What leads a convalescent city, in need of heroes and role models, to execute its wisest and most famous citizen? And why would that citizen participate willingly and hasten his own demise?

Athens was a city in decline. Its hegemony had been eclipsed by that of Sparta, and its spirit was flagging. It had suffered a terrible defeat at Aegospotami by the Lacedaemonians, and its democratic ideals had been severely circumscribed by thirty tyrants who controlled the city for almost a year. Many of Athens’ heroes had been disgraced, perhaps most notably Alcibiades.1 Athenian supremacy was no longer certain, and the traditional ideals were everywhere being challenged. Sacrifices were necessary to regain the graces of the gods.

At the beginning of the fourth century B.C.E., Socrates was charged with impiety and corruption of the youth. Socrates was an ugly,2 stubborn sage who walked without shoes, fought bravely in battle and taught students in the marketplace. He was offensive in nearly every aspect. He was, by his own admission, unpopular among the major public figures of the time,3 principally because he adopted the practice of demonstrating publicly that the reputedly wise knew far less than they claimed. He embarrassed politicians, craftsmen and poets, and degraded Athens’ most prominent citizens. Socrates was a novelty, an entirely new type of common man who defied the vestiges of nobility among the aristocracy.4 Socrates was an archetype of the new Athenian, a convenient symbol of the ascendancy of reason over charm and force. Indeed, Aristophanes’ famous lampoon of Socrates had little of the actual man in it—with the exception, perhaps, of his unsightliness—but used him as a symbol of the philosopher, ascribing to him (remarkably reasonable) naturalistic philosophies and suggesting he collected fees for his teaching.5 But why would a citizen of Athens unknown to Socrates bring a public suit against him, seeking his death as punishment, and how could a jury of over 500 citizens decide to impose such a penalty?

In answering this question, we are faced with a problem: most of our primary evidence of the trial comes from two students of Socrates, Plato and Xenophon; the former was the nephew of Critias, the head of the Thirty, and the latter fought against Athens. Xenophon’s account of the trial aftermath is a report of someone else’s report; the record before us is hearsay composed of hearsay, and the principal authors had an interest in the dispute. We cannot put to test the testimonial capacities of the witnesses, we cannot question their memory of the events, we cannot effectively challenge their sincerity or honesty. And indeed, Socrates faced similar problems at his trial. He had been regularly “accused” in the public sphere for many years before charges were brought against him. Aristophanes’ play Clouds was produced almost twenty-five years before the trial. As Socrates says of his old public accusers in Plato’s account of the trial, “one cannot bring one of them into court or refute him; one must simply fight with shadows, as it were, in making one’s defence [sic], and cross-examine when no one answers.”6 If Plato may be given credence, Socrates simply denied the truth of these public slanders, and explained how his reputation might have arisen. Socrates suggests that the very people who have been embarrassed by his questioning sling out of bitterness insults that are available against all philosophers.

Socrates was able to cross-examine his new accuser Meletus, but he did not test his capacities as a witness. Socrates had been charged with impiety and corruption of the youth, and his examination of Meletus suggested merely that he did not understand the charges.7 Meletus was never questioned about his recollection of particular events, or about his sincerity in recounting them. His honesty was impugned, but not for telling lies about the facts; Socrates claimed that Meletus brought the charges either to test the jury or because he couldn’t come up with any true wrongdoing with which to accuse Socrates. Socrates did point out that Meletus failed to bring witnesses to attest to any harmful teachings, but whatever evidence was introduced against Socrates seems to have gone largely untested.

Unfortunately, we have little indication of what evidence might have been presented. Still, we might surmise what could have persuaded a jury of Athenian citizens to convict Socrates. Voltaire suggests that Socrates’ death was orchestrated by a couple of scheming public officials who feared that Socrates could expose their corruption;8 this idea is not without support in Plato’s account. But this explanation of the prosecution is insufficient, as it fails to suggest why the jury would uphold such charges. The contention must be either that many in the jury were themselves fearful of Socrates, or that there was evidence that charges had some legal merit to them.9 Most likely, members of the jury perceived Socrates as a real danger, or perhaps as a symptom of worrisome cultural change. Few could ignore that two of Socrates’ students (Critias and Charmides) were among the chief oligarchs placed in power by the Spartans, or the defection of Socrates’ favorite Alcibiades, or Xenophon’s opposition to Athens during the war. But even more than this, Socrates may have been seen as a repudiation of Athenian honor and tradition.10 Through his dialectic, Socrates challenged Athenian beliefs about the gods,11 about the very nature of piety and honor, and left them with no counter-argument except to silence him. Socrates posed a danger to tradition; conveniently, he was also a very public exemplar of the dialectician, and made for a fitting sacrifice to the gods, to Athenian tradition. As to the actual charges: it is an easy equivocation between viewing Socratic dialectic as a danger to spiritual traditions and believing that Socrates was himself impious, whatever that might have meant. Moreover, Socrates himself admitted that he influenced the youth to follow his example;12 if his example is anathema, there is little question of his corruption of the youth.

What defense could Socrates possibly mount in the face of such charges? Surprisingly, he didn’t directly challenge either charge. He admitted that he experienced a divine sign, essentially affirming the charge that he introduced new gods. His only real defense to the charge of corrupting the youth was the claim that he himself would suffer if he made his neighbors worse, and so would never intentionally do so. He never refuted the claim that his conduct was corrupting, except to point to a lack of evidence. Even worse, he repeatedly reminded the jury that few people would complain if he were eliminated.13 If the jury wanted to render an acceptable verdict, it could hardly go wrong by convicting him. But he did give two reasons supporting acquittal. First, he argued that his accusers brought the charges in bad faith. Second, he offered an alternative narrative—rather than being a symptom of Athens’ decline, he put himself forward as a cure. He argued that his challenge to tradition was good and healthy for the city. He said, “Indeed, gentlemen, I am far from making a defence [sic] now on my own behalf, as might be thought, but on yours, to prevent you from wrongdoing by mistreating the god’s gift to you in condemning me; for if you kill me you will not easily find another like me.”14 He compared his role in questioning the citizens to a gadfly that stirs a sluggish horse to action. He spurred his interlocutors to recognize their faults and to exercise some humility with respect to them. This, he argued, would make them better citizens. Thus, he put before the jury the question of whether they recognized the service he performed for the city’s benefit.

In a sense, the trial had been going on for decades, and Athens finally had occasion to render a decision. The question put before the jury was whether Athens wanted to encourage this new mode of examined life, or to cling to the old ways. The dikastic courts were not well suited to weigh arguments—no time was allotted for deliberation—but it could render the judgment of the Athenian people. They voted for death. Plato later doubted the wisdom of putting such a question to the jury: “[H]e may be the physician who is tried by a jury of children. He cannot say that he has procured the citizens any pleasure, and if any one charges him with perplexing them, or with reviling their elders, he will not be able to make them understand that he has only been actuated by a desire for their good.”15 But Socrates knew going into the trial that he faced such a problem. He intentionally avoided saying things he knew would persuade the jury to find for him. For Socrates, death was preferable to any judgment that left him unable to continue his mission to challenge the reputedly wise. The jury told him that it would be unacceptable for him to continue, so Socrates drank the hemlock.

Notes

1 Alcibiades was for some time during the Peloponnesian war a popular and successful Athenian general. During the campaign in Sicily, however, he was charged with destruction of religious artifacts and profanation of the Mysteries. He defected to Sparta; in his absence, his enemies had him condemned to death and confiscated his property. When the Thirty were overthrown, he was welcomed back to Athens under the general amnesty.

2 See Exhibit A submitted into evidence: a copy of a photograph of a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Socrates sculpted several years after his death. Surely, such evidence is admissible? Photo credit: Lachlan Cranswick, http://lachlan.bluehaze.com.au/london2002/december2002/18dec2002b/. The statue is from the British Museum, London.

3 “[Y]ou know that what I said earlier is true, that I am very unpopular with many people. This will be my undoing, if I am undone….” Plato, Apology 28a, tr. G.M.A. Grube.

4 Diogenes Laertius suggests that Socrates was the first philosopher to teach rhetoric, and the first to discourse on the conduct of life. He cites both Favorinus and Idomenus for the first proposition. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers II.20, tr. R.D. Hicks.

5 Socrates denied the charge that he collected fees, and there is no record beyond Aristophanes for ascribing the naturalistic ideas to Socrates. Some might view the charge that Socrates made the worse argument appear to be the better as a fair charge against the man.

6 Plato, Apology 18d, tr. G.M.A. Grube.

7 Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro is devoted to Socrates’ search for the meaning of piety, principally for use in his defense against Meletus. He came up empty-handed. “[Y]ou have cast me down from a great hope I had, that I would learn from you the nature of the pious and the impious and so escape Meletus’ indictment….” Plato, Euthyphro 15e–16, tr. G.M.A. Grube.

9 Actually, there is a third possibility: that the jury is simply capricious or easily duped. Hence Hermogenes says in Xenophon’s Apology (tr. H.G. Dakyns): “Do you not see, Socrates, how often Athenian juries are constrained by arguments to put quite innocent people to death, and not less often to acquit the guilty, either through some touch of pity excited by the pleadings, or that the defendant had skill to turn some charming phrase?”

10 Nietzsche writes, “Before Socrates, the dialectical manner was repudiated in good society: it was regarded as a form of bad manners, one was compromised by it. Young people were warned against it…. Honest things, like honest men, do not carry their reasons exposed in this fashion.” Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, The Problem of Socrates 5, tr. R.J. Hollingdale (1968).

11 See, e.g., Plato, Euthyphro. This is not to say Socrates was impious as charged, but merely that he did not always encourage traditional piety in others.

12 “Furthermore, the young men who follow me around of their own free will, those who have most leisure, the sons of the very rich, take pleasure in hearing people questioned; they themselves often imitate me and try to question others.” Plato, Apology 23c, tr. G.M.A. Grube.

13 See supra note 3; cf. Voltaire: “Socrates is right. But he’s wrong to be right so publicly. … Where, after all, is the evil in poisoning a philosopher, especially when he’s old and ugly?” Voltaire, Socrates, tr. Frank J. Morlock.

14 Plato, Apology 30d–e, tr. G.M.A. Grube.