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NA423912 - PLATO: Trial and The Death of Socrates (The) - Apology / Phaedo (Unabridged)
The Trial &
The Death of Socrates
Apology · Phaedo
The Apology and Phaedo describe the trial, conviction and execution
of Plato’s friend and mentor Socrates. Why, we may ask, was there a trial? What was Socrates accused of? Was he guilty? And if he wasn’t guilty
(as Plato clearly thinks he wasn’t), why was he accused? Is this a verbatim report of the speeches he gave? More generally, what is it about these
dialogues, and about Socrates himself, that has exercised such a fascination over later ages?
To take these questions in order:
He was accused of two things:
1) not believing in the gods the city believed in; and
2) corrupting the young.
Was he guilty? Well, it depends on your point of view. You could say, with some justice, that very few people in late 5th century Athens believed in the gods the city believed in; Certainly not in the Olympian gods such as Zeus, or Aphrodite, or Apollo. There were still those who believed the sun and the moon were gods. Indeed, the catastrophic loss of the Athenian expeditionary force to Sicily 14 years earlier had in the end been caused by its commander’s superstitious refusal to abandon an untenable position for 28 days following an eclipse of the moon. But then Socrates was prepared to accept the sun and the moon as gods, as he explains in the Apology.
Did he corrupt the young? In a sexual sense, no. Alcibiades, the best-looking young man in Athens, famously attempted to seduce Socrates sexually, and failed. But in a different sense, maybe the answer could be yes. What Socrates did was to teach the young to ask questions, which their elders found difficult or impossible to answer. If you were one of those elders, you might well have thought that he was making young people into worse people than they would otherwise have been. In that sense, from the point of view of their elders, maybe he did corrupt the young. It’s a common enough argument, now as then: ‘when I was young we respected our elders; these days there’s no respect any more; someone must be to blame.’
Was that a sufficient reason for him to be accused? In normal times, no. But these were not normal times. Within the last five years the Athenians had lost a war and an empire, and been deprived of their democratic rights. Many of the people who had taken away those rights had been followers of Socrates in their youth. When democracy was restored, there were those who wanted their revenge.
Is the Apology the speech Socrates actually made? And did he spend his last hours in the way Plato describes? It is hard to say with certainty. As far as we know, Socrates never wrote anything, and if he did write anything, it hasn’t survived. Almost everything we know about him comes from Plato, though there is a hint in Xenophon, which suggests that what he actually said at his trial was a bit different from what Plato has given us. It may be we have to take Plato’s account as colored by what he thinks Socrates should have said, or what he would have liked Socrates to have said.
We can, however, say with confidence that the way Socrates talks and acts in the Apology and Phaedo is wholly in character with the way he talks and acts in every other Platonic dialogue. Beyond that, we have to accept that the Socrates who has been admired for more than 2000 years is the Socrates presented to us by Plato, just as the Jesus who has been admired for 2000 years is the Jesus presented by the New Testament.
And finally, what is it about Socrates that has so fascinated later ages?
Two things, principally: an ethical standpoint and a method of argument.
The ethical standpoint can be summed up in two of Socrates’ most famous beliefs: It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, because only doing wrong can harm you. And no one does wrong on purpose; people do wrong only from a failure to perceive what is right. More striking still is the method of argument: it annoyed the ancient Athenians, and it annoys a lot of people today, but it is revolutionary for all that – and as needed now as it was then. Before Socrates there were three ways of resolving a disagreement: by force, by appeal to authority or by competitive oratory. What all three have in common is that they produce a winner and a loser, and that the loser is even less convinced at the end than at the beginning. Socrates’ method – arguing by agreed steps from agreed premises – necessarily results in an agreed conclusion. If you don’t like the conclusion, you can go back and amend the premises.
So – a new ethical position, and a new method of argument. And nowhere will we find either more clearly and movingly exemplified than in the Apology and the Phaedo.
Notes by Tom Griffith
The Cast of The Trial & The Death of Socrates
Socrates Bruce Alexander
Meletus David Timson
Phaedo Jamie Glover
Echechrates Gordon Griffin
Introduction Neville Jason
BRUCE ALEXANDER is best known as Superintendent Mullett in
A Touch of Frost and has appeared in many other television shows such as Berkeley Square, Casualty and Peak Practice. He has also played major roles in the theater, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He is a director of ACTER, which annually tours Shakespeare to US campuses. Alexander has read numerous recordings for Naxos AudioBooks.
JAMIE GLOVER trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama and has since played title roles in Hamlet and Henry V and a number of other roles in, amongst others, Tartuffe and The Rose Tattoo for Sir Peter Hall. His television appearances include A Dance to the Music of Time and Cadfael.
NEVILLE JASON trained at RADA where he was awarded the Diction Prize by Sir John Gielgud. He has worked with the English Stage Co., the Old Vic Company and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as in films, television and musicals. He is frequently heard on radio. He has abridged and read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as well as many other titles for Naxos AudioBooks.
DAVID TIMSON has performed in modern and classic plays across Great Britain and abroad, including Wild Honey for Alan Ayckbourn, Hamlet, The Man of Mode and The Seagull. He has been seen on television in Nelson’s Column and Swallows and Amazons, and in the film The Russia House. A familiar and versatile audio and radio voice, Timson is a popular reader for Naxos AudioBooks.
GORDON GRIFFIN has recorded over 220 audiobooks. His vast range includes nine Catherine Cookson novels, books by Melvyn Bragg, David Lodge, the entire Wycliffe series by W. J. Burley and his award-winning recording of A Tale of Two Cities. Gordon also appears regularly on television and in films. He was dialogue coach (Geordie) on Byker Grove and Kavanagh QC.
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