Conversation [with Socrates] did not turn on the nature of things as a whole, as was the case with most of the others. . . . With him, conversation was always about human affairs.
Xenophon, Memorabilia, I, i, 11
Socrates, a native Athenian, was charged and then tried by a jury of his fellow citizens when he was seventy years old. In the recently restored democracy of 399 bc three private individuals, Meletus, Anytus and Lycon, presented their case against him before a jury consisting of 501 citizens. The indictment and affidavit of Meletus read: 'Socrates is guilty of not duly acknowledging the gods in which the city believes and of introducing other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the young. The penalty proposed is death.'
Socrates was said to have spent a lifetime injuring Athens not only by his unorthodox views on a range of subjects, but in his insistence on propagating them. Because the proceedings in ancient Greek trials were oral and not recorded, all that remains to us are the indictment and verdict. Who the historical Socrates was, and what he taught in his lifetime, are almost irretrievably lost to the past. He wrote nothing. What we know of him comes from the traditions that grew up both around him (in the works of Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle and anti-Socratics like Polykrates) and over subsequent centuries, and not least from his students' and supporters' written defences (apologia means defence). The most famous of these is Plato's Apology
1 There are numerous translations of Plato's Apology. That used here is from The Last Days of Socrates, trans. H. Tredennick (Harmondsworth, 1981), pp. 45-76 and numerous reprints; for a brief introduction to Socrates see J. Coleman, Against the State: studies in sedition and rebellion (Harmondsworth, 1995), ch. 2; on the changing traditions of Platonic scholarship see E. N. Tigerstedt, Interpreting Plato (Stockholm, 1977); T. Penner, 'Socrates and the Early Dialogues', in R. Kraut, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 121-69, a volume which also has an extensive bibliography; see the various studies in H. H. Benson, ed., Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates (Oxford, 1992) with extensive bibliography; G. Vlastos, ed., Plato: a collection of critical essays, 2 vols (New York, 1971); T. Brickhouse and N. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Oxford, 1989); C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology: an essay on Plato's Apology of Socrates (Indianapolis, 1996); G. Vlastos, Socrates: ironist and moral philosopher (Cambridge, 1991); still the fullest introduction in English to Greek philosophy is W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol.
This work gives a partial account of Socrates' activities and beliefs up to 399, set out as the three speeches Socrates was supposed to have delivered at his one-day trial: his defence, his counter-proposal for the penalty, and a final address to the jury. After the first speech the jury voted 281 to 220 to find him guilty as charged; the vote was a close one. After the second speech they voted again, 361 in favour of capital punishment, 140 against. One month later, in prison, Socrates drank the hemlock administered by the authorities and died.
Plato's Apology has been read in two interrelated ways: as representing Plato's (largely accurate) view of the gist of Socrates' philosophical message and 'teaching' method, and as representing what Socrates should have said (but possibly did not say) in his defence. Unlike Plato's other works which feature Socrates as the main character in conversation with friends, the Apology is not written in dialogue form. Plato inserts himself into the Apology (34a, 38b) as present at the trial and it is generally thought that he provides at least a faithful record in substance of what had gone on.2 If, however, Plato's artistic portrait of Socrates is unfaithful to the historical Socrates, we are in no position to correct it. Even if we could correct it, it is with the Socrates of Plato's dialogues that we must deal because it is this Socrates who has been so influential in the history of political thought. In a sense, then, the history of political thought begins with an artistic myth designed by Plato. As we shall see in the next chapter, Plato's Socratic philosophy of the early dialogues shades into a Platonism that is more his own. There are, however, scholars who remain sceptical about the possibility of reconstructing a distinctively Socratic doctrine. My aim, here, is to attempt to make the distinction.3
It was once thought that the religious charges of impiety laid against Socrates should not be taken seriously and that the real charge against him was corruption of Athenian youth. This meant that his condemnation should be seen largely as an act of political vengeance. Not only were Charmides and Kritias relatives of Plato and associates of Socrates (Kritias was one of the Thirty Tyrants and Charmides one of the Ten sent by the Thirty to rule the port of Piraeus — both fell with the restoration of democracy), but Socrates was known to be critical of the values of Athenian democrats and often in the company of wealthy young Athenians who were pro-Spartan. Some of the earliest references we have to Socrates come from Aristophanes' comedies, and in The Birds (414 bc) we are told that 'everyone used to be Spartan-mad, long-haired, fasting, filthy, Socratising and carrying little batons'.
3 The Fifth-century Enlightenment (Cambridge, 1969), vol. 4: Plato: the man and his dialogues, earlier period (Cambridge, 1975) and vol. 5: The Later Plato and the Academy (Cambridge, 1978). For a range of different approaches to Socrates in context see various articles in the journal History of Political Thought, notably: F. G. Whelan, 'Socrates and the "Meddlesomeness" of the Athenians', History of Political Thought 4 (1983), pp. 1-30; M. Mion, 'Athenian Democracy: politicization and constitutional restraints', History of Political Thought 7 (1986), pp. 219-38; J. R. Wallach, 'Socratic Citizenship', History of Political Thought 9 (1988), pp. 393-414. The journal Polls (1977-) (originally the newsletter of the Society for Greek Political Thought) provides good bibliographies and brief articles on themes relevant to Greek political thought.
2 Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vols 3 and 4, pp. 68-80, but see C. Kahn, 'Did Plato Write Socratic Dialogues?' in Benson, Essays on the Philosophy of Socrates, pp. 35-52; there are, of course, Xenophon's Apology and the Memorabilia, which present very different pictures of Socrates.
3 1 am grateful to Dr Richard Stalley of the Department of Philosophy, University of Glasgow, for reading and commenting on this and the following chapter on Plato, especially because he is more sceptical than I am about the possibility of reconstructing distinctively Socratic doctrine.
But in Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds (423 bc), Socrates is represented as a Sophist, concerned not only with teaching dubious rhetorical tricks of argument for money in order to help rich men with weak legal cases win lawsuits (making the weaker argument appear the stronger). Aristophanes depicts Socrates and his influence through the distorting mirror of the pronouncements of the peasant Strepsiades. Perhaps more importantly, he is also portrayed as not believing in the gods. Instead, he studies the natural phenomena of the heavens and earth in order to show that rain comes not from Zeus but from clouds filled with water. In the Apology Socrates tells the jury that he has no interest in such matters at all and knows nothing about the kind of 'natural science' attributed to him by Aristophanes. But he is being tarred with the same brush that previously had been applied to the kind of pre-Socratic rationalism that was thought to destroy collective, traditional beliefs in the powers of gods to influence men's lives. At his trial Socrates denied these 'stock charges against philosophers' but said he would, in his own case, have difficulty ridding the jurors' minds of the false impressions that were the work of many years.
I have incurred a great deal of bitter hostility and this is what will bring about my destruction, if anything does; not Meletus nor Anytus, but the slander and jealousy of a very large section of the people. They have been fatal to a great many other innocent men and 1
suppose will continue to be so. (Apology 28b)
Indeed, in the times of crisis witnessed by Socrates and Plato, the fifth-century 'rationalist enlightenment' discussed in the previous chapter took on the appearance of rationalism for the few and religion or magic for the many: charges of irreligion were often selected as the surest ways of suppressing unwelcome views. Works may have been burnt, and Sophists were sent into exile and, some think, even killed. Professional diviners proposed decrees against the advance of rationalism and at moments of crisis especially, they were taken seriously.4 Hence, Aristophanes presented Socrates as the archetypical intellectual of the time, the Sophist, who disturbed and was ridiculed by average Athenian men. And the charge seemed to stick in the minds of ordinary Athenians. There appears to be a very specific reference to Socrates' special powers in Meletus' charge of impiety.
After the restoration of democracy, atheism was highlighted as a chargeable offence. Anytus, the only accuser of Socrates whom we know to have been a prominent political figure, was involved not only in the declaration of the general amnesty for pro-Spartan sympathizers, but also in the complete revision and codification of Athens' laws. If Socrates was to be charged, it would have to be with respect to an alleged violation of the newly codified laws, one of which was a law ofimpiety. Athenian law did not prescribe the recognition of a clearly specified set of gods but it did forbid atheism, and included here was the teaching of a belief in 'new deities' or 'personal deities' which, in the end, was taken to be a belief in no gods at all. Indeed, this is Meletus' charge as he is made to
4 The famous victims of successful prosecutions from c. 432 bc: included Anaxagoras, Diagoras, probably Protagoras and possibly the playwright Euripides; see E. R. Dodds, Jhe Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951), p. 180 on the breach between intellectuals and people, and ibid., p. 189 on prosecutions. During the fifth and fourth centuries bc foreign religious cults were brought to Athens (Plato's Republic 1 speaks of the cult of Bendis) and people continued to show they were afraid of magical aggression; also see K. Dover, 'Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society' (1975) reprinted in K. Dover, The Greeks and Their Legacy: collected papers (Oxford, 1988).
clarify it by Socrates. Therefore, the longstanding prejudice against Socrates as a Sophist, natural philosopher, and now, atheist is relevant. The formal charges against him, that 'he does not recognize the gods the state recognizes' are to be taken seriously so that the religious charge of impiety and its propagation among the youth of Athens constituted the nature of his corrupting influence as they saw it.5 As we shall see, however, what Socrates really stood for, as Plato presents him at his trial, was something quite new even in the religious sphere. But he would be accused in old terms and categories.
We must note that these categories did not present him as a crypto-oligarch or as someone with an explicitly anti-democratic political theory. Strictly speaking, he is portrayed as having no political theory at all.6 There are, however, huge political consequences of his ethical theory and we shall see that he has political sentiments and loyalties which he insists are pro-Athenian if not necessarily in favour of a democratic constitution. But he proposes no alternative constitution. Constitutions, as such, do not interest him. Constitutions are merely the consequence of prior questions that need to be asked: what are the qualities of good statesmanship? and what kind of life ought a good man to lead? Instead of propounding a theory of politics, Socrates studies the art of statesmanship and his vision is an ethical one: to open up the philosophic life, which he sees as the true art of statesmanship, to as many men who desire it, indeed to all men, although he is not optimistic that all will follow. Why? Because in Athens, especially, men are distracted by wealth, personal status and success. Plato will have him say in the Gorgias (52ID— 522A f):
I believe that I am one of the few Athenians - perhaps indeed there is no other who studies the genuine art of statesmanship, and that I am the only man now living who puts it into practice . . . and if it is alleged against me either that 1 am the ruin of the younger people by reducing them to a state of helpless doubt or that I insult their elders by bitter criticism in public or in pnvate, no defence will avail me, whether true or not, the truth being simply that in all that I say I am guided by what is right and that my actions are in the interests of those who are sitting in judgement on me.
Since the democratic determination of 'what is right' was collective and consensual, how did Socrates discover what is right? And how was he alone set on this path of discovery when his fellow-citizens seemed preoccupied with other concerns?
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