicial cognisance. Even in the modern world such a conviction is of recent date, and in the fifth century B.C. it was unknown. Socrates himself would not have agreed in it; and all Grecian governments, oligarchical and democratical alike, recognised the opposite. The testimony furnished by Plato is on this point decisive. When we examine the two positive communities which he constructs, in the treatises De Republicâ and De Legibus we find that there is nothing about which he is more anxious, than to establish an unresisted orthodoxy of doctrine, opinion, and education. A dissenting and free-spoken teacher, such as Socrates was at Athens, would not have been allowed to pursue his vocation for a week, in the Platonic Republic. Plato would not indeed condemn him to death; but he would put him to silence, and in case of need, send him away. This in fact is the consistent deduction, if you assume that the state is to determine what is orthodoxy, and orthodox teaching, and to repress what contradicts its own views. Now all the Grecian states, including Athens, held this principle of interference against the dissenting teacher. But at Athens, though the principle was recognised, yet the application of it was counteracted by resisting forces which it did not find elsewhere, by the democratical constitution with its liberty of speech and love of speech, by the more active spring of individual intellect, and by the toleration, greater than anywhere else, shown to each mans peculiarities of every sort. In any other government of Greece, as well as in the Platonic Republic, Socrates would have been quickly arrested in his career, even if not severely punished; in Athens, he was allowed to talk and preach publicly for twenty-five or thirty years, and then condemned when an old man. Of these two applications of the same mischievous principle, assuredly the latter is at once the more moderate and the less noxious.
Secondly, the force of this last consideration, as an extenuating circumstance in regard to the Athenians, is much increased, when we reflect upon the number of individual enemies whom Socrates made to himself in the prosecution of his cross-examining process. Here were a multitude of individuals, including men personally the most eminent and effective in the city, prompted by special antipathies, over and above general convictions, to call into action the dormant state principle of intolerance against an obnoxious teacher. If, under such provocation, he was allowed to reach the age of seventy, and to talk publicly for so many years, before any real Meletus stood forward, this attests conspicuously the efficacy of the restraining dispositions among the people which made their practical habits more liberal than their professed principles.
Thirdly, whoever has read the account of the trial and defence of Socrates, will see that he himself contributed quite as much to the result as all the three accusers united. Not only he omitted to do all that might have been done without dishonour to ensure acquittal, but he held positive language very nearly such as Meletus himself would have sought to put into his mouth. He did this deliberately, having an exalted opinion both of himself and his own mission, and accounting the cup of hemlock, at his age, to be no calamity. It was only by such marked and offensive self-exaltation that he brought on the first vote of the Dikastery, even then the narrowest majority, by which he was found guilty; it was only by a still more aggravated manifestation of the same kind, even to the pitch of something like insult, that he brought on the second vote, which pronounced the capital sentence. Now it would be uncandid not to allow for the effect of such a proceeding on the minds of the Dikastery. They were not at all disposed, of their own accord, to put in force the recognised principle of intolerance against him. But when they found that the man who stood before them charged with this offence, addressed them in a tone such as Dikasts had never heard before, and could hardly hear with calmness, they could not but feel disposed to credit all the worst inferences which his accusers had suggested, and to regard Socrates as a dangerous man, both religiously and politically, against whom it was requisite to uphold the majesty of the court and constitution.
In appreciating this memorable incident, therefore, though the mischievous principle of intolerance cannot be denied, yet all the circumstances show that that principle was neither irritable nor predominant in the Athenian bosom; that even a large body of collateral antipathies did not readily call it forth against any individual; that the more liberal and generous dispositions, which deadened its malignity, were of steady efficacy, not easily overborne; and that the condemnation ought to count as one of the least gloomy items in an essentially gloomy catalogue.
Let us add, that as Socrates himself did not account his own condemnation and death, at his age, to be any misfortune, but rather a favourable dispensation of the gods, who removed him just in time to escape that painful consciousness of intellectual decline which induced Demokritus to prepare poison for himself, so his friend Xenophon goes a step further, and, while protesting against the verdict of guilty, extols the manner of death as a subject of triumph; as the happiest, most honourable, and most gracious way, in which the gods could set the seal upon an useful and exalted life.