by Paul Braterman
We all know the story. Socrates has been told by the oracle that he is wisest of men, but he considers that he himself knows nothing. Puzzled, he takes to cross-examining his fellow Athenians about their beliefs, and time and again finds that they will not bear examination. As a result, he is indicted on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the young. After a trial in which he eloquently defends his behaviour, he is condemned to death. A martyr to freedom of expression, and a shocking example of democracy suppressing dissent. Surely there is more to the story than that? Indeed there is.
I am not about to commit the folly of denying the greatness of Socrates. We still, twentyfour cenuries later, praise his methods of investigation. I myself have used an argument taken directly from one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. The topic was practical ethics, Socrates’ speciality; and the technique used, questioning assumed certainties, his favourite tactic.
Here’s what happened. A few years ago, I was involved in a moderately successful campaign  to reduce the statutory role of the Churches in Scotland’s local authority education committees. The Church of Scotland attempted to justify its privileged position by pointing to its distinctive Christian ethos. In reply, I pointed out that to the extent that this ethos is generally shared, we do not need any Church to promote it, while to the extent that it is specific to Christianity, the Churches have no right to impose it on the rest of us.
My reasoning derives directly from Socrates, in The Euthyphro, where Socrates challenges Euthyphro to define pious behaviour.
Euthyphro, after a few false starts, defines it as the kind of behaviour that pleases the gods. Socrates then asks a question which reverberates to this day, and which undercuts any attempts to define morality by reference to authority; does such behavior please the gods because it is pious, in which case we still have to ask what it is that makes it pious, and we are back where we started. Or is it pious because it pleases the gods? In that case, piety depends merely on the divine whim.
For how Plato’s Socrates would define morality, we can turn to The Republic, in which he advocates a city ruled by an oligarchy of philosophers, qualified for their post by their superior insights, who give out the legend that they are of different descent from common clay, impose limits on public discussion, and ban poets and non-military music. It is easy to guess how long the sainted Socrates of common belief would have lasted within such a city.
And what about the charge of corrupting the young? Here it makes sense to look at what we know about how Socrates’ disciples behaved during the period of his influence. This included the period of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which had led to total defeat for Athens, and the temporary installation five years before the trial of a brutal oligarchy (the Thirty) operating under Spartan auspices. The War could be seen as part of an ongoing struggle between oligarchy and (severely limited) democracy. The overthrow of the Thirty speaks to Athenian resilience, despite which there had been a further oligarchic coup attempt just two years before the trial.
If there is a single person to blame for the defeat of Athens, it is Socrates’ disciple Alcibiades, who persuaded the Athenians to undertake a disastrous military operation in Sicily, defected to Sparta in the aftermath, and ended up advising Darius II of Persia on how to subvert the Greek city-states. Another prominent disciple of Socrates was Critias, a diehard oligarch who even after the overthrow of the Thirty had led a rearguard action that included the massacre of 300 people at Eleusis . All these events would have been fresh in the memory of the Athenians at the time of the trial.
Without in any way condoning the execution of Socrates, we might in the light of these events be able to come a little closer to understanding it. Unfortunately, the only contemporary accounts we have of the trial are derived from Plato, and from Xenophon who also clearly admired Socrates. So we have the case for the defence, but not the case for the prosecution. We have the wording of the indictment, but not the details of the allegations. Trying to find out what was really going on at the trial is a matter for an investigative journalist, and preferably one deeply committed to both free speech and democracy, who can help us understand why Socrates attracted less than universal admiration.
Fortunately, we have the results of exactly such an investigation, in the form of The Trial of Socrates, by I.F. Stone. Stone was an independent-minded investigative journalist, who avoided close contact with official sources and built his case on publicly available documents. He was a critic of Cold War policies, racism and anti-Semitism in the FBI, and much besides. During his career he worked for several different newspapers, and produced his newsletter, I. F. Stone’s Weekly, from 1953 until angina forced him to retire in 1971. At this point, he completed his long interrupted Bachelor’s degree in classical languages from the University of Pennsylvania, devoted himself to the study of classical Greek literature and thought, and over a ten-year period produced this book, which he completed a year before his death in 1981. What follows is his analysis of the trial and its significance, which I with my two years of schoolboy Greek am not qualified to improve on.
As Stone reminds us, Socrates himself wrote nothing down, and everything you know about him is at second or third hand. There are some critical mentions in Aristotle, who was born 15 years after Socrates died, fiercely hostile satires staged many years before the trial in Aristophanes’ The Clouds and The Birds, and a defence of Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and Apology, but the most extensive source by far is Plato. Plato’s dialogues, centred on Socrates, are dramatic masterpieces through which Socrates emerges with still contemporary urgency. Scholars will continue to debate how much of this material may represent Socrates, and how much is Plato’s own, but unless there is reason to think otherwise, what we are usually discussing is Plato’s Socrates. However, in the case of the trial, we have the independent account by Xenophon, allowing us to check many crucial facts.
Let me start with Stone’s discussion of The Euthyphro, which occurs in the middle of the book, but goes to the heart of Stone’s critique. The dialogue is set as an encounter outside the courts, where Socrates is dealing with the preliminaries to his trial. It is usually presented, as I did myself earlier, as a triumphant example of Socrates’ probing demolition of Euthyphro’s unwarranted certainty. What we risk losing sight of is why Euthyphro and Socrates are having this discussion in the first place. Euthyphro has a real life dilemma. A labourer has killed one of his father’s slaves, whereupon his father left him in chains in a ditch while sending for legal advice. Three days later, the labourer was dead. Euthyphro has to decide whether it is more pious to be a good son and say nothing, or to be a good citizen and report the matter to the authorities, and he chooses the latter.
It should by now be no surprise that Socrates attacks this decision. Euthyphro has decided that in the circumstances piety requires him to inform against his own father, but under Socrates’ cross-examining, it turns out that he cannot even define piety. This is the background to Socrates’ unanswerable philosophical dilemma. Socrates is guided by the principle that questions can be decided by examining definitions, and it is the lack of a good definition that has led Euthyphro to what Socrates considers to be a perverse decision. I have long regarded The Euthyphro as showing Socrates at his best; but thanks to Stone, I can now see that it also shows him at his worst.
We cannot understand Socrates’ attitude without reference to its political context. Thus the word “labourer,” as Stone points out, was a technical term for the lowest class of freemen, those without property, who had won the right to full citizenship just two centuries earlier, and had suffered most under the oligarchies that Sparta had imposed on Athens. Classical Greek was proverbial for the subtlety of its vocabulary, and accordingly, here as elsewhere, Stone pays close attention to the actual words used, and shows us many shades of meaning that would otherwise be lost in translation. His discussion of the Euthyphro runs to 5 pages, and includes such relevant background detail as the changing fates of the landowners on the island of Naxos, where the episode had taken place, during the Peloponnesian War, and the disenfranchisement of labourers in the oligarchical interludes of the preceding decades.
Stone, a journalist remember, does not waste words, and I cannot possibly do justice here to what takes him 250 fact-filled pages plus footnotes. So I will select just four topics for discussion; what we know about Socrates chief accuser, Socrates’ mutually contradictory claims to ignorance and to superior insight, the full significance of the indictment brought against him, and his extraordinary conduct at the trial.
Socrates’ chief accuser was Anytus, a tanner by trade, but on occasion a general by necessity. We first meet him in The Meno, where Socrates belittles all of Athens’ leading political figures, including Pericles and Thucydides, and Anytus warns Socrates that he could get into trouble by insulting so many people. The Meno is set two years before the trial, and we cannot tell whether this exchange actually took place, or whether the report is Plato’s dramatic embroidering. The underlying issue here, as Stone points out, is not that Socrates takes this or that political position, but that he is antipolitical. He attacks oligarchs and democrats equally, because he does not regard the common herd as fit for self-government under either system. Anytus himself was no extreme democrat. He was a follower of Theramenes, who had attempted to moderate the policies of the Thirty, and been executed for this on the orders of Critias. At that point, Anytas himself had fled Athens, and joined the coalition that soon recaptured the city from the Thirty, Critias himself being slain in the final battle.
Anytus’ son had for a while been part of Socrates’ circle, but that did not last. As Stone puts it, “One might add that Anytus was not unreasonable in withdrawing his son from Socratic tutelage. Anytus had reason to fear that his son might have been turned by Socrates against his father, taught to despise the family business , and converted by his aristocratic associates into a pro-Spartan snob and a supporter of the Thirty.”
Socrates boasted of his own humility. The Oracle at Delphi had proclaimed him superior in wisdom to other men, and so, he said, he had interrogated others renowned for their wisdom, and to his dismay found them lacking. We have already met his dismissal from consideration of Athenian statesmen across the political spectrum. In his Apology  he refers to this without naming names. He then turns his attention to the poets (his contemporaries here would have included Euripides and Sophocles), but rejects them also because they cannot explain their own works to his satisfaction. Regarding skilled tradesmen, a group that included Anytus, he observed that “even the good artisans fell into the same error as the poets; because they were good workmen they thought that they also knew all sorts of high matters, and this defect in them overshadowed their wisdom.” No one, it seemed, could meet his high standards, and he had to conclude that he was indeed better off than anyone else was, being at least aware of his own ignorance. He was also better off in having access to his own daemon, or inner voice. This is not, as one might imagine, some kind of conscience or inner light, but a spiritual entity, as the Apology, especially in Xenophon , makes plain.
Now to the indictment. I had always thought that this included an accusation of “making the worse appear the better cause”. But those words are not those of his accusers. They are Socrates’ (or perhaps Plato’s) own, crafted to cast the trial in the context of suppression of dissent. As Stone convincingly shows, this interpretation was not generally expressed until several centuries later. The actual indictment refers to corrupting the young, and to not believing in the gods the state believes in, but in others.
As for corrupting the young, we have seen the examples of Alcibiades and Critias, and we can at least sympathise with a tanner faced with a Socrates who teaches his son that his father’s occupation is unworthy. We can also be more specific. Aristophanes, lampooning Socrates in his comedies, describes the young under his influence as having been socratified and, in The Birds, spartified. Fifteen years earlier, when The Birds was staged, that may have been a bit of a joke, but not in the aftermath of the Sparta-imposed dictatorship of the Thirty, and the even more recent coup attempt.
The rest of the indictment is the accusation that Socrates “does not believe in the gods the state believes in, but in other new spiritual beings.” According to Stone, what is important here is the reference to the gods that the Athenian state believes in, rather than to gods in general, although Socrates deliberately blurs this crucial distinction in his Apology. He readily establishes that he takes part in the customary rituals, but this could hardly be the point since everybody knew that anyway. Moreover, classical polytheism was indulgent to different views of the gods, and it is not until the rise of monotheism that we have the concepts of atheism and heresy as deviant. So if that is not what the indictment means, what does it mean?
Here we are forced to speculate, for lack of evidence. There are three specific deities that Stone mentions at this point. Firstly there is Hephaestus, god of the smithy, a divine craftsman highly revered in a city renowned for the quality of its workmanship. Yet Socrates disdains such material activities. Then there are two divinities singled out for mention by Athena herself in the final scene of Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy. One of these is Zeus, but more specifically Zeus Agoraios, Zeus of the assembly, the titular divinity of its free debates. The other is Peitho, or Persuasion, personified as a goddess. Socrates, Stone is suggesting, is under attack for his failure to embrace the essential democratic spirit of participation in public life.
Socrates does indeed attempt to defend himself from such a charge, apparently sincerely but not very convincingly. He says that he had not spoken in the assemblies, for fear of being killed for his opinions. Yet he was expounding those same opinions in the Agora every day, to anyone who would listen, and Plato would continue to teach Socratic doctrine unmolested at his Academy in Athens for another 40 years. He mentions voting against the initial majority in an important trial, but he could hardly have evaded the duty to take part, having been chosen by lot to be among the judges, nor could he have been in danger in stating his opinion, since he persuaded the majority to his own point of view. And he mentions that he quietly ignored an order from the Thirty to take part in an unlawful arrest. Hardly a spectacular display of opposition, when he could have added his very well-known presence to the opposition forces then mustering outside the city.
And finally, to Socrates’ conduct at the trial, and his motivation. Socrates made it very clear to Xenophon’s informant, Hermogenes, that he had knowing set out on a course that would lead to his death. He eloquently laments his lack of eloquence, while claiming that minds have been poisoned against him, and insults the court for being open to rhetorical persuasion. His proud display of humility is calculated to offend the citizens judging him. He belittles the excellences of craftsmanship, poetry, and political debate, for which Athens was justly famous. He gives credibility to the charge of believing in different gods, by invoking his daemon and its preternatural insight. He rejects in advance the possibility of being conditionally acquitted if he stops teaching, although he had done exactly that when asked to under the Thirty. He is surprised – one might almost say offended – by the narrowness of the guilty verdict against him. When proceedings move on to the punishment phase, the prosecution offers, as foreseen, the death penalty, expecting the defence to come up with a serious alternative. Yet Socrates’ counteroffer is that he be awarded civic banquets for life, in recognition of his services to the city. And although he eventually modifies that to paying a small fine, it is hardly surprising that the majority in favour of the death penalty ends up being larger than it had been for the earlier guilty verdict. He was asking for it, after all.
The killing of Socrates was a crime. Socrates was a willing accomplice.
1] I helped present a petition to the Scottish Parliament asking them to revoke the long-standing legal requirement for Council Education Committees to include nominees of the Churches as voting members. In response, the Scottish Government reinterpreted the legislation so as to make their presence a matter for each separate Council to decide.
2] Xenophon, despite his sympathy for the oligarchic cause, confirms this atrocity. Critias appears, favourably, and without any mention of these events, in several of Plato’s dialogues, but these were written many years later.
3] In Xenophon’s version of Socrates’ Apology, Socrates says that Anytus’ enmity arose “because, seeing him deemed worthy of the highest honours of the state, I told him it ill became him to bring up his son in a tan-yard.”
4] The word of course is used here in its original sense of explanation and justification, the very opposite of common current usage. In this paragraph, I use Plato’s version of the Apology, although it was probably written much later, since it is more explicit here than Xenophon’s.
5] Here Xenophon is the more explicit: “I speak of a divinity, and in using that designation I claim to speak at once more exactly and more reverentially than they do who [using divination] ascribe the power of the gods to birds. And that I am not lying against the Godhead I have this as a proof: although I have reported to numbers of friends the counsels of heaven, I have never at any time been shown to be a deceiver or deceived [tumult in court].”