Living in a democracy means being exposed to trials by jury through television and other media sources on a daily basis. While these trials are often overlooked, occasionally there is one that captures the entire country’s attention.
This also applies to trials throughout centuries in our history. While they did not have the same types of media as in this modern era, there were still notable trials that everyone was aware of. One trial that is particularly memorable is the trial against the esteemed philosopher Socrates. He was accused of corrupting the youth, being an atheist, and believing in other gods, and had to face a trial by jury.
The early democratic systems were less intricate and advanced compared to the present. Socrates was pronounced guilty in the trial and received the punishment of execution by consuming hemlock poison. The matter at hand is whether Socrates was genuinely culpable or if he was yet another victim of the early version of democracy, where people might have been envious and fearful of him. Nevertheless, comprehending Socrates’ intentions reveals his innocence regarding the aforementioned accusations, affirming that he was falsely accused and put to death.
Socrates was put to death following a trial where he faced charges of corrupting the youths of Athens and committing acts of impiety. The accusations were brought forth by a small group of men, with Meletus serving as the speaker for the group of accusers. Socrates defended himself during the trial, but the 501 Athenian jurors ultimately voted for his execution based on these allegations. It is worth noting that this severe verdict was not premeditated (Stone 78).
The primary goal of the trial was to remove Socrates from Athens; however, he was determined to remain in the city despite any consequences. It was unexpected that the outcome would lead to Socrates’ execution. Throughout his life, Socrates dedicated most of his time to engaging in conversations with individuals.
The author explores Socrates’ method of asking hypothetical questions to encourage independent thinking and guides the conversation. However, some individuals, including the accusers, viewed Socrates as a Sophist. A Sophist is someone who engages in dialogue and instructs others on how to argue a particular point, regardless of its validity. A typical characteristic of a Sophist is collecting payment for their teachings (Xenophon 42).
Despite the accusation being inaccurate, it is important to note that Socrates did not receive any monetary compensation for his conversations. In fact, Socrates was known to be a destitute individual who relied on the generosity of his affluent acquaintances. Engaging in dialogue with these affluent individuals was Socrates’ means of disseminating his philosophical teachings to the people of Athens. His conversations centered around ethical dilemmas and moral convictions, reflecting his fervent interest in these subjects.
Socrates argues against Meletus’ accusation that he corrupts the young, specifically addressing the notion that he is a paid teacher. If Socrates were actively seeking students and teaching “corrupting” concepts, it would support Meletus’ claim that he has intentionally corrupted the youth.
Socrates asserts that the young men who willingly accompany him, particularly those who come from wealthy families and have plenty of leisure time, find enjoyment in observing his interrogations. In fact, they often attempt to emulate him by questioning others. This statement, highlighted by the phrase “of their own free will,” demonstrates that Socrates does not forcibly impose his beliefs on others, setting him apart from certain contemporaneous philosophers. Thus, this serves as partial evidence that Socrates is not intentionally leading the youth astray.
Despite engaging in discussions with the people of Athens while practicing his lessons in the city center, Socrates did not cause any harm. The individuals were free to choose whether or not to converse with him. Socrates neither compelled anyone to engage in conversation nor inflicted any harm upon those who did decide to interact with him. In contrast, a Sophist would attend your gatherings and inquire about the topic you wished to argue about.
A Sophist’s approach involves teaching individuals how to argue in favor or against a particular viewpoint (Xenophon 45), regardless of the subject’s correctness. Conversely, Socrates does not engage in such activities. Instead, he simply holds conversations with people without arguing or providing direct instruction. However, he engages in discussing specific issues that can potentially be advantageous for individuals. Through these conversations, Socrates prompts individuals to think independently about particular matters, allowing them to discover previously unnoticed perspectives.
Socrates has the power to broaden people’s perspectives in their thinking and behavior. After hearing Socrates speak, individuals are able to make their own judgment on whether they want to believe his words or dismiss them. If someone disagrees with his teachings, they have the freedom not to accept them. Regrettably, Socrates encountered allegations and was ultimately found guilty of influencing Athens’ young generation negatively.
The actions of Socrates, which included conversing with and sharing knowledge with the children, were considered to be corrupting them. However, it is important to acknowledge that Socrates is both wise and virtuous. His goal was to educate the young people of Athens in order to improve their well-being and contribute to a successful future for the city. Teaching lessons benefits students as they gain understanding from their own life experiences and those of others.
According to Reeve, because adults have the ability to choose what they listen to and make their own decisions, Socrates cannot harm any adult he talks to (141). Socrates possessed a unique gift and expressing this gift to others is not harmful. It is also worth considering the role of evidence in this accusation if he was truly corrupting the youth.
Two of Socrates’ disciples ultimately became traitors, but it would be a fallacy to attribute their betrayal solely to Socrates’ teachings. There are numerous factors that could have influenced their actions, making it unfair to solely blame Socrates (Reeve 118). If the accusers aimed to prove Socrates guilty of corrupting the youth and society, they would need to provide more substantial evidence.
Due to the positive outcomes of these teachings, it is important to promote the teachings of Socrates. It is worth noting that Socrates had a significant number of children who followed him, which may have aroused jealousy among the people of the city. As Socrates expressed, “If I corrupt some young men, and have corrupted others, then surely some of them who have grown older and realized that I gave them bad advice when they were young should now themselves come up here to accuse me and avenge themselves” (Plato, 33:d). Later on, Socrates presents another aspect of his argument against corrupting the youth, focusing on the witnesses that Meletus failed to utilize.
In summary, the argument presented is that if Socrates truly corrupted others, there would be individuals who would want to seek revenge and testify against him. In light of this point, Socrates generously offers Meletus some of his precious time to bring forward these witnesses. Socrates specifically mentions several individuals in the gathering who have spent time with him and are supportive of him during the trial. In conclusion, Meletus does not have anyone to call upon who would testify against Socrates (Brickhouse 202).
The argument is concluded by, “Now those who were corrupted may have reason to assist me, but the uncorrupted, their older men relatives, have no reason to assist me except for the rightful and proper one, which is that they know Meletus is lying and I am telling the truth. ” (Plato 34:b) Therefore, there is no evidence of Socrates’ wrongdoing against the Athenians, only the consequences of long-standing defamation by influential individuals who felt harmed by Socrates’ use of wisdom. His argument is straightforward and should have proven Socrates’ innocence in this matter. The fact that only thirty votes would have acquitted him appears to be sufficient for Socrates to believe that his arguments have been accepted (Stone 93).
Socrates has established that he is not intentionally corrupting the youth, and if he unknowingly does so, Meletus has no basis for bringing him to trial. Regarding the charge of Socrates being an atheist and believing in new gods, this assertion appears contradictory. How can one be an atheist, professing no belief in gods, yet simultaneously be accused of believing in new gods? Meletus is accusing Socrates of rejecting the gods recognized at that time while embracing his own deities, namely spirits and voices.
Socrates does not explicitly deny his belief in his own gods, but instead focuses on the absurdity of Meletus’ accusation. He argues that if he worships new gods, then he cannot be considered an atheist. Conversely, if he denies belief in gods, including new ones, then he is also not guilty of the charges. In either case, Socrates maintains his innocence.
Meletus’ actual intention is to question Socrates’ piety, while Socrates himself does not try to refute the accusations regarding his piety. Instead, he focuses more on attacking the formal charges against him (Brickhouse 219). This trial was one of the most significant during his era, and Socrates was unfairly accused and sentenced to death. Socrates never had any intention of corrupting the youth.
Socrates engaged in conversations and debates with individuals in order to prompt them to examine their own beliefs. Through simple logic, he aimed to reveal the truth and allow others to decide whether to uphold their existing beliefs or adopt new ones. Socrates had a genuine desire to assist people and remain committed to his own beliefs while also being open to questioning them. Notably, he hasn’t been fully accused of making weak arguments appear strong.
It is true that he questioned the arguments of people, regardless of their strength compared to his own. He enjoyed making fools of powerful and knowledgeable individuals as a form of entertainment. Perhaps this overlooked aspect of the accusations holds some truth.