The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy Wikimedia
Conventional wisdom sees Socrates as a martyr for free speech, but he accepted his death sentence for a different cause
Some 2,400 years ago, in 399 BCE, Athens put Socrates on trial. The charge was impiety, and the trial took place in the People’s Court. Socrates, already 70 years old, had long been a prominent philosopher and a notorious public intellectual. Meletus, the prosecutor, alleged that Socrates had broken Athenian law by failing to observe the state gods, by introducing new gods, and by corrupting the youth.
Meletus, as prosecutor, and Socrates, as defendant, delivered timed speeches before a jury of 501 of their fellow citizens. Meletus’ prosecution speech is lost. Two versions of Socrates’ defence speech, one recorded by Plato and the other by a clever polymath named Xenophon, are preserved. A majority of jurors (about 280) voted Socrates guilty, and he was executed by hemlock poisoning.
There is no dispute about the basic facts of the trial of Socrates. It is less obvious why Athenians found Socrates guilty, and what it might mean today. People who believe in both democracy and the rule of law ought to be very interested in this trial. If the takeaway is either that democracy, as direct self-government by the people, is fatally prone to repress dissent, or that those who dissent against democracy must be regarded as oligarchic traitors, then we are left with a grim choice between democracy and intellectual freedom.
But that is the wrong way to view Socrates’ trial. Rather, the question it answers concerns civic obligation and commitment. The People’s Court convicted Socrates because he refused to accept that a norm of personal responsibility for the effects of public speech applied to his philosophical project. Socrates accepted the guilty verdict as binding, and drank the hemlock, because he acknowledged the authority of the court and the laws under which he was tried. And he did so even though he believed that the jury had made a fundamental mistake in interpreting the law.
The conventional wisdom maintains that the impiety charge against Socrates was a smokescreen, that politics motivated his trial. Just four years earlier, a democratic uprising had overthrown a junta that ruled Athens for several tumultuous months. Meletus’ prosecution speech at the trial likely urged the citizens of Athens to focus on Socrates’ long association with members of this vicious and anti-democratic junta.
In his influential interpretation The Trial of Socrates (1988), the US journalist-turned-classicist I F Stone saw this trial as an embattled democracy defending itself. In Stone’s view, Socrates had helped to justify the junta’s savage programme of oligarchic misrule and was a traitor. More commonly, Socrates is seen as a victim of an opportunistic prosecutor and a wilfully ignorant citizenry. In truth, politics is indispensable to understanding the trial of Socrates, but in a slightly more sophisticated way. Seeing Socrates as the paradigm of the autonomous individual, as a simple martyr to free speech, is wrong. Athenian political culture and, specifically, the civic commitments required of Athenian citizens are essential to understanding the trial. Socrates’ own commitments to his city influenced the trial’s course, and those commitments were core parts of Athenian political culture, shaping the relationship between public speech and responsibility. Indeed, the actions of Socrates, Meletus and the jury must be understood in the context of the Athenians’ emphasis on the role of the responsible citizen in the democratic state, on their ideal of civic responsibility. Thus it is a story, in many ways, of civic engagement, in some respects far removed from the politics of recognition that characterise contemporary US debates.
In his retelling of the trial, the late Roman-era writer Maximus of Tyre claimed that Socrates refused to respond to Meletus’ charges, maintaining a dignified silence throughout. Indeed, dissidents who seek to deny the validity of a given political system have periodically adopted a principled refusal to participate in a court proceeding or legal system. But, Socrates didacknowledge the authority of the court. He actively participated in his own defence – though it was, in many ways, an idiosyncratic one.
Having thus accepted the Laws’ fruits, on what grounds could Socrates now turn around and deny their legitimacy?
The point is that Socrates did not dispute the legitimacy of the trial, he did not take a stand outside a corrupt political system; rather, he participated as a citizen. As a citizen, his civic obligation required him to answer charges that he had acted in ways that harmed that community. Plato’s version of the defence speech makes clear that Socrates sought to vindicate himself, to show that he had not harmed the community. Indeed, Socrates represented himself as a civic benefactor, who ought to be rewarded. His record of contributions to the civic life of Athens, he believed, merited the honour of free meals at the state hearth…