Socrates was a classical Greek philosopher whose way of life, thought process and character had a profound influence on both ancient and modern philosophy.
The events of this extraordinary trial in 399 BC saw Socrates fighting for his life and the reputation of philosophy everywhere. The 70-year-old philosopher and ‘gadfly’ passionately defended himself and is alleged to have goaded the jurors to find him guilty.
In a relatively democratic society, why was Socrates put on trial, what happened, and how did this ultimately lead to this ancient philosopher’s demise?
Background to the trial
Socrates had considered it his almost religious duty to engage his fellow citizens in philosophical conversation, usually by asking probing questions which often highlighted and exposed their complete ignorance of subjects – a pedagogical technique since deemed the ‘Socratic method’.
Whilst Socrates was keen to profess an awareness of his own ignorance on a number of subjects under his investigation, he was also full of strong conviction for certain matters. At this time, there was a sense of anxiety in Athens about the dangers of religious unorthodoxy and the political consequences that religious deviation could bring. Thus Socrates became a widely recognised and controversial figure, and a frequent figure of mockery.
Socrates’ trial occurred soon after Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Amongst his admirers had been Alcibiades (who had betrayed Athens in the Peloponnesian War) and Critias (one of the Thirty Tyrants imposed on Athens after the city’s defeat by Sparta). Socrates’ connections with these two men in addition to his controversial exposure of the ignorance of his fellow citizens led to his trial.
Socrates faced two sets of charges known as the ‘old’ and ‘new’ accusations, the latter presented by the Athenian Greek Meletus who was determined to bring about a guilty verdict against the philosopher for alleged atheism and corrupting the youth of Athens.
The Old Accusations
- He used rhetorical tricks to make weak arguments appear strong.
- He studied things in the sky and below the earth that had no relevance to normal living.
- That he is taught such views to others as a teacher.
The New Accusations
These were presented by the Athenian Greek Meletus who stated that Socrates was guilty of:
- Corrupting the young
- And the more serious charge of not believing in the gods.
The second charge was one that could put Socrates to death as Atheism wasn’t an acceptable view in ancient Greece as it was seen as a threat to the welfare of citizens. The danger for Socrates was that if the prosecutors could prove Socrates corrupted the youth of Athens it would mean the death sentence.
Socrates realised his accusers such as Meletus were persuasive speakers. He denied that he was an accomplished speaker in that he purposely deceived others and maintained that he was just a truth-teller speaking in a simple manner. Socrates pointed out that he was a victim of misrepresentation by biased playwrights who had influenced his judges since childhood. Regarding the accusation that he was an ‘atheist’ he protested that such charges were based on malicious slander.
Philosophy seen as irrelevant
Socrates admitted that his investigations, asking questions in the streets had made him unpopular in Athenian society causing him to appear in court. He knew that the odds were stacked against him as he was aware that many citizens of Athens didn’t understand or appreciate philosophy. They saw it as a waste of time and impractical. The search for wisdom to many Athenians was baffling.
The verdict and punishment
The jury voted 280 to 221 against Socrates, who was said to have looked surprised that the vote was so close. The result indicated that the long-term bias against the philosopher and philosophy in general weighed against him.
Following tradition Socrates was allowed to present his preferred punishment. But despite having been offered a pledge of money to pay a fine, Socrates admitted that if was allowed to live he could never stay quiet and desist from continuing being a philosopher asking questions. His famous quote reflecting on his decision for self-sacrifice was “An unexamined life is not worth living” meaning that non-reflective people aren’t really living because being reflective is what makes us human. He chose death.
Execution by self-poisoning
The death of Socrates in 399 BC, as reported by Plato in the Phaedo, is one carried out by taking poison, possibly by drinking hemlock. The progressive paralysis that the condemned philosopher experienced, causing him to lay on his back as his legs gave way, is indicative of the drug’s effects on the body. The growing paralysis eventually reached his heart and killed him.
Socrates’ philosophical legacy to his people was that he gave citizens the tools to be happy, not just play at being contented. His many famous quotes such as ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’ and ‘There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance’ first said over sixteen hundred years ago are still relevant in today’s modern world of politics and social relationships.