From America to Athens, the Five Foot Shelf starts with the A’s. But the Athens we visit in 400BC has a man whose principles are tested in a trial for his life; unlike John Woolman (and with no disrespect to John Woolman), the results of his living by his philosophies put his life in direct danger; an experience that is external and verifiable, rather than internal. The turmoil experienced may be of equal measure, but the results are more immediate and permanent!
According to records, Plato was a physical man, an”expert wrestler” and involved in several important battles. But despite being a physical man, his texts disdain the body and his philosophies revolve around the supremacy of the mind or soul, and the search for the purity of the forms and ultimately for truth.
He starts off by asserting he isn’t wise, or at least he is wise in that he knows that he doesn’t know much. This, he asserts, is the reason he has been brought before the court, he is a gadfly, bringing attention to the fact that people in charge don’t always know as much as they claim to.
This man appeared to be wise in the opinion of most other men, and especially in his own opinion, though in fact he was not so. I thereupon endeavored to show him that he fancied himself to be wise, but really was not. Hence I became odious, both to him and to many others who were present.
He takes pride in the provoking he does, it is a form of public service for the city he loves, and values so highly. And like a gadfly, he continues to poke and prod the audience, who are from Athens. What makes an Athenian, he asks, and the answer for him should be that it is someone exceptional. That’s why it pains him to see them not living for the highest things in life. He asks,
Are you not ashamed of being careful for riches … and for glory, and honour, but care not nor take any thought for wisdom and truth, and for your soul and how it may be made most perfect.
But in the end, the Athenians prefer to return to their sleepy lives rather than continue putting up with the prodding of Socrates. For himself, Socrates lives by what he sees to be right to the end. He won’t compromise by saying what they want to hear, he won’t even consider bringing in his family to plead for him, but relies on reason and argument, knowing all the time this is likely to fail. He also refuses the option of paying a fine or exile, but wants the case, himself and his motives to be as transparent as possible.
To make what he is doing even clearer, he draws an analogy back to the physical world of battle, saying,
Neither in trial nor in battle is it right that I or anyone else should employ every possible means whereby he may avoid death; for in battle it is frequently evident that a man may escape death by laying down his arms, and throwing himself on the mercy of his pursuers. And there are many other devices in every danger, by which to aviod death, if a man dares to do and say every thing.
His death, says Socrates, will not free Athenians from the necessity of giving an account of their lives. It doesn’t have quite the resonance of “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine“, but he believes their punishment is more severe than the one they impose on him
But this is not difficult, O Athenians, to escape death; but it is much more difficult to avoid depravity, for it runs swifter than death. And now I, being slow and aged, am overtaken by the slower of the two; but my accusers, being strong and active, have been overtaken by the swifter, wickedness. And now I depart, condemned by you to death; but they condemned by truth.
So, for Socrates, as for everyone so far, truth is the most important thing. Truth is what makes life worth living. Truth trumps family and friends. Truth is worth dying for. This is a truth bound up with destiny and honour and a complete commitment to an idea. These things do not change, even when someone’s life is at stake, even when it’s your own.