see it clearly

The Accusations Against Socrates

The life led by Socrates was not likely to win for him either the affection or the esteem of the vulgar. Those who did not know him personally, seeing him with the eyes of the comic poets, conceived him as a “visionary” and a “bore.” Those who had faced him in argument, even if they had not smarted under his rebukes, had at any rate winced under his interrogatory, and regarded him in consequence with feelings of dislike and fear. But the eccentricity of his genius and the ill will borne towards him by individuals are not of themselves sufficient to account for the tragedy of 399. It thus becomes necessary to study the circumstances of the trial, and to investigate the motives which led the accusers to seek his death and the people of Athens to acquiesce in it.

The life of Socrates

Socrates was accused (1) of denying the gods recognized by the state and introducing instead of them strange divinities and (2) of corrupting the young. The first of these charges rested upon the notorious fact that he supposed himself to be guided by a divine visitant or sign. The second, Xenophon tells us, was supported by a series of particular allegations: (a) that he taught his associates to despise the institutions of the state, and especially election by lot; (b) that he had numbered amongst his associates Critias and Alcibiades, the most dangerous of the representatives of the oligarchical and democratical parties respectively; (c) that be taught the young to disobey parents and guardians and to prefer his own authority to theirs; (d) that he was in the habit of quoting mischievous passages of Homer and Hesiod to the prejudice of morality and democracy.

It is plain that the defense was not calculated to conciliate a hostile jury. Nevertheless, it is at first sight difficult to understand how an adverse verdict became possible. If Socrates rejected portions of the conventional of the mythology, he accepted the established faith and defense. performed its offices with exemplary regularity. If he talked of a mantic sign, it was divinely accorded to him, presumably by the gods of the state. If he questioned the propriety of certain of the institutions of Athens, he was prepared to yield an unhesitating obedience to all. He had never countenanced the misdeeds of Critias and Alcibiades, and indeed, by a sharp censure, had earned the undying hatred of one of them. Duty to parents he inculcated as he inculcated other virtues; and, if he made the son wiser than the father, surely that was not a fault. The citation of a few lines from the poets ought not to weigh against the clear evidence of his large hearted patriotism; and it might be suspected that the accuser had strangely misrepresented his application of the familiar words.

To the modern reader Xenophon’s reply, of which the foregoing is in effect a summary, will probably seem sufficient, and more than sufficient. But it must not be forgotten that Athenians of the old school approached the subject from an entirely different point of view. Socrates was in all things an innovator, in religion, in as much as he sought to eliminate from the theology of his contemporaries “those lies which poets tell “; in politics, in as much as he distrusted several institutions dear to Athenian democracy; in education, in as much as he waged war against authority, and in a certain sense made each man the measure of his own actions.

It is because Socrates was an innovator that we, who see in him the founder of philosophical inquiry, regard him as a great man; it was because Socrates was an innovator that old -fashioned Athenians, who saw’ in the new fangled culture the origin of all their recent distresses and disasters, regarded him as a great criminal. It is, then, after all in no wise strange that a majority was found first to pronounce him guilty, and afterwards, when he refused to make any submission and professed himself indifferent to any mitigation of the penalty, to pass upon him the sentence of death. That the verdict and the sentence were not in any way illegal is generally acknowledged.

But, though the popular distrust of eccentricity, the irritation of individuals and groups of individuals, the attitude of Socrates himself, and the prevalent dislike of the intellectual movement which he represented, go far to account for the result of the trial, they do not explain the Attack. Socrates' oddity and. demeanor were no new things; yet in the past, though they had made him unpopular, they had not brought him into the courts. His sturdy resistance to the demos in 406 B.C. and to the Thirty in 404 had passed, if not unnoticed, at all events unpunished. His political heresies and general unorthodoxy had not caused him to be excluded from the amnesty of 403. Why was it then, that in 399, when Socrates' idiosyncrasies were more than ever familiar, and when the constitution had been restored, the toleration hitherto extended to him was withdrawn? What were the special circumstances which induced three members of the patriot party, two of them leading politicians, to unite their efforts against one who apparently was so little formidable?

For an answer to this question it is necessary to look to the history of Athenian politics. Besides the oligarchical party, properly so called, which in 411 was represented by the Four Hundred and in 404 by the Thirty, and the democratical party, which returned to power in 410 and in 403, there was at Athens during the last years of the Peloponnesian War a party of “moderate oligarchs,” antagonistic to both. It was to secure the cooperation of the moderate party that the Four Hundred in 411 promised to constitute the Five Thousand, and that the Thirty in 404 actually constituted the Three Thousand. It was in the hope of realizing the aspirations of the moderate party that Theramenes, its most prominent representative, allied himself, first with the Four Hundred, afterwards with the Thirty.

In 411 the policy of Theramenes was temporarily successful, the Five Thousand superseding the Four Hundred. In 404 the Thirty outwitted him; for though they acted upon his advice so far as to constitute the Three Thousand, they were careful to keep all real power in their own hands. But on both occasions the “ polity” for such, in the Aristotelian sense of the term, the constitution of 411 - 410 was, and the constitution of 404 - 403 professed to be was insecurely based, so that it was not long before the “unmixed democracy” was restored.

The program of the “ moderates “ which included (1) the limitation of the franchise, by the exclusion of those who were unable to provide themselves with the panoply of a hoplite and thus to render to the city substantial service, (2) the abolition of payment for the performance of political functions, and, as it would seem, (3) the disuse of the lot in the election of magistrates, found especial favor with the intellectual class. Thus Alcibiades was amongst its promoters, and Thucydides commends the constitution established after the fall of the Four Hundred as the best which in his time Athens had enjoyed.

Now it is expressly stated that Socrates disliked election by lot; it is certain that regarding paid educational service as a species of prostitution, he would account paid political service not a whit less odious; and the stress laid by the accuser upon the Homeric quotation, becomes intelligible if we may suppose that Socrates, like Theramenes, wished to restrict the franchise to those who were rich enough to serve as hoplites at their own expense. Thus, as might have been anticipated, Socrates was a “moderate,” and the treatment which he received from both the extreme parties suggests that Socrates attempted a rescue-that his sympathy with the moderate party was pronounced and notorious. Even in the moment of democratic triumph the “moderates” made themselves heard, Phormisius proposing that those alone should exercise the franchise who possessed land in Attica; and it is reasonable to suppose that their position was stronger in 399 than in 403.

These considerations seem to indicate an easy explanation of the indictment of Socrates by the democratic politicians. It was a blow struck at the “moderates,” Socrates being singled out for attack because, though not a professional politician, he was the very type of the malcontent party, and had done much, probably more than any man living, to make and to foster views which, if not in the strict sense of the term oligarchical, were confessedly hostile to the “unmixed democracy.” His eccentricity and heterodoxy, as well as the personal animosities which he had provoked, doubtless contributed, as his accusers had foreseen, to bring about the conviction; but in the judgment of the present writer, it was the fear of what may be called philosophical radicalism which prompted the action of Meletus, Anytus and Lycon. The result did not disappoint their expectations. The friends of Socrates abandoned the struggle and retired into exile; and, when they returned to Athens, the most prominent of them, Plato, was careful to confine himself to theory, and to announce in emphatic terms his withdrawal from the practical politics of his native city.