by Jacques-Louis David, 1787.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
sees Socrates as a martyr for free speech,
but he accepted his death sentence
for a different cause...
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,
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
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.
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
In Stone's view, Socrates had helped to justify the junta's savage program of oligarchic misrule and was a traitor. More commonly, Socrates is seen as a victim of an opportunistic prosecutor and a willfully 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 characterize contemporary US
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 did
acknowledge the authority of the court. He actively participated in
his own defense - though it was, in many ways, an idiosyncratic one.
on what grounds could Socrates now
turn around and
deny their legitimacy?
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
defense 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 honor of free meals at the state hearth.
In the dialogue Crito, Socrates explains that despite his conviction, it was not ethically permissible for him to escape from the prison. In Crito, Plato gives readers a 'dialogue within a dialogue', in which the personified Laws of Athens speak to another, counterfactual Socrates.
Socrates intends to avoid punishment by escaping from prison and
fleeing to some distant land.
The Laws point out to Socrates that it was through them (the laws concerning marriage) that he came into the world.
The Laws point out that, through the norms concerning parents' responsibility for their children, they nurtured him. Finally, through them he received his education.
Socrates acknowledges all
of this. He willingly accepted those goods, and he acknowledged them
as good. Having thus accepted the Laws' fruits, on what grounds
could Socrates now turn around and deny their legitimacy?
He would have been free
to go. But since he had chosen to stay, he had, the Laws point out,
again recognized their rightness. The trial itself, the Laws
reminded Socrates, had been conducted in a procedurally correct
manner - according to the very rules that Socrates had affirmed by
this continued presence.
But that was a human error. It was not the fault of the Laws.
The possibility of error on the part of the citizen-jurors who would be his judges was part of the package deal that Socrates had taken up in the course of his upbringing and education, and that he had affirmed by his continued presence in the civic community of Athens.
He should know that the
Athenian citizens, when gathered as legislators or as judges, were
fallible mortals. They could not always get it right.
The proposal was to try a group of Athenian generals en masse, for having criminally failed in their duty towards crews of Athenian warships sunk in a sea battle.
Socrates regarded the motion to condemn the generals as a group, rather than remanding them for individual trials, as procedurally improper. He thought it violated norms offering every accused Athenian his own day in court.
Socrates opposed bringing the proposal to a vote, but the other members of the committee overruled him. He thought that the group trial was a fundamental mistake, but he had made his point:
Throughout his trial, Socrates recognized his civic obligations.
When he defended himself in court against Meletus' charges, rather than staying silent, Socrates was acknowledging the right of the court to judge him. When he remained in prison and drank the hemlock, rather than collaborating in Crito's escape plan, he conducted himself as a law-abiding citizen of the state of Athens.
Socrates was, of course, much more than just a citizen of Athens.
He spent much of his adult life pursuing what he saw as a divine mission to discover the truth about matters of fundamental and universal importance:
He dedicated his life and considerable talents to investigating, overall, one question:
He sought to show anyone
willing to converse with him why it was right to choose the
well-examined life over a life seeking the empty, commonly valued
'goods' of fame, wealth and power.
Athenian democrats who argued that the many, the group, were collectively more likely to get important matters right than any individual expert earned his antipathy.
Whether or not anyone
actually was expert in the art of politics, Socrates certainly
supposed that there could be such an expert, and that the Athenians
were deluded in thinking themselves collectively wise.
sees him as a gadfly
while the people of Athens are
a beautiful, lazy horse
that might be jolted awake
by the gadfly's
The rudimentary answer lay in the foundation that Athens (as opposed to, for example, Sparta) provided in its laws and political culture.
Athens mandated liberty of public speech and tolerance for a wide range of private behavior. Moreover, Athenian laws on morally fraught matters, including piety, tended to be more procedure than substance.
Thus, the law forbidding impiety did not define piety. It left it open to the jury to decide whether a given action or course of behavior fell outside the bounds of the community's standard. It rather provided a specific process for the community to make that decision.
ambiguity benefitted Socrates as it allowed him to pursue his
distinctive way of life without violating the letter of the law.
According to Plato, in his defense speech, Socrates likens his dialogical testing of the opinions of others to the agonizing sting of a gadfly:
In the best individual case, on Socrates' terms, that moment initiated a lifetime's pursuit of genuine human goods.
But, as Socrates' extended gadfly metaphor shows, individual conversion to philosophy was not all that he hoped for. Socrates pairs his analogy of himself as a gadfly to one in which the people of Athens are a beautiful, lazy horse that might be jolted awake by the gadfly's sting.
By his defense speech, as well as by explicit statements from other sources, including other of Plato's dialogues, Socrates reveals that he understood his life of philosophy as political as well as moral.
He aimed at nothing less
than converting Athens as a civic community into a just society.
Nevertheless, he understood his commitment to philosophy as a mission of civic betterment.
Athenian political culture expected that a good citizen would exercise any special talents or resources for the good of the community, not merely for himself or his friends and family.
Contributing to public
life was part, maybe the highest part, of what it meant to fully be
This act constituted the
fulfilling of his civic duty. One moral conversation at a time, he
put his unique excellence in the service of his community.
He did this, invariably, within the city of Athens, save for when abroad on military duty.
Despite the provocation of Socrates' constant demands that they abandon the pleasures of ordinary life in favor of philosophy, and despite his scorn for democratic ideology, it was not until the trial of 399 BCE that Athenians finally slapped him down.
The obvious question is,
The Athenian conception of free speech had not changed.
Athenians' commitment to the principle of free speech, including that every citizen had an equal right to speak his mind, remained resolute. But Athenians also conceived of speech as a form of action, with the potential for profound consequences.
Citizens had a responsibility for the public consequences of their public actions. An Athenian who spoke in public, in the Council, in the assembly, or even in the public square could expect to be held accountable for the consequences of his speech.
If, for example, he
advocated a policy and it brought good, he could expect praise and
honors. If the results of his policy proved harmful to the
community's welfare, he might be blamed and punished accordingly.
It addressed matters of public importance, and aimed to change society. Initially, the effects of Socrates' philosophizing were not obvious.
But following the fall of the anti-democratic junta, led by associates of Socrates, the Athenians thought they had a pretty good sense of the consequences of his speech.
Still, they did not slap him: an amnesty agreement in 403 BCE, in the wake of the democratic restoration, forbade legal prosecution for actions taken by private citizens during the short junta era.
This agreement, it
seemed, covered Socrates' prior speech, however damaging.
Given that his lofty talk of philosophy and denigration of democratic wisdom had, it seemed, contributed to a tyrannical government, he ought, as a good citizen, to desist.
Socrates had a different understanding of his obligations.
He remained convinced
that calling upon people to better know themselves could result only
in good. The wicked actions of his former associates must have had
other causes, ones independent of his mission of philosophizing
about the examined life.
an ordinary defense speech.
Rather than appeal
to the jurors' sympathies,
In the eyes of the majority of his fellow citizens, Socrates was no longer an eccentric with potential for contributing to public life.
He was now either a malevolent public enemy, or deluded and dangerously unable to recognize that his speech predictably produced seriously bad outcomes.
And so the way was left
open for Meletus to launch his prosecution.
But, both Plato's and Xenophon's reports make it clear that Socrates did not deliver an ordinary defense speech.
Rather than appeal to the jurors' sympathies, he challenged them. With unsettling metaphors and logical demonstrations, he made it clear that he opposed democracy and would never abandon his mission of public philosophizing.
Xenophon implies that Socrates chose that sort of speech as a method of jury-assisted suicide:
But Plato's version is, I
think much more convincing.
In this view, Socrates remained obligated to public life to the very end.
His defense speech was a final, very public, attempt to awaken his fellow Athenians. Socrates' 'defense' was a last, best sting. Along with his refusal to break the law by fleeing his mandated punishment, it was also a final act of civic duty.
We can unpack that duty
as courage, respect and engagement.
And, for all its seeming intellectual arrogance, it was an act of civic solidarity - an assertion that Socrates the philosopher was also Socrates the Athenian citizen who owed an account of his actions to his fellow citizens.
Far from a simple drama
pitting democracy against intellectual freedom, the trial of
Socrates is a deep drama of civic engagement, tragic in its outcome,
but at the same time revealing that democracy makes space for acts
of profound heroism.
In our moment, there is real value in reflecting on the centrality of civic duty in the trial of Socrates, a foundational moment in the history of free thought and democratic action.
What will we have lost
when the idea of civic duty, as exemplified by the relationship
between Socrates and his democratic city, no longer gains purchase
on our own thought and actions?