The Trial of Socrates

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“If you kill me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me”: these were the words of Socrates, speaking in his own defence at his trial. Socrates had referred to himself as a “social gadfly…arousing a sluggish horse” (the horse being Athens) whose role was to “sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth”: with his pointed questions on the effectiveness of the democracy, he aimed to serve the development of Athens. For this scepticism about democracy and proposition of controversial politico-philosophical ideas, he was charged with moral corruption and impiety.

The jury for his trial in 399 B.C. was composed of 501 men, the odd number ensuring there would never be a split vote. Such a large number was typical in Athenian democracy, since it was believed this was necessary for the jury to be truly representative of the people of Athens. 280 of the jurors found Socrates guilty.

As was custom, after the guilty verdict, his punishment was determined by vote. Socrates suggested that he pay 100 drachmae (1/5 of his entire modest wealth), but the prosecutor instead proposed the death penalty, which was passed with a greater majority than the conviction itself. It was expected that Socrates would flee the city after this, and he was encouraged to do so by his friends and followers. However, Socrates refused to defy the law and remained in Athens, choosing to adhere to his legal obligation and drink the hemlock.

Socrates may have been acting out of a fundamental loyalty to Athens, a loyalty which drove him to not accept the flawed status quo, but to criticise the ineffective form of government, even if this meant his death. In his role as the “social gadfly”, he felt compelled to express his views on how to improve the city by illuminating democracy’s flaws for the citizens. After he was convicted, he still felt obliged to adhere to his legal responsibility and accept the punishment of execution. Perhaps this might even be called political martyrdom, a willingness to sacrifice himself to expose the faults of the system he opposed.

Throughout various accounts, and especially in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates is portrayed as being transcendent, beyond the mortal and material realm. He seems to be immune to material desire: he was contemptuous of wealth; had an unmatched control over himself; and was able to withstand cold, hunger, sexual temptation, and even the physical effects of alcohol. Plato himself declared: “He surpassed not me only but everyone else in bearing hardships.” His description becomes almost indistinguishable from the Platonic Form of the Good, embodying the highest ideals of virtue and justice. And yet, Socrates was convicted for moral impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens: the irony is clear.

Perhaps the purpose of this sharp contrast portrayed by Plato and Xenophon—both supporters of Socrates—was to reveal the deeply-flawed system of democracy adopted by Athens. Plato calls Socrates “the wisest and most just of all men”: if such a man has been tried and convicted for crimes against the state, then any system that convicted him must be flawed. Since the justice system was run by the people, the people are therefore shown to be unsuitable to govern and make decisions, undermining the very foundations of democracy.

Nonetheless, there were factors beyond his principled anti-democratic expression which may have contributed to his conviction. The specific charges levied by the accusers were “not believing the gods of the city, introducing new gods, and corrupting the youth”.

One reason for Socrates’s image as corrupt and impious, in the eyes of many Athenians, was his relationship with Alcibiades, a prominent statesman and general. Socrates’s trial took place in 399 B.C., with the humiliation of the Second Peloponnesian War (which ended in 404 B.C.) still fresh in the memory: Athens had faced a devastating defeat against the Spartans, with almost their entire invading force of 50,000 either killed or captured and enslaved. Alcibiades was widely considered impious and immoral on account of his disloyalty to Athens (he had defected to Sparta, then Persia, then back to Athens). In addition, his high birth and career in politics and the military meant he remained the embodiment of the Athenian aristocracy, who were considered impediments to the prosperity of Athenian democracy and incompatible with its values. Socrates was a close friend and mentor to Alcibiades, and this relationship encouraged the view that Socrates, too, was a threat to democracy in Athens. This opposition to democracy was not only by extension opposition to the people, but it was an opposition to the higher ideals of Athens itself, and so many Athenians believed Socrates and his ideas could not be tolerated.

The Peloponnesian War was as much a war of ideology as a war of states. The political systems of Athens, in extreme democracy, and Sparta, in extreme oligarchy, were diametrically opposed, and the remaining city-states were dragged to either side of these political extremes. Athens had gone to war to defend its democratic principles, and so opposition to democracy was therefore opposition to Athens, and in a time of war, opposition to Athens was considered treacherous and immoral.

Socrates could also be tied to the Thirty Tyrants (a pro-Spartan oligarchy that had briefly been installed by Lysander, a Spartan commander, after the defeat of Athens in 404 B.C.). The Thirty Tyrants had become known for their cruel methods of suppression and rule, confiscating property, reducing rights, exiling supporters of democracy, and killing 5% of the entire Athenian population (1,500 without trial) over their year-long reign. Critias, one of the foremost leaders of this tyranny, infamous for his brutality, was a former student of Socrates. A speech by the orator Aeschines 54 years after the trial in 345 B.C. shows the full damning effect of this association where he recalls the cause of the charge: ‘you executed Socrates, the sophist, because he was clearly responsible for the education of Critias’. This reference swayed the jury, showing that it was still considered reasonable grounds for conviction even half a century later.

Furthermore, the Tyrants sought to remove all who openly opposed them and supported democracy, especially outspoken public figures. Therefore, the fact that Socrates remained in the city during this time caused an association between him and the regime, whether or not such a relationship really existed. Given that Socrates refused their commands to bring them a certain citizen for execution, risking his own life, and being spared only by the subsequent disbanding of the regime, it is unlikely that he did support the regime, though he was a known critic of democracy. Moreover, Xenophon asserted that the relationship between Critias and Socrates had deteriorated whilst Critias had climbed to power. Nonetheless, this was not the perspective of the majority of the Athenians, and Socrates therefore became a scapegoat for the instability and suppression of democracy that had occurred at that time.

The full details of the trial of Socrates remain elusive. The most substantial accounts are written by his supporters, Plato and Xenophon, and are clearly designed as apologia promoting the righteousness of Socrates as merely a victim of a problematic democratic state. It is difficult to decipher the truth of the conviction, and questions remain regarding why Socrates was first charged so late in his life (he was approximately 71 in 399 B.C.) and why Socrates did not request exile instead of execution (many scholars agree that this would very likely have been granted, had he asked).

To this day, the striking nature of this trial against free expression, in a city-state which purported to hold free speech as a fundamental ideal of their democracy, continues to draw interest, especially given contemporary tensions over censorship, control of the media, and freedom of expression.

Plato., Plato in Twelve Volumes.

Xenophon., Xenophontis opera omnia