I'm a grade eleven student who has a history question on one of the greatest philosophers that ever
lived. I'm speaking of the Greek philosopher Socrates. I'm writing a 2000 word essay on how
Socrates' death sentence of drinking hemlock on the charges of corrupting the young and not
believing in the gods, was the biggest injustice that ancient Greece has ever seen. I've been reading
books by Plato like the Republic,the Apologyand Crito.I also searched the web and found few sites
on my subject. I was wondering if you could help me with my research by sending me information on
my subject or tell me where I can find info. I was also wondering if you could help me with a
philosophical definition on the word "justice" because I was thinking of putting it in my essay.
Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice(Harvard University Press 1995) defines justice as "fairness".
He states, "The intuitive idea is that since everyone's well-being depends upon a scheme of
cooperation... the division of advantages should be such as to draw forth the the willing cooperation
of everyone taking part in it..." (p. 15). And so forth, for about 583 pages. That's merely the
introduction to a modern and very famous treatise on justice, if you want to wade through it.
Now let's take Socrates. What he was doing, very deliberately (as you have seen, having read the
Apology), was being as intransigent as possible, without actually being violent. He was very
consciously flouting some of the most deeply-held beliefs of his society, i.e., that the gods were the
ultimate authority, and that their precepts (as interpreted, of course, by the priests) must be
unquestioningly obeyed, by sacrificing his life (which he clearly foresaw would happen, given the laws
of Athens) in order to make himself a martyr to the cause of reason (rationality, the dialectic) as the
ultimate authority. And in the Apology,you see that he does not defend himself; in fact, he uses his
"defense" to attack his accusers, and even more outrageously, all Athens. So in a sense there is no
injustice at all in his death; Socrates knew the penalties for teachings against the state; has set it up,
planned for it, and expected it from the beginning.
Now one can ask whether his society's viewpoints and laws were just. Well, by their (the Athenians')
lights, they satisfied the definition above. They (i.e., most of the people of Athens) would have stoutly
maintained that Athens' well-being depended on people obeying the laws of the state and of the
gods, and indeed, given the vote against Socrates, the "willing cooperation" of at least the majority (if
not of "everyone") was "drawn forth". Were they correct? Well, what if the priesthood had been
overturned and the basis of law and education in Athens became the dialectic... what would have
happened? Revolution? A just society? There's no way to know, is there. We would like to think that a
real utopia would have prevailed... a nice thought, but who could maintain that with any certainty?
So, was Socrates' death unjust? From our point of view? Well, what is the position on the relative
weight of some modern god's laws vs. rationality, for most people? I'm afraid that in the States, at
least, the majority would side with the Athenians. But we do not (at this particular point in time) put
people to death for disagreeing with the religious norm, fortunately. Thus the question becomes one
of the degreeof punishment. Remember, however, that Socrates couldhave accepted banishment;
his friends were ready and set to get him out... but he refused. That would have been a very hard
situation for him, at his age (ancient, for that time), with a wife and son in Athens... but he did have
friends in another city who would have sheltered him, and perhaps his family would have joined him.
He wanted to die, to make a point.
All in all, then, this becomes a somewhat more complex question, does it not? I actually think, myself,
that the laws of Athens were unjust, if only because the penalty for disobeying them was too severe.
But that was a much more brutal time than this (they just had less brutal weapons available than we
do), and the penalty of death was a common one for illegal acts. In fact, Socrates was treated very
well: he wasn't tortured, and his death was deliberately painless... unusual, for those days. I'm just
making the point that times and customs differ, and to put your argument through you have not
merely to define justice, but show that your definition holds universally... well, Rawls gives it almost
600 pages, and you've got 2000 words. I'd try to step carefully here, maybe take a somewhat more
restricted topic... but good luck.
Steven Ravett Brown