This article was originally published on Ancient World Magazine. It is archived on this website with the kind permission of the author.
Despite dying nearly 2,500 years ago, Socrates remains one of the most influential figures in ancient Greek philosophy. During his lifetime, he primarily devoted himself to philosophical inquiry and instruction. Elenchus, the “Socratic method” of teaching, asking a series of questions that directed students towards a specific conclusion, continues to be used in classrooms around the world.
This method certainly worked for Socrates, because several of his students became renowned philosophers themselves, including Plato and Xenophon. For his teaching and unusual approach to philosophy, Socrates became famous throughout Greece, but he chose to live in poverty and largely refrained from participating in Athenian politics. So, why did his contemporaries sentence him to death? What could he have done to deserve such a harsh punishment, and why did they bring him to trial when they did, after he was already 70 years old?
Unlike most philosophers of his time, Socrates did not write anything down; everything we know about him, from the particulars of his philosophy to the reasons for his trial, comes from the writings of others, primarily from the works of his students. Because all of the information that modern scholars have accumulated about Socrates is from – sometimes conflicting – secondary sources, it can be immensely challenging to decipher the specifics of what he believed.
But we do know that Socrates is responsible for Socratic irony and the Socratic method. And his most well-known philosophical stances are perhaps best summarized by two of his quotes, as recalled by others, “an unexamined life is not worth living” and “the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”
The context surrounding the trial
To uncover why Socrates’ fellow Athenians felt justified sentencing the philosopher to death, it may be helpful to take a brief look at what was going on in Athens around the time of the trial.
Meletus brought Socrates to court in 399 BC, when Socrates was about 70. Just five years before, Athens suffered a resounding defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Following their victory, Sparta installed an oligarchy in Athens. The oligarchy was controlled by a group of thirty men, known to the Athenians as the Thirty Tyrants, who viciously ruled over the city from 404-403 BC. By 399 BC, Athens had managed to reinstall their own government, but a great deal of distrust towards Sparta or anyone with ties to the tyrants remained prevalent in the city.
According to both Xenophon’s and Plato’s retelling of the trial, Meletus accused Socrates of two key offenses: impiety (not respecting the gods) and corruption of the youth. This article will examine why the Athenians may have chosen to convict him of both crimes, in turn, beginning with Meletus’ accusation of impiety.
Why charge Socrates with impiety?
Socrates was known for teaching young men philosophy and debate. His method of teaching was to ask a question, listen to the answer, and ask a further question based upon the answer. This style of questioning often made people seem foolish when, after a series of questions, their answers appeared to contradict what they had said they believed at the beginning. Socrates also frequently questioned people in public, where both the question and the answer were on display for all to see. By repeatedly humiliating so many Athenians, Socrates made many enemies, and they frequently confronted him about why he chose to spend his life antagonizing the wisest men of Athens.
According to Plato, Socrates’ justification for embarrassing so many people was a story about the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess who channeled visions from Apollo to answer questions and divulge prophecies. Once, two of Socrates’ friends, Chaerephon and his brother, traveled to see the oracle. His friends boldly asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The oracle said that no one was. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates retells his immediate reaction to the oracles’ claim:
I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere I could refute the oracle and say to it “this man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man… I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not.
Socrates sustained that after 50 years of submitting the wisest people he could find to questioning, he still hadn’t found anyone with any wisdom at all. This was not only arrogant but exceptionally impious because his mission was to prove that the oracle, and by extension, Apollo, were mistaken.
Socrates also upset people in Athens by claiming that he had a daimonion or little divine voice, inside his head that spoke to him throughout his life. The daimonion only ever said one word. It would simply whisper “no” whenever Socrates was about to do something wrong. Some Athenians saw Socrates’ choice to flaunt his daimonion as impious because Socrates was claiming he was connected to the divine, singularly able to interpret the divine, or the follower of a singular, unnamed god.
Why charge Socrates with corrupting the youth?
Socrates taught many students over his lifetime; although, later in his life he would come to deny that he educated anyone. He claimed in Plato’s Apology that the young men often seen by his side were just following him around of their own accord. Perhaps that denial came as a defense after two of his “students” Alcibiades and Critias, became two of Athens’ worst nightmares during the Peloponnesian war.
Alcibiades, a wealthy, charismatic politician, had been a powerful Athenian military commander in the Peloponnesian war. But in 415 BC, during a temporary treaty between Athens and Sparta, he utterly betrayed his home and defected to Sparta during the Sicilian Expedition. He divulged state secrets, Athenian military strategies, and reignited the war by convincing Sparta that Athens was planning to take over all of Italy.
Alcibiades’ betrayal not only inspired Sparta to resume fighting but also gave them an instrumental advantage in the war. And then just a few years later, Alcibiades defected again, this time to Persia, another fierce enemy of his former home. Reeling from the news that a high-ranking commander had committed treason and nearly ensured Athens’ defeat, Athenians began to suspect anyone who had been close to Alcibiades, especially former teachers who had perhaps led him astray when he was too young to know better.
Critias was another student of Socrates. In his early life, he had been a philosopher, poet, and writer. But after the Peloponnesian war, he became a prominent and ruthless member of the Thirty Tyrants that Sparta installed in place of Athens’ democracy. Critias not only played a front role in much of the cruelty and abuses of power caused by the Thirty Tyrants, including the murder of more than 5% of Athen’s population, but he was also an outspoken atheist.
Thus, two of Socrates’ students betrayed Athens and helped Sparta during one of the most devastating wars in the region’s recent memory: Alcibiades helped Sparta win the war, and Critias led the crushing government intended to punish Athenians afterward. In Memorabilia, Xenophon wrote that one of Socrates’ accusers voiced similar criticisms of Socrates’ former students. The accuser said that “During the oligarchy” Critias was “the most thievish, most violent, and most murderous” of the Thirty Tyrants and during the democracy, Alcibiades was “the most licentious, most arrogant, and most violent” of the commanders.
Socrates’ response to these accusations requires another deep dive in itself, but one thing to note is that in Plato and Xenophon’s accounts of the trial, Socrates’ main goal was not to convince the jury of his innocence. Instead, in both works, he spends nearly the entire trial correcting, antagonizing, and even directly insulting the jury.
To name just a few moments, in Plato’s Apology, Socrates shames men in the jury for having cried in the courtroom, and he snaps that “[Meletus] cannot harm me, for I do not think it is permitted for the better man to be harmed by the worse”. He did not have the attitude of someone taking the charges seriously or begging for their life. In Xenophon’s Apology, Xenophon himself interjects to say “[Socrates] did not think it meet to beseech the jury to let him escape death; instead, he believed that the time had now come for him to die.”
Part of the reason Socrates may have refused to take the trial seriously is that he may have believed that the trial wasn’t being conducted honestly. In Xenophon’s Apology, he says that witnesses in the trial lied and perjured themselves, that the charges he was accused of, legally, should never have warranted the death penalty, and that no one in the trial had successfully proven his guilt.
Socrates did have several defenses against the charges. He claimed that he was not responsible for Alcibiades’ betrayal. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates makes the argument that the reason Alcibiades went off the rails after he left Socrates’ instruction was because his influence on Alcibiades was so positive that it overshadowed the man’s fundamentally bad character. So, Alcibiades’ corrupt behavior was not because Socrates’ had turned him wicked, but because Socrates was no longer there to steer him away from his dishonorable tendencies.
Socrates also had an argument against the charge of impiety. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates uses his daimonion, the little divine voice in his head, as a defense against Meletus’ accusation. Socrates says that he believes in the daimonion, which is clearly some sort of spirit, so he is obviously not an atheist. A defense that refused to give the jurors what they wanted, which was an assurance that Socrates believed in the Athenian gods.
Despite being one of the most well-known philosophers in history, Socrates faced harsh criticism and disapproval from other Athenians for his unusual religious beliefs, unpopular statements, and the treasonous actions of his students after they left his instruction. While it’s impossible to know what precisely was going through the minds of Socrates’ jury when they chose to sentence him to death, modern scholars can get a sense of their motivations by unearthing some of the context surrounding the trial.
One reason we study ancient history today is to better understand our world. Something that’s apparent about Socrates’ trial is how powerful, infectious and consuming the calls for vengeance can become, that they can transcend reputation, friendship, and sometimes even evidence. It’s also impossible to know why Socrates didn’t work harder to defend himself at his trial; he was one of the best orators of his time. Perhaps he understood how strong the hunt for blood was from his peers. Perhaps he thought he needed to die for his beliefs to be understood.