1992-12-03: The Trial of Socrates

The Trial Of Socrates (1988)

by I. F. Stone (1907-1989)

Stone, an investigative reporter in medically enforced retirement, wondered about the famous trial of Socrates, a presumed black mark against Golden Athens.  Socrates is little known, except vaguely as a non-conformist gadfly, irritating the powerful of Athens, who swatted him down for it.  This image is sufficient to earn the admiration of many Americans.

Stone undertook to learn what lay behind the trial, learning enough ancient Greek to read the original texts, and piecing together the views of many people.  The first obstacle was that Plato presents the charges against Socrates, but not a bill of particulars.  Clearly there is more to the story than Plato saw fit to write, and Stone has tried to dig it out of the remaining evidence.

Whether he is right or not, he presents a convincing case (at least to one who hasn’t tried to check out the facts behind his presentation).  In the process he does a lot to reduce the patina of respectability on Socrates, Plato and later Platonists.  He also shows areas where Aristotle’s views can be seen as a reaction against Plato’s.

In Part I, Socrates and Athens, Stone constructs a picture of the nature of Socrates and Athens of his time, using many sources to supplement Plato.  Socrates was of middle-class origin, but inherited enough to become a hoplite, and to avoid working by living a frugal life.  His leisure time was spent in forcing the Athenians to consider their own ignorance, a pasttime they certainly found irritating.  Though the strength of Athens was the extension of democratic rights to the middle class, Socrates was contemptuous toward them, and toward the democratic form of government which served their interests.

Socrates specialized in forcing his quest for perfect definitions on others.  He easily convinced people that if they could not define a concept, or even the most concrete of things, they did not understand it.  This became a hallmark of his disciples, who used the same technique to entrap their enemies in floundering and fruitless philosophical argument when common sense would be more useful.  Especially in the area of politics, where pragmatism is more important than ideology, Socrates and his friends made arguments that undermined the theory behind democracy: that every one was the best judge of his own interests.

Socrates’s colleagues were strongly anti-democratic, and participated in the worst Sparta-aligned oligarchies (the Four Hundred in 411BC and the Thirty in 404BC).  Plato avoids providing any evidence of Socrates’s connection to these terrorist regimes, but other sources show that his pro-Sparta attitudes were well-known in his own day.  Socrates himself (in Plato’s dialogues) denies any political involvements, apparently truthfully; but his indirect influence, by providing justification and technique to the perpetrators was hardly neutral.

Stone reveals a blind spot when he discusses Socrates’s position (or non-position) in the massacre of Melos.  He calls this curious, since it was a black mark on the Athenian democracy in dealing with rebellious city-states.  When Melos was subdued, the Athenian assembly voted to kill all the men, and enslave all the women and children.  However, Plato would have had Socrates use this against democratic Athens only if he had disagreed with it, and also considered it a black mark.  It seems more likely that he supported the action.  He also questions the fact that Socrates did not take part in what he sees as Athens’s shining moment when the decision was made to similarly massacre Mytilene.  Here the original decision was narrowly reversed in a triumph of democracy (and accomplished in the nick of time).  In this case, Socrates may have been of the pro-massacre opinion, but Plato may have suppressed it for political reasons, since it would have detracted from Socrates’s reputation and perhaps have endangered Plato himself.

Other silences of Plato seem to be connected to Socates’s pro-Sparta positions.  After the failed oligarchies, this was very unpopular and perhaps even dangerous.

The result of Stone’s Part I is to present a picture of an anti-democratic Socrates, with strong connections to the pro-Sparta leaders of two revolts against Athenian democracy.  His philosophical contribution, insofar as Stone covers it, is insistence on clear definitions.  Aristotle credits him with this, though he was quite opposite of Socrates on many questions and approaches.

In part II, Stone addresses The Ordeal.  His first question is, Why did his accusers wait until he was in his seventies to charge him?  Stone links the timing with the threat of another oligarchic overthrow, and the influence of the pro-Sparta party.  In this view, the trial was a way of discouraging this party.

Stone describes Plato’s views on government, as expressed in Republic, Timaeus, Critias  and other works.  These views are extremely anti-democratic, placing government in the hands of an absolute ruler, the philosopher-king.  In making the transition from democracy to absolutism, Plato recommends many well-known techniques of police-state totalitarians and propaganda.  If these views had been known to the Socrates jury, they would have been all the more certain that he had indeed “corrupted the youth” of Athens.  In the extracts Stone presents, Plato comes off as a lunatic extremist, or as a parody of his own views.

In describing the trial, Stone asserts that Socrates deliberately sought his own death, in a dignified, painless way, by antagonizing the jury.  He practically defied them to find him guilty by presenting no defense, plea for mercy, or justification of the questionable charges; after conviction, he either proposed no alternative penalty to death, or further antagonized them by proposing insulting honors or a minimal fine.  Stone does not explain why Socrates may have wished to die, except as a fear of the infirmities of old age.  His (or Plato’s) philosophical justifications sound hollow, and certainly Plato didn’t take them to heart.

In trying to understand the charges against Socrates, Stone seems to have uncovered something new.  The charge of disbelief in the gods of the city was converted by Socrates into a charge of atheism, something Athenians would never have found illegal.  By manipulating his “dim-witted” accuser into placing the charge in these terms, Socrates did not have to defend the real charge.  Stone goes into the background of the specific gods of the city of Athens, and identifies them as Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and patroness of the middle-class craftsmen whom Socrates despised, Zeus Agoraios, the Zeus of the assembly and divinity of its free debates, and Peitho, the spirit of Persuasion.  Peitho is honored by a shrine overlooking the agora.  All of these city-specific gods support the democracy which Socrates ridiculed throughout his career.  Essentially, the charge accused him of being anti-democratic, something he could not very well defend himself against.

Socrates, and Plato too, seems to have found the Homeric gods more congenial than the new-fangled city-gods as promoted in Aeschylus’s Oresteia.  Neither of them denied the reality of the gods, and Plato proposed a law against atheism in the Republic.  Neither of them believed in the legitimacy of commoners’ participation in democratic government.  Socrates could not, or would not, make a defense based on appeal to the spirit of free speech on which democracy stands without acknowledging and complimenting that democracy itself.

Stone goes into the idea of free speech in some detail, examining the meaning and use of the Greek terms (four of them) that are used for the concept.  He contends that Socrates could have defended himself against the charge of corrupting the young men of Athens by appealing to the Athenian tradition and logic of free speech.  But Plato held this right in low esteem, forbidding it in his utopian schemes.  Xenophon also derides it in his works.  At any rate, Socrates was a man of principle, and would hardly have appealed to a principle in which he did not believe simply to escape a fate to which he seems to have been drawn anyway.  The interesting question, to which we can not know the answer, is: Why did Socrates want to die?  Nonetheless, despite Socrates’s unwillingness to make use of the defenses at his disposal, the fact remains that the Athenian jury condemned him unjustifiably, according to its own principles.

Stone has performed a great service in bringing together all his findings.  They place the matter of Socrates in a broader perspective than Plato provides, and reflect on Plato and others disciples of Socrates.  Taken as a coherent subject, the history of the rise and success of the Greek city-states, and the role played by the freedoms which we take for granted clearly deserves more attention than we generally give it.  The nature of the Athenian polis in particular made possible the career of Socrates, and others who pursued careers based on the expression of ideas.  Whether Socrates affected Athens anywhere near as much is less certain.  But thanks to his determination to live a principled life, even if those principles are not clear, and thanks to the determination of Plato to portray him so, the trial of Socrates gave rise to a “secular saint”, martyred to the idea of freedom of expression.

In an epilogue, Stone addresses a late tradition that Athens had suffered a witch-hunt of philosophers before and during the time of Socrates.  In an interesting summary of scholarly work, also criticizing the credulity of writers who took the plots of Greek comedies and tragedies as historical fact, he agrees with those who debunk this notion.  It seems clear that Athens provided a congenial atmosphere for the pursuit of philosophical studies for 1200 years, from the sixth century BC to the sixth century AD, a remarkable period, whose end coincided with the triumph of Christian intolerance over pagan scientific inquiry, and the beginning of the Dark Ages.


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