Why was Socrates killed?
Socrates is one of the most important figures in Classical culture and indeed one of the most pivotal figures in all of Western Culture. He was one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy. He was not only a great philosopher, but he is also a key figure in the development of some of the most important ideas that are central to modern Western societies. He has decisively influenced our ideas on ethics and what is a good life. Socrates's death to many is as important as the death of Jesus Christ. This article examines the reasons for the Athenians' execution of the great philosopher. It will discuss why he was executed and if he was an innocent victim or was he guilty of serious crimes.
History of Athens
In order to understand the death of Socrates, it is essential to understand the historical context. In 510 BC Cleisthenes founded democracy in Athens. It was a democracy, but not like the modern political system, in countries such as the USA. It was a radical form of democracy and this meant that the people did not only vote for the government, but they were also the government. Citizens voted on every aspect of life, from making war and even making judicial decisions. The city played a crucial role in defeating the Persians during their two invasions of Greece. As a result, it became the leader of much of the Greek world.
Athens’s leaders turned the Anti-Persian league, of city-states and islands into the Athenian Empire. Under the guidance of the great Pericles, the city flourished, economically, politically and culturally. This period is known as the Athenian Golden Age. It was a time of unprecedented achievements in philosophy, sculpture, philosophy, and drama.
However, the golden age did not last long. The power of Athens provoked the ire of Sparta and its allies. This led to the brutal Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). This was a period of great suffering for the Athenian people and they had to endure wars, famine, and plague. The city’s politics became very tumultuous and there was an oligarchic coup in 411 but democracy was restored. The Peloponnesian War ended in a total and catastrophic defeat for the Athenians. The victorious Spartans imposed an oligarchic government on the city-state, known as the Thirty Tyrants. Their rule was brief and bloody, but ultimately democracy was restored by Thrasybulus.
The Life of Socrates
There are a number of diverse sources for the life of Socrates, including Xenophon, Aristophanes, and Diogenes Laertes. The best-known source is the Platonic dialogues. The exact date of the birth of Socrates is not known, but it was probably sometime between 479 and 469 AD. The future philosopher was born outside the walls of Athens and was the son of a stonemason or a sculptor and his mother was a midwife. He was married twice and had three sons. According to one tradition, he was an apprentice sculptor and even sculpted some of the statues that adorned the Acropolis. It seems that from a young age that he was renowned for his conversation, wit, and intellect. Socrates was a full citizen of Athens and was expected to participate in the political, civil and military life of the city. Like other citizens he was expected to serve as a hoplite, a heavy infantryman. Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian War and fought in a string of battles over many years, he was widely praised for his bravery. Socrates according to the sources was often seen in the streets and public spaces of Athens and he was always raggedly dressed. He would engage people in conversation and often would demolish their cherished assumptions. This did not always make him popular. In Aristophanes' play, The Clouds, he is satirized as a ridiculous figure. Socrates is widely credited with the invention of dialectic, which is a method of critical reasoning. He taught people that virtue, which he defined as a kind of excellence as the essential aim of life and not money, fame or honor. Socrates was very concerned with ethics and subjects such as justice. He held that people will be moral if they know what the good is and virtue is knowledge. Socrates was also very concerned with refuting the relativism of the Sophists, a class of teacher and wandering intellectual. Athens was a radical democracy and the citizens were directly involved in all aspects of the government and the legal system. Socrates, while serving as the supervisor of the Athenian Assembly’s court, vetoed the execution of a number of generals. They were accused of abandoning wounded Athenian soldiers on the battlefield. However, despite Socrates' efforts, the generals were executed. He was a very well-known public figure in Athens and a very controversial figure. During the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, he defied their request to arrest a man. In 399 BC, Socrates was charged with corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and with not believing in the gods of the state. He was found guilty by the Council of Athenian citizens and condemned to death by poison. The jury was composed of Athenian citizens who voted by a majority to find him guilty. The trial of Socrates is often condemned as a show-trial. During the trial, the philosopher was defiant and did not admit any guilt and was defiant. When he was found guilty, Socrates claims that he was convicted because the Athenians feared the truth and his urgings to live an examined life. However, the philosopher accepted the verdict of the court and refused offers of help to escape. We have a detailed account of the death of the philosopher in the dialogue Phaedo, by Plato. In his last moments, he is shown as philosophizing, in which he claims that all philosophy is concerned with how to die. Socrates died by drinking the poison hemlock.
The traditional view of why Socrates died
Plato was the disciple and follower of Socrates. He came from a noble family and is regarded by many as the greatest philosophers of all time. His dialogues have been decisive in shaping the image of Socrates down the age. The Platonic Socrates was a principled man who lived his life according to virtue and reason. In Plato’s account, Socrates was indicted on trumped-up charges, brought against him by his personal enemies. He did not corrupt the youth of the city but was rather their teacher and he actively urged them to change their ways and to live rational and virtuous lives. This is most evident in his efforts to counter the arguments of the Sophists who denied that there was an objective truth. Plato also portrays Socrates as a religious man, in the Phaedo he discusses the immortality of the soul and his last words are actually a request to his disciples to make a sacrifice to the god Asclepius (Plato, Phaedo, 2.30-34). The portrayal of the philosopher and the teacher is one that is highly idealized in this dialogue, that narrates his trial and death. While it shows the Athenian democrats as ignorant and swayed by populist leaders. This led them to convict the great philosopher of crimes that he was not guilty of, and indeed was contrary to his life and teachings. The Platonic version of Socrates' trial and death shows him to be a martyr. The philosopher was the victim of intolerance and irrational arguments. Socrates because of his intellectual bravery was condemned to die. He is widely seen as a martyr for free speech and freedom of thought.
Unpopularity of Socrates
Socrates was condemned to die by a popular assembly of citizens. It appears that the philosopher was very unpopular in his native city. It must be remembered that most of our knowledge about Socrates comes from his disciples such as Xenophon. Among Athenians, he was not popular. The philosopher was someone who had an ambiguous attitude towards the city-state’s democracy. He supported democracy but he was concerned about power being given to those who were not worthy of it. He wanted those with the relevant knowledge and skills to be given power, which is reminiscent of the arguments proposed by backers of aristocratic or oligarchic rule. Socrates had been friendly with some of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’ who had seized power in a coup and who had persecuted democrats. However, he did not actively support this authoritarian government. Socrates' somewhat anti-democratic sentiment came at a time when many Athenians feared for their popular form of government. Moreover, the philosopher was also suspected of being sympathetic to Sparta, because of his comments. The Spartans were traditionally the archenemies of the Athenians. Then Socrates appears to have publicly humiliated many people during his arguments and this made him many enemies. This was a dangerous thing to do in Ancient Greece when personal reputation was jealously guarded.
Was Socrates’ guilty as charged?
There were two specific charges laid against the philosopher. One was that was corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates did have many followers among the aristocratic youth of Athens. He an inordinate influence over them. One of these was Alcibiades, who was infamous for his role in many scandals and who was forced to flee Athens twice by his opponents. At one time he was even key advisor to the Spartan king during the Peloponnesian War. Many in Athens blamed Socrates for the behavior of Alcibiades. Moreover, many assumed that Socrates was teaching the Athenian youth dangerous ideas, such as challenging traditions and the existing social norms. Indeed, Socrates’ ideas were subversive. The most serious of the two charges was impiety. This was asebeia in Greek and, Socrates was accused of teaching unorthodox ideas and disrespect for the Gods. </ref>Burnyeat, Myles F. "The impiety of Socrates." Ancient Philosophy 17, no. 1 (1997): 1-12</ref> In the Clouds by Aristophanes, Socrates is shown as teaching young people of using words to cheat others and to avoid paying debts. The philosopher was someone who certainly had some unusual religious ideas. Many of the ideas that he argued for, were contrary to religious practices. Greek religion was very public, and it involved sacrifices, ceremonies, and festivals. Socrates did not teach the importance of public worship but rather promoted an intellectual reverence for the gods. He claimed that he had a spirit guiding him, a daemon. Then he claimed that the Oracle of Delphi had told him that he was the most intelligent man alive. This was because he acknowledged his ignorance, but the statement could easily have been misconstrued as Socrates asserting that he was divinely inspired. This meant that many people believed that he was introducing new gods or was an atheist, both of which would have been regarded as dangers to the social fabric. All of these opened up Socrates to the charge of impiety. From the perspective of an ordinary Athenian juror, it would seem that the ill-kempt and defiant accused was a threat to the state, based on the cultural norms of the time.
Socrates is a revered figure and an intellectual hero to many to this day. He is justly praised for his contributions to philosophy. Many of our most cherished values and beliefs originated in his teachings. The myth is that Socrates was unjustly executed for his teachings and his commitment to truth. In reality, based on the laws of the time, Socrates was guilty of some serious crimes, based on the Athenian law code of the time. He was a corrupter of youth, he was teaching them values and beliefs that were contrary to the traditional Athenian way of life. Moreover, his teachings on religious and piety would have been shocking for the time. While today, most modern people find nothing threatening in the ideas of Socrates, in 399 BC, they would have appeared dangerous. Plato presents Socrates as a victim of ignorance. However, Socrates was deeply unpopular because he was no friend of Athenian democracy and was a friend of many who was the avowed enemies of democratic values. This, along with his teachings contributed to his death sentence.
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Vlastos, Gregory. " The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy " In Plato and Modern Law, pp. 123-144. (Routledge, 2017.)
Peterson, Sandra. Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011).
- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1. 3-5
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- Cross, p. 78
- Aristophanes The Clouds, iv, iii
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