Socrates' Trial in Context
Although "corrupting the youth" and teaching about "false gods" were part of the charges that Socrates of Ancient Greece was famously put on trial for, most people do not understand the context of these accusations and why the Athenian assembly was willing to put Socrates to death. Most people assume that he must have simply hurt some politically powerful egos.
However, in his book, "The Trial of Socrates" writer I.F. Stone convincingly argues that it was the anti-democratic, not the philosophical or theological, teachings of Socrates which finally got him into trouble.
Athens had just come through a difficult period, where a Spartan-supported group, called the Thirty Tyrants had overturned the city's participatory democracy and sought to impose oligarchic rule. That Critias, the leader of the Tyrants, was one of Socrates's pupils was not seen as a coincidence. His friends tried to make excuses, but the view of the Athenians was probably that expressed by the orator Aeschines some years later, when, in a prosecution speech, he wrote: "Did you not put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who overthrew the democracy?"
The "Youth" He Corrupted Were Specific
And the "youth" Socrates was supposedly corrupting were not so generally defined. According to Xenophon "his accuser" cited Critias and Alcibiades as the foremost examples of this corrupted youth and said that "none wrought so many evils to the state."
The "Gods" He Dismissed Were Metaphorical
The accusation was stated as disavowing the "gods of the city". The patron divinities of Athens were Athena supported by Hephaestus, who represented the everyday craftsman and laborers of the city. This undoubtedly was a symbol of their reverance for thier democracy.
The Greeks spoke in metaphor. Disavowing the "Gods of the city" was possibly a metaphor invoking the image of Hephaestus holding up Athena for the common man supporting the city through democracy.
Socrates Looked Down Upon the Common Man
Socrates did not approve of democracy partly because he had a very low opinion of the common man. It is in Xenophon's Memorabilia that Socrates discloses the depth of his own contempt for the Athenian assembly.
These were men who came to the assembly to participate in the democracy. It is surprising that a philosopher would accuse them of never giving a "thought to public affairs".
"The wisest do not make you bashful," he says to Charmides, "yet you are ashamed to address an audience of mere dunces and weaklings." "Who are these people," he asks, "who make you feel too bashful to address them?"
"The fullers or the cobblers or the builders or the smiths or the farmers or the merchants, or the traffickers in the market-place who think of nothing but buying cheap and selling dear? . . . You are shy of addressing men who never gave a thought to public affairs."
----I.F. STONE - THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES----
"As for not believing in gods, the Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and the tragic theater. For two centuries before Socrates, the philosophers had been laying the foundations of natural science and metaphysical inquiry. Their gigantic pioneering in free thought still awes us as we pore over the fragments of these so-called pre-Socratics. Almost all the basic concepts of science and philosophy may be found there in embryo. They first spoke of evolution and conceived the atom. In the process the ancient gods were not so much dethroned as demoted and bypassed. They were reduced to venerable fables or metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas.
These philosophers were rationalists and rarely bothered with what we call "theology." The very term was unknown to them. Indeed it does not appear in Greek until the century after Socrates. The word theologia — talk about the gods — turns up for the first time in the Republic when Plato is explaining what the poets in his Utopia will he allowed to say about the divine powers.8 In his ideal society a Socrates would indeed have been punishable for deviating from the state-established theologia, but not in Athens.
The Olympian deities of Homer and Hesiod had dwindled in significance and stature beside the material forces and immaterial abstractions the pre-Socratics identified as the prime movers of the universe. The gods were relegated to a minor role in the cosmic drama. When some of these early freethinkers did touch on the nature of the gods, the results were shattering. In our Bible, God creates man in His image. But Xenophanes a century before Socrates turned this anthropomorphic conception right side up and declared that men create the gods in their own human image. Xenophanes observed that the Ethiopians had gods with "snub noses and black hair," while the Thracians worshipped gods with "gray eyes and red hair" like their own. He added that if oxen, horses, and lions had hands and could carve images, they too would worship gods of their own likeness. Xenophanes even dared criticize Homer and Hesiod, the twin "bibles" of traditional Greek religion. "They," he wrote, "have narrated every possible wicked story about the gods: theft, adultery and mutual deception." This is much the same complaint made by Plato when he proposed to censor the poets.
Xenophanes himself seems to have been a kind of pantheist, while Plato consigned the Olympian gods to a shadowy and irrelevant existence somewhere between earth and the stratosphere of his eternal Ideas. But neither Xenophanes in the sixth century nor Plato in the fourth was ever haled into court for irreligious utterance.
Polytheism was, by its very pluralistic nature, roomy and tolerant, open to new gods and new views of old ones. Its mythology personified natural forces and could be adapted easily, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. These were the old gods in a new guise, and commanded a similar but fresh reverence.
Atheism was little known and difficult for a pagan to grasp because he saw divinity all about him, not just on Olympus but in the hearth and the boundary stone, which were also divinities, though of a humble sort. One could in the same city and the same century worship Zeus as a promiscuous old rake, henpecked and cuckolded by Juno, or as Justice deified.
It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues. Nowhere in the Apology does Socrates even mention the jokes about his pro-Spartan sympathies and the pro-Spartan youth who idolized and imitated him. Our problem is: What made these old political jokes suddenly begin to seem no longer funny?
----I.F. STONE - THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES----
"By trapping Meletus into calling him an atheist, Socrates evaded the official charge in the indictment. It did not accuse him of disbelief in Zeus and the Olympian divinities, or in the gods generally. It charged disbelief in "the gods of the city."
This was in the ancient Greek sense a political crime, a crime against the gods of the Athenian polis (city). This is a crucial point to often overlooked. What did the indictment mean by "the gods of the city"? A clue is provided by Xenophon in his Memorabilia. Twice he recalls that Socrates, when asked how to act piously toward the gods, quoted a saying by the Priestess of Delphi, "Follow the nomos of the city; that is the way to act piously.” Nomos means custom or law. The nomos was established by tradition or, later, by legislative act. This was the standard Greek view. The city was the state, and the state determined which god it specially venerated. It regulated religious practices — the rite: the temples, the sacrifices, and the festivals. Religion was a civic function, a reflection of its local ways and customs.
The indictment said that Socrates did not conform to the nomi of his city. But it does not specify the beliefs Socrates did not share. Neither Xenophon nor Plato give us a clear answer, perhaps because such an answer would have lent more substance to the charge and weakened their defense of Socrates.
A clue to "the gods of the city" problem is provided in the Oxford Classical Dictionary article on Hephaestus, the god of fire and especially of the fire in the smithy. Hence, the OCD says, "he was for the Greeks a craftsman's god and himself a divine craftsman."
The pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes once observed that men made gods in their own image, the Ethiopians with crinkly hair, the Celts with red. The same tendency appeared in the various crafts. The smith created a god in his own image as his patron divinity. The distribution of the Hephaestus cult in the Greek city-states was determined by the progress of metallurgy and industry. His cult, the OCD goes on, was "practically confined to the most industrialized regions, being particularly prominent at Athens."
As a city with a large concentration of craftsmen, and a city dependent in large part for its livelihood on the products of the smithy and the kiln, Athens would naturally include Hephaestus among its "gods of the city." The prominence of Hephaestus as an Athenian god is shown, the OCD suggests, by his frequent appearance in Athenian vase painting "from the first half of the sixth century." It was in the same century that the craftsmen and traders began to win political equality. The cult of Hephaestus grew with the advance of democracy. The one unruined fifth-century temple, the so-called Theseion, was really a temple of Hephaestus. From a low hill it overlooked the agora.
The patron goddess of Athens, the foremost divinity of the city, was Athena, the goddess of wisdom, born directly from the head of Zeus. Hephaestus appears on Athenian vases assisting — as a kind of male midwife — in the delivery.
There was a common worship among all the Greeks for the Olympian deities of Homer. But even the great gods were worshipped under different forms and appellations in different cities. These special appellations, like the minor gods, were the subject of special civic cults, which symbolized the character of each city. In Athens, for example, Pallas Athena was worshipped not only as the goddess of wisdom but in that capacity especially as a patron of the arts and crafts. For wisdom — sophia — originally meant not just wisdom in our sense but any special skill or knowledge, whether in forging metals or weaving cloth or treating the sick.
But Socrates speaks with disdain for the craftsmen and traders who had begun to play so large a part in the assembly and the other democratic institutions of the city. As we have seen, the kind of society he admired was the Spartan, where the warrior landlords excluded craftsmen and traders from citizenship. In the Greek city-states, as in the Roman, not to recognize the city's gods was to be disloyal to the city."
Criticisms of I. F. Stone
Some books are critical however, one book is Socrates against Athens by James A. Colaiaco. He brings up some very interesting points about the differences between the notion of freedom of religion in Athens and the notions about it that we have today. Especially in that playwrites seemed to have more freedoms than philosophers. But Colaiaco seems to agree with Stone in every respect, without realizing it. The tone he gives towards Stone's book is condescending. While his focus is more justifying of the religious charges, he freely admits they were probably "second best" charges for what was a politically motivated incitement (although he also seemingly contradicts himself in this).
Colaiaco at times presumes that Stone was unaware of the differences between religious freedom today and religious freedom in Athens.
With quotes such as the following, Colaiaco is actually agreeing with Stone. And agreeing more than most common readings on the subject ever do:
"Although politics undoubtedly played a role in the indictment of Socrates, the prosecution may have determined that because, under the terms of the amnesty, Socrates could only be charged with crimes allegedly committed during the period from 403-399 B.C., they had a better chance of succeeding with the more vague charge of impiety...
In avoiding explicit charges, political or religious, relating to Socrates' ' activities prior to 403 B.C., the prosecution would escape any suspicion that they had violated the amnesty."
If the real motivation behind the charges was indeed for impiety, why should they be concerned about the amnesty?
"In fact, the political conspiracy theory, endorsed by I. F. Stone and others, suffers from underestimating the profound influence of religion and superstition upon the Athenians in Socrates' day."
This statement (by Colaiaco) suffers from underestimating (of what was first his tacit acknowledgement of) the profound influence of the political animosity against Socrates for his antidemocratic teachings of Critias and Alcibiades before and during the reign of the Thirty.
First Colaiaco derides Stone for separating the religious charges from the political, and then he says.... This!
"The impiety charge alone, which struck at the root of polis life, was sufficient to arouse most jurors. "
Not that it matters any, for this is mere speculation. The trial would have had to have been conducted without the political context to know for certain. The religious charge alone, (which it is true cannot be separated from the undoubtable political motivations of the trial) would have been impotent in a society so religiously tolerant in it's time.
Colaiaco also makes what seem to be illogical assumptions:
"Moreover, if the religious charges were a mere pretext to disguise fundamentally political motives for the indictment, Socrates himself did not believe so."
How does Colaiaco presume to know? Does he really think Socrates would bring this up in his trial? To make his antidemocratic teachings blatant and thus link him to the reign of the thirty? Surely, as soon as Socrates would accuse them, they would have denied it. And instead Socrates would have fallen into thier trap, his offenses would have been laid bare, by Socrates' own doing!
The death of Socrates, as presented by Plato, has inspired writers, artists and philosophers in the modern world, in a variety of ways. For some, the execution of the man Plato called 'the wisest and most just of all men' has shown the unreliability or undesirability of democratic rule. Today, largely due to the influence of these ancient (and admittedly biased) texts, Socrates is seen as a wise and benevolent father figure, martyred for his intellectual beliefs. That is exactly how Plato and Xenophon portrayed him, it is hardly surprising - but the myth of Socrates and his execution has taken on a distinct existence, apart from the historical man, whose true views and politics are often lost in the idealized, mythical persona that has been handed down. However, the historical Socrates, like the true nature of his trial, can really only ever be approximated.
The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone
Original Sources supporting I.F. Stone's Argument:
Aeschines Against Timarchus 173 (Loeb Classical Library)
[1.173] Did you put to death Socrates the sophist, fellow citizens, because he was shown to have been the teacher of Critias, one of the Thirty who put down the democracy, and after that, shall Demosthenes succeed in snatching companions of his own out of your hands, Demosthenes, who takes such vengeance on private citizens and friends of the people for their freedom of speech?
Xenophon Memorabilia 1.2.9 (from Perseus Project)
[1.2.9] But, said his accuser, he taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft. Such sayings, he argued, led the young to despise the established constitution and made them violent.
Xenophon, Mem.1.2.13.Now I have no intention of excusing the wrong these two men wrought the state; but I will explain how they came to be with Socrates.
Xen., Mem, 1.2.56. Again, his accuser alleged that he selected from the most famous poets the most immoral passages, and used them as evidence in teaching his companions to be tyrants and malefactors:
Sources in support of impiety as the motivating charge:
Socrates against Athens by James A. Colaiaco
Original Sources supporting James A. Colaiaco argument:
- James Beckman, Religious Dimension of Socrates' Thought (Waterloo, Ontario, 1979), 55-63;
- M. F. Burnyeat, "The Impiety of Socrates," Ancient Phtlosophy 17 (1997): 1-12;
- A. B. Drachmann, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity, reprint of 1922 ed. (Chicago, 1977), 7, 59;
- McPherran, Religion of Socrates, 120-1.
On the issue how Athenians viewed impiety
Thucydides, History, VI.27.
On the issue of Critias
Ehrenberg, Solon to Socrates, 344.
On the idea that the charge of irreligion was a mere pretext
- Burnet, Greek Philosophy (London, 1914), 182-91
- Brickhouse and Smith argue that religion, not politics, was the real issue in Socrates' trial. See Plato's Socrates (Oxford, 1994), 173-5.
- W. R. Connor, "The Other 399: Religion and the Trial of Socrates," Georgica: Greek Studies in Honour of George Cawkwell 58 (1991): 49-56;
- Finley, Aspects of Antiquity (London, 1968), 64-5;
- Terence Irwin, "Socrates and Athenian Democracy, Philosophy and Public Affairs 18 (1989):184-205. Irwin asserts, at 191: "There is no reason to suppose that the religious charge was a mere 'front' for political hostility."
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