The trial of Socrates occurred in the wake of arguably the most disastrous and tumultuous period in the history of the Greek city-state of Athens. In 404 B.C., Athens was defeated by its rival Greek city-state, Sparta, in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian democracy was replaced with a pro-Spartan oligarchy that terrorized and executed hundreds of Athenian citizens before it was overthrown, and the democracy was restored. Around the same time, Athens also experienced a devastating plague. As a result of all this turmoil, a significant proportion of the Athenian population died, and there was tremendous religious upheaval.
Athenian religion was highly ritualistic and consisted of a multitude of public festivals, ceremonies, and sacrifices. The most important function of religion was to ensure that the gods’ favored the city. Athenians believe that failure to appease the gods through customary procedures would bring calamity. This led many Athenians to suspect religious disturbances as the cause of their great misfortune.
Socrates was a prominent, yet controversial, Athenian philosopher who profoundly influenced the history of Western philosophical thought through his life, methods, beliefs, and legacy that was carried on by his students, most notably Plato.
In 399 B.C., Socrates was put on trial for impiety. He was convicted by a jury of Athenian citizens and was subsequently sentenced to death.
Socrates was charged with impiety, a very broad religious accusation that essentially alleged that Socrates had rejected traditional Athenian religious customs. Impiety was a very serious charge in Athens because Athenians thought that one person offending the gods could incur the gods’ wrath on the whole city. This was especially pertinent in the wake of the disaster experienced by Athens over the several years leading up to the trial. In fact, in the same year as Socrates’ trial, there were multiple other high-profile religious trials.
The prosecutor gave three reasons to demonstrate Socrates’ impiety. He claimed that Socrates failed to acknowledge the gods of the city, introduced new deities, and corrupted the youth. The first accusation stemmed from Socrates’ unorthodox beliefs about the gods, while the second referred to an inner voice that Socrates claimed was his personal divine guide, in stark contrast to the overwhelmingly public nature of Athenian religion. The third allegation was directly related to the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, as Socrates was associated with two of the most infamous and treacherous Athenians of the time: Alcibiades, who was accused of multiple religious offenses and betrayed Athens by joining Sparta, and Critias, a leading member of the Spartan oligarchy that murdered hundreds of Athenians. The implication was that Socrates, who was known to be critical of democracy, propagated subversive beliefs to his followers, which contributed to their roles in the war. Additionally, several members of Socrates’ circle had anti-democratic leanings, committed religious offenses, or actively participated in the oligarchy. For his part, Socrates argued that he was a pious man who respected the gods, sought virtue, and served Athens by instigating moral reflection. However, he failed to convince the jurors that he was not a threat to the democratic institutions of Athens.
After speeches by the prosecution and by Socrates and some of his supporters, the jury of 501 citizens voted narrowly to convict Socrates of impiety. Since impiety did not have a set penalty, the next step was for the prosecution and the defense to propose a penalty they each thought was adequate. The jury then picked between the two. The prosecution proposed the death penalty. Then, rather than offer a reasonable alternative, Socrates proposed that he be given free meals for the rest of his life and be celebrated like a victorious Olympic athlete because that is what he thought he truly deserved. He eventually suggested that he pay a small fine, and then a larger fine at the request of some of his students, but it was too late. The jury voted to sentence him to death, and Socrates died by drinking poison.
The Trial of Socrates has long been viewed as a blemish on the record of Athenian democracy and decried for its seemingly blatant disregard of free speech. After all, Socrates was not convicted and executed for anything tangible that he did, nor purely for what he believed, but rather for sharing his beliefs because of the perceived negative influence that this had on Athens’ fate. Essentially, the people of Athens were on edge because their democracy was fragile. They saw their string of misfortune as punishment from the gods for religious transgressions, and they saw Socrates, the teacher and associate of several treacherous individuals, as a threat to the democracy.
The Trial of Socrates raises a number of relevant questions. Was it right for Socrates to be convicted of impiety, or was he a victim of guilt by association? What notions did the Athenians have of freedom of speech and freedom of religion? Is the Trial of Socrates an example of a tyranny of the majority whereby individual dissent is suppressed? Through these questions and more, the Trial of Socrates provides a valuable opportunity for reflection on the principles, nuances, and vulnerabilities of democracy.