What Was the Charge Against Socrates?

'The Death of Socrates', 4th century BC, (1787). Artist: Jacques-Louis David
GraphicaArtis / 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. What we understand of his philosophy comes from the writings of his contemporaries, including his pupil Plato, who showed Socrates’ method of instruction in his dialogues.

In addition to the content of his teaching, Socrates is also best 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 impiety against the traditional Greek religion, of acting (as a member of the Popular Assembly) against the will of the people, of speaking against the democratic idea of elections, and of corrupting the young to his own beliefs.

Aristophanes (450–ca 386 BCE)

Scene from Clouds, by Aristophanes
 De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

The comic playwright Aristophanes was a contemporary of Socrates, and he addressed some of Socrates' issues in his play "The Clouds," which was staged only once in 423 BCE and 24 years before the execution. In "The 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. In the play, Socrates runs a school, called the Thinking Institute, that teaches those subversive ideas to young men. 

At the end of the play, Socrates' school is burned to the ground. Most of Aristophanes' plays were the satirical puncturing of the Athenian elite: Euripides, Cleon, and Socrates were his main targets. British classicist Stephen Halliwell (born in 1953) suggests that "The Cloud" was a blend of fantasy and satire that offered a "ludicrously distorted image" of Socrates and his school.

Plato (429–347 BCE) 

statue of Plato in Athens
markara / Getty Images

The Greek philosopher 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 was accused of two things: impiety (asebeia) against Athens' gods by introducing new gods and the corruption of Athenian youth by teaching them to question the status quo. He was accused of impiety specifically 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 statue
MrPanyGoff/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In his "Memorabilia," a collection of Socratic dialogues completed after 371 BCE, Xenophon— 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."

In addition, Xenophon reports that while acting as president of the popular assembly, Socrates followed his own 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 an item on the agenda, the ekklesia couldn't act on it; but if they did, the ekklesia was supposed to address 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, [Socrates] 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."

Socrates, said Xenophon, also disagreed with the citizenry who imagined that the gods are not all-knowing. Instead, Socrates thought the gods were omniscient, that the gods were aware of all the things that are said and done, and even things thought about by humans. A critical element that led to Socrates' death was his criminal heresy. Said Xenophon:

The fact being, that with regard to the care bestowed by the gods upon men, his belief differed widely from that of the multitude."

Corrupting the Youth of Athens

Finally, by corrupting the young, Socrates was accused of encouraging his students down the path he had chosen—in particular, the one that led him into trouble with the radical democracy of the time, Socrates believed that the ballot box was a stupid way to elect representatives. 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