Trial of Socrates
The trial of Socrates (399 BC) was held to determine the philosopher’s guilt of two charges: asebeia (impiety) against the pantheon of Athens, and corruption of the youth of the city-state; the accusers cited two impious acts by Socrates: "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities".
The death sentence of Socrates was the legal consequence of asking politico-philosophic questions of his students, which resulted in the two accusations of moral corruption and impiety. At trial, the majority of the dikasts (male-citizen jurors chosen by lot) voted to convict him of the two charges; then, consistent with common legal practice, voted to determine his punishment, and agreed to a sentence of death to be executed by Socrates’s drinking a poisonous beverage of hemlock.
Primary-source accounts of the trial and execution of Socrates are the Apology of Socrates by Plato and the Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens, who had been his student; contemporary interpretations include The Trial of Socrates (1988) by the journalist I. F. Stone, and Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009) by the Classics scholar Robin Waterfield.
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Before the philosopher Socrates was tried for moral corruption and impiety, the citizens of Athens knew him as an intellectual and moral gadfly of their society. In the comic play, The Clouds (423 BC), Aristophanes represents Socrates as a sophistic philosopher who teaches the young man Pheidippides how to formulate arguments that justify striking and beating his father. Despite Socrates denying he had any relation with the Sophists, the playwright indicates that Athenians associated the philosophic teachings of Socrates with Sophism. As philosophers, the Sophists were men of ambiguous reputation, "they were a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century BC, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines."
Besides The Clouds, the comic play The Wasps (422 BC) also depicts inter-generational conflict, between an older man and a young man. Such representations of inter-generational social conflict among the men of Athens, especially in the decade from 425 to 415 BC, can reflect contrasting positions regarding opposition to or support for the Athenian invasion of Sicily. Many Athenians blamed the teachings of the Sophists and of Socrates for instilling the younger generation with a morally nihilistic, disrespectful attitude towards their society.
Socrates left no written works, but his student and friend, Plato, wrote Socratic dialogues, featuring Socrates as the protagonist. As a teacher, competitor intellectuals resented Socrates's elenctic examination method for intellectual inquiry, because its questions threatened their credibility as men of wisdom and virtue.
One will sometimes find the claim that Socrates described himself as the "gadfly" of Athens which, like a sluggish horse, needed to be aroused by his "stinging". In the Greek text of his defense given by Plato, Socrates never actually uses that term (viz., "gadfly" [Grk., oîstros]) to describe himself. Rather, his reference is merely allusive, as he (literally) says only that he has attached himself to the City (proskeimenon tē polei) in order to sting it. Nevertheless, he does make the bold claim that he is a god's gift to the Athenians.
Association with Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants
Alcibiades, an Athenian general who had been the main proponent of the disastrous Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian Wars, where virtually the entire Athenian invading force of more than 50,000 soldiers and non-combatants (e.g., the rowers of the Triremes) was killed or captured and enslaved, was a student and close friend of Socrates, and his messmate during the siege of Potidaea (433–429 BC). Socrates remained Alcibiades' close friend, admirer, and mentor for about five or six years. While a masterful orator, Alcibiades has been described by at least two 20th century psychologists as exhibiting the classic features of psychopathy. During his career, Alcibiades famously defected to Sparta, Athens' arch-enemy, after being summoned to trial, then to Persia after being caught in an affair with the wife of his benefactor (the King of Sparta). He then defected back to Athens after successfully persuading the Athenians that Persia would come to their aid against Sparta (though Persia had no intention of doing so). Finally driven out of Athens after the defeat of the Battle of Notium against Sparta, Alcibiades was assassinated in Phrygia in 404 BC by his Spartan enemies.
Another possible source of resentment was the political views that he and his associates were thought to have embraced. Critias, who appears in two of Plato's Socratic dialogues, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the ruthless oligarchic regime that ruled Athens, as puppets of Sparta and backed by Spartan troops, for eight months in 404–403 BC until they were overthrown). Several of the Thirty had been students of Socrates, but there is also a record of their falling out.
As with many of the issues surrounding Socrates' conviction, the nature of his affiliation with the Thirty Tyrants is far from straightforward. During the reign of the Thirty, many prominent Athenians who were opposed to the new government left Athens. Robin Waterfield asserts that "Socrates would have been welcome in oligarchic Thebes, where he had close associates among the Pythagoreans who flourished there, and which had already taken in other exiles.":183 Given the availability of a hospitable host outside of Athens, Socrates, at least in a limited way, chose to remain in Athens. Thus, Waterfield suggests, Socrates’ contemporaries probably thought his remaining in Athens, even without participating in the Thirty’s bloodthirsty schemes, demonstrated his sympathy for the Thirty’s cause, not neutrality towards it. This is proved, Waterfield argues, by the fact that after the Thirty were no longer in power, anyone who had remained in Athens during their rule was encouraged to move to Eleusis, the new home of the expatriate Thirty. Socrates did oppose the will of the Thirty on one documented occasion. Plato’s Apology has the character of Socrates describe that the Thirty ordered him, along with four other men, to fetch a man named Leon from Salamis so that the Thirty could execute him. While Socrates did not obey this order, he did nothing to warn Leon, who was subsequently apprehended by the other four men.
Support of oligarchic rule and contempt for Athenian democracy
According to the portraits left by some of Socrates' followers, Socrates himself seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, the most prominent perhaps being the view that it is not majority opinion that yields correct policy but rather genuine knowledge and professional competence, which is possessed by only a few. Plato also portrays him as being severely critical of some of the most prominent and well-respected leaders of the Athenian democracy; and even has him claim that the officials selected by the Athenian system of governance cannot credibly be regarded as benefactors, since it is not any group of many that benefits, but only "someone or very few persons". Finally, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete. Plato himself reinforced anti-democratic ideas in The Republic, advocating rule by elite, enlightened "Philosopher-Kings".
The totalitarian Thirty Tyrants had anointed themselves as the elite, and in the minds of his Athenian accusers, Socrates was guilty because he was suspected of introducing oligarchic ideas to them. Larry Gonick, in his "Cartoon History of the Universe" writes, "The trial of Socrates has always seemed mysterious...the charges sound vague and unreal...because behind the stated charges was Socrates's real crime: preaching a philosophy that produced Alcibiades and Critias... but of course he couldn't be prosecuted for that under the amnesty (which had been declared after the overthrow of the Thirty Tyrants)... so his accusers made it "not believing the Gods of the city, introducing new gods, and corrupting the youth."
Apart from his views on politics, Socrates held unusual views on religion. He made several references to his spirit, or daimonion, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only warned him against various prospective actions.
Historical descriptions of the trial
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The extant, primary sources about the history of the trial and execution of Socrates are: the Apology of Socrates to the Jury, by Xenophon of Athens, a historian; and the tetralogy of Socratic dialogues — Euthyphro, the Socratic Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, by Plato, a philosopher who had been a student of Socrates.
In The Indictment of Socrates (392 BC), the sophist rhetorician Polycrates (440–370) presents the prosecution speech, by Anytus, which condemned Socrates for his political and religious activities in Athens before the year 403 BC. In presenting such a prosecution, which addressed matters external to the charges of moral corruption and impiety, for which the Athenian polis was trying Socrates, Anytus violated the political amnesty granted in the agreement of reconciliation (403–402 BC) that granted amnesty to a man for political and religious actions taken before or during the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, "under which all further charges and official recriminations concerning the [reign of] terror were forbidden".
Moreover, the legal and religious particulars against Socrates that Polycrates reported in The Indictment of Socrates are addressed in the replies by Xenophon and the sophist Libanius of Antioch (314–390).
Formal accusation was the second element of the trial of Socrates, which the accuser, Meletus, swore to be true, before the archon (a state officer with mostly religious duties) who considered the evidence and determined that there was an actionable case of "moral corruption of Athenian youth" and "impiety", for which the philosopher must legally answer; the archon summoned Socrates for a trial by jury.
Athenian juries were drawn by lottery, from a group of hundreds of male-citizen volunteers; such a great jury usually ensured a majority verdict in a trial. Although neither Plato nor Xenophon of Athens identifies the number of jurors, a jury of 501 men likely was the legal norm. In the Apology of Socrates (36a–b), about Socrates’s defense at trial, Plato said that if just 30 of the votes had been otherwise, then Socrates would have been acquitted (36a), and that (perhaps) less than three-fifths of the jury voted against him (36b). Assuming a jury of 501, this would imply that he was convicted by a majority of 280 against 221.
Having been found guilty of corruption and impiety, Socrates and the prosecutor suggested sentences for the punishment of his crimes against the city-state of Athens. Expressing surprise at the few votes required for an acquittal, Socrates joked that he be punished with free meals at the Prytaneum (the city’s sacred hearth), an honour usually held for a benefactor of Athens, and for the victorious athletes of an Olympiad. After that failed suggestion, Socrates then offered to pay a fine of 100 drachmae—one-fifth of his property—which largesse testified to his integrity and poverty as a philosopher. Finally, a fine of 3,000 drachmae was agreed, proposed by Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, who guaranteed payment—nonetheless, the prosecutor of the trial of Socrates proposed the death penalty for the impious philosopher. (Diogenes Laërtius, 2.42). In the end, the sentence of death was passed by a greater majority of the jury than that by which he had been convicted.
In the event, friends, followers, and students encouraged Socrates to flee Athens, action which the citizens expected; yet, on principle, Socrates refused to flout the law and escape his legal responsibility to Athens. (Crito) Therefore, faithful to his teaching of civic obedience to the law, the 70-year-old Socrates executed his death sentence and drank the hemlock, as condemned at trial. (See: Phaedo)
Interpretations of the trial of Socrates
In the time of the trial of Socrates, the year 399 BC, the city-state of Athens recently had perdured the trials and tribulations of Spartan hegemony and the thirteen-month régime of the Thirty Tyrants, imposed consequent to the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). At the request of the pro–Sparta Lysander, a Spartan admiral, the Thirty men, led by Critias and Theramenes, were installed to govern Athens, and to revise the city’s democratic laws, which were inscribed to a wall of the Stoa Basileios. Their political actions meant to facilitate the subordination of Athenian government—from democracy to oligarchy—in service to Sparta.
Moreover, the Thirty Tyrants also appointed a council of 500 men to perform the judicial functions that once had belonged to every Athenian citizen. In their brief régime, the Spartan oligarchs killed about five per cent of the Athenian population, confiscated much property, and exiled democrats from the city proper. The fact that Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, had been a pupil of Socrates was held against him, as a citizen of Athens.
Plato's presentation of the trial and death of Socrates inspired the writers, artists, and philosophers to revisit the matter. For some, the execution of the man whom Plato called "the wisest and most just of all men" demonstrated the defects of democracy and of popular rule, for others the Athenian actions were a justifiable defense of the recently re-established democracy.
In The Trial of Socrates (1988), I. F. Stone said that Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death, to justify his philosophic opposition to the Athenian democracy of that time, and because, as a man, he saw that old age would be an unpleasant time for him.
In the play Socrates on Trial (2007), Andrew Irvine said that for loyalty to Athenian democracy, Socrates willingly accepted the guilty-verdict voted by the jurors of his trial. "During a time of war, and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views, openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that, in a democracy, the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city—even during times of war—is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth."
In Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths (2009), Robin Waterfield said that the death of Socrates was an act of volition motivated by a greater purpose; Socrates "saw himself as healing the City’s ills by his voluntary death".:204 Waterfield said that Socrates, with his unconventional methods of intellectual enquiry, attempted to resolve the political confusion then occurring in the city-state of Athens, by willingly being the scapegoat, whose death would quiet old disputes, which then would allow progress towards political harmony and social peace for the Athenian polis.
In The New Trial of Socrates (2012), an international panel of ten judges held a mock re-trial of Socrates to resolve the matter of the charges leveled against him by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, that: "Socrates is a doer of evil and corrupter of the youth, and he does not believe in the gods of the state, and he believes in other new divinities of his own"; by split decision, five judges voted "guilty" and five judges voted "not guilty", which acquitted Socrates of corruption of the young and of impiety against the Athenian pantheon. Limiting themselves to the facts of the case against Socrates, the judges did not consider any sentence; the judges who voted the philosopher guilty said that they would not have considered the death penalty for Socrates.
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- Plato. Apology, 31a-b
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- The second point is tenable if Socrates’s claim (36a–b) entails that Meletus, Lycon, and Anytus each was responsible for one-third of the votes against Socrates, who implies that Meletus failed to persuade less than one-fifth of the judges. The jury of 500 or 501 men, based either on Diogenes Laërtius (2.41) or on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (68). See P. Rhodes, 1981, Commentary on the Aristotelian "Athenaion Politeia", p. 729.
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