Friday, February 15, 2013

2412 Years Ago Philosopher Socrates was Sentenced to Death

I doubt there is anyone, reading this post, who claim he/she is not familiar with Socrates. That is understandable, because Socrates can be considered as the Founding Father of western Philosophy. He is the first person we can identify who seriously asked and pursued answers to questions that we now think of as characteristically philosophical. Thinkers before Socrates had asked questions about mathematics, about metaphysics (Pythagoras thought the world was made up of numbers), and about natural phenomena. Socrates spent his life asking philosophical questions of the citizens of Athens, questioning their answers, debating them. He wanted to know what goodness was, what morality was, what piety was, whether virtue can be taught, what knowledge is and similar questions.

Why Socrates was Sentenced to Death?

At the age of 70, February 15, 399 BC, Socrates was charged with teaching young people to disrespect the gods of the city. The ancient Greeks believed that the gods protected their cities from floods, storms, plague and other natural disasters, as well as from invasions by other cities. If Socrates were, in fact, teaching disrespect for the gods, then there was a risk of danger to the Athens from these calamities.

But the trial and execution of Socrates in Athens still puzzles historians. Why, in a society enjoying more freedom and democracy than any the world had ever seen, would a seventy-year-old philosopher be put to death for what he was teaching?  The puzzle is all the greater because Socrates had taught all of his adult life. What could Socrates have said or done than prompted a jury of 500 Athenians to send him to his death just a few years before he would have died naturally?

What appears almost certain is that the decisions to prosecute and ultimately convict Socrates had a lot to do with the turbulent history of Athens in the several years preceding his trial. An examination of that history may not provide final answers, but it does provide important clues.

Socrates was a prominent public figure and he was familiar to most Athenians. However, the standing of Socrates among his fellow citizens suffered severely during 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--partially responsible for the resulting death and suffering. Alcibiades, perhaps Socrates' favorite Athenian politician, masterminded the first overthrow. (Alcibiades had other strikes against him: four years earlier, Alcibiades had fled to Sparta to avoid facing trial for mutilating religious pillars--statues of Hermes--and while in Sparta had proposed to that state's leaders that he help them defeat Athens.)  Critias, first among an oligarchy known as the "Thirty Tyrants," led the second bloody revolt against the restored Athenian democracy in 404.  The revolt sent many of Athen's leading democratic citizens (including Anytus, later the driving force behind the prosecution of Socrates) into exile, where they organized a resistance movement.

Critias, without question, was the more frightening of the two former pupils of Socrates. 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 own 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 Athen's most prominent democrats.

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 did or said nothing to stop the violence.

The horrors brought on by the Thirty Tyrants caused Athenians to look at Socrates in a new light.  His teachings no longer seemed so harmless. He was no longer a lovable town eccentric.  Socrates--and his icy logic--came to be seen as a dangerous and corrupting influence, a breeder of tyrants and enemy of the common man.

The view of the most Athenians was similar to that expressed by the orator Aeschines in a prosecution speech: "Did you not put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who overthrew the democracy?"


The trial took place in the heart of the city, the jurors seated on wooden benches surrounded by a crowd of spectators. Socrates' accusers (three Athenian citizens) were allotted three hours to present their case, after which, the philosopher would have three hours to defend himself.

After hearing the arguments of both Socrates and his accusers, the jury was asked to vote on his guilt. Under Athenian law the jurors did not deliberate the point. Instead, each juror registered his judgment by placing a small disk into an urn marked either "guilty" or "not guilty." Socrates was found guilty by a vote of 280 to 220.

After the conviction of Socrates, the trial entered its penalty phase. Each side, the accusers and the defendant, was given an opportunity to propose a punishment. After listening to arguments, the jurors would choose which of the two proposed punishments to adopt.

Socrates was given the opportunity to suggest his own punishment and could probably have avoided death by recommending exile. Instead, the philosopher initially offered the sarcastic recommendation that he be rewarded for his actions. Socrates, after expressing his surprise of the little amount he needed to be have been found innocent, jokingly suggested to provide him free meals at the Prytaneum, a particular honor held for city benefactors and winners at the Olympic Games, then offered to pay a fine of 100 drachmae, which was a fifth of his property and a testament to Socrates' poverty. Finally he settled on the sum of 3000 drachmae, put forward by Plato, Crito, Critobulus, and Apollodorus, who guaranteed the payment. His prosecutor proposed the death penalty.

In the final vote, a larger majority of jurors favored a punishment of death than voted in the first instance for conviction.  According to Diogenes Laertius, 360 jurors voted for death, 140 for the fine. Under Athenian law, execution was accomplished by drinking a cup of poisoned hemlock.


In May 2012, amid the unrest caused by the Greek government debt crisis, an international panel of judges and lawyers held a mock re-trial of Socrates in Athens. The split decision of five judges voting "guilty" and five voting "not guilty" resulted in an acquittal. The issue of sentences was not discussed, so as to restrict the discussion only to the facts of the case, but the judges voting to convict indicated they would not have been in favor of the death penalty

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