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The Trial of Socrates (399 B.C.)
Lecturer: Wu Shiyu
Email: [email protected]
In 399 B.C., a trial, one of the most famous of
all time, was in progress in Athens. The
accused, Socrates, seventy years old, Athenian
greatest thinker and teacher, was convicted and
later on, executed.
The specific charges against him: guilty of
impiety; guilty of corrupting the young.”
That is what Socrates has been doing for years:
going around Athens, questioning and questioning
everybody he could find: “What is justice?” “What is
piety?” “What is right and wrong?”
Delphi Oracle’s Answer
Socrates' friend Chaerephon consulted the oracle at
Delphi, asking the question that if anyone was wiser
than Socrates.
The Oracle offered the answer that none was wiser.
When Socrates was told this, he believed that what
the Oracle had said was a paradox, because he
believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever.
And then he went around Athens, approaching
men considered wise by the people, including
statesmen, poets, and artisans, with the
purpose of refuting the Oracle's answer.
By this, however, Socrates realized that each
man he questioned who thought he knew a
great deal and was wise turned out, in fact, not
wise at all.
10. Delphi Oracle’s Answer
Socrates then knew that the Oracle was right, “in that
while so-called wise men thought themselves wise and
yet were not, he himself knew he was not wise at all
which, paradoxically, made him the wiser one since he
was the only person aware of his own ignorance”.
And the saying that “I know that I know thing” which is
attributed to Socrates had become well known. And it is
Socrates' paradoxical wisdom which made the
prominent Athenians he publicly questioned appear
foolish, became infuriated, and finally turned against
Then in 399 B.C., Anytus, a supporter of
democracy who had suffered personally under the
tyrants, with two other men Meletus, and Lycon of
lesser prominence prosecuted Socrates. They
accused Socrates of impiety and corrupting young
Obviously, charges like these are especially difficult
to prove, and equally difficult to refute. However,
impiety ranked as an extremely serious crime
because the gods were believed to punish the entire
city-state if it harbored impious individuals.
By Athenian custom, Socrates’ trial took only one day. The
jury consisted of 501 Athenian citizens.
Instead of weeping, pleading, parading his children in front of
the jury like the standard procedure in an Athenian courtroom,
Socrates, according to Plato, took the position that the best
defense was a strong offense.
Using the question-and-answer method for
which he was famous and which had apparently
gotten him into trouble, he defended for himself
and also pointing out the inconsistencies in his
accusers’ allegations. The following excerption
is chosen from Plato’s Apology which showed
Socrates’ denial of the charges against him:
Plato’s Apology
Meletus : “Let me ask you this, why don’t you say ‘all
right, Socrates, we know these are trumped-up (编造)
charges, but we are tired of your going around and
harassing us like this, aren’t you ashamed of living such
a life that everybody in Athens hates you?’
Soc: “No, I am not ashamed. I took on this mission from
God, and what would make me ashamed is if I stop
doing it. ”
“Well, I tell you well, Socrates. If you will stop
doing it, we will drop these charges”.
“ I am not going to do that. I am going to
continue. As long as I live, I am going to go
around and question, and follow the truth
wherever it is.”
“All right, Socrates, if you are so smart, why
aren’t you in politics?”
“Well, I am gonna tell you why. Because no
honest man can survive in your democracy.
It is so corrupt.”
“Now what you expect me to do at this stage is to bring in
my wife and children. That’s standard in Athenian trial. You
bring in your wife and children and you say, ‘Look, if you
put me to death, it is going to rob my family of all
support’, and the children are supposed to cry and the wife
is supposed to cry, and you are thus humiliated. That is part
of the purpose of the trial. You know that I am not going to
bring them in. Yes, I’ve got children and a wife, but I am not
going to bring them in. That has nothing to do with the trial
whatsoever. It is for you to make your decision. But I tell you
this, I will continue my mission.
Nearly half the jury of 501 (280 to 221) Athenian
citizens voted in favor of Socrates; he seems to
have lost his case by about thirty votes.
Meletus, who was presiding over the trial, had
proposed the penalty of death.
Athenian procedure called for convicted defendants
to recommend an alternative penalty, and it seems
clear that Socrates’ accusers expected him to
propose exile – and would have been quite content
to see him leave town.
However, Socrates claimed that he was in fact a
public benefactor, suggesting first a reward for
his benefactions (慈善行为) or then, a fine
equivalent to about 13 kilos of silver.
The jury, no doubt annoyed by this, elected the
death penalty. Some of those who had earlier
voted “not guilty” now turned against him by
voting in favor of death penalty.
Socrates was first put in prison for at that season,
the people were forced to wait for the return of the
vessel before they could kill him.
During this period, a small band of his pupils
gathered around him in prison and some of them
even arranged for everything for the master’s
But Socrates refused, claiming that his whole life – a
search for absolute truths – had been a preparation
for death.
“Socrates, we have arranged everything. You
can escape, go to the city of Thebes, and there
receive hospitality.”
And he says, “I am not going to escape, I am
going to stay right here. If I were to escape
after having been found legally guilty, that
would set a bad example. I am going to obey
the law. And so the young people will not be
corrupted by my example.”
The Trial of Socrates
He has sent away his wife and children, and some of his
students are weeping and he says the words I gave in an
earlier lecture, “I sent my wife away and now here you are,
worse than women, weeping like this. Stop it! What is bad? I
am going to die. My whole life has been a preparation for
death, preparing myself so that my soul will be free.
And the whole life of a philosopher, the search for wisdom is
the preparation for death because wisdom is the
understanding of absolute truths, of absolute justice,
absolute harmony, absolute beauty, absolute honor, and the
soul that has prepared itself will be united with God. And that
is what I wait for.”
In the words of Plato, such was the end of the man
who, of all the men of our time, was the best, the
wisest, and the most just.
And Xenophon and Plato, by the words of their
Apology, would hand down through history this
condemnation of the Athenian democracy, which
had put to death the best man of its age, who had
fearlessly spoken out for truth and whose whole life
was a living witness to the search for wisdom. The
greatest of all the Athenians, Socrates, immortal,
passing his legacy down.
In the end, Socrates was executed by one of the
customary Athenian methods, being ordered to
down a poisonous draft of hemlock.
By the words of his Apology, Plato would hand
down to posterity this condemnation of the Athenian
democracy that had put to death the best man of
that age, whose whole life had been a search for
Plato’s Apology
We place Socrates and his trial within the
framework of Athenian democracy and the
aftermath of the great war with Sparta.
The trial is regarded as the most infamous episode
in Athenian history in the aftermath of the
Peloponnesian War.
What caused such intensity of hatred as to put an
old man on trial and for such severe charges?
The Aftermath of the Peloponnesian War
The Greek World
engulfed the Greek world
The Athenian Culture
never regained the prosperity of its Golden Age
The Trial of Socrates
Oligarchy at Athens: The Thirty Tyrants
Lysander installed an oligarchic government
consisting of thirty citizens from the wealthy elite.
Only one or two were moderate people like
They became known as the Thirty Tyrants for the
brutal conduct.
Brutally suppressed their opposition in Athens by
forcing many Athenians into exile and throwing their
leaders into jail. They even carried out a series of
The Thirty Tyrants
The most terrifying figure of the Thirty was Critias;
One of the best pupils of Socrates and a relative of Plato.
A passionate antidemocrat and a longtime admirer of the
Spartan constitution.
Critias brutally ordered murders by the hundreds without a
qualm(顾虑 ).
He had the moderate Theramenes put to death simply
because he was moderate and wealthy, and not on his side
by forcing him to drink hemlock, the poison used soon
afterwards to execute Socrates.
The Thirty Tyrants
Some Athenians were murdered because their
political propositions, others were murdered simply
because they were wealthy. Through these terrible
activities, the Thirty Tyrants created an eight-monthlong period of terror in Athens.
Not all the victims were political enemies; many
were wealthy metics.
So violent and brutal that the Spartans did not
interfere when a prodemocracy resistance
movement finally came to power and ended the
violence and brutality of the Thirty. Athenian
people had Critias killed in a battle.
The Athenians restored their democratic
government, with bitter memory of divisiveness
An ancient Greek philosopher, who helped to
shape Greek beliefs. The ideas he created are
present in our culture today.
Born in 470 B.C., grew up during the Golden
Age of Athens, a time period when Greece was
very powerful, lived in Athens.
His father wanted him to become a sculptor
2. Socrates
At young age, Socrates searched for wisdom and
Show no interest in money, would allow groups of
men to listen to him speak, never take money from
Socrates would stand on a stoa while teaching
others. Ruins of stone stoas can still be seen in
Athens today.
2. Socrates
He has been a brave soldier, fought as an Athenian
infantry man in major battles of the early
Peloponnesian War when he was no longer young.
He has a family; his wife, Xanthippe, has sort of a
reputation as a shrew; he has children,
But mainly he seems to spend his time just
walking around Athens, talking and questioning,
He has a vigorous group of students who are
devoted to him, people like Alcibiades and
2. Socrates
Socrates was known for being a bit strange. He
went into a trance(昏睡 )when he thought hard
about a problem.
He might stand still for days on end without
moving, eating, or sleeping.
Men in the city would gather around Socrates to
watch him.
Once he was finished thinking, he would snap
out of his trance and go on as usual.
3. Two Divergent Portraits of Socrates
Socrates himself never wrote anything. We do not
have many sources available representing a
reasonable portrait of the real Socrates.
Two divergent portraits of Socrates: Aristophanes’
comedy The Clouds; works of Socrates’ well-known
pupils, Xenophon and Plato, whose lives were
shaped by their teacher, and from Aristotle, father
of the university, who was also influenced by the
ideas of Socrates through his teacher, Plato.
4. The Clouds by Aristophanes
The Cloud produced in 423 B.C.
Socrates could be a danger to Athenian traditional
society gave Aristophanes the inspiration.
Socrates is presented as a cynical sophist. For a fee,
he offers instruction in his “Thinking Shop” to his
pupils by using the Protagorean technique.
4. The Clouds by Aristophanes
Socrates is such a person who can make a good
argument seem bad and a bad argument seem
His pupils were taught how to argue effectively for
any position, even an outrageously immoral one.
A vivid scene presented in the comedy is the
protagonist’s son, a Socrates’ pupil, argues against
his father that a son has the right to beat his parents.
5. First Source of Athenian Hostility to Socrates
By attending Socrates’ “Thinking Shop”, the young men of
Athens showed their disrespect for tradition and for their
This makes an indelible impression on the Athenians,
especially the old generation. They felt that Socrates could
be a danger to the conventional conception. Then the
comedy ends by burning down Socrates’ “Thinking Shop.”
Therefore, from the play, we can see one important source of
Athenians’ hostility against Socrates. And elements of the
legal charges made against him in 399 B.C. were already
present in this comedy.
6. The Portrait of Socrates from his pupils
A totally different portrait from his pupils: Plato, Xenophon,
and Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, father of the university.
Both Plato and Xenophon were in their late twenties at the
time of Socrates’ trial.
All of the three intellectual figures, Xenophon, Plato and
Aristotle, were forever molded by what happened on a single
day in the year of 399 B.C.
For Plato, Socrates’ trial and execution were the
beginning of his whole intellectual pursuit of
truth. Plato paid his great tributes to his teacher,
Socrates, by putting his ideas into the mouth of
Socrates (Plato’s Dialogues)
7. Plato’s Dialogue:The Euthyphro
This dialogue presents vividly the man on trial.
Socrates, who stops, instead of focusing his own
trial in defense, is trying to help this man understand
that he does not know that he is taking the gravest
actions based on the thinking he was wise but in
fact he is not.
Socrates understood the first step in knowledge is to
define words and that people frequently acts on the
bias of what they think they know without ever
And that is what Socrates has been doing for years,
going around Athens, questioning and questioning
everybody he could find: “What is justice?” “What is
piety?” “What is right and wrong?”
8. Socratic Method
Aristotle observed about Socrates that the two things could
be attributed to him: inductive reasoning and universal
Socrates believed that the best way to develop ideas was in
the give and take of conversation, and the best way to
educate people was to ask them a series of questions
leading in a particular direction ( “The Socratic Method”).
Socrates never directly instructed his
conversational partners; instead, he led them to
draw conclusions in response to his probing
questions and refutations of their cherished but
unexamined assumptions.
Socratic Method
5. Second Source of Athenian Hostility to Socrates
This indirect method of searching for the truth often left
Socrates’ conversational partners in a state of puzzlement
and unhappiness. His Athenian citizens come be as puzzled
and frustrated to him as Euthyphro did in the dialogue.
They felt they were forced to believe and admit that they
were ignorant of what they began by assuming they knew
perfectly well and that the principles by which they lived there
were unable to withstand close intellectual scrutiny.
And what makes it more annoying is Socrates
failed to give a direct and an ultimate answer.
This, like Aristophanes’ The Clouds, shows
another source of Athenians’ hostility to
11. Third Source of Athenian Hostility to Socrates
The third possible source of hostility concerns
Socrates’ association with his two pupils,
Alcibiades and Critias, and his remarks about
For the Athenians, who believed their
democracy was superior to the government of
the Spartans, their defeat by the Spartans was
incomprehensible and unacceptable, they were
ready to find scapegoat (替罪羊).
11. Third Source of Athenian Hostility to Socrates
Alcibiades and Critias, Socrates’ two pupils, had done the
most damage to the Athenian democracy. Both of them were
Socrates’ best pupils and yet both of them were openly
hostile to Athenian democracy. Alcibiades, one of Socrates’
most devoted followers, once commented at Sparta that
democracy is “acknowledged folly”. In the eyes of Socrates’
Athenian critics, this must represent the teaching of Socrates.
Critias, another Socrates’ follower and the most
notorious one of the Thirty Tyrants, had played
a leading role in the murder and plunder in the
violence and brutality by the Thirty-Tyrants. But
both of them were already dead, only Socrates
was available.
11. The third possible source of hostility
Socrates was also blamed for ever speaking sharply
about democracy. Most people, he pointed out,
aren’t terribly thoughtful or analytical, so why should
“most people,” that is, the majority, make the life and
death decisions that affect the polis?
11. The third possible source of hostility
In fact, as other scholars have proposed, it is hard to
determine whether Socrates really opposed democracy for
Socrates enjoyed puncturing illusions, and it may be that had
he lived under a monarchy or an oligarchy, those would have
been the governments he spent his time undermining.
But combined with his association with Alcibiades and Critias,
however, his pointed remarks about the foibles of democracy
seemed downright unpatriotic, and he could easily enough
be cast as purveyor (传播者) of dangerous ideas.
12. The Fourth source of Athenians’ hostility
Another possible source of Athenians’ hostility is that Socrates held
unusual views on religion. He made several references to his personal
spirit, although he explicitly claimed that it never urged him on, but only
warned him against various prospective events. Many of his
contemporaries were suspicious of Socrates's daimonion as a rejection of
the state religion. It is generally understood that Socrates's daimonion is
akin to intuition.
Moreover, Socrates claimed that the concept of goodness, instead of
being determined by what the gods wanted, actually precedes the entire
business of deities. Many Athenians blame that the act of desecration of
of the images of a god was at least partly responsible for the Athenian
defeat in Sicily.
From Plato’s Dialogues, we can see that Socrates
had a keen wit and an engaging personality. And for
this, pupils flocked to him eagerly, like Plato and
Xenophon. But he had nothing that could be called
a school. And Socrates was poor for his refusal to
charge fees and therefore, he was not a sophist. His
goal was to inculcate moral excellence. Like the
sophists, however, he used clever arguments and
subjected conventional notions to rational analysis.
Quotations from Socrates
By means of beauty all beautiful things
become beautiful.
“For this appears to me the safest answer to
give both to myself and others; and adhering to
this, I think that I shall never fall, but that it is a
safe answer both for me and any one else to
give — that by means of beauty beautiful things
become beautiful”
Quotations from Socrates
False words are not only evil in themselves,
but they infect the soul with evil.
“In every one of us there are two ruling and
directing principles, whose guidance we follow
wherever they may lead; the one being an
innate desire of pleasure; the other, an acquired
judgment which aspires after excellence.”
Quotations from Socrates
As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.
“For when I don't know what justice is, I'll hardly
know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or
whether a person who has it is happy or
unhappy. “
Quotations from Socrates
The unexamined life is not worth living for a human
“ I do nothing but go about persuading you all, old and
young alike, not to take thought for your persons or your
properties, but and chiefly to care about the greatest
improvement of the soul. I tell you that virtue is not
given by money, but that from virtue comes money and
every other good of man, public as well as private. This
is my teaching, and if this is the doctrine which corrupts
the youth, I am a mischievous person.”
Thank You!