Socrates was a martyr. He died on account of the belief that he embraced. But history no less attests to his innocence. It was known that Socrates was accused of three crimes: impiety, contempt for the gods and corrupting the minds of the Athenian youth. Yet in a careful analysis, the accusations are said to be based on personal biases and non-factual evidences. Socrates himself dismissed the accusations as baseless. And there are reasons to think that his accusers may have only misconstrued his actions as catalyst for intellectual corruption during his time. In the end, Socrates was condemned to death. Yet the admirable manner by which he embraced his death merely showed his dignity as a principled learner.
Were the Accusations against Socrates Justified?
For someone declared by the Oracle of Delphi as “the wisest man” ever to have been born on this planet, it surely is not surprising to learn that Socrates was received by the Athenian society with both gleeful accommodation on the one side of the spectrum, and fierce consternation on the other extreme side of the spectrum (Bruder & Moore, 2005, p. 36). Wise men, after all, are normally taken with either admiration or skepticism; as indeed either respect or cynicism. But what stands to be an incurably paradoxical aspect of Socrates’ life lays in the fact that, while he embraced his gripping ignorance as essentially inescapable, he was nevertheless deemed responsible for crimes involving his beliefs and opinions. Simply put, he was put to death for his beliefs, despite admitting that he knows nothing. The death of Socrates was thus marked with a patent contradiction. And as such, his trial constituted as the very pathway onto which he chose to tread his ultimate end – i.e., his own martyrdom.
Rationale and Scope
This paper seeks to explore the trial of Socrates in the hope of bringing into the fore the accusations leveled against the learned philosopher. Corollary to it, this paper seeks to likewise evaluate whether or not such accusations are justified so as to legitimately merit Socrates’ untimely death. For purposes of limitation, it is imperative to note that this paper seeks not to expound on the life of Socrates in general, as the philosophical positions which acted as the potent catalyst that incited public cynicism against him in particular. And because this paper seeks to evaluate the merits of the accusations leveled against Socrates, it would help to further note that the intent and tone of this paper shall be both expository and argumentative.
Three Chief Accusations against Socrates
Friedrich Nietzsche believes that Socrates was a “man more than human size”, in that the learned philosopher’s life became a glaring testament of the admirable capacity of the human will to summon every ounce of courage so as to emerge triumphant in the battles of life (cited in Strauss, 1996, p. 7). And for someone who showed that it was in fact possible to face one’s accusers upfront without compromising one’s sacred beliefs, Nietzsche’s contention surely speaks volumes for what Socrates’ stood for in the final days of his life. Socrates’ accusers included Meletus, Anytus and Lycon; while his trial, chiefly written in Plato’s Apology and Phaedo, became a juridical deliberation of the crimes he allegedly committed, which summarily can be described into these three distinct acts: “impiety, speaking against the gods, and corrupting the youth of Athens” (Lavine, 1982, p. 13).
The first two accusations – namely, impiety and contempt for the gods – appeared to belong to the same genre – i.e. that Socrates, being an ardent knower, expanded the boundaries of human inquiry even onto the realms of the unknowable. This entailed, the accusations furthered, offering a kind of knowledge that disrespectfully extrapolates the ways of the heaven above, as well as of the hell below (Brickhouse & Smith, 2004, p. 86). Plato’s Apology offers Socrates’ response in respect to these accusations. Therein, one would see that Socrates appeared to have appreciated the full weight of the first two accusations hurled against him with both honesty and wit. Declares Socrates:
What do the slanderers say? They shall be my prosecutors and I will sum up their words in an affidavit: “Socrates is an evil-doer and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in the heavens. He makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger and he teaches these doctrines to others. (cited in Bruder & Moore, 2005, pp. 45-46).
What Socrates basically did was to dismiss these accusations – leveled, as they were, by Meletus – as fundamentally baseless and merely derivative from gossips and hearsays. As such, Socrates declares his innocence vis-à-vis these malicious slanders, and further states that, since he knew nothing, he could not be held liable on account of “rumors (which) are mostly spread about privately and anonymously” (Brickhouse & Smith, 2004, p. 86).
The third accusation is patently distinct from the first two, in that it involved being indicted with acts tantamount to rebellion. According to Lavine, Socrates was charged with conspiracy to organize anti-Athenian democracy movements, citing further that the elderly philosopher sought to incite young aristocrats and men of goodwill to revolt against the norms of the governing democracy (Lavine, 1982, p. 13). The charge, as it were, was in fact weak; for even while Socrates was vocal about his dissent against the principled norms of democracy, he still cannot be charged with conspiracy to topple a government by proffering critical discourses, owing to an existing rule that tolerates debates all over Athens (Lavine, 1982, p. 13). That being said, the third accusation – unlike the first two – was nevertheless based on the Socrates’ intellectual honesty in criticizing how the democratic government can endanger the people.
Thus, after having been tried with these accusations, and having realized that such merits were notwithstanding, Socrates opted to face a nobler destiny by embracing death than fleeing Athens at the expense of moral integrity.
Evaluation of the Charges against Socrates
I find it appropriate to firstly state that it is not for nothing that history have judged Socrates to be innocent of any wrongdoing. For this reason, I am inclined to believe that, based on the merits – or the lack of it – of Socrates’ trial, the accusations against the learned philosopher lack substantial justification to begin with. In the first place, it is not without good reasons to think that the motives underlying the accusations against Socrates were, arguably, based on personal biases and not on factual merits. Socrates himself believes that this was the crux of his trial – i.e. a trial based on personal biases, if not hatred. This is most evidently seen in the first two accusations; for the reason that impiety and contempt for the gods can be construed based on a rather subjective slant. In other words, it is easy to can accuse someone of disrespect based on one’s personal interpretation of it. Worse, if a person evaluating is gripped with personal contempt for the accused, the outcome could not be objectively taken as fair and square.
Secondly, to be judged according to one’s embrace of a set of beliefs is certainly unjustified. And as far as Socrates’ case is concerned, being punished for teaching what he believed was the truth constituted a plain violation of his fundamental right to liberty and life. One needs to remember that people get to be judged for their deeds, and on account of their beliefs. But according to Marias, Socrates was put to death for the reason that he so passionately embraced his philosophical teachings (1967, p. 38). Surely, Socrates did nothing grievous so as to merit capital punishment; for in the foregoing discussion, it was seen that the learned philosopher committed no infraction whatsoever in that the first two accusations were mere hearsays, and that the last charge was bereft of factual evidence.
The abovementioned brings me to a related point – and the third one actually. I am of the firm opinion that the third accusation, that Socrates is involved in organizing a revolutionary community against the incumbent democratic government, is simply baseless. I take cue primarily from the fact that Socrates’ public reputation was that of a philosopher and not of a political revolutionary. The nobility that comes with having to be esteemed as a wise man is in itself a very strong statement against an accusation that tags him as an irascible renegade. In addition, it may not be wrong to surmise that what the detractors accuse of Socrates may have something to do with the latter’s having a handful of followers, who in turn may have embraced his dissent against democracy (Marias, 1967, p. 38). While having disciples, it must be noted, was quite normative for every teacher during that time, Socrates’ accusers may have been led to construe that his teachings constituted a potent threat to Athens’ otherwise fragile stability.
Last but not least, by right of Socrates’ being a philosopher, it is certainly wrong for him to be accused of contempt for the gods on account of a humble attempt to know better. I do not think that the desire for learning, if only one aims at attaining human excellence, constitutes a grave mortal sin to begin with. Herein I find the explanation of Brickhouse and Smith rather insightful. According to the authors, Socrates belongs to the group of proto-scientists who transformed philosophical inquiry as an endeavor that seeks to unravel natural causes for natural occurrences (2004, p. 87). In many ways, Socrates’ philosophy was as a radical approach to explaining reality in that such line of thinking departs from the pervading mythologies of his epoch. All things considered, Socrates must never be held liable for his intellectual honesty.
I therefore conclude that there is no reasonable justification, whatsoever, that can be inferred so as to lend support to the accusations leveled against Socrates. Simply put, the charges against Socrates, at least in respect to the crimes he allegedly committed, were all baseless. In the discussions which were developed, it was learned that Socrates was made to face three chief accusations – namely, impiety, contempt for the gods and corrupting the minds of the Athenian youths. All three charges however were found to be wanting in factual or logical evidence. In the final analysis, it must be acknowledged that, on account of his fateful martyrdom, Socrates has best exemplified the nobility that comes with having to die for the sake of the truth that behooves an unqualified embrace.
Brickhouse, T. & Smith, N. (2004). Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Trial of Socrates. New York, Routledge.
Lavine, T. (1982). From Socrates to Sartre. New York, Bantam Books.
Marias, J. (1967). History of Philosophy. New York, Dover Publications, Incorporated.
Moore, N. and Bruder, K. (2005). Philosophy: The Power of Ideas. Sixth Edition. Boston, The McGraw-Hill.
Plato. “Apology” in Moore, N. and Bruder, K. (2005). Philosophy: The Power of Ideas. Sixth Edition. Boston, The McGraw-Hill.
Strauss, L. (1996). Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.