Trial of Socrates  

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persecution of philosophers

The trial of Socrates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of the Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried and convicted by the courts of democratic Athens on a charge of corrupting the youth and disbelieving in the ancestral gods.

The trial was described by two of Socrates' contemporaries, and is one of the most famous trials of ancient times.


Background to the trial

Socrates had been a well-known figure in Athens for some years by the time of his trial. Aristophanes's comedy Clouds (Nephelai), produced in 420 BC, has Socrates as a main character, portraying him as a pompous, bombastic con artist.

No works by Socrates himself survive, but his pupil Plato recorded numerous 'Socratic dialogues', 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. The annoying nature of elenchos earned Socrates the epithet "gadfly of Athens." Elenctic method was often imitated by the young men of Athens, which greatly upset the established moral values and order. Indeed, even though Socrates himself fought for Athens and argued for obedience to law, at the same time he criticised democracy, especially, the Athenian practice of election by lot, ridiculing that in no other craft, the craftsman would be elected in such a fashion. Such a criticism gave rise to suspicion by the democrats, especially when his close associates were found to be enemies of democracy. Alcibiades betrayed Athens in favour of Sparta (although this was likely more a matter of necessity than a matter of ideology), and Critias, his sometime disciple, was a leader of the Thirty Tyrants (the pro-Spartan oligarchy that ruled Athens for a few years after its defeat during the Peloponnesian War), though there is also a record of their falling out.

In addition, 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 it.

Socrates's trial described by his contemporaries

The first Tetralogy of dialogues by Plato, Socrates' student has the trial and execution of Socrates as central theme: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo. Also Xenophon wrote an Apology of Socrates.

The process of the trial

The first element of the trial was a formal accusation, which the accuser Meletus swore before the King Archon, a state office-holder with primarily religious duties. Having decided that there was a case to answer, the King Archon summoned Socrates to appear before a jury of Athenian citizens, to answer charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and disbelieving in the ancestral gods.

Athenian juries were drawn by lottery from a group of all male citizen volunteers (citizenship was not open to women, slaves or resident aliens), but from every social class. 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' comedy The Wasps.)

Socrates faced a jury of 501 citizens - the large size of the jury showing that the trial was seen as important - and after he and his accuser had made speeches, the jury voted to convict him by 280 to 221, a majority of sixty.

Next, Socrates and his prosecutor suggested alternative sentences. Socrates, after expressing his surprise of the little amount he needed to be found guilty, jokingly suggested free meals at the Prytaneum, 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 testiment to Socrates' poverty. Finally he settled on the sum of 3000 drachmae, put forward by Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, who guaranteed the payment. His prosecutor proposed the death penalty.

The jury voted for death as the penalty - the larger majority (360 to 140) showing, Plato said, that Socrates had lost support by his slighting and unapologetic tone.

Socrates's followers encouraged him to flee (see: Crito), and citizens expected this and were probably not averse to it; but he refused on principle and took the poison (hemlock) himself. Apparently in accordance with his philosophy of obedience to law, he carried out his own execution, by drinking the hemlock poison provided to him. He was, thus, one of the first of a limited number of strictly intellectual "martyrs". Socrates died at the age of 70. (See: Phaedo).

Interpretations of the trial in the ancient world

The Athenians of the time did not give Socrates's trial the iconic status it enjoys today. Athens had just come through a difficult period, where a Spartan-supported group, called the Thirty Tyrants had overturned the city's participatory democracy and sought to impose oligarchic rule. That Kritias, 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 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?"

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, notably I.F. Stone in his book The Trial of Socrates, the Athenians' action was a justifiable defense of their recently re-established democracy. In general, Socrates is seen as a wise and benevolent father figure, martyred for his intellectual beliefs. That is exactly how Plato and Xenophon portrayed him, it is hardly surprising - but the myth of Socrates and his execution has taken on a distinct existence, apart from the historical man, whose true views and politics we are never likely to know.

See also

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