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Trial of Socrates

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 (Plato and Xenophon), and is one of the most famous trials of ancient times.

Background to the trial

Socrates had been an ill-reputed figure in Athens for some years by the time of his trial. Aristophanes' comedy Clouds (Nephelai), produced in 420 BC, has Socrates as a main character, portraying him as a pompous, bombastic con artist or sophist. As Clouds demonstrates, Socrates was active in the midst of the sophistic movement in Athens. The Sophists were a group of intellectuals and teachers attracted to Athens through the patronage of Pericles and other wealthy citizens. They were popular among a select group, primarily political elites, but also widely distrusted for making the worse argument seem the better, for inquiring into matters under the earth and in the heavens, and for doubting the existence of the gods and teaching the young to do so as well. For Aristophanes and others, Socrates was himself a sophist, and his trial is coloured by popular resentment against the group, as well as by the general mood of pessimism and superstition following Athens' devastating loss in the Peloponnesian war.

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. Socrates himself famously calls attention to his fellow citizens' annoyance at his elenchos by describing himself as the "gadfly" 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, Socrates' 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. During the recent Peloponnesian War Alcibiades, who had been a prominent follower of Socrates' in his youth, betrayed Athens by joining the Spartan side. Moreover, according to the portraits left to us by some of Socrates' followers, Socrates himself seems to have openly espoused certain anti-democratic views, mostly 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; Plato 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.

Socrates' 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 the Apology of Socrates to the jury.

The process of the trial

The first element of the trial was a formal accusation, which the accuser Meletus swore before the Archon, 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.

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' comedy The Wasps.)

Neither Plato nor Xenophon mention 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 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 testament 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 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), 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 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. 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 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?"

Interpretations of the trial in the modern world

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.

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.

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