The Athenian philosopher Socrates was accused of injustice-corrupting the young and not believing in the gods of the city, but in other new divinities. Socrates was found guilty and executed. Plato later examined the issue of Socrates' innocence and guilt, as well as of his philosophic way of life, by writing a speech in which Socrates pleads his case before an Athenian jury. After claiming that he has been slandered by prejudices against philosophers that do not apply to him, Socrates raises the question of why his way of life has led to his indictment.
Socrates, speaking before the jury: Perhaps, then, someone among you will reply, "What is the matter with you, Socrates? Where have these slanders come from? Surely, if you did nothing different from most people, or acted the way others do, so much talk and report would not have arisen. So tell us what it is, in order that we do not act hastily concerning you."
The person saying this seems to me to speak justly, and I will try to show you what has caused this reputation and slander against me. Listen, then. Now perhaps some of you will suppose that I am joking. Know well, however, that I will tell you the whole truth.
Men of Athens, I have gotten this reputation through nothing other than a certain sort of wisdom. What sort of wisdom? Human wisdom. [Others] might be wise in some wisdom greater than human wisdom, but I am unable to say what it is. I have no knowledge of it, and whoever says that I do lies and speaks to slander me.
Men of Athens, do not make a disturbance, not even if I seem to you to boast. For it is not my word. Rather, I refer you to the word of someone worthy of credit: whether I have any wisdom, and what sort it is, I offer as witness the god of Delphi. You must have known Chaerephon; he was my comrade from youth, as well as a comrade of your democratic faction, for he shared in your exile, and returned with you. Well, Chaerephon, as you know, was very impetuous in everything he did. He went to Delphi and dared to consult the oracle about this-now don't make a disturbance, men, as I said-he asked the oracle whether anyone was wiser than I , and the prophetess answered that there was no one wiser. Chaerephon is dead himself, but his brother, who is in court, will testify to this.
Why do I mention this? Because I am going to teach you where this slander against me came from. When I heard the answer, I said to myself, "What can the god mean? What riddle is he offering? I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest? Surely he cannot by lying, for it is not permitted [for a god to lie]."
For a long time I was perplexed, and then very reluctantly I undertook to examine [the god] in this way. I went to one of those with a reputation for wisdom, supposing that there, if anywhere, I would refute the divination and show the oracle that "this person is wiser than I, but you said that I was the wisest." Accordingly, I examined him-his name I need not mention--he was one of the politicians-and when I examined him and conversed with him, I had this experience, Athenian men: this man seemed to be wise to many human beings, and especially to himself, but he was not really wise. And then I tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise. As a result I became hated by him and by many of those present. So I left him, reasoning, "I am wiser than this human being. It is likely that neither of us knows anything noble and good, but this one believes that he knows when he does not, whereas I neither know nor think that I know. It is likely, then, that I am a little bit wiser than he is, for I do not believe that I know what I do not know."
Then I went to another, who had still a greater reputation for wisdom than he, and these things seemed to be exactly the same. I became hateful to him, and to many others besides him....
Socrates points out another problem that he encountered in his search for wisdom: This too happened: the youth who followed me of their own accord, those who had the greatest leisure, and the sons of the wealthiest, enjoyed hearing human beings examined. They often imitated me, and examined others themselves. And they discovered, I believe, an abundance of people who thought that they knew something, but really knew little or nothing. And those who were examined by them instead of being angry with themselves became angry with me. And they said that Socrates is disgusting and corrupts the young.
28b and 29a-30b Socrates addresses whether he should have avoided this investigation since as a result his life in danger:
Perhaps someone will say, "And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life from which you run the risk of losing your life?" Justly would I reply to him: "You speak ignobly, sir, if you suppose that a man who is good for anything ought to take into account the danger of living or dying, rather than consider only this when he acts, whether he acts justly or unjustly, and does the deeds of a good man or of a bad....
For this fear of death, men, is nothing other than to think one is wise when one is not, for it is to seem to know what one does not know. For no one knows whether death is not the greatest of goods for a human being, but they fear it as if it were the greatest of evils. And is this not that shameful ignorance of supposing that one knows what one does not? Perhaps, men, I differ from other human beings in this, and if I am wiser it is in this-that whereas I know little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know. But I do know that it is bad and shameful to do injustice and to disobey one's better, whether god or man. In contrast to those things I know to be bad, I will never fear or avoid things that might turn out to be good.
Suppose you were to let me go now, and reject the counsels of [my accusers], who say that I ought not to have been prosecuted, if I were not to be put to death, and that if I escape now, your sons will all be utterly ruined by listening to my words. But you also said to me, "Socrates, this time we will not listen to [your accusers], and will let you off, but upon one condition, that you inquire and philosophize in this way no more, and that if you are caught doing this again you shall die." If this was the condition on which you acquitted, I should reply, "Men of Athens, I cherish and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you, and as long as I breathe and am able to, I shall not cease philosophizing, and exhorting you and saying to anyone whom I happen to meet, as I am accustomed to doing, 'best of men, you are an Athenian, from the city that is the greatest and has the greatest reputation for wisdom and strength. Are you not ashamed to care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, while you neglect and have no regard for prudence and truth and how your soul will be the best possible?'"
If one of you disputes this and says he does care, I will not depart or let him go at once, but I will speak with him and examine and cross?examine him. And if he does not seem to me to possess virtue, but only says that he does, I will reproach him with undervaluing the greater, and overvaluing the less. And this I shall do to everyone whom I meet, young and old, foreigner and townsmen, but especially to the townsmen, inasmuch as you are more closely related to me.
Know well that the god commands this. I believe that to this day no greater good has ever happened in this city than my service to the god. For I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and young alike, not to take thought for your bodies and money, but first and chiefly to care for your soul, how it will be the best possible. I say that "virtue does not arise from money, but that from virtue comes money and all other goods for human beings, public as well as private." If I corrupt the young by saying such things, they may be harmful. But if anyone claims that I speak different things, he speaks nonsense. With regard to these matters, men of Athens, I say, do as [my accusers] bid or not, either acquit me or not. But whatever you do, know that I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times.
31c-33a Before concluding his speech, Socrates addresses the question of why he has not pursued a political career.
It might seem odd that I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not dare to come forward in public and advise the city. The cause of this you have heard me speak of many times and in many places. Something divine or daimonic comes to me, which [my accusers] mock in their indictment. This voice that I have had ever since childhood, when it comes to me, always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never urges me to do anything.
It is this voice that stands in the way of my being a politician. And rightly so it opposes this. For I am certain, men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don't be annoyed at my telling you the truth. For there is no human being who can preserve his life who opposes you or any other multitude, and prevents many unjust and unlawful things from occurring in the city. Rather, if someone who fights for the just is to preserve himself even for a short time, he must live a private life and not a public one.
I can give you as proofs of this, not words, but deeds, which you honor more. Listen to what happened to me, so that you may know that I would never have yielded to injustice from any fear of death, even if by not yielding I should have died at once. I will tell you vulgar things, characteristic of lawcourts, but true. The only office in the city which I ever held, men of Athens, was once being on the Council.... Then you wanted to try as a group, not individually, the ten generals who had not taken up the bodies after the naval battle-contrary to law, as you all thought afterwards. At that time I was the only one of the councillors who opposed your acting contrary to the law, and I voted against you. Even though the orators threatened to indict and arrest me, and you urged and shouted, I supposed that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death....
Do you suppose that I could have survived all these years, if I had led a public life, acting like a good man and always supporting the just and supposing this the most important? Far from it, men of Athens, neither I nor any other human being could have done this. But I have been always the same in all my actions, public as well as private, and never have I yielded contrary to what is just....
from Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Shakespeare's Macbeth might be seen as a didactic tale, cautioning the reader against an excess of ambition. It is ambition that consumes Macbeth and his "dearest partner of greatness," his wife, and sets them to the task of committing a series of murders that escalate to the point that none of Macbeth's subjects can be ignorant of his culpability in these many crimes. Our selections include five scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth. These are, however, a rich and sophisticated picture of what executing the most horrible cruelties can do to a man's conscience, soul, or self. Macbeth's ambition causes him to take the Machiavellian divide between the morally right and the expedient and push it to its logical outcome.
Shamed for his irresolution and encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan in his own home, violating the "double trust" Duncan had in him as his kinsman and subject. Once there, however, Macbeth is not satisfied with simply possessing the throne, but seeks to keep it in perpetuity-even into future generations. This requires that he seek the death of Banquo's heirs, as Banquo, it is foretold by the witches, will be the father of many future kings. But Macbeth's ambition quickly turns to a madness that consumes him with his sense of insecurity on the throne. He finds every slight among his nobles cause to suspect them and he does not hesitate to order the murder of Macduff's entire family in spite of the obvious senselessness of fearing the wife and young children of the defected thane.
Macbeth follows the advice of his wife, who acts as his Machiavellian advisor. While Macbeth has the ambition to be king, according to his wife, he is free of the "illness which should attend it." That is, he possesses a conscience or a fear of upsetting a moral order of which he is a part. His initial irresolution is a product of knowing what committing such a deed might do to his soul or psyche. He seems to be able to foretell the outcome for both himself and Lady Macbeth, fearing that "Bloody instructions, which being taught, return/To plague the inventor." Even his resolute and cruel wife so suffers from her part in the murders that she kills herself. Macbeth, in his last appearance on the stage before his defeat, is equally in despair of the world and defiant of his fate. The horror about him cannot match the horror within him.
But Shakespeare does not leave us with the despair of Macbeth. The play closes with the ascent of Malcolm to the throne. By showing us in an earlier scene Malcolm's testing Macduff's character, Shakespeare dramatizes Malcolm's own character, and his worthiness to be king. Like Machiavelli, Shakespeare is concerned with the character of the ruler, but does he understand the ruler's virtues in the same way as does Machiavelli? Moreover, Malcolm's personal merits complement his rightful claim to the throne. Shakespeare adds legitimacy (whether by inheritance or election) as a factor that justifies rule.
Also interesting about the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff are the compromises that both are willing to make to overturn Macbeth's tyranny. Macduff determines that certain, measured and well?managed vices on Malcolm's part will not disqualify him as a good king-at least one more worthy of Macduff's support than is Macbeth. And Malcolm, as we have said, willingly employs a deception in order to test Macduff's loyalty. Each thus seems to tempt the other, in the manner that the witches tempted Macbeth. But, while neither is uncompromising in his defense of virtue and truth, both Malcolm and Macduff pass the other's test and prove themselves to one another as free men, unwilling to sell themselves, each other, or their country to present or future tyrants, whatever the personal profit.