Socrates’ death

Socrates was accused and eventually sentenced to death for the following – very vaguely worded – crimes:

  • “rejection of the gods recognized by the state,”
  • “introduction of new deities,” and the
  • “seduction (in the moral sense) of youth.”

This generally refers to his rejection of authority, which he had repeatedly tried to put into perspective through his “Socratic dialogue” with the citizens of Athens.

Socrates (470–399 BC)

The Verdict

According to the verdict, the jurors were to decide on an appropriate punishment. Socrates’ accusers argued for the death penalty. Socrates himself, on the other hand, argued – with little thoughtful sarcasm – that he should be rewarded for his actions. After brief consideration, he proposed a small fine instead.

According to Athenian law, the death penalty was carried out with a cup of poisonous hemlock.
Hemlock is a deadly plant that causes the victim to commit a kind of forced suicide.

Socrates drinks the poison

Plato on Socrates

We can read about the Socrates process in Plato’s work “Apology“. In Plato’s work “Phaidon“, as an eyewitness to a group of listeners, he describes the events of the day of death, which the condemned man spent in prison in the company of friends. The main part of his account is the complete reproduction of a philosophical discussion that Socrates had. Well known from it is the discussion about the immortality of the human soul.

Socrates could have proposed exile instead of the death penalty to save his life. However, the court ultimately had only a choice between the death penalty and an insignificant fine, so they voted for the former. Assuming a jury of 501, this would imply that he was convicted by a majority of 280 against 221.

The actual grounds for Socrates’ accusation and subsequent execution are somewhat unclear. The charges are very vague, but it is unlikely that they had anything to do with religion, as claimed. The philosopher and his anti-democratic teachings were seen more as a threat to the rulers of Athens.

The Thirty Tyrants

The city-state had just recovered from a period of great instability in which a rebellious organization called “The Thirty Tyrants1 had overthrown the democratic government. A brutal regime of terror that exiled and executed thousands of innocent citizens was attempting to establish oligarchic2 rule. The leader of the Thirty Tyrants, Critias, was one of Socrates’ students. This connection probably led to the teacher being sentenced to death. Socrates, then, was probably condemned because of his proximity to autocratic sentiment-makers. Ironically, the trial is received as a historical example of a failed democratic official act. 

Socratic Method

Contradictory accounts of Socrates make a reconstruction of his philosophy nearly impossible.
Socrates exerted a strong influence on philosophers in later antiquity and has continued to do so in the modern era.

A fundamental characteristic of Plato’s Socrates is the Socratic method, or the method of refutation. It is most prominent in the early works of Plato, such as ApologyCritoGorgiasRepublic I, and others. The typical method proceeds as follows:
Socrates initiates a discussion about a topic with a known expert on the subject, usually in the company of some young men and boys, and by dialogue proves the expert’s beliefs and arguments to be contra-dictory. 
Socrates initiates the dialogue by asking his interlocutor for a definition of the subject. As he asks more questions, the interlocutor’s answers eventually contradict the first definition. The conclusion is that the expert did not really know the definition in the first place. 
The interlocutor may come up with a different definition. That new definition, in turn, comes under the scrutiny of Socratic questioning. With each round of question and answer, Socrates and his interlocutor hope to approach the truth. More often, they continue to reveal their ignorance (and this reflects Socrates’ credo: “I know I know nothing“). 
Since the interlocutors’ definitions most commonly represent the mainstream opinion on a matter, the discussion places doubt on the common opinion.

1 The Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan oligarchy installed in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE. Upon Lysander’s request, the Thirty were elected as a tyrannical government, not just as a legislative committee. The Thirty Tyrants maintained power for only eight months. Although brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizens’ property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. They became known as the “Thirty Tyrants” because of their cruel and oppressive tactics. The two leading members were Critias and Theramenes.

2 Oligarchy (from Greek oligarkhía ‘rule by few’) is a form of power structure in which power rests with a small number of people.

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