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Ethics and Popular Opinion in Socrates’ Philosophy

The importance of public opinion is crucial in modern-day society and cannot be underestimated. The majority of people’s views should be taken into consideration and given publicity when a controversial issue is being discussed. Socrates, a Greek philosopher, was trialed and executed for his controversial opinion on multiple subjects. His philosophical works had oral nature and came to our days through the works of other philosophers such as Xenophon and Plato, who managed to give these teachings a written form. However, these works often contradict each other, making the clarification of Socrates’ true views problematic. The following essay aims at examining Socrates’ stance on popular opinion in moral matters as well as his attitude to the Law System in Ancient Greece.

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Popular opinion is synonymous with the term public opinion and implies the views that are shared by the majority of people. It is one of the staples of modern-day democratic society. However, the fact that it is shared by most people does not imply that it is right. Public opinion relies on a vast number of sources and people who support it to prove a point, while expert opinion is often supported by a minority of qualified specialists (Hornikx et al. 10). These opinions sometimes contradict each other, complicating the decision-making of people who have recently gotten acquainted with the issue. However, if an expert’s opinion is given publicity and contains indisputable evidence, it can eventually become a popular opinion since the number of people who share it will increase.

Socrates was considered an expert by his disciples; however, the majority of ancient Athens’ population and the court judges did not share his views and saw them as dangerous to their society’s well-being. The popular opinion at the time was focused on the teachings of sophists. In order to make his view widespread, the philosopher used debates and discussions that involved youth who were willing to listen. Young people are the future of any society; hence, the spread of a new doctrine was addressed immediately.

One of the crucial points of Socrates’ unorthodox view was the importance of ethics. He firmly believed that nobody does evil for the sake of it. Instead, people always attempt to persuade themselves to do it, creating their own reasons that explain why a certain action is not evil (Seiple 3). Hence, Socrates highlighted the crucial role that inner decision-making had when a person is tasked with a moral choice. Through his discussions with his disciples, the philosopher tried to come to a logical conclusion, a universal definition that can be considered the only viable option. Hence, knowledge and virtue are considered the same thing in the teachings of Socrates. A person can only do a fair and just action if they know what fairness and justice mean. Hence, nobody is obliged to follow a popular opinion in making moral choices but is required to rely on their knowledge and understanding of the issue.

It is important to note that constituting a minority in any society is bound to cause biased attitudes. Openly criticizing the current governmental system, religion, popular beliefs, and doctrines can eventually cause persecution. Socrates was the founder of a group of people whose views were considered unpopular opinion since the teachings of sophists were extremely prevalent at that time. In an attempt to expand his influence and acquire more followers, the philosopher tasked one of his disciples to question an Oracle of Delphi, who was the wisest man in Athens. The answer proved that Socrates was the wisest; however, instead of celebrating this reveal, the philosopher tried to undermine the views of other experts present in the city. He forced discussions with some of the most influential people occupying significant posts in Athens to prove their ignorance. By doing that, Socrates successfully proved the lack of knowledge in society’s ruling class; however, it also caused unnecessary attention to him and his followers, accelerating the subsequent trial and execution.

The philosopher was charged with two accusations: corruption of youth and being impious towards Athens. The first one is self-explanatory: the philosopher’s target audience was the youth, who shared his views and beliefs and were willing to participate in debates. However, those young people would often misinterpret Socrates’ teaching and spread them religiously, causing unnecessary negative bias from the majority of people. The impiety towards Athens had multiple reasons to be used as a charge against him. First, the philosopher openly criticized the ruling class, highlighting the necessity of providing those who were genuinely worthy of governmental posts. Second, he exposed and gave publicity to the lack of knowledge among Athens’ upper class, undermining their authority. Needless to say, that this particular critique may have made the trial biased and emotional, rather than rational. It is also worth mentioning that sentencing people to death for their views and opinions in democratic Greece was not a common practice, further proving that the trial was not objective. Driven by prejudice, the court decided to put Socrates to death via hemlock poisoning.

During the trial, the philosopher’s stance was straightforward and rational: he denied the charges, did not begin his defense speech with an apology to the court and asked for a reward instead of punishment (Plato and Xenophon 6). When the prejudiced jury found him guilty in the crimes mentioned above, Socrates denied his followers’ request to pay a fine that would save him from capital punishment. He voluntarily drank from the cup with hemlock poison and died surrounded by his disciples.

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The philosopher’s behavior during the trial highlights his firm beliefs in the rightfulness of his opinion. He did not necessarily find the laws under which he was tried and convicted unjustly. Socrates was assured in his innocence and attempted to prove it via rationality and common sense. His opinion remained unchanged, and he experienced no guilt or remorse. Even given the opportunity to flee Athens, he denied it and chose to abide by the state’s civic law. His escaping to save his life would have proved his guilt and undermined the authority of his teachings. Moreover, the unjust death of the wisest man in Athens would inevitably cause a reaction among its citizens, further increasing the popularity of the new approach in philosophy. Taking Socrates’ old age into consideration, it is understandable why he would rather die at the age of seventy than save his life at the cost of his teachings and authority as an expert.

Altogether, Socrates was an exemplary case of an expert who was attempting to spread an unpopular opinion by undermining the authority of other experts and gaining more followers. He also highlighted that public opinion did not influence individuals’ moral choices since they stemmed from the knowledge and were subjective. The firm belief in the new doctrine and the civic law of Ancient Greece made him refuse the possible escape and replacement of capital punishment at the cost of his followers’ expenses. The philosopher voluntarily accepted death in order to become a martyr and increase the influence of his beliefs post-mortem.

Works Cited

Hornikx, Jos, et al. “How many laypeople holding a popular opinion are needed to counter an expert opinion?” Thinking & Reasoning, vol. 24, no. 1, 2017, pp. 117–128.

Seiple, D. “Moral Seriousness: Socratic Virtue As A Way Of Life” Metaphilosophy, vol. 51, no. 5, 2020, pp 1-20.

Plato and Xenophon. Plato: The Apology of Socrates and Xenophon: The Apology of Socrates. Edited by Nicholas Denyer, Cambridge UP, 2019.

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