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Socrates’ Trial: A Lesson in Facing Criticism

At the septuagenarian stage, Socrates encountered a tempestuous ordeal: three Athenians—the poet Meletus, the statesman Anytus, and the orator Leon—conspired to depict him as a grotesque malefactor. They leveled accusations against him, alleging his disrespect towards the deities of the city, his subversion of the social fabric of Athens, and his incitement of the younger generation to rebel against their paternal figures. They deemed it imperative to permanently silence or even eliminate him.

On the day of Socrates’ trial, a jury comprising five hundred citizens convened. The public prosecutor sought to portray the philosopher as a man of deceit from the outset—an individual who delved into profound inquiries, propagated heretical ideas, and skillfully employed eloquent words to empower the feeble and undermine the mighty. They asserted that he deliberately corrupted the youth through his discourse, intending to exert a pernicious influence upon them.

Socrates mounted a defense against these charges. Addressing the judge with unwavering ardor, he proclaimed, “I endeavor to persuade each of you to divert your attention from practical interests and contemplate spiritual and moral well-being instead. You are Athenians, hailing from the preeminent city-state renowned for its wisdom and fortitude. However, you are so preoccupied with the pursuit of fame and fortune that you neglect to contemplate the pursuit of truth and the refinement of your own souls. Do you not feel a profound sense of shame?”

Subsequently, the five hundred jurors assumed their responsibility to render a verdict. Following a brief deliberation, two hundred and twenty declared Socrates innocent, while two hundred and eighty found him guilty. Undeterred, Socrates did not waver in his faith, nor did he exhibit hesitation or panic. He tenaciously clung to his philosophical undertaking, despite a majority of fifty-six percent of his audience deeming it absurd.

If we fail to attain such equanimity, if we cannot suppress tears upon encountering harsh criticism of our character or performance, it may stem from our belief that validation from others constitutes the primary measure of our rectitude. We place great importance on being esteemed by the world, not solely for practical reasons such as survival or advancement, but because the world’s derision appears to be an unequivocal indication that we have strayed from the right path.

Our concern should not lie in the number of individuals who oppose us, but rather in the strength of their rationales for their dissent. Thus, our focus should shift from yearning for the world’s adoration to elucidating its reasons for dissent. Before relinquishing our position, let us scrutinize the methodologies they employed to reach their conclusions. We should assign weight to their objections commensurate with the cogency of their arguments.

Yet, we seem to succumb to an opposing inclination: we lend an ear to everyone, and even the slightest unflattering or sarcastic remark is sufficient to perturb us. Frequently, we neglect to ponder one of the crucial and reassuring questions: What underlies these grave accusations? We often conflate thoughtful and sincere critics with cynical and envious detractors.

We should pause to examine the flip side of criticism. Our adversaries may hastily arrive at conclusions based on caprice, impulse, or prejudice, and subsequently exploit their position to extol their fleeting intuition.

Genuine dignity emanates not from the will of the majority, but from sound reasoning. The worth of criticism is contingent upon the thought processes of the critics, rather than their quantity or social standing.

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