The Life and Death of Socrates

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Part 3: His Trial and His Death

The one thing that put Socrates over the top into the black hole of public opinion was the charge from The Clouds that he believed in gods of his own invention. This was entirely false, but by the time that the play was immensely popular, people no longer made (or cared to make) a distinction between the truth and what they saw on stage. In the minds of many people in Athens, Socrates was a source of irritation. Whether he believed in gods of his own invention was important to some people but not to others. The ones who were incensed by this charge thought that he had gone too far, putting himself above the Greek gods, who, the Greek people believed, were very much a part of the people's daily lives.

In the midst of the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian public was looking for someone to blame. They saw their chance to punish Socrates.

He was charged with "corrupting the youth" and denying the existence and power of the state gods. These were serious charges but were not necessarily punishable by death. Socrates appeared before the Assembly, who heard the case for and against him. His accusers were Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon, all of whom were prominent members of Athenian political society. Socrates defended himself. Before a panel of 501 jurors, the prosecutors argued their charges and Socrates refused to defend himself; rather, he challenged the very idea of the trial in the first place.

Much of we know about Socrates' trial and death come from Plato's Dialogues, which many historians believe were embellished. But from this source, especially the Apology, we learn that Socrates was found guilty of the crimes against him, by a vote that was apparently very close. Once he was found guilty, Socrates and his prosecutors then had a chance to argue over the punishment that he would receive. Socrates offered to pay a very small fine; the prosecutors argued that he should die for his crimes. The Assembly agreed with the prosecution, and Socrates was sentenced to death.

Many in the Assembly were no doubt sending a message to anyone who wished to speak out against the established order of society. Several people who had been convicted by previous juries had responded by fleeing the city-state, in effect condemning themselves to permanent exile. It is very possible that many in the Assembly expected Socrates to do just this.

But he did not. In what many consider to be a powerful argument, Socrates convinced his followers that the good of the state was more powerful than the fate of one man and that, therefore, he should be punished for his crimes. Socrates participated in his own execution, drinking a poison called hemlock. He died in 399, a hero to some and a villain to others. His beliefs and philosophy lived on after him and continue to inspire and fascinate people today.

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David White