The Trial and Execution of Socrates
An Ancient Tragedy that Still Shapes Society
More than 2,400 years ago, in the birthplace of democracy, there was no such thing as freedom of speech, but one man believed there should be. He even died standing up for his rights, including that of freedom of religion, which means both the freedom to get to believe in anything and the freedom from having to believe in anything at the same time. Unfortunately for Socrates, his fellow Athenians were highly conservative, and they despised his progressive rabble-rousing. The most important thing to understand is that Socrates hated superstitions and he knew that the will of an uninformed populace was dangerous, so he encouraged everyone to analyze everything for the benefit of society. The one-of-a-kind philosopher even pointed out how and why this can serve as a major flaw in the fundamental politics of democracy, in any country and at any point in history. More to the point, since no one ever really spoke truth to power quite like Socrates, the self-proclaimed “Gadfly of Athens” infuriated the men in power and they would stop at nothing to take him down.
In 416 BCE, the Athenians went to Sicily to help the Sicilians fight their enemy who was allied with the Spartans, the sworn enemy of the Athenians. However, they suffered a crushing defeat losing more than 50,000 men, who either became a casualty or a prisoner of war. Then, the Persians financed the Spartans, and Athens was forced to surrender in 404 BCE. To make matters worse, since the Athenians were still reeling from a naval campaign that was fought in vain, and a population that had also been plagued by disease, they were looking for someone to blame for the fall of their empire. So, they turned to Socrates who was a staunch critic of Athenian society and an outspoken skeptic of their supremacy. He became public enemy number one in their once great city-state, and they wanted nothing more than to punish him for questioning their way of life. Because he dared to challenge civilization in this way, they used him as a scapegoat. This set the tone for the Western world, which is still highly conservative to this very day. Ultimately, Socrates urged people to be far more progressive, which his student Plato took very much to heart, imparting his knowledge to Aristotle who then tutored Alexander the Great, thus giving rise to Hellenism in the ancient world.
At the beginning of the 4th century BCE, Socrates went on trial for moral corruption and impiety, so five hundred male-citizen jurors chosen by lot voted to convict him of the two charges. Then, consistent with common legal practice, they voted to determine his punishment and agreed to a sentence of death. Socrates was found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth and of not believing in the official pantheon of Athens. Granted, Socrates didn’t believe in Athena the patron deity of Athens, but rather in his own personal spirit guide. The problem was that the people were not well informed about Socrates, so they thought he may have been a sorcerer. To make matters worse, most Athenians pictured a parody of Socrates that they knew from a play by Aristophanes. Plus, they saw his intentionally dirty, disheveled appearance as a reflection of his character, but he was just criticizing the ethics and aesthetics of Athenian conventions. Plus, it didn’t help that he wasn’t classically beautiful. In fact, he was a very ugly, ill-proportioned man. This also swayed the public opinion of Socrates during the most significant trial in human history, thereby making the jury biased against him. In a world guided by gossip, he was found guilty by an allegation vote of 280 to 220, and then condemned to death by a prosecution vote of 340 to 160.
According to the oracle of Delphi, Socrates was the wisest man to ever live. The problem was that the pretense of ignorance that he used to deconstruct the ideas of his fellow citizens was too much for them to bear. In the end, the courage of his convictions stripped the Athenians of theirs, and it cost him his life. Of course, the only thing Socrates was ever really guilty of was simply going against the status quo. More importantly, this was exactly what Socrates had warned them about regarding the fragility of democracy and the dangers of letting an uninformed populace be in charge of things. That’s why he continuously challenged people to be more critical, debating with everyone he met in their great metropolis. Nonetheless, as punishment for the purportedly heinous crimes that Socrates had committed, he was sentenced to death. So, at the age of 70, in thinking that committing an injustice is far more damaging to the soul than suffering an injustice, Socrates became a martyr for nonviolent social justice after willingly drinking a lethal concoction that contained poisonous hemlock. In this way and so many more, Socrates still challenges us to never be thoughtless, no matter what kind of circumstances we find ourselves in.
In spite of the excruciating pain that Socrates was in as the paralysis ascended up into his legs and then his chest, he was able to remain calm the entire time he was dying. In fact, when Phaedo and his other friends broke down in tears, Socrates said to them, “Calm yourselves and be brave.” According to Plato, who wasn’t even actually there when it happened, the last words of Socrates were, “Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.” Presumably, this was meant to be ironic, given that Asclepius was the god of healing, and that Socrates was known for his own personal brand of irony, which has since become a standard practice among critical thinkers. In line with this, Socrates was rather esoterically commenting on the fact that he was given poison to shorten his lifespan when he should have been given medicine to lengthen it, having felt that he deserved accommodation rather than condemnation. He even asked to be given free meals for the rest of his life to pay for all the work that he had done for their society as a sophist. Thus, in having asked Crito to make an offering to such a deity, Socrates was taking one last stab at his countrymen and their beliefs, as well as what they were doing to him for his.
Just under fifty years after the East venerated their self-analytic philosopher, Buddha, the West executed their self-analytic philosopher, Socrates. This changed everything forever, permanently elevating the status of the intellect and ushering in a renaissance of reason in two separate directions. In line with this, Socrates loathed superstitions, so he did all that he could to save society from irrationality, including achieving immortality. Athens soon became a safe haven for scholars. As part of this, Socrates taught Plato, who then taught Aristotle, who taught Theophrastus, who taught Strato, and so on and so forth, leading up to every school of higher learning. It all began with the lectures that Socrates gave at Simon the Shoemaker’s house, in spite of not wearing any shoes while doing so. Regardless, in the end, the point is that Socrates spent his retirement questioning and mocking nearly everything around and within him, all the way up until his last breath in 399 BCE when Phaedo finally reached over and closed Socrates’ eyes. Thus, the infamous Gadfly of Athens became the famous Godfather of Philosophy, giving rise to a whole new breed of ancient Greek heroes, which deserve a new kind of honor. What a strangely fitting end to a life so very well lived.