Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths
Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths
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A revisionist account of the most famous trial and execution in Western civilization—one with great resonance for American society today.
Socrates’ trial and death together form an iconic moment in Western civilization. In 399 BCE, the great philosopher stood before an Athenian jury on serious charges: impiety and “subverting the young men of the city.” The picture we have of it—created by his immediate followers, Plato and Xenophon, and perpetuated in countless works of literature and art ever since—is of a noble man putting his lips to the poisonous cup of hemlock, sentenced to death in a fit of folly by an ancient Athenian democracy already fighting for its own life. But an icon, an image, is not reality, and time has transmuted so many of the facts into historical fable.
Aware of these myths, Robin Waterfield has examined the actual Greek sources and presents here a new Socrates, in which he separates the legend from the man himself. As Waterfield recounts the story, the charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens were already enough for a death sentence, but the prosecutors accused him of more. They asserted that Socrates was not just an atheist and the guru of a weird sect but also an elitist who surrounded himself with politically undesirable characters and had mentored those responsible for defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Their claims were not without substance, for Plato and Xenophon, among Socrates’ closest companions, had idolized him as students, while Alcibiades, the hawkish and notoriously self-serving general, had brought Athens to the brink of military disaster. In fact, as Waterfield perceptively shows through an engrossing historical narrative, there was a great deal of truth, from an Athenian perspective, in these charges.
The trial was, in part, a response to troubled times—Athens was reeling from a catastrophic war and undergoing turbulent social changes—and Socrates’ companions were unfortunately direct representatives of these troubles. Their words and actions, judiciously sifted and placed in proper context, not only serve to portray Socrates as a flesh-and-blood historical figure but also provide a good lens through which to explore both the trial and the general history of the period.
Ultimately, the study of these events and principal figures allows us to finally strip away the veneer that has for so long denied us glimpses of the real Socrates. Why Socrates Died is an illuminating, authoritative account of not only one of the defining periods of Western civilization but also of one of its most defining figures. 4 pages of illustrations
Gronewald, Kölner Papyri, vol. 5 (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1985), 33–53); it is summarized by Jonathan Barnes in Phronesis 32 (1987), 365–6. Plato claims…and Xenophon to have heard about it: Plato, Apology 38b; Xenophon, Apology 10. a specific reference: Plato, Apology 19b–c; see also Xenophon, On the Management of an Estate 11.3. in two later plays: Aristophanes, Birds 1280–4, 1553–6 (produced 414); Frogs 1491–9 (produced 405). See also other comic fragments collected by Giannantoni in
would seem so in any culture. He saw himself as a servant of the gods in trying to promote human happiness in the Athens of his time, but he thought that happiness was identical to, or at least a necessary consequence of, a virtuous state of the soul, thanks to which one could practise moral virtue. The path to happiness, then, involved painstaking and often painful self-examination, or examination by someone as skilled at it as Socrates. And so he walked the path by questioning himself and
Samos 410 Democracy restored; battle of Cyzicus 407 Alcibiades returns to Athens; exiled again after battle of Notium 406 Battle of Arginusae; trial of generals 405 Battle of Aegospotami 404 Defeat of Athens followed by rule of the Thirty; assassination of Alcibiades 403 Civil war; death of Critias; democracy restored 401 Reduction of oligarchic enclave at Eleusis 399 Trial and execution of Socrates (lightly adapted from Debra Nails, The People of Plato, p. 267) THE TRIAL OF
thousand people. The facts that most of the deaths were in Portugal, a devoutly Christian country, and that the earthquake struck on the day of a major Catholic festival led to widespread doubt in the existence of a benevolent deity and left an enduring legacy in the form of a weakening of Christian faith in Europe. I hardly need to argue that war, and especially such a drawn-out war, stresses a society, and in the second passage Thucydides reflects on the effects of warfare, and especially
pamphlet plainly contravened such an amnesty (for instance, by charging Socrates with having been Alcibiades’ teacher), it seemed safe to ignore it. But we now know that there was no blanket amnesty. Socrates’ prosecutors could have said pretty much anything they wanted at his trial (as they could have done even if there had been a blanket amnesty, as long as they did not refer specifically to pre-403 people and incidents; but that would have seriously weakened their case), and so there is