Socrates invited his
A Cambridge professor
claims the trial was legally just, writes Arifa
Socrates is about to consume hemlock in this painting by Jacques-Louis David
infamous trial of the ancient Greek philosopher,
Socrates, has long been regarded as one of the first, most
dramatic cases of miscarriage of justice, ending in the death
penalty for the founding father of western thought.
accused of "impiety" and "corrupting the
young" in 399 BC — charges many historians think were
invented by his prejudiced fellow citizens — and was required
to perform his own execution by consuming hemlock.
But now a
Cambridge University professor claims that Socrates’ trial was
legally just and that he was guilty as charged. What’s more,
Professor Paul Cartledge believes that Socrates actually invited
his own death.
In his new book,
Ancient Greek Political Thought In Practice, Professor
Cartledge says while politicians and historians have used the
trial to suggest that democracy can sometimes descend into mob
rule, this was not one such example. "Everyone knows the
Greeks invented democracy, but it was not democracy as we know
it, and we have misread history as a result," he said.
Socrates faced seem ridiculous to us but in ancient Athens they
were genuinely felt to serve the communal good."
In his book,
Professor Cartledge questions traditional arguments that
Socrates was purely the victim of political infighting.
influenced by ancient writers, including Plato, have claimed
that Socrates’ open criticism of prominent Athenian
politicians had made him many enemies, who then pinned the
impiety and corruption charges on him to silence him.
believes that Socrates’ teachings stirred political rebellion,
and he was made an example at his trial by those seeking to
quash dissidents in the Athenian society.
Cartledge said Socrates questioned the authority of many of the
accepted gods and claimed to be guided by his inner "daimonon",
a term which he may have intended to mean "intuition",
but which could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural
influence, which would have outraged conventional believers.
The charge of
"impiety" was entirely acceptable in a democracy
deeply reverential of their gods, Professor Cartledge said.
brought by amateur prosecutors before a jury of 501 ordinary
citizens of "good standing" who acted on behalf of
what they took to be the public interest. If the prosecution
could prove that a defendant was responsible for jeopardising
the public good, he was likely to be found guilty. The author
also believes that Socrates invited his own death. Under the
Athenian system, in this kind of trial a defendant could suggest
his own penalty.
Instead of taking
this opportunity seriously, Socrates first joked that he should
be rewarded and eventually suggested a fine that was far too
his jurors did not see the funny side and passed the death
sentence. Instead of fleeing, Socrates accepted the verdict,
claiming, "he owed it to the city under whose laws he had
been raised to honour those laws to the letter".
Cartledge said, "There is no denying his bravery, and he
could even be seen as an intellectual hero. But the idea that
Socrates himself was not guilty, but executed by mob rule, is
wrong. By removing him, society had in, Athenians’ eyes, been
cleansed and reaffirmed."
Hobbs, a philosopher at Warwick University, said until recently,
the official charges were regarded as being a smokescreen for
what the democrats really wanted, revenge for Socrates’
association with the rival oligarchic party.
But she added,
"Whether one thinks this was a just case or not that he was
a genuine trouble-maker is open to debate. Socrates had annoyed
important and influential people. He was abrupt and tactless.
Philosophers were seen as dangerous at the time and he was not
the only one to get into trouble. Athenians were probably right
to be a little bit disturbed by what he was up to, getting the
young to think for themselves."
She agreed that
Socrates "didn’t have to die" and that he made it
very difficult for the courts not to impose the death penalty.
When prison guards made it clear they would allow him to
"escape", he declined.
wanted to be some kind of martyr for philosophy," Professor
Hobbs continued. According to Plato, he gives an incredibly
arrogant speech in court, saying, ‘far from punishing me, they
should be so grateful for the way I have helped them cleanse
their souls, they should give me free meals for the rest of my
Beard, a classicist at Cambridge University, added: "We
have invested in him (Socrates), re-invented him as a beacon of
honourable free-thinking, standing by what he believed (and the
right to believe it) even unto death, thanks to Plato, of
course, in large measure. But, in Athenian terms, it was a fair
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