The immortal trail of Socrates

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Socrates, the Greek philosopher, whose way of life, character, and thought exerted a profound influence on ancient and modern philosophy, was a widely recognised and controversial figure in his native Athens. He is portrayed as a man of great insight, integrity, self-mastery, and argumentative skill. The impact of his life was all the greater because of the way in which it ended: at age 70, he was brought to trial on a charge of impiety and sentenced to death by poisoning by a jury of his fellow citizens.

The trial and execution of Socrates in Athens in 399 B.C 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?  What could Socrates have said or done that prompted a jury of 500 Athenians to send him to his death just a few years before he would have died naturally?1

Finding an answer to the mystery of the trial of Socrates is complicated by the fact that the two surviving accounts of the defence of Socrates both come from disciples of his, Plato and Xenophon.  Historians suspect that Plato and Xenophon, intent on showing their master in a favourable light, failed to present in their accounts the most damning evidence against Socrates.

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.2


Socrates, the son of a sculptor and a midwife, was a young boy when the rise to power of Pericles brought on the dawning of the Golden Age of Greece.   As a young man, Socrates saw a fundamental power shift, as Pericles-perhaps history’s first liberal politician-acted on his belief  that the masses, and not just property-owning aristocrats, deserved liberty.  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 lower class.

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, the 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 the 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 criticised the right of every citizen to speak in the Athenian assembly.

Diogenes Laertius  in, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers,  reported that Socrates discussed moral questions in the workshops and the marketplace. Often his unpopular views expressed disdainfully and with an air of condescension, provoked his listeners to anger.  Laertius wrote that “men set upon him with their fists or tore his hair out,” but that Socrates “bore all this ill-usage patiently.”


In ancient Athens, criminal proceedings could be initiated by any citizen.  In the case of Socrates, the proceedings began when Meletus, a poet, delivered an oral summons to Socrates in the presence of witnesses.  The summons required Socrates to appear before the legal magistrate, or King Archon to answer charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.  The Archon determined after listening to Socrates and Meletus (and perhaps the other two accusers, Anytus and Lycon)-that the charge was permissible under Athenian law, set a date for the preliminary hearing and posted a public notice.

The preliminary hearing before the Magistrate began with the reading of the written charge by Meletus.  Socrates answered the charge.  The Magistrate questioned both Meletus and Socrates and then gave both the accuser and the defendant an opportunity to question each other.  Having found merit in the accusation against Socrates, the Magistrate drew up formal charges.  Diogenes Laertius reports the charges as recorded in the now-lost document:

“This indictment and affidavit sworn by Meletus, the son of Meletus of Pitthos, against Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus of Alopece: Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognise the gods recognised by the state, and of introducing new divinities.  He is also guilty of corrupting the youth.  The penalty demanded is death.”

The trial of Socrates took place over a nine-to-ten hour period in the People’s Court, located in the Agora, the civic centre of Athens.  The jury consisted of 500 male citizens over the age of thirty, chosen by lot.  Most of the jurors were probably farmers. The jurors sat on wooden benches separated from the large crowd of spectators, including Plato, one of the disciples of Socrates, by some sort of barrier or railing.

Guilt Phase of Trial

The trial began in the morning with the reading of the formal charges against Socrates by a herald.  The prosecution presented its case first.  The three accusers, Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, had a total of three hours, measured by a water clock, to present from an elevated stage their argument for guilt.  No record of the prosecution’s argument against Socrates survives.

Easily the best known and most influential of the three accusers, Anytus, is widely believed to have been the driving force behind the prosecution of Socrates.  Plato’s Meno offers a possible clue as to the animosity between Anytus, a politician coming from a family of tanners, and Socrates.  In the Meno, Plato reports that Socrates’ argument that the great statesmen of Athenian history have nothing to offer in terms of an understanding of virtue enrages Anytus.  Plato quotes Anytus as warning Socrates: “Socrates, I think that you are too ready to speak evil of men: and, if you will take my advice, I would recommend you to be careful.” Anytus had an additional personal gripe concerning the relationship Socrates had with his son. Plato quotes Socrates as saying, “I had a brief association with the son of Anytus, and I found him not lacking in spirit.”  It is not known whether the relationship included sex, but Socrates-as were many men of the time in Athens-was bisexual and slept with some of his younger students. Anytus almost certainly disapproved of his son’s relationship with Socrates.  Adding to the displeasure of Anytus must have been the advice Socrates gave to his son.  According to Xenophon, Socrates urged Anytus’s son not to “continue in the servile occupation [tanning hides] that his father has provided for him.”  Without a “worthy adviser,” Socrates predicted, he would “fall into some disgraceful propensity and will surely go far in the career of vice.

Piety had, for Athenians, a broad meaning.  It included not just respect for the gods, but also for the dead and ancestors.  The impious individual was seen as a contaminant who, if not controlled or punished, might bring upon the city the wrath of the gods-Athena, Zeus, or Apollo-in the form of plague or sterility.  The ritualistic religion of Athens included no scripture, church, or priesthood.  Rather, it required-in addition to belief in the gods-observance of rites, prayers, and the offering of sacrifices.

Any number of words and actions of Socrates may have contributed to his impiety charge.  Preoccupied with his moral instruction, he probably failed to attend important religious festivals.  He may have stirred additional resentment by offering arguments against the collective, ritualistic view of religion shared by most Athenians or by contending that gods could not, as Athenians believed, behave immorally or whimsically.  Xenophon indicates that the impiety charge stemmed primarily from the contention of Socrates that he received divine communications (a voice or a sign) directing him to avoid politics and concentrate on his philosophic mission.  A vague charge such as impiety invited jurors to project their many and varied grievances against Socrates.

Dozens of accounts of the three-hour speech by Socrates in his defence existed at one time.  Only Plato’s and Xenophon’s accounts survive.  The two accounts agree on a key point.  Socrates gave a defiant-decidedly unapologetic-speech.  He seemed to invite condemnation and death.

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 accused 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 offering a smokescreen rather than a refutation of the charge of impiety.

Socrates provocatively tells his jury that he is a hero.  He reminds them of his exemplary service as a divine soldier in three battles.  More importantly, he contends, he has battled for decades to save the souls of Athenians-pointing them in the direction of an examined, ethical life.  He reportedly says to his jurors if his teaching about the nature of virtue “corrupts the youth, I am a mischievous person.” He tells the jury, according to Plato, he would rather be put to death than give up his soul-saving: “Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.”  If Plato’s account is accurate, the jury knew that the only way to stop Socrates from lecturing about the moral weaknesses of Athenians was to kill him.

What is strikingly absent from the defence of Socrates, is the plea for mercy typically made to Athenian juries.  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.

When the three-hour defence of Socrates came to an end, the court herald asked the jurors to render their decision by putting their ballot discs in one of two marked urns, one for guilty votes and one for votes for acquittal.  With no judge to offer them instructions as to how to interpret the charges or the law, each juror struggled for himself to come to an understanding of the case and the guilt or innocence of Socrates.  When the ballots were counted, 280 jurors had voted to find Socrates guilty, 220 jurors for acquittal.

Penalty Phase of Trial

After the conviction of Socrates by a relatively close vote, 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.

The accusers of Socrates proposed the punishment of death.  In proposing death, the accusers might well have expected to counter with a proposal for exile- a punishment that probably would have satisfied both them and the jury.  Instead, Socrates audaciously proposes to the jury that he be rewarded, not punished.  According to Plato, Socrates asks the jury for free meals in the Prytaneum, a public dining hall in the centre of Athens.  Socrates must have known that his proposed “punishment” would infuriate the jury.  Socrates acts more like a picador trying to enrage a bull than a defendant trying to mollify a jury.  Why, then, propose a punishment guaranteed to be rejected?  The only answer is that Socrates was ready to die.

To comply with the demand that a genuine punishment be proposed, Socrates reluctantly suggested a fine of one mina of silver, about one-fifth of his modest net worth, according to Xenophon.  Plato and other supporters of Socrates upped the offer to thirty minae by agreeing to come up with the silver of their own.  Most jurors likely believed even the heftier fine to be far too light of a punishment for the unrepentant Socrates.

In the final vote, a larger majority of jurors favoured 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, an execution was accomplished by drinking a cup of poisoned hemlock.

In Plato’s Apology, the trial concludes with Socrates offering a few memorable words as court officials finished their necessary work.  He tells the crowd that his conviction resulted from his unwillingness to “address you as you would have liked me to do”.  He predicts that history will come to see his conviction as “shameful for Athens”, though he professes to have no ill will for the jurors who convict him.  Finally, as he is being led off to jail, Socrates utters the memorable line: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways–I to die, and you to live.  Which to the better fate is known only to God.”  

Socrates spent his final hours in a cell in the Athens jail.  The hemlock that ended his life did not do so quickly or painlessly, but rather by producing a gradual paralysis of the central nervous system.

Most scholars see the conviction and execution of Socrates as a deliberate choice made by the famous philosopher himself.  If the accounts of Plato and Xenophon are reasonably accurate, Socrates sought not to persuade jurors, but rather to lecture and provoke them.

The trial of Socrates, the most interesting suicide the world has ever seen, produced the first martyr for free speech.  As I. F. Stone observed, just as Jesus needed the cross to fulfil his mission, Socrates needed his hemlock to fulfil his.



1Richard Kraut, Encyclopaedia Britannica
2 Doug Linder-The Trial of Socrates



About maheshspeak

I write randomly on law, jurisprudence, polity, travel, food and anything else interesting. You can also visit my personal homepage at
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