What I learned from trying to hang Socrates.
Some moons ago, I took part in an RPG based on Plato’s Republic run by a philosopher. My role was to act as Theozotides (pronounced thee-oh-zoh-TI-deez), a minor soldier and farmer appearing twice in Plato’s works.
Due to the sudden absence of Anytus and Theozotides being one of the few “neutral” people there, my character was cast as the prosecutor in Socrates’ case. And it fell to me, a person vehemently against capital punishment, to not only prosecute history’s most famous philosopher (as played by an actual philosopher) but to prosecute him so well that the jurors (played by the members of the audience) would be moved to convict and condemn him.
I did what any reasonable person would do. I summoned my inner Robert H. Jackson and prepared to hang Socrates. Personally, if need be.
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However, before we can jump ahead and brew the hemlock, it is vital to understand how, what, why, and when Socrates’ “crimes” happened. And it’s here that we encounter the first wrinkle. No one knows (for sure) why the Athenians condemned Socrates.
History falls silent the farther back we go. And despite being one of the most famous trials in the Western hemisphere, no sources, except for two, have survived.
In Socrates’ time, there was no such thing as court records or minutes. Socrates’ Athens spanned the gap between the widespread diffusion of writing and the unwritten pre-history preceding it. Socrates himself, if Plato’s Phaedrus is to be believed, was against writing and charged,
“The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.” But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.
“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."
Of course, we know this only because Plato wrote it down. Such is the double-edged sword of technology.
Record keeping and what we consider to be history was such a new concept in Plato’s (and Xenephon’s) time that they didn’t understand the need to be faithful scribes to their living memories. The ancients couldn’t conceive the need to be dispassionate chroniclers of events. Or be chroniclers at all, in the modern sense. Instead, they wrote to spread their ideas and tell stories. Minor details such as factual accuracy were secondary. And there are few better stories than that of the wise gadfly of Athens being brought down by a cruel, vengeful mob afraid of what he had to say.
Our two surviving sources, Plato and Xenophon, were Socrates’ friends and students and had very compelling reasons to cast their fellow Athenians as villains in Socrates’ story. And it is a story. As scholars note, the two accounts significantly diverge, and later sources like Maximus of Tyre (late second to third century CE) note that writing both prosecution and defense speeches for the trial were a common practice in the education of these young men. Maximus also references1, via rumor, that Socrates most likely stood mute and defiant at the trial, facing down his accusers.
Before we get to the accusers or go any further, I would like to quickly remind you, dear reader, that I am sympathetic to the Socrates that Plato and Xenophon portrayed. I have quoted him extensively. But I am his prosecutor, and for justice to be reached, it was (and is) my solemn duty to do my very best to condemn him and brew the proverbial hemlock if need be.
In that spirit, we must separate fact from fiction and then speculate to a reasonable approximation of truth, clearly highlighting where we speculate and where we don’t.
Here are the facts and their associated arguments, as this author knows them,
The first set of facts rest around the reality that where our understanding of Socrates’ trial is muddy at best, occluded at worst, our knowledge of the Athenian justice system is relatively clear. Many different sources of evidence survive from their time, and we have clear archaeological evidence that tells us how the process of justice would have played out. Their system was, surprisingly, advanced and primitive at the same time. A duality that will haunt us throughout this case.
In their system, charges could be brought up by any citizen. However, for cases heard in private (dikai), the person bringing the charges had to be related to the aggrieved party. For public cases (graphai), any person could bring charges against a fellow citizen.
To prevent abuse, if a private case went to trial, and the jury overwhelmingly (i.e., greater than 80% of the jury) chose to support the defendant, the plaintiff had to pay a fine of 1,000 drachmas and would be forbidden from bringing a case again2.
For the most severe charges, such as homicide, cases were decided by elders with a lifetime appointment who heard these cases in private. Unlike us, they considered homicide not to be an individual crime but a form of “moral pollution” and were interested in excising it from their body politic as quickly as possible.
On the opposite end, there were cases where the jury was given a wide latitude to decide what to do. Quoting from Adriaan Lanni’s work on the Athenian justice system3, ‘Verdict Most Just: The Modes of Classical Athenian Justice’.
The varied approach to legal process stems from a deep tension in the Athenian system between a desire for flexibility and wide-ranging jury discretion, and consistency and predictability. The special rules and procedures of the homicide and maritime courts indicate that the Athenians could imagine (and, to a lesser extent, implement) a legal process in which they applied abstract rules without reference to the social context of the dispute. But they rejected such an approach in the vast majority of cases. This choice reflects not only a normative belief that a wide variety of contextual information was often relevant to reaching a just decision, but also a political commitment to popular decision making in a direct democracy. Classical Athens thus serves as an example of a legal system that, by modern standards, employed an extraordinarily individualized and contextualized approach to justice.
Socrates’ fate rested on a system designed to be highly contextual and individualized through its selection of the jury. And it is the jury that matters most in this case, as they — above any other factor — were the reason why the guilty verdict was reached 2,500 years ago.
Our second set of facts revolve around what we know about the Athenian jury system.
Athenian juries were drawn via lot from a pool of 6,000 potential jurors who were, in turn, drawn by lot from the broader population of Athenian Citizens.4 At this time, the definition of a citizen was narrow; neither Danielle nor I would have qualified to be citizens. Only males with military training could become citizens. These requirements, naturally, limited the jury pool. Somewhere between 10% to 20% of the population qualified under these requirements, an elite few that included Socrates and Plato.
Given certain events that have a deep relationship to the trial, the jury pool was likely even more limited and drawn from around twenty thousand Athenian citizens, as long as they were above the age of 30.
Out of these 6,000, somewhere between 501 to 2,000 to all 6,000 jurors would be called to judge a trial. The smallest trial that we know of had a jury of 200. These jurors would have voted via a casting of disks that were spiked by either a hollow tube or a solid one. The disks would be cast into a pot indicating the verdict in front of the public, while the unused disk would be cast in the second pot (making tampering more difficult). From a distance, it would have been difficult to tell who voted for whom, preserving the integrity of the jury despite the very public voting process.
These measures, including the large jury pool, were designed to prevent the corruption and subversion of the justice system. For them, justice might not have meant a well-defined set of laws — outside of homicide and maritime trade, but it did mean a sense of fairness and immutable judgment meted out by your friends and neighbors.
And based on this, we can surmise that Socrates’ jury was a true jury of his peers. True, it is possible that he hadn’t met some of them, but hundreds of these people were people he knew. People he had argued with on the streets. People he’d broken bread with. People who then condemned him to death.
This brings us to the point where we diverge from “facts only” to mostly facts mixed with some speculation, as answering this why is crucial to bringing our case against Socrates.
In Plato’s Apology, his version of Socrates says after the trial,
at this vote of condemnation you have cast against me, and that for many reasons, among them the fact that your decision was not a surprise to me. I am much more surprised by the number of votes for and against it; for I did not expect so small a majority, but a large one. Now, it seems, if only thirty votes had been cast the other way, I should have been acquitted. And so, I think, so far as Meletus is concerned, I have even now been acquitted, and not merely acquitted, but anyone can see that, if Anytus and Lycon had not come forward to accuse me, he would have been fined
Based on this, and the fact that the most common jury size was around 501 jurors, we can surmise that about 280 of his peers voted to find him guilty.
Why did 280 members of his group vote to find him guilty? And then overwhelmingly voted for his death? (guilt was separate from punishment — Athenian justice allowed for degrees of guilt and degrees of punishment. It is conceivable that the gadfly of Athens could have gotten off with a slap on the wrist and a fine.)
How did he manage to piss so many of them off?
I believe, through my personal reading of scholars and the original texts, that the answer lies in the historical context that especially biases Plato in favor of Socrates. Plato’s cousin, Critias, was a student of Socrates and a leader of the Thirty Tyrants — a leader known for his appetites and cruelty. As Isidore Stone put it, he was the first Robespierre, unrepentant and resplendent in his cruelty. The Thirty were in power only for ~250 days (or just over eight months). In those few months, they managed to torture and kill 5% of the Athenian population, seize their opponent’s properties, and exile anyone who dissented.5
If we take the lower estimate of 200,000 Athenians (instead of 250k to 370k), they killed approximately 3,000 Athenians. Or, about 12 Athenians a day, on average. Aristotle provides conflicting figures, but according to the figures given by him, at least 1,500 people were summarily executed without trial or recourse. Or, 6 people a day.
To the ancient Athenians, for whom a large city was 200k people, this must have been an unthinkable amount of cruelty. The number is large enough to cut some families more deeply than others, but surely everyone must have known someone who died under their reign.
Athens was freed by forces led by the hero Thrasybulus who defeated them in battle, and restored democracy to Athens. A blanket pardon was issued to all involved in the Thirty’s regime, or even remotely connected to them, including Socrates.
This point is crucial, as Socrates seems to have been intimately connected to many members of the Thirty. He might not have supported them as Xenophon and Plato contend, but he was deeply tied to them. As was Xenophon. More than a few scholars have argued that Xenophon himself was a commander of the Thirty’s cavalry and knew many of the men involved6.
These intimate associations bias each man against a faithful portrayal of the events as they occurred 2,500 years ago, and they heavily incentivize them to make the prosecution look like buffoons who shot down a man merely for his greatness.
Bringing us to the most speculative argument out of this constellation of facts and arguments.
This final argument has the least amount of evidence for it. But it is an argument supported by multiple sources and scholars. As the prosecution, we must talk about the charges brought against him, even though they (as we’ll explore later) don’t seem to have anything to do with the final verdict.
The precise language (with some leeway for translation) of the formal indictment was,
This indictment and affidavit is sworn by Meletus Meletou of Pitthus, against Socrates Sophroniscou of Alopece. Socrates is guilty of not acknowledging the gods the city acknowledges, and of introducing other new divinities. He is also guilty of subverting the young men of the city. The penalty demanded is death.7
We don’t know a lot about the time, but we do know with a high degree of certainty that 280 of Socrates’ peers did not sentence him to a fine, banishment, or death merely out of impiety. In Prof Stephen Todd’s The Shape of Athenian Law, he points out that ‘a surprisingly high proportion of known impiety trials reveal, on examination, a surprisingly strong political agenda8.’
We have every reason to believe that, in Socrates’ case, what he was on trial for that day had nothing to do with the formal charges. The key piece of the puzzle here is Anytus. And I believe his presence will help us decipher this mystery.
If you notice what Plato says that Socrates said in Apology,
if Anytus and Lycon had not come forward to accuse me, he would have been fined
Plato himself says it. Meletus might have brought the charges; Anytus and Lycon brought the prosecution. Meletus’ charges were an excuse to have a hearing — something the deeply contextual Athenian judicial process allowed. The charges were not the reason why Socrates was damned. Anytus was. He, more than anyone else, holds the key to our prosecution.
So, who was he?
Anytus was viewed as a hero in his time. He was right there with Thrasybulus when they ended the reign of the Thirty Tyrants and restored democracy. He was pivotal to the creation of amnesty for those who had previously supported the Thirty’s rule and had helped Athens recover. It is surprising then, as the architect of the amnesty and Athens recovery, that he would push to condemn Socrates. Once again, there are signs here that something Socrates did must have really pissed a lot of Athenians off.
If this still doesn’t convince you, then in his highly influential work, The Trial of Socrates, Isidore Stone points out9,
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 heart 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.
In one of his plays, the playwright Aristophanes pokes fun of both Socrates and Zeus in the same dialogue, by having a character say,
Strepsiades – By Apollo! that is powerfully argued! For my own part, I always thought [rain] was Zeus pissing into a sieve. But tell me, who is it makes the thunder, which I so much dread?
And then he goes on to compare thunder to farts and diarrhea. All of Athens watched Aristaphenes’ plays. No one dragged him to court. These productions were concurrent with Socrates. And we have multiple sources that show us that Aristaphenes was far from unique.
Here we finally arrive at the final pillar of the prosecution’s case, one that — I admit — is mostly speculation.
Drawing from all four of the above arguments, along with some reasoning, supplemental sources, and a careful reading of the original texts, my prosecutorial argument revolves around the fact that the true charges/accusations (or dikē) that brought Socrates to that Heliaea 2,500 years ago revolved around failed uprising of a "Socratified" faction in 401 BCE that tried to overthrow Athenian democracy. Again.
I suspect that event was what doomed Socrates. Alongside the long line of students and associates (there were many!) who had either plotted treason against Athens or committed it
The trial that took place 2,500 years ago wasn't about piety or "corrupting the youth." Rather, it was about Socrates' students' treason and their crimes against humanity (note — they wouldn't have used these terms as they lacked the concept of "crimes against humanity").
In my pre-trial notes, I listed out all of the times that his students either defected to Sparta, committed treason, or decided to overthrow the Athenian government. I counted at least five such discrete instances (including Alcibiades' defection and the "three earthquakes" detailed by Stone) and more than six former students and close associates who had gone on to commit treason against Athens.
A short list, based on what little we know, would be,
Alcibiades – too many ill-adventures to mention, such as his defection to Sparta, then his defection to Persia, where he proceeded to have an affair with the wife of his benefactor (the king of Sparta), etc,
Critias - tyrant and member of the thirty,
the other Aristotle - not the one you're thinking of — he wasn't born yet; this one is a member of the thirty and was a tyrant,
Xenophon - if he was a commander in the Thirty's cavalry,
Phaedrus - his defection is unrelated to the Thirty and consists of a complicated story involving a cult,
Cleitophon - though he appears in Plato's dialogues as a sophist, he was a student and helped lead the way to the Thirty,
These are some of the names that we know of. It's likely that many more members of the Thirty Tyrants and their supporters were a part of Socrates' roster. And it is on them that the prosecution's case rests in the present and perhaps in the past.
Prof. Todd points out that beyond the charge of impiety itself, the second charge — the corruption of youth — stands as a political construct to bring forth Socrates' former students and cast his actions in their light. As I argued that day in our virtual agora, "must a tree not be judged by its fruit?"
I will buck tradition, and I won't write a speech that few will read. You have already read my prosecutorial argument. I tried to hang Socrates by linking him to the Thirty. By convincing the jury that by condemning Socrates, they were truly condemning the Thirty. And by convicting him, they would restore Athenian greatness, and everything would be kitties and rainbows.
Bringing us to my final argument; moral certitude. Weighing atrocity at one hand and Socrates in the other, explicitly implicit in my offer of the moral certitude that only righteous censure would balance the scales.
In ancient Greece, an apology was a defense speech, a fact that many YouTubers, no doubt, appreciate. As I have condemned Socrates on the one hand, let me speak in his defense on the other.
Of what crime is he guilty?
Throughout my prosecutorial arguments, I have never once accused Socrates himself of a crime. Through sleight of hand, I've shifted the argument to those around him and made a case for his threat to Athenian Democracy via association. If you read carefully, there hasn't been a single substantive allegation against Socrates himself.
Perhaps the ancients had some convincing evidence, but we have none. The most damning thing we could accuse him of is what happened to Leon of Salamis, "a man of high and well-deserved reputation" (Xenophon). The Thirty wished to execute him, they probed Socrates for his location, and Socrates refused. While Socrates could have sent someone to warn him, he didn't. For he wished to obey all laws, even unjust ones. And through this inaction, Leon was caught and put to an agonizing death by the tyrants.
But was his inaction enough to condemn him?
Socrates wasn't the Athenian equivalent of a Special Activities Division operative, skilled with dead drops and OpSec, capable of masking his trail and losing his pursuers. He was an old man, a teacher, with failing eyesight in a time before eyeglasses. It's unlikely he even had a reading stone. The Thirty, no doubt, would have had him under watch. Whom could he have told? How would he have gotten word to him? What could he have possibly done, save for raising an army against his former students?
The only people guilty of Leon of Salamis' death are the tyrants who killed Leon of Salamis. Socrates was just one of the people they harassed to try and get their way.
As Plato discusses at the start of The Republic, aging has never been easy. Even today, we succumb to the gradual withering of our biological substrate. We feel our vitality dribble away as we move towards death ever so inexorably every day. We've fought a valiant battle against the fading shells that contain us, but even today, by the age of 70, few are winning that war. In his time, Socrates would have been plagued by a host of conditions and would have felt his mind slowly melt away.
When the Athenians brought their sacrificial lamb to court that day 2,500 years ago, they brought a lamb on the edge of senility. It is inescapable that this near-senile old man was whom they chose to sacrifice.
From a modern perspective, we can apply Girard's scapegoating as a lens to understand what occurred.
As multiple groups in the region — including the Spartans — grappled for power, reaching for the same markers of status, for the same levers of control, they sparked an intense conflict, a series of wars that expended lives and the fragile peace of the land. In this conflict arose the Tyrants, who — in their struggle to solidify their hold — perpetuated violence upon their memetic competitors and innocent bystanders.
This cycle of conflict cut deep, leaving many scars. Due to the ties that bound the Athenian Citizenry, the re-instated Athenian government couldn't reprise retribution on those who collaborated with the Thirty. Instead, they needed someone who was both an insider and an outsider. To convince onlookers that the tumor that plagued them had been excised while convincing them that it wouldn't be one of them on the altar. Who better fits this description than the formerly wealthy man who tutored the elite and was roundly mocked for staring at the clouds? The self-described gadfly who stung and irritated all and was summarily disinvited from all the cool parties?
Socrates was the perfect sacrifice. And through this spasm of violence, directed through the agora and the rituals of justice, they restored peace to their populace.
And Socrates was wise enough to give his life for it. He had ample opportunity to escape. But he threw himself into this bonfire of psychic incongruity to give one last gift to his fellow Athenians. This sacrifice is, perhaps, Socrates' greatest contribution to his beloved Athens.
I am ashamed to say that I truly wanted to hang Socrates. I wanted to win. And I became so consumed by that idea that in the moment — within the game, all I could see was my goal. My competitive drive and obsession with duty overtook my humanity.
When we exist in the moment, fighting for what we desire, our life goes unexamined. We cease to question ourselves. We cease to raise the mirror and reflect on our souls. It is this lesson, above all, that Socrates teaches us. And he does teach us many lessons.
When Michael read drafts of this piece, he pointed out a fact that I, and my interlocutors in the virtual agora, had missed. To quote him directly, "Glaucon and Adeimantus were Plato's brothers and they are the main interlocutors of the Republic. The main argument of that masterwork is Socrates trying to convince Glaucon to choose the life of philosophy over the life of tyranny. Historically it's important to know what Glaucon ended up choosing: the life of the Thirty's tyranny."
The fact that so many of his students chose tyranny wasn't Socrates' fault. It was his failure. His failure as a teacher to convince others to live a life of virtue and forge a productive path. As Michael points out, there's a hidden layer of meaning in The Republic; perhaps it is a warning, the warning of memetic desire and competitive drive run amok. Or, as Michael put it, perhaps "Plato wasn't advocating the rule of the philosopher-kings after all?"
This statement brings us to the penultimate lesson I learned during this process; popular narratives are popular for a reason. They're simple, prosaic, and self-affirming. They spread because they ask so little of us. The truth, on the other hand, is challenging, demanding, and argumentative. A Xanthippe or Socrates in form. Always asking more of us, demanding our understanding, sometimes for little in return.
And this brings us to the ultimate lesson of this piece. Sometimes there is no truth or certainty to be gleaned. We have no evidence one way or another. Just stories from a biased onlooker and a man burdened with the sin of assisting tyranny. In the face of such uncertainty, do we simply reach for the Prozac of popular narrative? Believe what everyone else did? The myth? To join a social club that makes us feel good?
Or, do we choose to accept and live with the uncertainty? And forge a new path?
There are some answers that we, and our species, will never have. Do we succumb to the opium of belief or choose to create space for uncertainty, letting it exist within us and allowing it to drive us to newer, bolder discoveries?
How we make this choice determines who we become, as a species and individually.
Trapp, M. B. 2017. Socrates in Maximus of Tyre. In ‘Socrates and the Socratic Dialogue’, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. Accessible at: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004341227_038
Panezi, M. 2017. ‘Update: A Description of the Structure of the Hellenic Republic, the Greek Legal System, and Legal Research.’ Accessible at: http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Greece1.html
Lanni, A. 2004. ‘Verdict Most Just: The Modes of Classical Athenian Justice’. Yale JL & Human., 16, 277.
Everson, S., & Aristotle. 1996. “Aristotle’s: The politics, and the Constitution of Athens.” Cambridge University Press. Accessible at: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/athenian_const.2.2.html
Wolpert, A. 2002. “Remembering Defeat: Civil War and Civic Memory in Ancient Athens.” The Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessible at: https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/remembering-defeat-civil-war-and-civic-memory-in-ancient-athens.html
Wolpert, A. 2019. Xenophon on the Violence of the Thirty. ‘Xenophon on Violence,’ 88, 169. Accessible at: Google Books
Waterfield, R. 2009. ‘Why Socrates died: Dispelling The Myths’ (p. 28). essay, W.W. Norton.
Todd, S. C. 2003. ‘The Shape of Athenian Law.’ Clarendon Press.