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Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Trial and Truth of Socrates

The city of Athens was one of the greatest ancient civilizations in history. One of the most influential men to be produced by Athens was a philosopher named Socrates. During the course of his life he became arguably one of the greatest minds who ever lived. Socrates was viewed in a number of ways. One was as a great philosopher and teacher. Another was as an antagonistic pest and the anti-democratic character of Athens. Although he was loved by many he was also widely hated. The effects of his teachings, beliefs, and relationships would ultimately lead him to a trial for his life. To quote the author of The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone,

“No other trial, except that of Jesus, has left so vivid an impression on the imagination of Western man as that of Socrates” (3).

In a city known for its’ culture, arts, and democratic freedoms, it’s hard to imagine how a person like Socrates could fall into such a predicament. Again the common reoccurring theme is present, it is through deeper understanding that we may come to find logic or reason where it previously did not appear. Or in other words, when the context of Socrates’ background is examined, it is easier to see how the people of Athens came to the conclusion that they did.


Socrates’ views on Athens and its’ people differed greatly from that of the traditional Greeks. His perspective on the foundation of the city’s government, citizens, and gods may have contributed to his demise. In the city of Athens, the people governed themselves much like Americans do today in our form of democracy. Most Athenians believed in the Republic and the freedom to govern themselves, but there were a number of those who thought that there should be a limit to who had the power to self-govern. Depicting this perspective on government, the author Stone states that

“Both sides agreed that the city should be governed by its citizens. They divided over how wide that citizenship should be” (11).

Personally, I believe that Socrates did not like the fact that the common men of Athens could impact his life and the city where he lived. This is the premise for his views of Athens’ common people in general. The author I.F. Stone conveys that Socrates expresses,

“social prejudices…one would not expect from a philosopher” (118).

Another view from his article Socrates' Dilemma/An Exasperating Man Emerges From I.F. Stone's Book About the Relentless Philosopher, Joseph Patrick Kennedy suggests that Socrates’ never

“regarded craftsman with the degree of condescension that Stone conveys,”

because, “Socrates’ father was a stonecutter”.

I would say that some of the views which Stone brings to light are logical and relevant to the case brought against him. But, the fact that Socrates’ father was a man of trade doesn’t correspond with his many accounts of condensation towards the “vulgar tradesmen” (Stone 119). The last view that Socrates had on Athens that I will discuss is part of the actual charges which were brought against him.

In Plato‘s work with the same name, Euthyphro, he and Socrates have a discussion on their way to separate trial hearings. In their brief encounter, Socrates speaks of one of the prosecutors, Meletus,

“(Meletus) says I’m an inventor of gods. And because I invent new gods, and don’t acknowledge the old ones, he’s indicted me for the latter’s sake, so he says” (Plato 5).

Socrates questioned the city’s government, religion, and its’ citizens because he simply questioned everything. That factor alone will prove to be the foundation of his troubles to come.

Socrates’ rhetoric and search for absolute definitions on virtue and knowledge contributed to his reputation among Athens in a rather negative way. Socrates believed that you couldn’t define something with absolutism without “true knowledge“ or absolute definitive knowledge (Stone 68). The questions of what the exact definition of virtue is quite puzzling and annoyed many of Athens’ citizens. Socrates proposed the questions of: What is virtue? What is knowledge? Is courage a virtue? If so, does that make virtue knowledge? These questions plagued the mind of Socrates into barraging the people of Athens with close interrogations. The events that lead Socrates into this method of searching for answers to his various questions are described in the Apology, where Socrates asked the question regarding who was the wisest of all of Athens,

“the oracle at Delphi told him that no one was wiser than he was” (Plato 32).

For a wise person knows of their ignorance. From then on, Socrates seemed to go out of his way to question and knowingly annoy those thought to be the wisest in all of Athens. The first question Socrates proposed is whether or not virtue is knowledge. Stone states that Socrates believed,

--“If virtue was knowledge,” then “it was teachable” -- and this was key in determining whether or not ordinary people could obtain virtue and become self-reliant governors of their city (39).

When Socrates started questioning virtue, he then started questioning knowledge in general. The position that he presented was that,

“ordinary men could not obtain the kind of knowledge necessary to become the self-reliant citizens of their city’s government” (40).

Like virtue, Stone says that Socrates also tried to apply the same logic to courage being a form of knowledge as well (52-67). So the reasons for this bombardment of inquiries on Athens’ respected citizens is made quite clear. In the Apology, Socrates states in his defense to the court that,

“he made it his duty to question men in order to prove the oracle wrong. But in doing so he proved the prophecy to be true” (Plato 32-36).

Like every reputation, Socrates’ name among the city of Athens was compiled by both positive and negative scrutiny’s. The voices that spoke out against Socrates, who thought of him as troublesome, supposedly had another issue in mind before they hauled him into court.

Two of the most infamous political disciples that Socrates had profoundly impacted the city of Athens and they were the cousins, Critias and Charmides. Using Socrates to gain knowledge in his methods and manipulate his rhetoric to gain power in politics, the two aristocratic members of the Thirty Tyrants overthrew the republic in 404 B.C. (Linder par. 9). Critias, the leader, in his short eight month rule made his mark forever as one of the most villainous rulers in Athens history killing approximately 1500 Athenians (par. 10). The case brought against Socrates includes some sort of guilt by association. As I have discussed, Socrates had an unorthodox point of view on government that some might call anti-democratic. With that in mind, it seems that Socrates’ student and teacher relationship with Critias and Charmides was enough to associate him with the "Thirty’s" ideals and actions. In a newspaper article titled, Bookshelf: Making the Case Against Socrates, the author Sidney Hook says that I. F. Stone in his book, The Trial of Socrates, is presenting Socrates as a

“very dangerous demagogue”, and, “a threat to the democratic Athenian regime...” (1).

I find that proposal to be agreeable with what I have found in the documents from other translated ancient dialogues. Even though there is no evidence to support this claim because it was never brought up in the texts of the trial, the writer Stone, seems to think that fear has been instilled into the minds of Athenians because of an overthrow of democracy. I think the circumstances of these events runs deeper than that because Socrates had already established a reputation among Athens as a instigator of controversial ideas. The people who did not like him, like his prosecutors Anytus and Meletus, very likely tried to convince others that Socrates was as a menace to society. Although, there are no actual accounts of what really happened, Socrates’ established reputation was already working against him, so it appears to me that it wouldn’t be very hard to convince people that he was working against the city‘s government, people, and gods. I believe that all of these factors are relevant in the case against Socrates, but the actual prosecutors who would take him to trail arguably had other reasons for doing so.

In a time with tyrants and barbarians, a revolutionary and highly regarded philosopher in a free society like Athens doesn’t stick out to me as a threat to a great city like Athens. As for the actual motivation to why his fellow Athenians fabricated charges condemning him, puzzles me and has puzzled many for thousands of years. However, there managed to be a sufficient amount of reason for three of Athens’ citizens to present Socrates with an indictment.

The three accusers of Socrates were Anytus, Meletus, and Lycon. Anytus and Meletus were the main prosecutors in the case against Socrates. Anytus was the most influential person in the trial out of the two and he gained favor with the public by playing a major role in the

“overthrow of Critias and the Thirty Tyrants in 403 B.C.” (Linden par. 14 ).

Meletus was the one who initiated the actual indictment against Socrates and is often a part of the dialogue in the trial recorded by Plato in the Apology. The prosecution in that text only mentions Anytus and Lycon, they never actually appear to be heard in court. So we only really know what Meletus said at the trial and his vocal participation only proves what Socrates’ was doing to the rest of Athens, that Meletus was ignorant to his own beliefs. So the author I. F. Stone presents us with the idea that Anytus is the principal accuser of Socrates. Stone saw Meletus as “dim-witted” and dismisses the real principal accuser in the trial as a “pushover“ (175). I believe that like Anytus, Meletus had a personal vendetta with Socrates. Since Socrates had such a low esteem for the common men of Athens, this would include Meletus, being that he was a poet. Although there are separate charges brought to Socrates all at once, I think there are also individuals behind each charge. The first charge I believe is from Meletus, and its depicted in the Apology as, refusing to

“acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges” (Plato 37).

My reasons for this argument include the fact that Meletus was portrayed as somewhat of a religious fanatic in the Apology and there is no account of Anytus having such a strong spiritual faith. I propose that Anytus was responsible for the next charge of

“corrupting the youth” (Plato 36).

Anytus was a political figure that was tied to Socrates in more than one way. His son was said to have been involved with Socrates, but it is not clear in any source that I found whether or not the relationship was sexual or not. At this point we know how Socrates felt about the tradesmen of Athens and in the Trial of Socrates, the author states that he starts an argument by saying to Anytus that “he ought not to confine his son’s education to hides” (Stone 178). Socrates was referring to Anytus’ family trade and to me it translates as Socrates telling Anytus how to raise his son. I would think that this would upset any father in any time period. In the end, Anytus’ son fell below the ranks of a tradesman when he gave up trying to become anything at all, and Anytus clearly blames Socrates, for what the author I.F. writes as,

“turning his son against him” (Stone 180).

Bearing all these notions in mind, I feel that when Anytus saw what happened to his son, he related it with all of the youth in Athens and then combined Socrates’ views on government to formulate the emotionally driven idea that Socrates was “corrupting the youth of Athens.” I cannot be sure that any of these events caused separate charges brought by separate people, nor can I prove it. Just like the claim I propose, the actual indictment is not on record in any document or text. The difference of beliefs controversy does not end there. Among, or should I say above, the structure of Athens were the beliefs in the gods of the city.

Socrates’ beliefs often offended traditional Greeks and now he would give them another reason. Religion, mythology, and even history was subject to suit the changes of Athens civilization. The foundation of the spiritual beliefs of the great city was based in ancient Greek mythology. Many of Athenians had come to believe in “the gods of the city”, like Peitho (Stone 206). The analyzing philosophers of Athens would see these inconsistencies in the mythology. For example, in his book, Stone states,

“the Athenians recast not only their religion but their mythology and history to suit the ideas of the fifth-century democracy” (206).

I noticed some links that are somewhat shown in Stone’s text between the mythology and democracy of Athens. The goddess of Athens was Athena, the daughter of Zeus, and she

requiredpeople to recognize the majesty of Peitho”, or Persuasion” (205).

This further depicts how the mythology of Athens influenced the shape of government.

In the text of The Trial of Socrates, it states that,

“The Platonic contempt for persuasion in democracy is summed up by Phaedrus in the dialogue that bears his name...persuasion comes from what seems to be true, not from the truth” (Stone 207).

This logic would have clearly been opposed by Socrates and it is not hard to see why he would question the beliefs of the gods. Another reason why I think Socrates might have been resistant to the idea of gods is portrayed in some classic texts. In Socrates’ conversation in Euthyphro, Plato writes how contradictory religion can sometimes be with Euthyphro,

"a self-proclaimed authority on Greek religion" (3)

--trying to determine what is just in the eyes of the gods, eventually goes against what he says he knows and believes in (Plato 7-8). After some dialogue, Socrates makes the point with Euthyphro’s own admission,

“the same things, it seems, are both hated and loved by the gods, and so the same things would be both god-hated and god loved” (12).

This kind of discussion is a model of the typical probing that Socrates would do with citizens in order to have them show their ignorance of a given subject. With Socrates’ notion for certainties, combined with the exposed inconsistencies that philosophers would have found in the history of religion, it gives me reason to believe that Socrates couldn’t have logically thought any other way. Since he didn’t view life in the same way as most Athenians, so he obviously didn’t have the same views of death.

Some scholars think that Socrates’ conduct in the trail was “senseless” (Stone 182). Based upon ancient texts, I believe the outcome of the case against Socrates was ultimately decided by himself. As quoted from Professor of Law, Doug Linder,

“Most scholars,” also, “seem to feel that the conviction and execution of Socrates was a deliberate choice made by the famous philosopher himself” (par. 38).

The events of Socrates’ trail were portrayed in the writings by one of his closest disciples, Plato. His works titled, the Apology, Crito , and Phaedo, all have Socrates expressing that he believed it was his time to die. As a result, he intentionally provoked the judges and jury into giving him the harshest punishment, death. A similar version of these events by another was also present. Xenophon wasn’t a student of Socrates’ nor was he even a philosopher. The writings that he contributed to history were called, "Socrates’ Defense to the Jury". The title depicts exactly what it was, but with a different voice. To bring further evidence of Socrates’ wishes, towards the end of the dialogue Xenophon writes that,

“Socrates, by singing his own praises in court, then brought the resentment of the jurors down upon himself and forced them to condemn him all the more”,

Then Xenophon states clearly,

“He [Socrates] realized it was better for him to die than carry on living” (Xenophon 184).

The reasons for Socrates wishing death upon himself is also revealed to me by one other fact. In I. F. Stone’s book, the author says that Socrates refers to a saying,

“the body is the tomb for the soul” (195)

It is apparent to me that this kind of logic is important to Socrates because he believes that this is the only way he can find some sort of enlightenment. Socrates is trying to say that the mind is clouded by humanistic senses and when it is disconnected from

“all association with the body, reaches out toward the reality”, and it finds “the doorway to unblurred vision and - at last - true knowledge” (196).

It seems that Socrates had his mind made up when he saw what direction the trial was heading, even though he was told it was best to escape the perils of old age by his supposed “guiding spirit” or his daemon (Stone 183). I think that based on this evidence, Socrates really believed the only way to find the answers to the questions he was looking for was in another realm. The ideas introduced by Socrates will continue to intrigue intellectuals and his questions of knowledge will provoke thought for many more centuries to come. The effects of this trial alone propelled him into immortality among some of the greatest martyrs who ever lived.

It appears to me that in the end, Socrates wasn’t anti-democratic or anti-theist. He never wanted to maliciously hurt anyone intentionally. His goal it seems was to provoke free thought. If you really look closely, he was the first person that openly disliked the link between religion and government. The effects of this trial will forever be remembered as a testament to freedom of thought, beliefs, and speech. Some scholars might say that the outcome of the trial of Socrates produced one of the greatest atrocities of possibly the greatest mind in history. When you look at all of the factors that I have brought up, it is a little more understandable how the people of Athens could be manipulated into making a mistake that would most likely be regretted. I would like to end with an piece from the legend which is quoted by the book, "The Trail of Socrates" which states,

“after the death of Socrates the Athenians felt so much remorse that they turned on his accusers, executed Meletus, drove Anytus and Lycon into exile, and erected a bronze statue of Socrates” (176).

In a sense of irony, I think Socrates did actually reach the true knowledge he was looking for after his death, the truth.






Works Cited

Ahrensdorf, Peter J., The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy: An
Interpretation of Plato's Phaedo. Albany: New York State UP, 1995

Anderson, Kent, and Norm Freund. “The Last Days of Socrates.” The Last Days of
Socrates 18 April 2000. 20 April 2005


Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. The Trial and Execution of Socrates:
Sources and Controversies. New York: Oxford, 1947

Colaiaco, James A., Socrates Against Athens: Philosophy on Trial. New York:
Routledge, 2001.

Green, Ricky K., Democratic Virtue in the Trial and Death of Socrates: Resistance to
Imperialism in Classical Athens. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Hook, Sidney. “Bookshelf: Making the Case Against Socrates.” Wall Street Journal 20
Jan. 1988: 1.

Kennedy, Joseph K. “Socrates’ Dilemma/An Exasperating Man Emerges From I.F.
Stone's Book About the Relentless Philosopher.” Houston Chronicle [Houston, Tex]
27 March 1988: 22.

Linder, Douglas. “The Trial of Socrates.” Famous Trials 2002. 29 March 2005.

Plato. The Trial of Socrates. Trans. F.J. Church. New York: Little Leather, 1921.

Reeve, C.D.C., ed. The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hacket, 2002.

Stone, I.F. The Trial of Socrates. Boston: Little, 1988.

The Trial of Socrates. Dir. Bernard Wilets. Encyclopedia Britannica Educational
Corporation, 198?.


Image:
"The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David (1787)