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Why Was Socrates Found Guilty? Was He Fairly Tried And Condemned? Essay, Research Paper

At the time of Socrates’ trial in 399 BC, Athens was still badly shaken by it’s unstable political and military past. The surrender at the Battle of Aegospotami marked the loss of the Peloponnesian war to Sparta, a long and hard fought war which waged from 432-404 BC. Earlier in 411 BC a group of discontent Athenians led by Antiphon, Critias and Charmides briefly overthrew Athens? democracy and established an oligarchy. While it only lasted until 410 BC, it was still fresh in the memory of Athenian citizens when it occurred again with Sparta’s victory. Sparta established a government of oligarchs known as the Thirty Tyrants in 404 BC. Critias and Charmides were both involved again, Critias as one of the Thirty and Charmides as one of their deputies. This was again short-lived however, with the government being overthrown in 403 BC, eight months later. An amnesty was declared to forget past offenses of all but the Thirty Tyrants and their officials.

All of these events played an important part in Socrates’ trial. There were three main factors that led to his poor public image. Firstly was his students and associates. Alciabides was a student of Socrates, and was regarded by most with suspicion. An Athenian leader, he was first exiled during the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. Rather than return and face the charges, he defected to Sparta. Later he was re-accepted into Athens, but it was short-lived; after a few naval defeats under his command he was again exiled. Another of his associates, Chaerophon, was nicknamed ‘The Bat’ due to his thin, pale appearance. He was ridiculed by comic poets as a thief, an informer and a parasite. But perhaps the most important associates to consider are the now notorious Critias and Charmides. Such associations did not reflect well on Socrates, especially considering some were his students. This only furthered the already growing suspicion and hostility towards him.

Another important factor came about through Athens’ shaky political past. The citizens became fearful and easily manipulated, well illustrated by Cleon’s rise to power. The citizens soon realized what was going on however, and became rather hostile towards the Sophists who had taught the demagogues such manipulative skills. Though Socrates had little to do with this, most of the general public made no distinction between him and the Sophists, and thus again by association he was the target of hostility.

The last factor was of Socrates’ own doing. His daily ritual of questioning people and exposing their ignorance left the subject embarrassed and destroyed their reputation. The practice was understandably not appreciated, as Socrates acknowledges in his defense (?I incurred the resentment of the man himself and a number of others?). This resentment was only compounded when the youth who followed Socrates began to imitate his techniques and question their elders.

All of these factors left people angry and resentful of Socrates, and with the decline of Athens he was just the scapegoat they were looking for. His associations with Critias and Charmides would have made it easy for Socrates to be such a scapegoat, were it not for the amnesty declared following the Thirty Tyrants which did not allow him to be tried for such ties. Thus it may have been that these ties were the real reason for his trial, but due to the amnesty the charges had to rest elsewhere. To quote Xenophon from Memorabilia,

“The indictment was to this effect: “Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young.”"

Facing these charges in 399 BC Socrates was brought to trial, with the prosecution led by Meletus and his two sun?goroi (supporting prosecutors), Lycon and Anytus (a powerful politician). A jury of 501 found him guilty by a narrow margin and he was subsequently sentenced to death. But was it a just decision?

The greatest problem faced in the study of Socrates is that Socrates never wrote anything himself. Everything we know of him is drawn from a variety of sources, all of which have their own biases and inaccuracies to account for. The death of Socrates gave birth to a whole new literary genre of ‘Socratic’ dialogues. Many were by close friends keen to defend his name, while some, such as the works of the Sophist Polycrates (who wrote a pamphlet which reproduced a version of Anytus’ prosecution speech, justifying Socrates’ execution) were hostile to Socrates. Unfortunately, of these dialogues only the works of Plato and Xenophon survive. There are, however, a few other sources that we can draw information from.

Of all the surviving works those of Plato are both best known and most numerous. We have many of his Socratic dialogues, though it may be argued that some of the later dialogues are less representative of the real Socrates, as Plato tends to use him to propound his own views. Fortunately for us however, the most relevant dialogue to this topic, the Apology, is commonly believed to be the earliest and thus can be considered reasonably accurate. It is believed to have been written a few years after Socrates’ execution, with the purpose of glorifying his memory. For this reason alone it is relatively trustworthy, for many who read it would have witnessed the trial and well remembered Socrates’ actual speech, and thus Plato could not very well have glorified his memory with a fictitious account. This, however, is tempered by Plato’s close relationship with Socrates, which results in a strong bias. Furthermore, Plato was primarily concerned with presenting the philosophical issues raised by Socrates, any attempt at biographical accuracy was of secondary priority.

Xenophon’s priority, on the other hand, was firmly biographical, and he is considered by some to be preferable to Plato for historical accuracy. Xenophon however, like Plato, also tended to use Socrates as his mouthpiece at times. In the Oeconomicus for example Socrates dispenses advice on how to manage one’s home and property, which is rather suspiciously uncharacteristic of him and can fairly safely be excluded as Xenophon?s input. On the whole however, Xenophon?s use of this technique is minimal, and we can assume that earlier works such as his version of the Apology are untainted. The opening of his Apology explicitly states that it was inspired by other ‘Apologies’ that were inaccurate and did not satisfy him.

“It is true that others have written about this … but they have not shown clearly that he had now come to the conclusion that for him death was more to be desired than life”

In Xenophon’s account, Socrates had decided it was better to die than to face the decay of old age and thus deliberately invited his condemnation.

“”If I perceive my decay and take to complaining, how,” he had continued, “could I any longer take pleasure in life”".

This viewpoint seems suspicious however, for although Socrates explains the situation as a chance to die honorably he surely must have seen that, however indirectly, inviting one?s own execution is suicide, something he stood firmly against.

It is important to note that, like Plato, Xenophon was a close associate of Socrates. His work Memorabilia was intended to celebrate the memory of Socrates; much of the first book is dedicated to defending him against charges made by somebody he refers to as “the accuser”, who we have good reason to believe was Polycrates and his version of Anytus’ prosecution speech. Given such a relationship, caution is once again required due to the inevitable bias.

The last of our primary sources is the legendary playwright Aristophanes. His play the Clouds depicts Socrates as a sophist and an atheist, which did nothing for Socrates’ already poor public image. First staged in 423 BC, it would have been seen by Athenians too young to form their own opinions, Athenians who 24 years later would be serving on the jury in Socrates’ trial. Socrates is quite aware of this, and makes note of it in Plato’s Apology:

“There are a great many accusers … they approached you at the most impressionable age … they literally won their case by default, because there was no one to defend me. … it is impossible for me to even know and tell you their names, unless one of them happens to be a playwright.”

The playwright here is undoubtedly Aristophanes; he is mentioned explicitly shortly after this. While it may seem Aristophanes was maliciously attacking Socrates, credible evidence points to the contrary. The Clouds was an attack on the Sophists, and its plot required somebody to represent the typical Sophist. While Socrates differed in many regards to the Sophists, the public did not make the distinction, and it was they who Aristophanes was writing for.

To anybody who knew Socrates personally the portrayal was, as was it was intended to be, absurd. However, those who knew him by name and rumor only most likely took it at face value. Socrates, we know, was not phased by it. Aelian tells us in his work Historical Miscellany of the first staging of the Clouds. Socrates, overhearing some foreigners ask each other in whispers ?who is Socrates?? stood up for the audience to see, and remained standing until the conclusion of the play. Indeed, there is much reason to believe that Aristophanes and Socrates had an amiable relationship. If they did not Plato would have been the first to damn him, and yet in the only Platonic presentation of him, the two appear very close. Aristophanes and Socrates meet in Plato?s The Symposium, written in 360 BC. There is no animosity; they are engaged in a friendly conversation about the reconciliation of comedy and tragedy. Given such a relationship we can conclude that Socrates? portrayal in the Clouds was merely gentle mockery, it was not the serious attack such as Cleon is subjected to. While Aristophanes presents us with a stereotype that almost certainly does not represent the real Socrates, a stereotype is still valuable in so far as it indicates what the general public thought of him.

This public conception of Socrates is confirmed by a speech Aeschines delivered in 345 BC, 50 years after Socrates’ execution. When facing Timarchus in court Aeschines tells the jury:

“you put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias”.

Aeschines won his case. He would not have made such a statement, nor would it have carried the weight it obviously did unless it was something generally accepted as true by the public.

Having already stressed the importance of taking biases into consideration, we turn to Socrates’ behavior at his trial. In general where Xenophon and Plato agree on something we can be fairly certain of its accuracy. However, Xenophon wrote his Apology to address what he saw as inaccuracies in prior Apologies, he did not intend to cover every detail (”I have not made it a point to report the whole trial”). Accordingly, when discussing issues that Xenophon does not cover we must cautiously use extracts from Plato that Xenophon does not explicitly disagree with.

A poor public image was what brought Socrates to trial, and his behavior at the trial did absolutely nothing to help either his image or his case. In fact if anything it proved detrimental, pushing the jury from suspicion to rage, and while it is debatable whether it cost him the case it is quite certain that it cost him his life.

Both sources begin with Socrates denying his skills as an orator (”I have not the slightest skill as a speaker”) and then subsequently reducing Meletus to utter confusion upon cross-examination. Such a disparity would have been noticed by the jury. It is a characteristic feature of his elenctic method, and it was not a wise move to employ it when being tried by a jury already deeply suspicious that he was a Sophist.

In addressing the first of the three charges, that of “refusing to recognize the gods acknowledged by the state”, we must rely on Plato?s Apology. Here Socrates traps Meletus into self-contradiction by getting him to express that Socrates is an atheist; this contradicts the second charge, that he imported divinities of his own. Such a state of contradiction was obviously achieved by verbal manipulation, again not helping the perception of him as a Sophist. Socrates essentially makes no real defense of this charge, instead merely leading Meletus in circles.

Socrates was already off to a poor start defending the second charge due to his claimed daimonion or inner voice (”I am subject to a divine or supernatural experience”). It gave reasonable cause for concern that he was in fact “importing strange divinities of his own”. Again, he puts up no substantial defense against the charge.

Both sources have Socrates relating the story of the Delphic Oracle, whereby his friend Chaerophon approached the Oracle and asked if any man was wiser than Socrates. The reply was negative, which set Socrates off on his mission to both prove to himself the truth of the Oracle and to expose the ignorance of his fellow man. This was a bad move on several levels. Firstly, the Athenians at the time suspected the Delphic Oracle of being pro-Spartan. Earlier an Athenian delegation had asked who would win the Peloponnesian war, and the Oracle correctly responded that Sparta would. Xenophon records the jury?s response to this anecdote, revealing that they “made a still greater tumult on hearing this”. Furthermore, all the Oracle had said was that no man was wiser than Socrates. It did not commission him to go out and expose everybody?s ignorance. That undertaking was of his own volition, and if anything is a point against his piety; he did not accept Apollo’s judgment and had to test it for himself.

In Plato?s Apology we see Socrates liken himself to “a stinging fly” for the city which “is inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation”. However, the reign of the Thirty Tyrants was still fresh in the Athenians? minds, and so was Socrates’ silence throughout it. His ’sting’ was not there when the city needed it most, and as such it was another ill-considered choice of argument.

His defense against the third charge, that of “corrupting the young”, is equally weak. Plato has him argue that corrupting the young would cause them to be evil, and consequently cause evil to him. Given his view that nobody can intentionally cause harm to themselves, Socrates argues that he could not therefore have corrupted the young. Not only is this a weak argument, it hinges on a premise that he holds, not that the jury hold.

Given such behavior, it would seem that the only surprising part of the verdict was that he was found guilty by such a slim margin. Under Athenian law, if the accused was found guilty both the defense and the prosecution would offer a penalty, and the jury would decide between the two. In this case the prosecution suggested the death penalty, assuming that Socrates would chose exile. This would have certainly been chosen by the jury, for the idea was to punish Socrates, not to kill him. Instead Socrates jokes that as a benefactor of the city he should be rewarded with free meals for life, an honor usually reserved for winners at the Olympic games. If there was ever a time not to joke, that was it. Eventually his friends persuaded him to offer to pay a fine instead, but the damage had already been done. More of the jury voted for the death penalty than voted for the guilty charge, indicating that his flippant attitude towards sentencing had compelled many jurors to change their minds.

Was Socrates fairly condemned? Plato and Xenophon tell us of the ?real? Socrates, while from other sources we can derive popular perception. If we are to believe Plato and Xenophon, Socrates was not guilty of the charges he faced. But the public did not know this, and Socrates was quite aware of that fact. He faced a great deal of suspicion leading up to the trial, and during his trial he did not defend himself against the charges he faced, he behaved in a most arrogant manner and on the whole served to confirm any suspicions the jury may have held. Thus acting in the way he did invited the verdict. It may not have been accurate, but given the circumstances it was most certainly fair.

But perhaps the more poignant question is whether he was fairly punished, and to this the answer is a resolute no. Certainly he had provoked the jury, but the altered margin favoring the death penalty indicates that such provocation influenced the decision. Idealistically emotions should have been left out the decision. Realistically it is an inescapable feature of democracy. Socrates was well aware of the shortcomings of democracy, so the real puzzle is why he let it destroy him.


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