By: Parker Rowen
I recently read 5 dialogues from the Greek philosopher Plato. The dialogues of “Euthyphro”, “Apology”, “Crito”, “Meno”, and “Phaedo”, are some of his writings where he recites the teachings of Socrates’ through a series of conversations between Socrates and various other Athenian residents, in which Socrates establishes a very clear, and critical pattern of thinking.
During your time in school you may have heard of, and participated in, a “Socratic Seminar” during which you were asked a question that you and the other students were directed to discuss and dissect what the question was asking, and what it meant. Socrates was the one to invent (or at least popularize) this style of thinking, hence the name “Socratic”.
This type of question and answer based discussion has become essential in our courts. If you have ever watched a show, or movie about lawyers or court cases, you have probably heard of the term “cross examination”, which is when the person on the stand is asked questions by a prosecutor in an attempt to pick apart their story and dismiss or disprove it. Socrates is the foundation for this.
This leads into Socrates’ influence on the courts, and debates in general with the concept of “burden of proof”, which in law means that the accuser (in criminal cases the prosecutor, and in civil the plaintiff) must lay objective truths both parties agree upon, by providing evidence to establish such.
Socrates’ style of questioning and discussing has had a major impact on our courts, changing the way we argue and discuss evidence in a trial. Before Socrates, as you can see in “Apology”, there was not much room for disputing evidence. Before Socrates, one would approach the courts as an accuser, displaying their accusations to a jury. Then, the defendant would approach the court, and the same jury with their reasons as to why they are innocent.
Before Socrates, many did not have proper debate skills, and so couldn’t prove they were or weren’t being wrongfully accused, and often pleaded using their family or health as a means of defense.
Socrates’ showed the people a better way to argue, and that the better defense is to break down what they are truly saying and dispute it with evidence through question and answer based responses. During Socrates’ trial, early in “Apology”, it was made very clear that Socrates was not a popular resident of Athens, one might even call him somewhat of an outcast, but despite this he was able to get 140 of the 500 present in the jury, along with 5 out of the 10 judges, to vote against giving him the death penalty, by breaking down his accusers accusations of “corrupting the youth”, and proving that it was a falsehood.
Although it didn’t work out for Socrates, his teachings have helped shape our court systems, and many of these teachings have been used to help prove the innocence and guilt of so many. Through Socrates’ teachings, Plato was able to help establish a foundation for our justice system.
Recommended reading: Five Dialogs Second Edition (Hacket, 2002)