“To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.” – Socrates.
Socrates proves true to his own words in this apologia, a defense of his actions to the people of Athens more than a real apology. Indeed, Socrates never apologizes for anything, and some might see his speech as downright arrogant and unrepentant given his situation. Idealism wins the day over pragmatism.
Unlike Plato’s other works this is not a dialogue — except for a few responses from Meletus, the man who accuses Socrates of corrupting the youth and worshipping new gods — Socrates is the only one talking; it is really a speech. Socrates successfully rebuts all the charges against him, but ends up convicted anyway for tweaking the noses of the Athenian public one too many times.
Socrates explains that he never questioned others out of malicious intent, in order to embarass his contemporaries, but rather he questioned their knowledge as a means to improving them as human beings, as a way of caring for their souls. We hear in this statement of intent the core of Socratic and Platonic philosophy.
I think too often this core is forgotten because of Plato’s most popular work, The Republic. In The Republic, Plato not only engages in a dialogue that seeks the answer the question, “what is justice?” like in many of the other dialogues, but Plato goes off on his own tangent to explore what would be the best form of government where justice could thrive, describing all the major parts of his political system in fine details. Plato goes beyond just trying to discover the truth about a concept of human importance such as justice, piety, beauty, etc. Instead Plato actually offers a solution to acheiving justice. This is the part of Plato that I think turns many people off from his philosophical system; precisely because it is in Plato that it starts becoming a system rather than just a particular method of inquiry.
Nevertheless as someone who prefers Aristotle to Plato (for his philosophical ideas, not his literary merit, in which Plato has the advantage), I think there is very little to disagree with in the core of Socratic and Platonic philosophy: that one should continually question received knowledge from the community, continually question what one thinks they already know, and continually try to learn new things as a way of improving the soul. Basically this could be a wonderful explanation for why I continue to read literature and books on philosophy and other subjects of interest. It is important to continually learn, to grow, to not become complacent with what I think I already know.
Socrates always struck me as a Christ-like figure, a rabble-rouser challenging the common wisdom of his time who ends up dying a martyr’s death. When the Athenians condemn him to death he shows no fear.