Analyzing Arguments: Socrates

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13855

One of the most famous arguments ever made in Western Civilization was Socrates' argument for why he should not be put to death. Analyze his argument to see just how valid it was.

categories

Writing

subject
Social Studies
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

The cornerstone of Socrates' argument against being put to death was a very simply phrase:

 

i know nothing quoteThis is often This is referred to as the Socratic paradox.

  • So, how would he have been able to craft a valid argument if he knew nothing?

Let's find out!

First, consider what you already know about Socrates.

  • Have you heard of him?
  • Where was he from?
  • Do you know any facts about his life?

Background

socrates statue

Before analyzing the argument Socrates made at the end of his life, you need a brief understanding of what he did during his life.

Socrates was a Greek philosopher born in Athens, where he lived his entire life. During this time, Athens was in the midst of a Golden Age of thinking and cultural development.

His early adult life was spent as a soldier and stone-cutter who helped to provide stones for the monuments being erected all over the city-state. Everything Socrates is famous for occurred after he had already retired from stone-cutting, when he became a self-educated philosopher.

socrates library statue

  • What is a philosopher?

Philosopher means lover of wisdom. Through the public arguments he had with many people during his older age, he tried to educate the youth on how to acquire real wisdom and how to think critically.

philosophy blocks

However, this eventually got him into trouble.

The Athenian government began to see Socrates as a threat to stability because he was telling all his students to think for themselves, which led them to question their own Greek religion. Athens was founded on this faith, so the government charged Socrates with corrupting the youth.

Socrates had to stand trial and defend himself before the jury.

  • So, what was his argument?

Wisdom

At his trial, Socrates defended why he was having discussions with people.

He explained that he had gone to the Oracle of Delphi, which was a temple to the Greek god Apollo. People went to this temple to ask Apollo a question, and he would respond through a person.

Learn more about the nature of this temple as you watch Oracle of Delphi from HarvardX:

Now that you are armed with this information, review Socrates' argument. Use the emphasized sections to help you determine how it was structured and if it was valid:

  • So, what was Socrates saying?

Socrates made four points:

  1. He was accused of corrupting the youth away from the Greek religion.
  2. The Oracle of Delphi, the word of Apollo, told him he was the wisest man.
  3. Because he believes in Apollo and all the other gods, he sought to find someone wiser than he because he did not think this was possible.
  4. He was still on this quest because, as of yet, he had only found people who thought they are wise but were not.
  • Do you think this is a good argument?

Socrates verified that he was not against the Greek religion, explained that he did not think he was very wise, and gave a reason why he was going around questioning so many people.

When being told he was an outsider who did not care about the gods at all, he structured his entire argument around his belief in Apollo.

Mistake

cool socrates

Despite Socrates' valid argument, the jury found him guilty.

The default punishment for this crime was death. However, Athens allowed its criminals to make an argument for a reduced sentence such as paying a substantial fine, serving many years in prison, leaving the city, or any other punishment.

  • So, for what did Socrates argue?

  • What is Socrates arguing?

Rather than accept the jury's conviction, Socrates refused to give himself a real punishment. He reinforced the idea that he was simply a poor man walking around Athens talking to people.

If he had proposed a more serious punishment for the crime he was found guilty of, then the jury almost certainly would have accepted it. However, because he only offered to pay a $5,000 fine and have others pay more, the jury did not think he took the opportunity seriously.

As a result, Socrates was sentenced to death and given poison hemlock to drink.

This famous painting depicts him engaging in discussion until the very end:

socrates painting

Continue on to the Got It? section to identify what about Socrates' argument was so well structured and where he went wrong.

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