The philosophy of ancient Greece reached its highest level of achievement in the works of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The influence of these men on the culture of the Western world can scarcely be overestimated. Each of them made significant contributions to philosophy, and it would be difficult to determine to which one of them we are most indebted. All three were original thinkers and great teachers. In point of time, Socrates was the one who appeared first. Plato became the most distinguished of his pupils, and Aristotle in turn received instruction from Plato. Both Plato and Aristotle were prolific writers, and what we know about them has been derived chiefly from their published works. In contrast to them, Socrates left no writings at all. Consequently, what information we have concerning him comes from the testimony of others who were associated with him and who were influenced both by the moral quality of his living and the significance of the ideas that he expounded.
On the basis of what has been reported concerning Socrates, we would judge that he made a profound impression upon a group of his followers who were closely associated with his life and teachings. The name of Socrates has been revered throughout the centuries and he has been regarded as one of the greatest teachers of all time. Plato, in one of his best known dialogs, refers to Socrates as a friend "whom I may truly call the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known." Although Socrates was never deified by the Greeks in the sense in which Jesus has been deified by Christians, it is interesting to note some of the striking similarities that have characterized both of their lives. For instance, both men were teachers of great distinction. Neither of them left any writings of his own. Both conducted their teaching activities by means of conversations with individuals. Both men were critical of the religious and political leaders of their time. Each of them proclaimed by precept and example a standard of moral conduct above that which prevailed among the recognized leaders of the society in which he lived. Both of them suffered a martyr's death. Finally, there is a sense in which each of them arose from the dead by virtue of the fact that his teachings and the causes that he served became more alive and powerful after his death than during the times when he was living.
Plato and Aristotle have been held in high esteem because of their intellectual achievements and the fact that their ideas have been preserved through the writings that they produced. Socrates has also been recognized as an intellectual genius, but in addition, his career in the city of Athens has come to be regarded by many persons as an outstanding example of the virtues that he advocated. His humility, intellectual honesty, devotion to the public good, and loyalty to what he believed was morally right exemplify his conception of what constitutes the good life. Because of the quality of his living, along with the abiding truth of what he taught, the story of his trial and death is something that will continue to stir the imagination of people and to win for him their admiration and respect.
With reference to the trial and death of Socrates, there are four dialogs that are especially relevant. They are the Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo. In the Euthyphro, an attempt is made to answer the question "What is piety?" It has a particular bearing on the trial of Socrates, for he had been accused of impiety and was about to be tried for a crime, the nature of which no one seemed to understand. The Apology contains an account of Socrates' defense of himself after he had been charged with being a corrupter of the youth and one who refuses to accept the popular beliefs concerning the gods of the city of Athens. It is generally regarded as the most authentic account on record of what Socrates actually said as he appeared before his judges. The Crito is an account of the conversation that takes place in the jail where Socrates is confined awaiting his execution. He is visited by Crito, an aged and trusted friend, who has come to the prison for the purpose of trying to persuade Socrates to avoid being put to death either by an escape from the prison where he is being held or by employing some other means. The dialog depicts Socrates as a man who has no fear of death and one who would rather die than commit an act that he believes to be morally wrong. The Phaedo is a narrative concerning the last hours in the life of Socrates. After an interval of years, the story is related to Echecrates by Phaedo, who was one of Socrates' beloved disciples. The narration takes place at Phlius, which is the home of Phaedo. The scene of the story is the prison where Socrates is held. Phaedo is one of a number of friends who have gathered for their last meeting with Socrates. Much of the discussion that takes place has to do with Socrates' attitude toward death, including his reasons for believing in the immortality of the soul.
Plato's dialogs have been translated into many different languages and have been published in a number of editions. One of the best known translations in English is the one made by Benjamin Jowett of Oxford University in England. It was first published during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Since that time, other translations have been made that are regarded as improvements in some respects over the one made by Jowett. So far as our study of the last days of Socrates is concerned, the changes that have been made in the more recent translations are of minor importance and for this reason our study of the four dialogs that are included in these notes will be based on the Jowett translation. The quotations that are used both in the summaries of the dialogs and the commentaries that follow are taken from this translation.