How has Socrates been misunderstood?

About the relevance of the accusation of Asebie against Socrates in the Platonic writings "Apology" and "Phaedo"

Table of Contents

1 Introduction:

2. Asebie definition of terms:

3. The religious attitudes of the Athenian citizens at the time of the trial
on the questionability of the accusation of Asebie:

4. Socrates' apology:
4.1 Start of the defense speech:
4.2 The "earlier" indictment:
4.3 Defense against the "earlier" indictment with reference to the Delphic Oracle:
4.4 Socrates ’philosophical activity on behalf of God:
4.5 Motivation of the Athenians to condemn Socrates of Asebie for:

5. "Phaedo":
5.1 Pythagorean ideas in the "Phaidon":
5.2 The depiction of the pious, deeply religious Socrates in the "Phaedo" - Theseus comparison:
5.3 Socrates ’poetry - last chance to meet the demands of his patron god:
5.4 "Apology" of Socrates in the "Phaedo":
5.4.1 Prohibition of suicide:
5.4.2 Why does the philosopher strive towards death?
5.4.3 Ascetic way of life as a philosophical way of life and as a
"Practice in death":

6. Conclusion:

1 Introduction:

The death of Socrates in 399 BC Chr. Not only had a lasting impact on antiquity, 2000 years later this event has far-reaching significance. But Socrates did not simply die; his fellow Athenians brought him to court and eventually sentenced him to death. He was the Asebie, accused of godlessness and charged with corrupting the youth with his godless ideas. The Athenians had a legal basis that made it possible to indict persons of Asebie. Seen from this point of view, acebia was a frequent source of lawsuits against philosophers who, since philosophy flourished in Athens, suffered from the hostility of the politically powerful. Especially since the 5th century BC The number of prominent philosophers persecuted grew[1]. But the charge of Asebie was a grave charge in ancient Greece, as religion was at the core of family life as well as political life. In addition, the Greeks claimed that they received their moral codes and their laws from the gods. Thus, to question the gods meant an attack on the foundations of morality and belief and a challenge to the legitimacy of the law. The hostility of the Athenians towards the philosophers was explained by the fact that some philosophers tried to reduce the divine to the natural and the religious to science. As already mentioned above, Socrates was also suspected of not believing the gods of the state and even instilling pernicious thoughts about them in the youth. The apparent “eyewitness account” of Plato, the “Apology of Socrates”, serves as a testimony to his trial. It is not a court record as we know it from today and it does not reflect the exact course of the trial, but it is the only testimony of Socrates' defense against the accusations made against him.

In this thesis, the Platonic writing “Apology of Socrates” will first be dealt with with regard to the accusation of Asebie and this will be explored explicitly. The relevance of the accusation of Asebie, whose meaningfulness was sometimes decisive for the death sentence at the time of the trial, should be critically questioned and developed in contrast to parts of the Platonic dialogue “Phaidon”. Apparently, in the later text “Phaedo”, Plato introduces us to a deeply religious and god-fearing person Socrates. It is to be emphasized to what extent the then charge Asebie, possibly an inadequate, if not even an inaccurate, was.

2. Asebie definition of terms:

A brief explanation of the concept of asebie will now take place here. Under Asebeia (Greek: asebeia) man one understands a violation of the reverence for the gods, which was punished by the Greeks. Temple robbery and the desecration and derision of divine things were considered to be such a violation. As a means of politics, “godlessness” (Greek: a-sebeia) was used as an indictment in Athens, particularly in the case of violations of devotion to the gods of the state against natural philosophers and sophists. Their explanation of the world and the questioning of all traditional views seemed to endanger the state order. The legal basis for such trials was established in 432 BC. Created.[2]

3. The religious attitude of the Athenian citizens at the time of the trial with regard to the questionability of the accusation of Asebie:

The image of Socrates is also strongly influenced by the Platonic dialogue “Phaedo” and therefore one should not lose sight of the fact that the belief in a conscious survival after death for an Athenian of the fifth century BC should not be lost. Is by no means something self-evident or even obvious[3]. In his essay, Hans-Georg Gadamer shows that the “Phaedo” in particular asks the question of the extent to which religious traditions and traditions are still effective in a time of scientific enlightenment. He describes the epoch around Socrates' death as one in which the progress of science and the knowledge of nature displace the mythological worldview "and logic begins to awaken to its own self-confidence.“[4]

The moral and religious situation at the time of the sentencing was extremely difficult. Endless wars, combined with defeats and destruction, resulted in profound changes in moral and religious sentiments. In addition, the rapid development of the sciences and intellectual life had shaken traditional religious ideas. The old mythical-cultic belief had long been critically undermined by the flexible Athenian mind.[5] In a time of war, the population reoriented and strived for more tangible things, such as success and enjoyment. This was also the hour of birth of the sophistry and, in conjunction with the belief in success, they created not only political but also moral and religious confusion. But the interests of the conservatively oriented democracy seemed threatened by a disruption of traditional religiosity, since religious life was closely tied to the state and social order. Therefore, an attack on religious traditions could easily be misunderstood as an attack on the order of the state. Or else, people who were a thorn in the side of the existing state order, could by means of the legal basis of 432 BC. BC on the charge of Asebie to be brought to the indictment, as the trial of Socrates makes clear.

4. Socrates' apology:

As already announced in the introduction, the "Apology of Socrates" is to be examined at this point, but only with regard to the accusation of Asebie. An examination and interpretation of the entire “Apology” would contradict the task / topic and go beyond the scope given here. I will deal with Socrates' first speech in defense.

4.1 Start of the defense speech:

As an introduction to his defense speech, Socrates announced that he would like to speak as people were used to from him and that he does not want to use the rhetoric customary in court. In his commentary, Ernst Heitsch impressively emphasizes that he is also orienting himself towards the rhetoric customary in court.[6] Socrates refers to the fact that he has no idea of ​​the way of speaking in court and here in front of the judges he emphasizes their importance and role in the event and in finding the truth and for himself as a speaker he claims to say nothing but the truth: "Because this shows the ability of the judge, but that of the speaker in telling the truth.“[7] This reference of the good speaker to understand the truth and to communicate it can be seen as a demarcation from the sophists and Socrates will have to defend himself a little later in his defense against being considered a sophist.

4.2 The "earlier" indictment:

In his first defense speech, he sketched a picture of an "earlier" indictment[8] and is of the opinion that the current indictment was preceded by slander, which he considers to be the "first indictment". He would like to comment on the "earlier, older" indictment first, and he points out that these prejudices and slanders against him are actually the more dangerous charges.[9] Socrates himself summarizes the contents of this "earlier" accusation and specifies them in three points, according to the slander and rumors that are in circulation about him: he pursues natural philosophy, he argues without hesitation and without regard to the truth and he offers himself as a teacher Payment on. The tone of this "earlier" accusation suggests that Socrates was accused of behaving improperly or at least not as one would expect a decent citizen to behave. He refutes two of the points mentioned very quickly, especially since there were no witnesses in the courtroom that he practiced natural philosophy in public or that he appeared as a teacher, or his low financial status can be understood as a testimony to his lack of paid teaching.

4.3 Defense against the "earlier" indictment with reference to the Delphic Oracle:

He counters the claim that Socrates makes the weaker argument into the stronger with the slander that is circulating about him. He mentions for the first time the oracle that his friend Chairephon had caught up with in Delphi. In his commentary, Ernst Heitsch deals with three kinds of questions that, in his opinion, arise for the reader at this point. On the one hand, one would like to ask about the historicity of the oracle and Heitsch is of the opinion that it would hardly have been possible for Socrates to invent the story, because Chairephon was a well-known personality to the Athens judges and Socrates also refers to the presence of his brother in the Courtroom. Thus it should be proven that the saying of the Delphic oracle is a truthful fact.[10] The second question that arises the reader wants to know a dating of the saying. Heitsch points out that there is no generally accepted result on this question, but he orientates himself on the political situation of the time, i.e. the relationship between Athens and Sparta, during the Peloponnesian War. At times it was not possible for the Athenians to travel to the Delphic Oracle. In addition, the question to the oracle presupposes that Socrates' ability to unmask presumptuous knowledge must already have been known at this point in time. Heitsch takes these two components into account and comes to the conclusion that in all probability the oracle must have been consulted in the time 421-414 / 13.[11] The third question is about the content of the question to the oracle and its opinion. Socrates reports to those present in the courtroom that his friend had traveled to Delphi to ask the priestesses of Apollo there whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle's answer was that no one was wiser than Socrates. After Socrates had received this news, he was astonished because he claimed for himself that he knew that he knew nothing. And while he reports on the oracle to the court, he also agrees that the Delphic oracle, i.e. the god, would not lie. So Socrates saw it as his job to check the divine saying. It must be mentioned, however, that Socrates does not tell about this oracle to put himself in the right light before the Athenians, but wants to explain why the slander and hostility against him came about. Because by constantly questioning people and putting their knowledge to the test, without having relevant knowledge of the things himself, he creates enemies in this way. Through his argumentation technique, through the power of the articulate conversation, Socrates succeeded in entangling the interlocutor in contradictions about his own knowledge through targeted questions


[1] Ahrensdorf, Peter J .: The death of Socrates and the life of philosophy. New York 1995. pp. 10f.

[2] See the new Pauly. Encyclopedia of Antiquity. Edited by Cancik, H. and Schneider, H. Stuttgart 1997/1999. Volume 2. Col. 77.

[3] Cf. Ebert, Theodor: Plato, Phaedo. Translation and commentary. Göttingen 2004. p. 109.

[4] Gadamer, Hans-Georg: "The evidence of immortality in Plato's Phaedo" in: Reality and reflection. Ed. Fahrenbach, Helmut. Pfullingen 1973. p. 145.

[5] See Guardini, Romano: The death of Socrates. An interpretation of the Platonic writings Euthyphron - Apologie - Crito and Phaedo. Third adult Edition. Godesberg 1947. p. 59.

[6] Heitsch, Ernst: Plato, Apology of Socrates. Translation and commentary. Göttingen 2002. pp. 41-54.

[7] Plato, Apology of Socrates. 18a5.

[8] See Heitsch: Plato, Apology of Socrates. P. 63.

[9] See ibid. P. 55.

[10] Heitsch: Apology of Socrates. P. 73f.

[11] Ibid. P. 74f.

End of the reading sample from 25 pages