Speaking Truth to Power: The Trial of Socrates

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”


Socrates, one of the most famous philosophers, was sentenced to death, essentially for the mischief he caused with his inquisitive mind. He was accused of influencing the youth with his dangerous thoughts, and of undermining the belief in the gods. In the Apologia, Plato recounts the legal self-defense Socrates delivered.

One day, the Delphic oracle told Socrates that he was the wisest man of all. This left Socrates deeply confused. He did not believe himself to be wise; on the contrary, he was convinced that he knew very little. Then again, the oracle did not lie, so he wanted to understand better what its statement meant. He spoke to all the people who were considered to be wise: politicians, poets, and artisans. Socrates made the following observation: “In conversation with with him [a politician] I had the impression that this man appeared to many other people, but most of all to himself, to be wise, but he was not. Therefore, I tried to show him that he was convinced that he was wise, but that he was actually not wise; this is why I became hated by him and many others. When I was leaving him I thought to myself: obviously I am wiser than this man. Neither of us knows anything useful or special; but this man believes to know, even though he does not, whereas I do not know, but I also do not believe to know. Thus by this small amount I am wiser than him…” Looking at the society of Athens, Socrates said: “The most famous seemed to me the most wretched; when I examined things according to God, others, who were held in lower regard, seemed to me more reasonable.” Socrates arrived at the conclusion that what the oracle had told him had to be interpreted thus: among humans, he who understands, like Socrates, that he is not wise at all, is the wisest. In his legal self-defense, Socrates declared that he followed the wishes of the gods when he tried to make evident to those who believed to be wise that they were not, in fact, wise. The accusation that he was corrupting the youth was due to the fact that he was teaching the youth to question the wisdom of those who professed to be wise. Socrates’ critics invented the accusations that Socrates was undermining the faith in the gods, that he was presenting right as wrong and wrong as right, simply because they were not wise and had nothing substantial to point to. Socrates explains that the reason he is hated is that he speaks the truth, not that he distorts it.

In the remaining parts of his speech Socrates refutes the accusations of godlessness. He also explains that he cannot and will not change his opinions, even in the face of the impending death sentence. Giving up the pursuit of truth and virtue would estrange him from God, and it would make life worthless. He justifies his live-style and points out that he who fights for justice must lead a withdrawn, solitary life, rather than a public one.

Socrates ends his speech with a prophecy. His opponents were thinking that in punishing Socrates they were able to rid themselves of being held accountable for their lives; Socrates predicts that right after his death they would be punished much more severely than Socrates was. He points out that he who believes that he can rid himself of his accountability through executing his critics is mistaken. The only way is to work on oneself to become good and virtuous.

Socrates was subsequently sentenced to death. His friends offered to help him escape, but he refused. He accepted his death sentence and drank the cup of hemlock.

Reading Plato’s account of Socrates’ speech, it is not surprising that Socrates had many enemies. Socrates’ dedication to philosophy meant that he questioned everyone and everything, including himself. He did not accept opinions or explanations just because they were tradition or because they were held by respected authorities. To Socrates, only the truth of a statement mattered, not if it was uttered by an adolescent, a beggar, a professor, or a politician – this was his understanding of the true spirit of philosophy: radical dedication to truth. The threat of punishment did not discourage him from speaking truth – his comfort and self-interest were not important to him. Naturally, this meant that he found himself in opposition to authority. Authority relies on people doing what they are told, and therefore Socrates posed a threat to it, and had to be eliminated.

Socrates embodies the true spirit of education: endless curiosity and the rejection of preconceived notions. For sure, Socrates was a well-educated man, but that was exactly what led him to the realization that he knew very little. For whenever we learn something new, we also learn about the limits of our knowledge, and we must acknowledge that the unknown far surpasses what we understand. This sharply contrasts to those who accumulate knowledge to feel good about themselves, to condescendingly patronize others. As Socrates explains, often one can find more wisdom among less educated people, who do not use knowledge to feel superior and are therefore more aware of the limits of their knowledge.

Organizations as well as individuals need renewal and adaptation to survive: traditions have to be questioned, established norms and behavior patterns have to be adapted and revised, flaws and corruption have to be overcome. These changes, however, are resisted, and the people who identify the need for them are often seen as enemies. It is tempting to eliminate those who point out flaws, instead of making an effort to adapt, change, and examine oneself critically. But, as Socrates points out, it is only a matter of time until the need for change sweeps away obsolete structures and habits, both for individuals and organizations.

In his dedication to philosophy, Socrates shares many aspects with the mystics: humility, dedication to truth, curiosity, introspection. In particular, he makes the connection between humility, the pursuit of truth, and God. He says that he cannot give up his convictions, because that would separate him from God. His connection to God also means that he is not afraid of death, and he is willing to die for his convictions, since he knows that they are in alignment with God.

Socrates stands in a long line of people who were punished and ostracized because they criticized the establishment and pointed out its corruption. The tendency of organizations to become corrupt as well as their violence against critics is a perennial problem. Socrates is an inspiring example of someone who fearlessly spoke truth to power, who fought for a sane and just society. He is relevant now more than ever.

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