SOCRATES: If that is the crime, I am guilty. It is true that I believe
in these things, and I should therefore be handed the appropriate
sentence. But since I have been given the opportunity to talk to you,
I will. Maybe I can explain why I believe what I believe. And if I
can, maybe you will decide that I do not deserve a harsh punishment.
To begin with, I should make a clarification: strictly speaking, I do
not believe rationality is superior to an educated sense of morality.
Instead I claim that an educated sense of morality is necessarily
guided by the principles of rationality. Of course we should be
ethical, but really to be ethical means to be rational as well. The
two are not in conflict.
Rationality in turn is nothing but the tendency to be persuaded by the
best arguments that have been presented. Presenting an argument means
asserting a claim and then presenting reasons to believe that this
claim is correct. In a rational community, the winner of a debate is
the person who is able to present the best arguments.
MELETUS: That all sounds very nice, apart from one thing. Surely you
realize, Socrates, that a rational community is not always an ethical
community. The only thing required to corrupt a rational community is
a very clever but less than virtuous person with an ability to defend
immoral doctrines with good arguments. Since he is so talented in
philosophy and public speech, everyone will naturally be persuaded to
believe in what he says. But of course this does not make his actions
any less immoral.
And this is precisely what we have here. We Athenians appreciate
philosophy, and strive to be a rational community. This is a proud
tradition in our city. But now an admittedly excellent philosopher has
appeared to abuse this tradition and corrupt us.
SOCRATES: Why, I am proud to be called an excellent philosopher,
although I am not sure I deserve the compliment. But I reject the
accusation: I never tried to corrupt anyone, and as far as I know I
never did. If I cannot claim to have benefited anyone to any great
extent, at least I believe my actions are quite harmless.
In fact it is difficult even to understand how I could have corrupted
anyone. Let us assume for the sake of argument that I am indeed an
excellent philosopher. But if I am, then I have had to become one;
nobody is a philosopher at birth. Learning philosophy is a process of
education in which one does not simply acquire a new skill to use for
whatever purpose. Becoming a philosopher means changing in a profound
way as a person. As one slowly approaches the love of wisdom, one
begins to see more clearly the truths of morality as well. And
becoming acquainted with these truths is to live according to them, to
be a virtuous person. Thus my opponent is confused: I can not be both
a good philosopher and a less than virtuous person.
SOCRATES: I am saddened by the verdict you have reached. It did not
surprise me, and I am not as unhappy to be found guilty as I am about
something else. Can you see, Athenians, where your desire to punish me
has led you? You have broken with our tradition of free public speech.
You have given up the respect we have always had for excellent
speakers. And above all, you have rejected rationality itself. This is
what makes me sad, not whatever the punishment you feel I deserve.
You ask me to suggest an appropriate punishment for myself. But what
can I say? When you found me guilty despite admitting that reason is
on my side, it appears you rejected the only way of arguing I know. I
have always tried to be a rational man. And according even to you, I
have had better success in this than anyone else in our city. But what
good will that do me now that rationality is no longer considered
I accept any punishment you find appropriate. Seeing that it does not
matter whether a man is rational or not, I suggest you do not punish
me as a rational man—but merely as a man.
SOCRATES: I would not like to repeat myself, but I am afraid I will.
Please be patient with me. As I said, I am prepared to accept any
punishment. And so I should not and will not flinch even now that that
punishment turns out to be death.
If your intention was to hurt me, you have failed. I am an old man
with not much life ahead of me anyway, so the prospect of losing
what little I had left does not intimidate me. Even if you believe
that pain is a bad thing, mere death is hardly a very painful thing.
The fact that you did not condemn me to something more obviously bad
leads me to believe that you do not want to hurt me as much as you
want simply to remove me. It seems you have succeeded.
Of course you know that I have never had to work very hard to find an
audience. I find that youths are eager to listen to me speak and
debate. I do not believe they do this because I am particularly
interesting as a man. Instead, there is something in debate itself
they find interesting. This is what guarantees that there will be
philosophers for so long as there will be men.
I predict that rationality will eventually prevail and replace
irrational superstition. This will not happen quickly, because
philosophy is so difficult. But after time, and after generations of
able thinkers, culture will have evolved so that people like you will
have to explain yourself in front of people like me. The great
philosophers of the future will be able to present arguments superior
to those of anyone else, and therefore in a rational community they
will be in a position to devise principles according to which
societies will be organized. Rational people will be persuaded by
their arguments, and irrational people will be unable to present
better ones. Even if an irrational person questions the virtue of the
philosophers, he will just have to trust them, because, as I have
already said, a philosopher is necessarily virtuous.
In short, you may kill me, but you cannot do away with the inherent
temptation of philosophy. Depending on how you look at it, this can be
either a curse or a blessing. I would of course argue that it is a
blessing. But from your perspective philosophy is more likely to
appear a curse.