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A Brief Comment on the Query:
"Is Socrates Guilty As Charged?"
History of Political Thought 47.230 B Mini-Essay for Discussion Group #3 In any case of law, when one is considering truth and justice, one must
first look at the validity of the court and of the entity of authority itself. In Socrates
case, the situation is no different. One may be said to be guilty or not of any said
crime, but the true measure of guilt or innocence is only as valid as the court structure
to which it is subject to. Therefore, in considering whether Socrates is ‘guilty or not’,
we must keep in mind the societal norms and standards of Athens at the time, and the
legitimacy of his accusers and the validity of the crimes that he allegedly committed.
Having said this, we must first look at the affidavit of the trial, what exactly Socrates
was being accused with: "Socrates does injustice and is meddlesome, by investigating
the things under the earth and the heavenly things, and by making
the weaker speech the stronger, and by teaching others these same things."1
In breaking this charge down, we see that it is two-fold.
Firstly, Socrates is charges with impiety, a person who does not believe in the state gods
of Athens and, not only that, but by its literal meaning, does not believe in the
authority of gods at all. To this, Socrates seems baffled. He states that the reason
behind the ‘criminal meddling’, the questioning of people’s wisdom, was commissioned to
him by the gods through the Oracle of Delphi. As Socrates said, "…but when god
stationed me, as I supposed and assumed, ordering me to live philosophizing and examining
myself and others…that my whole care is to commit no unjust or impious deed."2He
even seems to win a victory over one of his accusers, Meletus, in questioning this point.
As Socrates points out, it is impossible for him to be both atheistic and to believe in
demons, or false gods, for if he believes in the latter, then that would contradict his
not believing in gods at all (since even demons are considered to be at least demi-gods).
The second part of the charge was that Socrates was attacking the very
fabric of the Athenian society by corrupting its citizens, namely the youth. In other
words, Meletus and the other accusers are accusing Socrates of a crime of ‘non-conformity’
- instead of
page 2bowing to those who are held in places of authority and those who have reputations of
being wise, Socrates believes that it is his role in life to question these people in
their wisdom, and to expose those who claim that they are knowledgeable and wise, but who
really are not. This nation of questioning the legitimacy of those in power would
certainly not be called a ‘crime’ by today’s standards, nor would it really have in
Athenian time. The true nature of this charge was vengeance carried out on the part of the
power-holders of Athenian society: the politicians, poets, manual artisans. Socrates, in
effect, made fools out of these people, exposing their speeches are mere rhetoric than
actual wisdom and knowledge. By being a teacher as such, but never collecting any fees and
therefore innocent from profiting from such ventures, he was said to have been corrupting
and citizens of Athens into believing that these so-called people of wisdom were not
actually wise at all. As Socrates says, "…and this is what will convict me, if it
does convict me: not Meletus of Antyus, but the envy and slander of the many. This has
convicted many other good men too, and I suppose it will also convict me. And there is no
danger that it will stop me."3 Another point to be made is
that Socrates proves that if what he has done has actually been corrupting society, and
could be considered a crime, then he has not caused any harm voluntarily. In any criminal
charge, the fact of the accused’s mens rea, or ‘guilty mind’, would be compulsory to prove
on a guilty charge. But Socrates states that, at least for him, voluntarily corrupting any
human being would simply be impossible, "…I am not even cognizant that if I ever do
something wretched to any of my associates, I will risk getting back something bad from
him?"4 Although his ‘guilty mind’ was never proved, Socrates does realize that he
will be found guilty of this charge, although he does say that justly this would never
have been a criminal charge, but could have been dealt with
privately, "…and if I corrupt involuntarily, the law is not that you bring me in
here for such
page 3involuntary wrongs, but that you take me aside in private to teach and admonish me…where
the law is to bring in those in need of punishment, not learning."5
There is one other point that might be raised in questioning the
legitimacy of the trial, and that is the fact that it was carried out in only one day.
Socrates says after his verdict has been read that if his trial could have carried on for
a longer period of time, as it might have in other cities such as Sparta, then he might
have been able to convince the jury of his innocence. Alas, Socrates quickly became the
victim of the wealthy elites in Athenian society, who did not want their hold on the power
and minds of the rest of society who be tampered with. If justice is to be questioned in
the charge of Socrates, then I do think that Socrates should have been found innocent,
since no real crimes were committed. As for a question of the Athenian laws, and the
structure of the Athenian justice system, one could say that Socrates might have dabbled
in a bit of treason in a way, since those who he was publicly making a mockery out of were
those who were in positions of authority. But overall, it cannot be denied that Socrates
suffered a great injustice by being found guilty, by being put on trial in the first
place. The true substance of the trial was never a criminal matter nor a strain on
democracy, but a challenge to an oppressive and oligarcical ruling class, and Socrates
became an symbol of true wisdom and knowledge, a symbol that needed to be disposed of for
the elites to remain the power-holders in society.
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