Socrates was a polarizing figure in Greek history. He had his supporters and his detractors, much like the political pundits of today’s political arena. He lived during a time of monumental change in the attitudes and beliefs of the people. His views ran contrary to what was deemed as the will of the people. Those views led to him being prosecuted and put to death by poison. Should he have been killed for teaching what he believed to be true? The execution of an elderly man for holding unpopular opinions would never be approved in modern times, and it should not have been carried out in ancient Greece. This sample humanities essay reflects on the execution and death of Socrates, as told by his student Plato.
Socrates: The death of a philosopher
To understand how Socrates came to be on trial, one must first study the history with an objective eye. Very few accounts of the proceedings exist today, so one must primarily rely on the writing of Plato, who was supportive of Socrates, and keenly documented greek culture. He seemed interested in showing Socrates in a more favorable light than his detractors. Because of Plato’s obviously high regard for his mentor, many scholars suspect that in his Apology, Plato failed to disclose some of the most compelling evidence of Socrates’ guilt. While recognizing of course, that the Apology is not a verbatim account of Socrates’ speech, other scholars argue that Plato’s account must be fairly accurate. These scholars point out that Plato wrote at a time during which he could expect many of his readers to have firsthand knowledge of the trial, reducing any incentive he might have had to present the case of Socrates too sympathetically. (Jowett) Since Socrates did not bother to write down anything that happened, we must use Plato’s interpretation of the trial as it unfolded and gleaned enough information to come to our conclusion.
Socrates lived during a transitional period in Greece. Society was morphing into a democracy with the help of Pericles. Pericles created the people’s courts and used the public treasury to promote the arts. He pushed ahead with an unprecedented building program designed not only to demonstrate the glory that was Greece, but also to ensure full employment and provide opportunities for wealth creation among the unpropertied class. The rebuilding of the Acropolis and the construction of the Parthenon were the two best know of Pericles many ambitious building projects. (Linder, 2002) This transition was not viewed favorably by Socrates.
Sophocles’ views must be examined if one is to understand his opposition to democracy. Pericles concerned himself with doing things for the greater good, and Socrates’ beliefs were in direct opposition. Linder writes:
“Growing to adulthood in this bastion of liberalism and democracy; Socrates somehow developed a set of values and beliefs that would put him at odds with most of his fellow Athenians. Socrates was not a democrat or an egalitarian. To him, people should not be self-governing; they were like a herd of sheep that needed the direction of a wise shepherd. He denied that citizens had basic virtue necessary to nurture a good society, instead equating virtue with a knowledge unattainable by ordinary people. Striking at the heart of Athenian democracy, he contemptuously criticized the right of every citizen to speak in the Athenian assembly.”
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he was against democratic ideas.
Socrates had unpopular beliefs
At first, most Athenians viewed him as someone probably just liked to hear himself talk and was otherwise not a threat. However, that feeling changed when blood was spilled. The standing of Socrates among his fellow citizens suffered mightily during the two periods in which Athenian democracy was temporarily overthrown, one four-month period in 411-410 and another slightly longer period in 404-403. The prime movers in both of the anti-democratic movements were former pupils of Socrates, Alcibiades, and Critias. Athenians undoubtedly considered the teachings of Socrates-especially his expressions of disdain for the established constitution-partly responsible for the death and suffering (Linder, 2002). He ceased to be just a talking head and became someone others viewed as dangerous.
Socrates may have promoted unpopular beliefs, but he was not a cold-blooded killer like his former pupil Critias. I.F. Stone, in his The Trial of Socrates, describes Critias (a cousin of Plato’s) as
“the first Robespierre,” a cruel and inhumane man “determined to remake the city to his antidemocratic mold whatever the human cost.” The oligarchy confiscated the estates of Athenian aristocrats, banished 5,000 women, children, and slaves, and summarily executed about 1,500 of Athens’ most prominent Democrats. (Linder, 2002)
This violent movement cast Socrates in a different light because his teachings may have contributed to the bloodshed.
Socrates may have been known for spouting off unpopular views like a ancient greek version of Rush Limbaugh, but that did not make him a killer worthy of execution. He was negligent as evidenced in the Thirty Tyrants debacle, but is that deserving of the death penalty? If people were executed for negligence, the death penalty would affect everybody because of the fallible nature of our existence. We know from historical accounts that Socrates refused to participate in the bloodshed, but his failure to condemn the violence led to his persecution. According to Linder:
“One incident involving Socrates and the Thirty Tyrants would later become an issue at his trial. Although the Thirty normally used their own gang of thugs for such duties, the oligarchy asked Socrates to arrest Leon of Salamis so that he might be executed and his assets appropriated. Socrates refused to do so. Socrates would point to his resistance to the order as evidence of his good conduct. On the other hand, Socrates neither protested the decision nor took steps to warn Leon of Salamis of the order for his arrest – he just went home. While good citizens of Athens were being liquidated right and left, Socrates, so far as we know, did or said nothing to stop the violence.” (Linder, 2002)
His failure to act makes him a responsible party, but not deserving of the death penalty.
If the trial can be attributed to one person, it would most likely be Anytus. What is known about the contention between the two men is that they were on opposite ends of the spectrum as far as belief in the virtue of citizens. Plato quotes Anytus as warning Socrates:
“Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak of the evil of men: and, if you take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful.” (Linder, 2002)
Animosity caused Socrates’s downfall
Religion played a role in the trial of Socrates and may have affected the outcome. His accusers branded him as impious, and he did not directly refute the charge. Plato’s Apology describes Socrates questioning his accuser, Meletus, about the impiety charge. Meletus accuses Socrates of believing the sun and moon not to be gods, but merely masses of stone. Socrates responds not by specifically denying the charge of atheism, but by attacking Meletus for inconsistency: the charge against him of believing in other gods, not in believing in no gods. If Plato’s account is accurate, Socrates could have been seen by jurors as offering a smokescreen rather than a refutation of the charge of impiety (Linder, 2002). His defiance led to his undoing.
Socrates fathered a method of argumentation that was based on questions rather than assertions, inspiring future authors like Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of questioning was to expose contradictions that rendered the argument invalid. It can be argued that he felt his intellectual prowess would prevail in the courtroom, which may explain his willingness to forgo pleading with the court. It was common practice to appeal to the sympathies of jurors by introducing wives and children. Socrates, however, did no more than remind the jury that he had a family. Neither his wife Xanthippe nor any of his three sons made a personal appearance. On the contrary, Socrates – according to Plato – contends that the unmanly and pathetic practice of pleading for clemency disgraces the justice system of Athens. (Linder, 2002) Therefore, the Socratic method could not save him from the punishment that would be handed down.
Should Socrates have been put to death? This query resonates as an ideological companion to the current debate about capital punishment. It can be argued that his actions led to the deaths of innocent citizens of Athens. However tragic, these deaths did not occur at his hands. His disciple Critias carried out the murders, so one could argue that Socrates persuaded him to do it. That argument is undercut by the notion that people are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. Hannah Arendt notes that Critias apparently concluded, from the message of Socrates that piety cannot be defined, that it is permissible to be impious:
“pretty much the opposite of what Socrates hoped to achieve by talking about piety.” (Linder, 2002)
Socrates did not know how Critias would interpret his teachings, so he should not have been put to death for his influence.
Jowett, B. (n.d.). Plato Socrates. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from www.umkc.edu: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/platosoc.html
Linder, D. (2002). The Trial of Socrates. Retrieved November 8, 2012, from www.umkc.edu: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/socratesaccount.html
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