Socrates believes so strongly in preserving his moral standards that he’s willing to sacrifice his own safety and wellbeing on their behalf. Although the jury threatens him with the death penalty, he refuses to betray his values, instead using his unfortunate situation as an opportunity to teach others the importance of moral integrity. In turn, he demonstrates his unfailing confidence in the way he lives his life. After all, he has been brought to court in the first place because he isn’t afraid to voice unpopular opinions that challenge his fellow Athenians. As such, it would be out of step with his entire mode of being if he were to suddenly undermine his moral certitude by absolving himself and telling the jury what it wants to hear. What’s more, when he argues that he shouldn’t be sentenced to death, he doesn’t do so for his own benefit—for that would go against his values—but rather for the benefit of all Athenians, saying that he is delivering his defense because he doesn’t want the jury to commit an immoral and harmful act by executing him. In this way, he not only demonstrates his integrity, but also forces the jury to reckon with its own duty to set forth an unflawed model of justice. By making this argument, he proves that true moral integrity means acting ethically not only as an individual, but also as a member of society.
Socrates makes it overwhelmingly clear in his defense that he will not betray his values. Although the accusations made against him by Meletus and Anytus put him in grave danger, he refuses to accept the idea that he has behaved immorally by encouraging Athenians to question their ways. In other words, even under threat of death, he acts according to his moral compass. “This is the truth of the matter, Men of Athens: wherever a man has taken a position that he believes to be best, or has been placed by his commander, there he must I think remain and face danger without a thought for death or anything else, rather than disgrace,” he says. Although he goes on to reference several military battles, it’s worth considering his idea of being “placed” in a certain position by a “commander.” In this case, this “commander” is no doubt the god at Delphi, whose insight about the nature of wisdom Socrates has spread throughout Athens. Indeed, Socrates believes that “there is no greater blessing for the city than [his] service to the god”—a service he renders by enlightening his fellow Athenians despite the fact that people like Meletus and Anytus want to execute him for doing so. Death, Socrates argues, is not something a person should think about when considering the most moral or virtuous way to act. As such, he does not apologize in court for his actions, thereby proving the strength of his moral integrity.
Not only does Socrates insist that the threat of death will not make him recant his ways, he also upholds that he will continue to enforce his values if the jury acquits him. He explains Anytus’s belief that, now that Socrates has been brought to court, the jury “cannot avoid executing” him. “For if I should be acquitted,” he says, “your sons would practice the teachings of Socrates and all be thoroughly corrupted.” This, it seems, is one of his accusers’ greatest fears: that he will “corrupt” the youth. However, Socrates believes so adamantly in the morality of his “teachings” that he refuses to give them up under any circumstances.
To illustrate this point, he says, “If you said to me in this regard: ‘Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy […] I would say to you: ‘Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy […].” This, Socrates insists, is because he believes his ideas benefit society, and though his detractors disagree, nothing—except, perhaps, a divine sign to the contrary—will stop him from rendering this service to the community.
Socrates’s commitment to improving society becomes all the more apparent when he suggests that he’s only defending himself to preserve the jury’s moral integrity. “I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours,” he says, “to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me.” Going on, he implies that Athenians need someone who will challenge them to improve like he himself has challenged them. Indeed, Socrates cares so strongly about the welfare of his fellow Athenians that he is willing to risk his own life and reputation in order to help them see their own flaws, and this is something very few people are prepared to do.
As such, Socrates sacrifices himself for the very people who now seek to punish him, seeing his trial not as an opportunity to save himself, but as an opportunity to teach the jury the value of moral integrity. This is why he calls no witnesses to testify on his behalf, nor does he break down in tears and apologize for his actions. In the name of teaching the jury important moral lessons, he says, “It is not difficult to avoid death, gentleman: it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness.” Indeed, this “wickedness” is what Socrates has tried so hard to help his community members avoid, a selfless effort that—above all—underlines the importance of contributing to society’s overall morality, even when this means standing in opposition to the community’s prevailing beliefs or practices.
Moral Integrity ThemeTracker
Moral Integrity Quotes in Apology
I do not know, men of Athens, how my accusers affected you; as for me, I was almost carried away in spite of myself, so persuasively did they speak. And yet, hardly anything of what they said is true. Of the many lies they told, one in particular surprised me, namely that you should be careful not to be deceived by an accomplished speaker like me. That they were not ashamed to be immediately proved wrong by the facts, when I show myself not to be an accomplished speaker at all, that I thought was most shameless on their part—unless indeed they call an accomplished speaker the man who speaks the truth. If they mean that, I would agree that I am an orator, but not after their manner, for indeed, as I say, practically nothing they said was true. From me you will hear the whole truth, though not, by Zeus, gentlemen, expressed in embroidered and stylized phrases like theirs, but things spoken at random and expressed in the first words that come to mind, for I put my trust in the justice of what I say, and let none of you expect anything else.
As a result of this investigation, men of Athens, I acquired much unpopularity, of a kind that is hard to deal with and is a heavy burden; many slanders came from these people and a reputation for wisdom, for in each case the bystanders thought that I myself possessed the wisdom that I proved that my interlocutor did not have. What is probable, gentlemen, is that in fact the god is wise and that his oracular response meant that human wisdom is worth little or nothing, and that when he says this man, Socrates, he is using my name as an example, as if he said: “This man among you, mortals, is wisest who, like Socrates, understands that his wisdom is worthless.” So even now I continue this investigation as the god bade me—and I go around seeking out anyone, citizen or stranger, whom I think wise. Then if I do not think he is, I come to the assistance of the god and show him that he is not wise.
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. And surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know. It is perhaps on this point and in this respect, gentlemen, that I differ from the majority of men, and if I were to claim that I am wiser than anyone in anything, it would be in this, that, as I have no adequate knowledge of things in the underworld, so I do not think I have. I do know, however, that it is wicked and shameful to do wrong, to disobey one’s superior, be he god or man. I shall never fear or avoid things of which I do not know, whether they may not be good rather than things that I know to be bad.
[…] if you said to me in this regard: “Socrates, we do not believe Anytus now; we acquit you, but only on condition that you spend no more time on this investigation and do not practice philosophy, and if you are caught doing so you will die”; if, as I say, you were to acquit me on those terms, I would say to you: “Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy […].”
Indeed, men of Athens, I am far from making a defense now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you by condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god—though it seems a ridiculous thing to say—as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. It is to fulfill some such function that I believe the god has placed me in the city. I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.
Quite apart from the question of reputation, gentlemen, I do not think it right to supplicate the jury and to be acquitted because of this, but to teach and persuade them. It is not the purpose of a juryman’s office to give justice as a favor to whoever seems good to him, but to judge according to law, and this he has sworn to do. We should not accustom you to perjure yourselves, nor should you make a habit of it. This is irreverent conduct for either of us.
I was convicted because I lacked not words but boldness and shamelessness and the willingness to say to you what you would most gladly have heard from me, lamentations and tears and my saying and doing many things that I say are unworthy of me but that you are accustomed to hear from others. I did not think then that the danger I ran should make me do anything mean, nor do I now regret the nature of my defense. I would much rather die after this kind of defense than live after making the other kind.
It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death. Slow and elderly as I am, I have been caught by the slower pursuer, whereas my accusers, being clever and sharp, have been caught by the quicker, wickedness. I leave you now, condemned to death by you, but they are condemned by truth to wickedness and injustice. So I maintain my assessment, and they maintain theirs.