The Death of Socrates
|The Death of Socrates by David|
One of the great tropes of the Western Tradition is the Death of Socrates. Mountains of philosophical literature have been written about and it can be argued that Plato’s entire philosophical system was based on it. In the end it boils down to a jury being convinced that the charges were true and convicting him.
The charges according to Diogenes Laertius were as follows:
This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded is death.1
The charges are horribly vague and the penalty seems a bit drastic to put it mildly. However the trope that Socrates died for the spirit of free inquiry and because he valued his integrity above all else is one up held by the Western tradition to this day. A rather different view however can be taken from the sources.
Setting aside for the time being the vagueness of the charges. Exactly what is introducing new gods and corrupting the youth? Since Athens' like so much of Greece had in the past and would in the future accept new Gods and religious practice just what was Socrates thought of has doing? As for corrupting the youth what did that mean. Just talking to them? The problem is why was Socrates charged?
Well here a little context is in order about our sources. The two main sources about Socrates are Plato and Xenophon both of whom produced in their writings defences or what are called Apologies of Socrates.2 In fact much of their writing is in fact a defence of Socrates.
Those are the main sources in antiquity there were other defences of Socrates by his disciples and even some writings justifying the trial and sentence but that has not survived what we have are defences written not by sober minded historians but highly partisan accounts by true believing disciples.3
This being the case it cannot be taken for granted that we have been given all the germane facts related to the trial of Socrates. Later accounts like the third surviving Apology written by the 4th century C.E., Philosopher Labinius are philosophical exercises not worth taking even slightly has telling us anything about the trial of Socrates or what he supposedly said.4
In fact one of the most intractable problems in the history of philosophy is the so-called Socratic problem. Just how much of the actual Socrates is there in the writings of Plato and Xenophon? The problem would undoubtedly be much worse if we had the writings of Socrates’ many other disciples many of whom wrote dialogues with Socrates has a character. In fact even Aristotle wrote such dialogues. Since Socrates’ disciples disagreed on so much its likely their different Socrates would have also. Be that as it may the fact is Plato’s and Xenophon’s Socrates don’t agree on a lot and seem like two different people.
Plato’s Socrates seems far too smooth, polished and erudite, whereas Xenophon’s Socrates seems more real but at the same time is almost hopelessly banal and conventional. Both are hard to believe has real portrayals of a real man and both seem mere mouth pieces for the thoughts of Plato and Xenophon respectively.
If Socrates is a mere sock puppet I fear we must abandon any idea of finding the “real” Socrates except in the most general over all sense.
And this effects what we can get from the words Plato and Xenophon put into Socrates mouth during the trial. Plato was present during the trial it seems, Xenophon was not, but even so since Plato invented dialogues of conversations both before and after the trial we can rest assured that Plato’s apology was equally invented by Plato. As for Xenophon’s speech that he put into Socrates’ mouth that was also equally invented. In both cases the Apologies were written long after the events and designed to justify Socrates not to give a true recording of what Socrates said. The fact that they conflict with each other doesn’t help the argument that they tell us what was said.
In antiquity it was common for Historians to put invented speeches into people’s mouths. The idea was that the speeches would be what the writer thought was appropriate for that person to say at that time. Resemblance to what the person actually said, assuming they said anything, was usually beside the point. The result was that speeches are generally dismissed by modern historians has being of little historical value. It appears that Plato and Xenophon were doing the same thing here. They were giving Socrates what they thought he should have said, not necessarily what he did say.5
This being the case the Apologies as sources for what the trial was actually about are dubious and frankly not to be trusted in the slightest.
Taking the above in mind and accepting the fact that virtually all of our surviving information about the trial and death of Socrates comes from Socrates’ ardent disciples which given the conventions of their society would be anxious to justify Socrates and put the words they thought he should have said in his mouth not the words that he did say perhaps the following is a tenable reconstruction of what actually happened.
First since all of sources agree on the nature of the charge, introducing new Gods and corrupting the youth, that is probably what Socrates was actually charged with. But why was he charged with that?
The answer was that the charge was a substitute for far graver charges. In Athens such charges were heard by jurors and in a case like this the charge was heard by a jury of 501 adult male citizens. Guilt was determined by simple majority vote. The fine or punishment was decided by a majority vote also separately. If someone was found guilty the accuser would suggest a penalty then the condemned would suggest a penalty and the jury would vote for one or the other. There were no judges and no professional Lawyers or advocates in these trials although you could have someone speak on your behalf. Witnesses could be called and questioned.6
Athens had recently gone through the long Peloponnesian war, which it had lost. During the war there had been in 411 B.C.E., an oligarchic coup, which briefly and brutally replaced the democracy. After the war was over Athens had imposed on it by Sparta the brutal rule of the so-called thirty tyrants. (403-402 B.C.E.) During their, thankfully, brief rule several thousand citizens and non-citizens had been killed. The Thirty had been overthrown and the Democracy restored. Then a little while later, c. 401 B.C.E. there had been an attempted oligarchic coup. Now why is this important? Simply because Socrates’ disciples tended very strongly to be oligarchic in sympathy and at least some of Socrates’ disciples were involved in these coup attempts. At the very least they despised the democracy and supported oligarchic rule in Athens.7
Now in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Thirty tyrants Athens passed a law declaring an amnesty for acts relating to the coup and its hideous aftermath of mass terror by the Thirty tyrants. The amnesty was never revoked. Among several followers of Socrates involved in the Thirty tyrants was Critias, who dominated them and was a devote follower of Socrates. The man was also apparently quite ruthless and vicious. He was killed in the fighting that put an end to the Thirty tyrants. Rather interestingly Socrates, unlike many others stayed in Athens and there is no record of any active opposition by him or much of verbal disapproval of the Thirty tyrants.8
The lack of opposition to the Thirty tyrants is suggestive. Both Plato and Xenophon go to some lengths to try to dissociate Socrates from the blood spattered Critias. But the stories that they give of his alleged disapproval are shall we say in the end not convincing. If Plato and Xenophon agree on one thing about Socrates it is that he did not like Athenian democracy and that he approved of oligarchic rule. The stories that they give about Socrates’ opposition to the Thirty tyrants have been accepted by many on faith. Why should we believe stories that are so feeble if real. Rather than leave the city in disgust at the actions of Critias and the other Thirty Tyrants Socrates stayed in Athens. There is not one particle of evidence that he actively opposed the tyranny and the stories about his alleged opposition are feeble and read like desperation in trying to find something for Socrates’ benefit.
Thus supposedly to implicate Socrates in their crimes the Thirty sent Socrates and some other Athenians to arrest someone. Supposedly Socrates just went home. The man was killed. Even if true the just went home is not exactly heroic. The addition that the Thirty might have killed him if the regime hadn’t been overthrown begs the question if that is the case why didn’t Socrates leave aside from not being believable in the first place. In fact what it reads like is that Socrates was accused of during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants of being involved in their crimes by being involved in the arrest of one of their victims. The lame defence which sounds woefully unconvincing is that Socrates just went home. That sounds like a desperate addition to a damning story and singularly unconvincing. And if Socrates did take part in the arrest ordered by the Thirty Tyrants then he was a supporter.9
The other story told by Xenophon about Critias telling Socrates that he could no longer engage in “Socratic” dialogues is also feeble. Aside from the fact it looks made up to say that Socrates was oppressed by the Thirty. The singularly pathetic nature of Socrates’ "opposition" is all too clear. According to Xenophon Socrates tried to negotiate with the Thirty by means of semantic quibbling over what he was actually forbidden to do. It is interesting that even according to Xenophon Socrates being forbidden to do what he lived for, earnest dispute, was not enough to get him to leave Athens ruled by the Thirty Tyrants.10
Of course the possibility must be raised that Xenophon’s incident much like the previous one never actually happened but was at least partially fabricated to excuse the embarrassing fact Socrates stayed in the city. It is interesting to record that later on accusing someone of having stayed in the city during the reign of the Thirty tyrants was a familiar means of blackening someone’s reputation.11
In the case of Socrates he was it appears accused of more than just staying in the city he was accused and likely believed to have participated in the crimes of the regime. And frankly given the truly lame attempts by Xenophon and Plato to excuse Socrates' behavior by creating very weak stories of opposition to the Thirty I suspect that in reality Socrates was indeed involved in supporting the Thirty and probably in its crimes and that Plato, by almost entirely ignoring it, and Xenophon, by making up stories, suppressed that fact has much has they could.
When Socrates was accused in the aftermath of the attempted oligarchic coup of 401 B.C.E., of bringing in new Gods and Corrupting the youth those were a mere substitute for what was the real reason, not just the fact he had been the teacher of Critias and other dangerous and intriguing oligarchs but that he had been involved in the crimes of the Thirty. All of this put Athenians on edge and put Socrates at risk despite the amnesty passed by the Assembly. So being unable to charge Socrates for crimes committed during the reign of the Thirty he was charged with an offence that was both vague and a catch all.
It is likely that the accused did not actually intend to kill Socrates. They meant to punish him for being involved in the Thirty and inspiring his disciples to be oligarchic sympathizers who tried to destroy the democracy. Given this atmosphere of fear it is surprising that the vote to convict was apparently so damn close, according to Plato, 280-221 to convict. During the penalty phase Socrates apparently truly antagonized the jury because they voted 361-140 to sentence him to death.12
In fact it is likely that Socrates completely flubbed his defence certainly the he blew the penalty phase. Certainly it is unlikely he uttered the brilliant philosophical speech that Plato gives him in his Apology or even the prosaic speech that Xenophon gives him. Instead according to Diogenes Laertius he did as follows:
….and when the judges were assessing what he should suffer or what fine he should pay, he proposed to pay 25 drachmae. Eubulides indeed says he offered 100.  When this caused an uproar among the judges, he said, "Considering my services, I assess the penalty at maintenance in the Prytaneum at the public expense."13
It is stuff like that that that makes one think it likely that Socrates was as Xenophon records him wanting to commit suicide by judicial murder.14 For as Xenophon says:
Socrates was so arrogant in court that he invited the juror’s ill-will and more or less forced them to condemn him.15
If Xenophon a devote follower of Socrates says this we can take it as likely true. As it does not reflect well on Socrates at all. Whether or not Socrates did this deliberately or just from being clueless I don’t know. Although given that it appears that Socrates was apparently a highly intelligent man it would appear to be deliberate. Or is it possible that Xenophon appalled that Socrates could have muffed it decided Socrates looked better if he said he did it deliberately?
As it is it appears to be quite plain that Socrates could have even after the trial fled into exile. He did not; he chose to stay in Athens and play the martyr. So we have Socrates’ death by hemlock.
Of course the fact that it appears that Socrates was accused of a substitute crime in place of his real alleged crimes, performed under the Thirty Tyrants in no way gainsays the fact that the charge is an embarrassingly vague grab bag from which no one was safe. That these crimes were vague to the point of uselessness perhaps explains why there seems to have been few prosecutions under it at the time and why considering everything the jury was reluctant to convict. But it appears that Socrates may have pissed off the jury during the initial argument. How I may go into another time. Although remembering that Xenophon’s and Plato’s words are not Socrates and perhaps they bear no resemblance to what Socrates said at all!
Much more firmly based is the notion that Socrates basically insulted the jury during the penalty phase of the trial, enough to get a large section of those who voted to acquit to vote for the death penalty!
However there is the likelihood that behind all the rhetoric of bringing new gods and corrupting the morals of youth is the possibility if not probability that Socrates had blood on his hands for involvement in the regime of the Thirty Tyrants if not other oligarchic conspiracies. It was not the simple fact he had taught Critias and other oligarchic / blood thirsty tyrants but the likelihood that he was personally involved in their atrocities that was in the juries mind and thus the actual charge was a mere cover for the what the jury truly thought Socrates was guilty of. Involvement in the crimes of the Thirty tyrants.
Of course men should be tried for what they are actually charged with not for other crimes which they are not charged with. So the Trial of Socrates remains a miscarriage of justice.16
1. Laertius, Diogenes, Life of Socrates in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, s. 40, at Perseus Here.
2. See Plato, Apology in Great Dialogues of Plato, Mentor Books, New York, 1956, pp. 423-446, and Crito, pp. 447-459, & Phaedo, pp. 460-521, and Xenophon, Apology, in Xenophon: Conversations of Socrates, Penguin Books, London, 1990, pp. 41-49. (It is called in the book Socrates’ Defence.).
3. Stone, I. F., The Trial of Socrates, Anchor Books, New York, 1988, pp. 9-19, Waterfield, Robin, Introduction, in Xenophon, pp. 5-26. On the vagueness of the charges see Mac Dowell, Douglas M., The Law in Classical Athens, Cornell University Press, London, 1978, p. 197-199.
4. Labinius, Apology, in Editor, Calder, William M., The Unknown Socrates, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Wauconda IL, 2002, pp. 47-110.
5. Finley, M. I., Socrates and Athens, in Aspects of Antiquity, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, 1977, pp. 60-73, Waterfield, Stone, pp. 9-26.
6. Mac Dowell, pp. 33-40, 235-259.
7. Stone, pp. 140-156. For ancient accounts see Diodorus, Library of History, Book 13, ch. 38-39, at Lacus Curtius Here, Xenophon, The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Anchor, Books, New York, 2009, Book 2, ch. 24-39, pp. 52-76.
8. IBID, Stone, pp. 153-154. For more about Critias as a thinker see the collection of fragments by him and some ancient writings about him in Editors, Dillon, John, & Gergel, Tania, The Greek Sophists, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 217-265.
9. The man Socrates is accused of being involved in the arrest of was Leon of Salamis. This story can be found at Plato, Apology, p. 438. Also see Stone, pp. 113-114.
10. The story can be found in Xenophon, Conversations of Socrates, Book 1, ch. 2, pp. 78-80. See Stone, pp. 158-160.
11. Stone, pp. 153-154.
12. p. Laertius, s. 40. Gives 281 as the votes for conviction and records that 80 more votes were for the death penalty, meaning 361 voted for it. Stone, pp. 181, 187. For reasons that are not clear Stone gives the figures of the vote to convict as 280 and to inflict the death penalty as 360. He seems to forget that Athenian juries numbered in cases like this 501 not 500. However in fairness the sources do refer to juries of 200, 500, 1000 and 1500 even 6000! It appears that they are rounding down from 501, 201, etc. See Mac Dowell, p. 39-41.
13. Laertius, s. 40.
14, Xenophon, Apology, pp. 47-49. One of the most annoying things about Xenophon’s Socrates is how Xenophon goes to extraordinary lengths to portray Socrates as a boring, thoroughly conventional Athenian conservative.
15. IBID, p. 49.
16. It can be argued that Socrates was in fact guilty of the charges against him. Although given the vagueness of the charges virtually anyone could potentially been found guilty “reasonably”. The charges are still too vague.