Trial of Socrates

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The trial of Socrates refers to the trial and the subsequent execution of the classical Athenian philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. Socrates was tried on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: corrupting the youth and impiety (in Greek, asebeia). More specifically, Socrates’ accusers cited two "impious" acts: "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities." A majority of the 501 dikasts (Athenian citizens chosen by lot to serve as jurors) voted to convict him. Consistent with common practice, the dikasts determined Socrates’ punishment with another vote. Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid. Primary sources for accounts of the trial are given by two of Socrates’ students, Plato and Xenophon; well known later interpretations include those of the journalist I.F. Stone and the classics scholar Robin Waterfield[1]. The trial is one of the most famous of all time[citation needed].

Contents

Background

Socrates was a well-known figure in Athens for many years prior to his trial. Aristophanes’ comedy Clouds, produced in 423 BC, portrays Socrates as an asinine sophist. In the play, Socrates teaches young Pheidippides how to formulate arguments to justify beating his own father. Though Socrates denied any affiliation with the sophists, Clouds suggests that Athenians associated him with the sophistic movement. The sophists were a group of ill-repute in Athens. G.B. Kerferd provides the “classic description” of sophists: “…they were a set of charlatans that appeared in Greece in the fifth century, and earned ample livelihood by imposing on public credulity: professing to teach virtue, they really taught the art of fallacious discourse, and meanwhile propagated immoral practical doctrines.”[2]

Interestingly, Clouds is not the only Aristophanes comedy which portrays conflict between an older man and his younger counterpart. Aristophanes’ comedy Wasps (422 BC) also contains disagreement between older men and younger men. This, as Robin Waterfield argues, represents the social conflict between two generations of men in Athens, especially in the decade from 425 to 415 BC. He also suggests that the divide between those in favor of the Athenian invasion of Sicily and those opposed was largely a generational divide.[3] Socrates, along with the sophists, was blamed in part for instilling the younger generation with what the older generation perceived as a morally nihilistic, disrespectful attitude.

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