What Charges Were Leveled Against Socrates?

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The famous Athenian philosopher Socrates was charged with two specific crimes: impiety and corruption of the youth. These charges stemmed from controversial decisions Socrates made as member of the Boule, decisions that ultimately upset influential figures and likely outraged public sentiment as well.

Before his trial, Socrates was a member of the Boule, a council that chose the agenda items for the larger representative body, the Ekklesia. On one occasion, there was widespread support for the condemnation and execution of several generals, a consensus that Socrates felt duty-bound to oppose. As part of his defense for his actions, Socrates described gods who were all-knowing and all-witnessing, a different rendition of the gods than the one many Greeks held, which asserted that the gods were only partially aware of events and offered no precise moral imperative. Socrates also later roused anger when he contested electing officials solely by ballot rather than merit. This placed him at odds with Athen’s directly democratic government during that period.

Rather than defend himself during his trial, Socrates appears in Plato’s and Xenophon’s contemporaneous accounts to be one who was not only resigned to his fate but who was inclined to antagonize the prosecution and the observers in the gallery. Ultimately, Socrates accepted capital punishment and took the hemlock poison given to him in punishment, even though many Athenians expected him to run for his life and would not have barred his escape. Socrates’ acceptance of his punishment was the final demonstration of his subservience to the law and to the oath he took to protect it.