Trial of Socrates

Trial of Socrates

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The Trial of Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

refers to the trial
Trial
A trial is, in the most general sense, a test, usually a test to see whether something does or does not meet a given standard.It may refer to:*Trial , the presentation of information in a formal setting, usually a court...

 and the subsequent execution of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety (in Greek, asebeia). More specifically, Socrates' accusers cited two "impious" acts: "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities." A majority of the 501 dikasts (Athenian citizens chosen by lot to serve as jurors) voted to convict him. Consistent with common practice, the dikasts determined Socrates’ punishment with another vote. Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock
Conium
Conium is a genus of two species of highly poisonous perennial herbaceous flowering plants in the family Apiaceae, native to Europe and the Mediterranean region as Conium maculatum, and to southern Africa as Conium chaerophylloides....

-based liquid. Primary sources for accounts of the trial are given by two of Socrates’ students, Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Xenophon
Xenophon
Xenophon , son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates...

; well known later interpretations include those of the journalist I.F. Stone and the classics scholar Robin Waterfield. The trial is one of the most famous of all time.

Background


Socrates was a well-known figure in Athens for many years prior to his trial. Aristophanes
Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

’ comedy Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portrays Socrates as a sophist. In the play, Socrates teaches young Pheidippides how to formulate arguments to justify beating his own father. Though Socrates denied any affiliation with the sophists, Clouds suggests that Athenians associated him with the sophistic movement. The sophists were a group of mixed reputation in Athens. G.B. Kerferd provides an example of one widespread modern view of the sophists: “…they were a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, 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.”

Clouds is not the only Aristophanes comedy which portrays conflict between an older man and his younger counterpart. Aristophanes’ comedy Wasps (422 BC) also contains disagreement between older men and younger men. This, as Robin Waterfield argues, represents the social conflict between two generations of men in Athens, especially in the decade from 425 to 415 BC. He also suggests that the divide between those in favor of the Athenian invasion of Sicily and those opposed was largely a generational divide. Socrates, along with the sophists, was blamed in part by a significant segment of the citizenry for instilling the younger generation with what the older generation perceived as a morally nihilistic, disrespectful attitude.

No works by Socrates himself survive, but his pupil Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 composed numerous 'Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue
Socratic dialogue is a genre of prose literary works developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC, preserved today in the dialogues of Plato and the Socratic works of Xenophon - either dramatic or narrative - in which characters discuss moral and philosophical problems, illustrating a...

s', with his teacher as the main character. Socrates's elenctic examination was resented by influential figures of his day, whose reputations for wisdom and virtue were debunked by his questions. Socrates himself famously calls attention to his fellow citizens' annoyance at his elenchos by describing himself as the "gadfly
Gadfly (social)
A gadfly is a person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant. The term has been used to describe many politicians and social commentators....

" of Athens. Socrates' elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens.

Another possible source of resentment were the political views that he and his followers were thought to have embraced. Critias
Critias
Critias , born in Athens, son of Callaeschrus, was an uncle of Plato, and a leading member of the Thirty Tyrants, and one of the most violent. He was an associate of Socrates, a fact that did not endear Socrates to the Athenian public. He was noted in his day for his tragedies, elegies and prose...

, who appears in two of Plato's Socratic dialogues, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants
Thirty Tyrants
The Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. Contemporary Athenians referred to them simply as "the oligarchy" or "the Thirty" ; the expression "Thirty Tyrants" is due to later historians...

 (the ruthless oligarchic
Oligarchy
Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with an elite class distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, commercial, and/or military legitimacy...

 regime that ruled Athens for eight months in 404-403 BC), 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.” 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 a few specific occasions. Plato’s Apology has the character of Socrates describe one such instance. He claims 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. Socrates simply did not answer this order, while the other four men did go to Salamis to get Leon.

Alcibiades
Alcibiades
Alcibiades, son of Clinias, from the deme of Scambonidae , was a prominent Athenian statesman, orator, and general. He was the last famous member of his mother's aristocratic family, the Alcmaeonidae, which fell from prominence after the Peloponnesian War...

, a controversial figure in Athens, was Socrates’ messmate during the siege of Potidaea (433-429 BC). Socrates remained Alcibiades’ close friend and mentor, and perhaps even his lover, for about five or six years. Known for his flamboyant and audacious behavior, Alcibiades had a volatile relationship with the city of Athens. During his career, Alcibiades famously defected to Sparta after being accused in the defamation of the Mysteries, regained his political prominence in Athens, and was eventually driven out of Athens yet again. Some contempt for Socrates may have stemmed from his relationship with Alcibiades.

Moreover, according to the portraits left by some of Socrates' followers, Socrates himself seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, 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 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 "some one person or very few". Finally, Socrates was known as often praising the laws of the undemocratic regimes of Sparta and Crete.

Apart from his views on politics, Socrates held unusual views on religion. He made several references to his personal spirit, or daimonion, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only warned him against various prospective events. Many of his contemporaries were suspicious of Socrates's daimonion as a rejection of the state religion. It is generally understood that Socrates's daimonion is akin to intuition. Moreover, Socrates claimed that the concept of goodness, instead of being determined by what the gods wanted, actually precedes the entire business of deities.

Historical Descriptions


The first Tetralogy
Tetralogy
A tetralogy is a compound work that is made up of four distinct works, just as a trilogy is made up of three works....

 of dialogues by Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

, Socrates' student, has the trial and execution of Socrates as central theme: Euthyphro
Euthyphro
Euthyphro is one of Plato's early dialogues, dated to after 399 BC. Taking place during the weeks leading up to Socrates' trial, the dialogue features Socrates and Euthyphro, a man known for claiming to be a religious expert. They attempt to pinpoint a definition for piety.-Background:The dialogue...

, Apology
Apology (Plato)
The Apology of Socrates is Plato's version of the speech given by Socrates as he unsuccessfully defended himself in 399 BC against the charges of "corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel"...

, Crito
Crito
Crito is a short but important dialogue by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It is a conversation between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito regarding justice , injustice , and the appropriate response to injustice. Socrates thinks that injustice may not be answered with injustice, and...

and Phaedo. Also Xenophon
Xenophon
Xenophon , son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates...

 wrote the Apology of Socrates to the jury
Apology (Xenophon)
Xenophon's Apology Xenophon's Apology Xenophon's Apology (in full Apology of Socrates to the jury describes Socrates' state of mind at his trial and execution, and especially his view that it was better to die before senility set in than to escape execution by humbling himself before an unjust...

.

An Athenian rhetoric expert, Polycrates, also wrote a pamphlet called the Prosecution of Socrates in 392 BC. Although the contents of the pamphlet itself do not survive, we do have written replies to it by Xenophon and Libanius of Antioch. The pamphlet was supposedly a record of the prosecution speech made by Anytus, one of Socrates’ formal accusers. Polycrates’ account has Anytus condemning Socrates for activity prior to 403 BC, which would be in violation of general amnesty granted by the reconciliation agreement of 403/402 BC. The reconciliation agreement of 403/402 BC certainly grants some form of amnesty for actions taken before or during the rule of the Thirty. However, the scope of the amnesty is unclear. Waterfield, among others, contends that the scope of the amnesty was quite limited, while many other scholars consider the amnesty comprehensive. For instance, Thomas R. Martin describes the amnesty as “general…under which all further charges and official recriminations concerning the [reign of] terror were forbidden.” If the amnesty included all activity before 403 BC, it seems that we cannot trust Polycrates’ account. If the amnesty was actually more restricted, Polycrates’ account (or what we can glean from other sources discussing it) seems to be a more credible source.

Proceedings


The second element of the trial was a formal accusation, which the accuser Meletus
Meletus
The Apology of Socrates by Plato names Meletus as the chief accuser of Socrates. He is also mentioned in the Euthyphro. Given his awkwardness as an orator, and his likely age at the time of Socrates' death, many hold that he was not the real leader of the movement against the early philosopher,...

 swore before the Archon
Archon
Archon is a Greek word that means "ruler" or "lord", frequently used as the title of a specific public office. It is the masculine present participle of the verb stem ἀρχ-, meaning "to rule", derived from the same root as monarch, hierarchy, and anarchy.- Ancient Greece :In ancient Greece the...

, a state office-holder with primarily religious duties. Having decided that there was a case to answer, the Archon summoned Socrates to appear before a jury of Athenian citizens, to answer charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety
Impiety
Impiety is classically a lack of proper concern for the obligations owed to public religious observation or cult. Impiety was a main Pagan objection to Christianity, for unlike other initiates into mystery religions, early Christians refused to cast a pinch of incense before the images of the gods,...

.

Athenian juries were drawn by lottery from a group of male citizen volunteers. Unlike trials in many modern societies, majority verdicts were the rule rather than the exception. (For a satirical account of juries and the sort of people found on them, read Aristophanes
Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

' comedy The Wasps
The Wasps
The Wasps is the fourth in chronological order of the eleven surviving plays by Aristophanes, the master of an ancient genre of drama called 'Old Comedy'. It was produced at the Lenaia festival in 422 BC, a time when Athens was enjoying a brief respite from The Peloponnesian War following a one...

.)

Neither Plato nor Xenophon mentions the number of Socrates' judges, though Plato's Apology 35a-b does suggest some definite boundaries: that if just thirty of the votes had been otherwise then he would have been acquitted (35a), and that (perhaps) less than three fifths voted against him (35b).

After the vote on Socrates' guilt, Socrates and his prosecutor suggested alternative sentences. Socrates, after expressing his surprise of the little amount he needed to be have been found innocent, jokingly suggested free meals at the Prytaneum
Prytaneum
Prytaneum and Prytanis . In general in ancient Greece, each state, city or village possessed its own central hearth and sacred fire, representing the unity and vitality of the community. The fire was kept alight continuously, tended by the king or members of his family...

, a particular honor held for city benefactors and winners at the Olympic Games, then offered to pay a fine of 100 drachmae, which was a fifth of his property and a testament to Socrates' poverty. Finally he settled on the sum of 3000 drachmae, put forward by Plato, Crito
Crito of Alopece
Crito of Alopece was a faithful, probably lifelong companion of Socrates. The two had evidently grown up together as friends, being from the same deme and of roughly the same age...

, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, who guaranteed the payment. His prosecutor proposed the death penalty.

The jury voted for death as the penalty - the larger majority showing (Diogenes Laertius 2.42). Perhaps Socrates had lost support by his slighting and unapologetic tone.

Socrates's followers encouraged him to flee (see: Crito
Crito
Crito is a short but important dialogue by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It is a conversation between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito regarding justice , injustice , and the appropriate response to injustice. Socrates thinks that injustice may not be answered with injustice, and...

), and citizens expected him to do so and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock provided to him. Socrates died at the age of 70. (See: Phaedo
Phaedo
Plato's Phaedo is one of the great dialogues of his middle period, along with the Republic and the Symposium. The Phaedo, which depicts the death of Socrates, is also Plato's seventh and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days .In the dialogue, Socrates...

).

Most scholars see the conviction and execution of Socrates as a deliberate choice made by the famous philosopher himself. If the accounts of Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 and Xenophon
Xenophon
Xenophon , son of Gryllus, of the deme Erchia of Athens, also known as Xenophon of Athens, was a Greek historian, soldier, mercenary, philosopher and a contemporary and admirer of Socrates...

 are reasonably accurate, Socrates sought not to persuade jurors, but rather to lecture and provoke them.

The trial and execution of Socrates produced the first martyr for free speech. As I. F. Stone
I. F. Stone
Isidor Feinstein Stone was an iconoclastic American investigative journalist. He is best remembered for his self-published newsletter, I. F...

 observed, just as Jesus
Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

 needed the cross to fulfill his mission, Socrates needed his hemlock to fulfill his.

Ancient interpretations


Athens had just come through a difficult period, where a Sparta
Sparta
Sparta or Lacedaemon, was a prominent city-state in ancient Greece, situated on the banks of the River Eurotas in Laconia, in south-eastern Peloponnese. It emerged as a political entity around the 10th century BC, when the invading Dorians subjugated the local, non-Dorian population. From c...

n-supported group, called the Thirty Tyrants
Thirty Tyrants
The Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC. Contemporary Athenians referred to them simply as "the oligarchy" or "the Thirty" ; the expression "Thirty Tyrants" is due to later historians...

 had overturned the city's participatory democracy and sought to impose oligarchic rule. The fact that Critias, the leader of the Tyrants, was one of Socrates's pupils was not seen as a coincidence.

His friends tried to make excuses, but the view of the Athenians was probably that expressed by the orator Aeschines
Aeschines
Aeschines was a Greek statesman and one of the ten Attic orators.-Life:Although it is known he was born in Athens, the records regarding his parentage and early life are conflicting; but it seems probable that his parents, though poor, were respectable. Aeschines' father was Atrometus, an...

 some years later, when, in a prosecution speech, he wrote: "Did you not put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who overthrew the democracy?"

Modern interpretations


The death of Socrates, as presented by Plato, has inspired writers, artists and philosophers in the modern world, in a variety of ways.

For some, the execution of the man Plato called 'the wisest and most just of all men' has shown the unreliability or undesirability of democratic rule. For others, the Athenians' action was a justifiable defense of their recently re-established democracy.

I. F. Stone
I. F. Stone
Isidor Feinstein Stone was an iconoclastic American investigative journalist. He is best remembered for his self-published newsletter, I. F...

, an American journalist, wrote a book entitled "Trial of Socrates" after his retirement, arguing that Socrates wanted to be sentenced to death in order to justify his opposition to the Athenian democracy, and that Socrates felt that old age would be unpleasant anyway.

Waterfield, too, argues that Socrates’ death was a voluntary action motivated by a greater purpose. In Waterfield’s version, Socrates “saw himself as healing the city’s ills by his voluntary death.” He argues that Socrates, with his unconventional methods, attempted to resolve the political confusion in Athens. Therefore, he was willing to serve as a “scapegoat,” so that Athens could set aside old disputes and move forward in a new, more harmonious direction.

See also

  • Euthyphro
    Euthyphro
    Euthyphro is one of Plato's early dialogues, dated to after 399 BC. Taking place during the weeks leading up to Socrates' trial, the dialogue features Socrates and Euthyphro, a man known for claiming to be a religious expert. They attempt to pinpoint a definition for piety.-Background:The dialogue...

  • Crito
    Crito
    Crito is a short but important dialogue by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. It is a conversation between Socrates and his wealthy friend Crito regarding justice , injustice , and the appropriate response to injustice. Socrates thinks that injustice may not be answered with injustice, and...

  • Meno
    Meno
    Meno is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. It attempts to determine the definition of virtue, or arete, meaning virtue in general, rather than particular virtues, such as justice or temperance. The first part of the work is written in the Socratic dialectical style and Meno is reduced to...

  • Apology (Plato)
    Apology (Plato)
    The Apology of Socrates is Plato's version of the speech given by Socrates as he unsuccessfully defended himself in 399 BC against the charges of "corrupting the young, and by not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in other daimonia that are novel"...

  • Apology (Xenophon)
    Apology (Xenophon)
    Xenophon's Apology Xenophon's Apology Xenophon's Apology (in full Apology of Socrates to the jury describes Socrates' state of mind at his trial and execution, and especially his view that it was better to die before senility set in than to escape execution by humbling himself before an unjust...

  • Phaedo
    Phaedo
    Plato's Phaedo is one of the great dialogues of his middle period, along with the Republic and the Symposium. The Phaedo, which depicts the death of Socrates, is also Plato's seventh and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days .In the dialogue, Socrates...


External links

  • University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Law, The Trial of Socrates
  • Socrates This page includes photographs of archaeological remains, including containers which may have held the hemlock that Socrates drank.