What Was the Charge Against Socrates?

Socrates, Statue from Alexandria, 200 B.C.
Socrates was a Classical Greek philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known only through the classical accounts of his students. Plato's dialogues are the most comprehensive accounts of Socrates to survive from antiquity. Danita Delimont/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images

Socrates (469–399 BCE) was a great Greek philosopher, the source of the "Socratic Method," and known for his sayings about "knowing nothing" and that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates is not believed to have written any books, but his pupil Plato showed Socrates’ method of instruction in his dialogues.

But in addition to the content of his teaching, Socrates is also known for drinking a cup of poison hemlock. This was how the Athenians carried out a death sentence for a capital offense. Why did the Athenians want their great thinker Socrates to die?

There are three main contemporary Greek sources on Socrates, his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comic playwright Aristophanes. From them, we know that Socrates was accused of corrupting the young and impiety.

Aristophanes (450–ca 386 BCE)

Roman marble bust of Aristophanes
Roman marble bust of Aristophanes. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

The comic playwright Aristophanes, who was a contemporary of Socrates, addressed the Socrates' issue in his play "Clouds," first staged in 423 BCE, 24 years before the execution. In "Clouds," Socrates is portrayed as a remote, haughty teacher who turned away from the state-supported Greek religion to worship private deities of his own device. He also runs a school, the Thinking Institute, that teaches subversive ideas to young men. 

At the end of the play, Socrates' school is burned to the ground. Most of Aristophanes' plays were satirical puncturing of the Athenian elite: Euripides, Cleon, and Socrates were his main Writing in the Oxford University Press, Stephen Halliwell suggests that Aristophanes' intent was a manic mixture of fantasy and satire, and perhaps not a true version of what Socrates or his school was like. 

Plato (429–347 BCE) 

Plato.jpg
Bust of Greek philosopher Plato, 2010. (Photo by Tom Kelley/Getty Images)

Plato was one of Socrates' star pupils, and his evidence against Socrates is given in the essay "The Apology of Socrates," which includes a dialogue that Socrates presented at his trial for impiety and corruption. The Apology is one of four dialogues written about this most-famous trial, and its aftermath—the others are "Euthyphro," "Phaedo," and "Crito."

At his trial, Socrates is accused of two things: impiety (asebeia) against Athens's gods, by introducing new gods, and corruption of Athenian youth, by teaching them to question the status quo. He is accused of impiety because the Oracle at Delphi said there was no wiser man in Athens then Socrates: and Socrates knew he was not wise. After hearing that, he questioned every man he met to find a wiser man than he. 

The corruption charge, said Socrates in his defense, was because by questioning people in public, he embarrassed them, and they, in turn, accused him of corrupting the youth of Athens by the use of sophistry. 

Xenophon (430–404 BCE)

Xenophon Writing
Xenophon Writing. Clipart.com

In his "Memorabilia," a collection of Socratic dialogues completed after 371 BCE, Zenophon— philosopher, historian, soldier, and a student of Socrates—examined the charges against him. 

"Socrates is guilty of crime in refusing to recognise the gods acknowledged by the state, and importing strange divinities of his own; he is further guilty of corrupting the young."

Xenophon elaborates further on the trouble in which Socrates was embroiled because he followed principles instead of the will of the people. The boule was the council whose job entailed providing an agenda for the ekklesia, the citizen assembly. If the boule didn't provide it, the ekklesia couldn't act on it.

"At one time Socrates was a member of the Council [boule], he had taken the senatorial oath, and sworn 'as a member of that house to act in conformity with the laws.' It was thus he chanced to be President of the Popular Assembly [ekklesia], when that body was seized with a desire to put the nine generals, Thrasyllus, Erasinides, and the rest, to death by a single inclusive vote. Whereupon, in spite of the bitter resentment of the people, and the menaces of several influential citizens, he refused to put the question, esteeming it of greater importance faithfully to abide by the oath which he had taken, than to gratify the people wrongfully, or to screen himself from the menaces of the mighty. The fact being, that with regard to the care bestowed by the gods upon men, his belief differed widely from that of the multitude. Whereas most people seem to imagine that the gods know in part, and are ignorant in part, Socrates believed firmly that the gods know all thingsboth the things that are said and the things that are done, and the things that are counselled in the silent chambers of the heart. Moreover, they are present everywhere, and bestow signs upon man concerning all the things of man."

Corrupting the Youth of Athens

By corrupting the young, Socrates is accused of encouraging his students down the path he had chosen—the one that led him into trouble with the radical democracy of the time. Xenophon explains:

"Socrates cause[d] his associates to despise the established laws when he dwelt on the folly of appointing state officers by ballot? a principle which, he said, no one would care to apply in selecting a pilot or a flute- player or in any similar case, where a mistake would be far less disastrous than in matters political. Words like these, according to the accuser, tended to incite the young to contemn the established constitution, rendering them violent and headstrong. "

Sources

  • Aristophanes. "Clouds." Johnston, Ian, translator. Vancouver Island University (2008). 
  • Halliwell, Stephen. Did Comedy Kill Socrates? OUPblog, December 22, 2015. 
  • Plato. "Apology." Jowett, Benjamin, translator. Project Gutenberg (2013)
  • Xenophon. "The Memorabilia: Recollections of Socrates." Dakyns, Henry Graham, translator. 1890-1909. Project Gutenberg (2013).