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.
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.
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).
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?"
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.
Analysis: Four men to appear in court to answer charges they distributed illegal performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of athletes
Feb 13, 2004; BOB EDWARDS Morning Edition (NPR) 02-13-2004 Analysis: Four men to appear in court to answer charges they distributed illegal...
Oil industry braces for rights abuses trial Shell to answer charges in connection with the death of Nigerian activist
May 23, 2009; Jad Mouawad The New York Times International Herald Tribune 05-23-2009 Oil industry braces for rights abuses trial Shell to...
Files show a history of violence ; Today, Amy Dugas of Waldoboro will answer charges unrelated to her husband's fatal stabbing.
Jun 08, 2004; DENNIS HOEY Staff Writer Portland Press Herald (Maine) 06-08-2004 Files show a history of violence ; Today, Amy Dugas of...
Maine Yankee incident acts as reminder ; A Boothbay Harbor hunter is set to answer charges in Wiscasset on Wednesday.
Dec 11, 2007; DENNIS HOEY Staff Writer -- Portland Press Herald (Maine) 12-11-2007 Maine Yankee incident acts as reminder ; A Boothbay Harbor...