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Trial and Execution of Socrates. Contemporary Sources

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“The Athens of Socrates’ time has gone down in history as the very place where democracy and freedom of speech were born. Yet that city put Socrates, its most famous philosopher, to death”. As Socrates was sentenced to his death, he was unaware of the vigorous debate his trial and execution would generate within the ivory towers of historians, two thousand years later. His execution has been interpreted in several ways, with books, journals and plays written about the cause célèbre, by both historians and academics. Many have agreed that his hubris and arrogance was a fatal character flaw, whereas others believe that his elitist and confrontational attacks on Athenian democracy lead the Athenian aristocracy to feel threatened. Socrates’ view on religion differed from the traditional view of the Greek pantheon, which led him to be labelled an ‘atheist’. However, many historians and academics have challenged this idea. Through radicalising the Athenian youth, coupled with the convictions of his beliefs, and his harsh interrogation of Athenian democracy, did Socrates inadvertently seal his own fate?

Socrates, the man who created how philosophy was to be perceived over two thousand years later, is undoubtedly still an enigma, having not written any of his own work. Through the guidance of his inner daimonion , Socrates had condemned the powers and authority of the gods – which, in the polytheistic world of ancient Greece, was a grave offence. The trial and execution of Socrates occurred in 399 BCE in Athens, Greece. He was charged on two accounts, with ‘corrupting the youth’ and impiety. Such impious acts were, ‘introducing new deities’ and ‘failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges’. The Athenian legal system gave the defendant the jurisdiction to propose his own penalty. Instead of graciously accepting the offer, Socrates jokingly suggested that he be rewarded for his actions, rather than punished, “far from punishing me, they should be so grateful for the way I have helped them cleanse their souls, they should give me free meals for the rest of my life” . The jurors sentenced him to death by hemlock. When given the opportunity to escape, Socrates claimed “he owed it to the city under whose laws he had been raised to honour” , and refused to leave. Being a man of principle, Socrates refused mercy, and died “a martyr to philosophy” .

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There are only two known contemporary sources of Socrates’ trial – the first by Plato, and the second by Xenophon – both of whom were students of Socrates. Plato, known as one of the greatest and most prolific ancient Greek philosophers, had acted as Socrates’ literary mouthpiece. He had written many Socratic dialogues, such as, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Plato’s accounts of Socrates’ trial and execution have been given extra attention by historians and scholars, as he had attended the one-day trial in Athens. Plato’s ‘Apology’ is the record of Socrates’ defence speech at his trial in 399 BCE. Within it, Plato depicts Socrates as being innocent, claiming that the reasoning for his ‘impiety’ is because the Oracle and Delphi prophesied him as being the wisest of all men. Plato states that he has no experience before the court, so he will speak in the manner that is most familiar to him, and later goes on to say that it is his duty to question the ‘wise’ men of the state, and to expose their ignorance. Xenophon, the ancient Greek historian, had also written an ‘Apology’, sometime after 399 BCE however, it has been said that his account differs from that of Plato. Although Xenophon did not attend the trial himself, his account was derived from the philosopher, Hermogenes, who had attended the trial. Xenophon and Plato’s Apologies show several stylistic differences in the way they portray Socrates and his defence. Unlike Plato, Xenophon outlines Socrates’ megalēgoria , and how he appeared boastful before the jury, but claims it was a tactic of legal defence against the claims of his impiety. In addition, where Plato claims that Socrates’ willingness to face the death penalty was due to his “unwavering commitment to his divinely appointed mission to keep philosophizing at all costs” , Xenophon notes that he believed “that it is better for him to die now than to face the pains and limitations of advanced old age.”

Moreover, the only surviving contemporary accounts of the trial and execution that led to Socrates’ eventual demise, although showing rhetorical differences, both portray Socrates’ as an innocent man, who was made the subject of political infighting. However, the extent of which Socrates is “hidden behind his best disciples” is undecided.

Plato and Xenophon were not the only ones to support Socrates’ innocence. Sophist, Libanius (c. 354 A.D) wrote about the integrity of Socrates in his texts ‘On the Silence of Socrates’ and ‘The Defence of Socrates’. He too strongly disagreed with the allegations made against Socrates, “… Socrates has been falsely accused and has been pressed with charges which are untrue and most unworthy of his philosophy” . Libanius was a deeply pious man, who remained unconverted during the rise of Christian hegemony in Athens, and his denial of Socrates’ impiety is a significant endorsement of his innocence.

Rex Warner, an English classicist, also attempted to vindicate Socrates in his 1972 book, ‘Men of Athens’. He claimed that the parrhesia that the Ancient Athenians prided themselves on so greatly, could only be exercised within limits, using Socrates as his case study. He begins by stating that Socrates had indeed claimed to hold the belief that no one willingly acts unlawfully, yet it was always better to endure injustice, rather than to act unjustly. However, such beliefs “were found very irritating by all who were not Socrates’ intimate friends”. Warner believes that, per Plato, Socrates knew that the dangers he faced were not the charges held against his honour, but merely a prejudice “based on a lack of knowledge, leading to a total misunderstanding of his real aims” . He says that in hindsight, if the prosecutors could have seen Socrates in his true form, they would have known him as “a man who believed more firmly and devoutly in the gods than any of his citizens… a man whose whole life had been devoted not to the corruption, but to the purification and ennobling of the youth” . Thus, these traditionalist historians have attempted to inculcate Socrates’ innocence within their writings, fostering the idea that Socrates was not accountable for his death.

Despite the evidence given for Socrates’ trial and execution pointing to his innocence, there have been numerous revisionist historians who have justified his prosecutor’s actions. Professor Paul Cartledge, a British ancient historian, challenges the views of the traditionalist historians, as he questions whether Socrates was truly a martyr to philosophy, in his book ‘Ancient Greek Political Thought in Practice’ (2009). Despite the claims of politicians and historians, such as Plato himself, Cartledge believes that the trial and execution of Socrates was not an example of democracy descending into mob rule, “everyone knows the Athenians invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know it, and we have misread history as a result” . He states that although the allegations made against the ancient philosopher may seem absurd to the contemporary reader, the ancient Athenians genuinely believed they were made to serve the communal good, the polis. According to Cartledge, the charges of impiety were entirely acceptable within a polytheistic democracy, who held deep reverence for their gods, through the questioning of his ‘daimonion’, a word that was supposed to refer to his intuition, but instead was interpreted as his worshipping of a dark force. Cartledge believes that Socrates had purposely outraged the Athenian court, and invited his own death; “There is no denying his bravery and he could even be seen as an intellectual hero. But the idea that Socrates himself was not guilty, but executed by mob rule, is wrong. By removing him, society had in, Athenian’s eyes, been cleansed and reaffirmed”.

British philosopher and academic, Professor Angie Hobbs, shared similar views, in her book ‘Plato and the Hero’ (2000). She affirms that until recently, many have considered the trial and execution as a facade for the democrats’ revenge on Socrates, for his association with the rival oligarchic party, the Thirty Tyrants, as the leader of the group was one of his disciples, Critias. However, whether the accusations were objective, Socrates had provoked many important and influential people; “Athenians were probably right to be a little disturbed by what he was up to, getting the young to think for themselves” .

Furthermore, radical American journalist, I.F. Stone, stated in an 1979 interview with the NY Times that he believed Socrates was in fact guilty, and that Plato purposely left out the evidence against Socrates, as “A lawyer might surmise that he blocked out as much as he could of the specific charges because they were too damaging and too hard to disprove”. Stone surmises that Plato’s ‘Apology’ was “a masterpiece of evasion”, in that it didn’t address any of the evidence against Socrates, yet “represents Socrates as a man above the battle of politics”. The sources presented by Plato and Xenophon are “scanty and one sided”, and try to place Socrates as far away from being guilty as possible, therefore not giving us a true transcript of the trial that took place in 399 BCE. He believes that the charges made against the ancient philosopher were politically motivated and based on a considerable amount of evidence, that both Plato and Xenophon have done well to have hidden. Thus, these revisionist historians believe that Socrates’ disobeying of Athenian law was a pivotal reason for his execution, and that Plato and Xenophon’s adulation for their master overshadowed their ability to present all the evidence against him.

Furthermore, many historians have shed light on the fact that although Socrates was a philosophical mastermind, he had given his prosecutors just reason to put him on trial. German historian, Victor Ehrenberg (1967), wrote about the reason for the differing portrayals of Socrates, “…those who did write about him were not historically minded, and all except one wrote after an interval of seven years. It was their hostility or loyalty to Socrates which prevented them from describing the real man, quite apart from the fact that they wanted to express views of their own…” . He also believes that despite the claims, Socrates wasn’t an atheist, but being a strong polytheistic society, his accusers acted out of genuine fear. The divinity they refer to as his creation, was the inner voice that he calls his ‘daimonion’. John Bury (1978), an Irish empiricist historian , said “There have been no better men than Socrates, and yet his accusers were perfectly right” . Bury believed that as Socrates was the mentor to Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants oligarchs who had slaughtered 5% of Athens’ population during their rule, Socrates was a danger to their democracy and so they removed him. In addition, Arnold Jones, a British classic historian (1957) had noted that Xenophon’s account showed that “the real gravamen of the charge against Socrates was that… Critias had been the ruthless ringleader of the Thirty who had massacred thousands of Athenians a few years before” . Therefore, the benefit of hindsight, and access to a broader range of sources, has allowed these historians to consider the actions of Socrates from the perspective of the Athenians, to see that despite the absurdity of their claims, their fear was justified, which then led to his execution.

The trial and execution of Socrates has also been featured within art and theatre. French painter, Jacques Louis David, depicted the execution in his oil on canvas painting, ‘The Death of Socrates’ (1787) – see Appendix 1. The painting was derived from Plato’s ‘Phaedo’, picturing Socrates surrounded by his subjects during his final moments. The painting contains many historical inaccuracies, in that he removed many of the people that were recorded as being there. He also included Apollodorus, who Socrates had sent away for exhibiting too much grief. Furthermore, David distorted the age of those who were there, in that he depicts Plato as being an old man, when in fact he would have been a young boy at the time. Italian artist, Giambettino Cignaroli, presented Socrates as already deceased in his ‘Death of Socrates’ – see Appendix 2, surrounded by his mourning loved ones, the date of which is unknown. In 2007, Andrew David Irvine, created an adaptation of the trial and execution named ‘Socrates on Trial’. The play tells the story of Socrates’ impiety, and corruption of the youth. It also contains adaptations of Aristophanes’ ‘The Clouds’, and Plato’s ‘Apology’. According to critics, Irvine’s play gives the modern audience an insight into why Socrates was executed, through his portrayal of Socrates as a pompous man, full of hubris, whilst showing him as a dedicated mentor .

The social gadfly, Socrates of Athens, has been portrayed in numerous lights throughout the course of history. However, whether he was accountable for the charges laid against him or not, it cannot be disputed that he was given the chance to escape his execution, but instead chose to die a martyr to philosophy. As Professor Cartledge had said, the charges of impiety were admissible as the foundation of Athenian democracy was based upon the worship of the gods . Although he may have invited his own demise by antagonising and threatening the Athenian way of life, Socrates stood true to his beliefs. He posed a threat to the elite as he encouraged the youth to think for themselves, and his association with Critias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, had frightened the Athenians. Those who were close to him saw him as a man of bravery, and wrote about him with pure adulation. Socrates will remain an enigma, and his trial and execution will undoubtedly continue to puzzle historians.

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