Socrates on Trial
The Apology purports to be a record of Socrates’ speech before the jury of Athens as they first find him guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and then sentencing him to death. If we are to believe the image of Socrates that Plato hands down to us, Socrates was the wisest man who ever lived, the ultimate philosopher to whom the rest of mankind fails to measure up against. For almost twenty-five centuries, the West has believed this to be the case. Socrates is the Form of philosopher. However, he failed to persuade the men of Athens and failed to sway them against sentencing him to death. In the greatest argument of his life, Socrates failed.
Historically, of course, we know that there were political motivations behind Socrates’ trial and conviction, that the leadership of Athens was in essence looking for a scapegoat for its recent defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and the political chaos in Athens (a follower of Socrates had briefly established himself as a tyrant in the city). But given Socrates’ reputation, he should have been able to demonstrate to the men of Athens that Meletus’ charges were false.
Socrates lost because he was arrogant. The fundamental flaw in his arguments was that he showed no real willingness to prove that his behavior was other than what he was charged with. Not only is Socrates smarter (or wiser) than the leading men of Athens, he lets them know it. He lists the groups of men he has sought out to engage in philosophical discussion (the poets, the craftsmen), revealing that he has managed to make enemies everywhere.