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Socrates Revisited: The Jurors Speak
Steven Goldberg reveals the musings of those who condemned Socrates to drink his Hemlock.
This recently discovered fragment reveals that the polling of juries was introduced by Socrates at his trial in 399 BCE. Having tried Socrates for crimes against the state religion and corruption of the youth, the jury, composed of 501 citizens, found him guilty by a margin of sixty votes.
Socrates: Fellow Athenians, unaccustomed as I am to the rhetorician’s craft, I have tried to put my case plainly before you and speak the truth as I know it. You have listened patiently and, after careful deliberation, now find me guilty of crimes against the city. I shall honour your verdict but before proposing a counter-penalty to death, I cannot help but note that your decision against me is carried by a small majority; if thirty of you had voted the other way, I would have been acquitted. So that I may better understand the competing opinions on my case and appreciate the collective wisdom of the jury, please permit me to ask each of you to trace the reasoning which brought you to your present judgement.
The scribe notes a collective groan rising from the jury.
Foreman: An unusual request, Socrates. I grant it not so much to please you but to demonstrate to the world that Athens remains the school of Hellas and may teach lesser city states the workings of a great, open society. Mr. Black, you may begin.
Mr. Black: I am puzzled, Socrates, by the inconsistency between your professed devotion to Athens and repeated denunciations of its democratic government. Do you recall stating that just as knights uniquely possess the skill to train horses, only experts on political matters are qualified to govern the polis ? Such a comparison insults the citizenry, implying that we are untutored masses incapable of sound judgement and responsible conduct. At the same time, you denigrate the very skills of persuasive speech that enable democracy to flourish in the courtroom and the Assembly. Rhetoric, you concede, is capable of producing the greater number of witnesses, but you abruptly dismiss such testimony as “worth nothing as regards the truth.” If the city-state is but a herd, who do you propose as its shepherd? Certainly not the philosopher, who thinks the practical affairs of state beneath him. Even you, Socrates, would acknowledge that the philosopher is unfit to govern, since he enjoys the dubious distinction of knowing nothing except his own ignorance. Perhaps you have forgotten Pericles’ ideal of citizen participation proclaimed in his ‘Funeral Speech’: “If a man takes no interest in public affairs…we do not commend him as quiet but condemn him as useless.” After challenging the competence of the demos, you then deny that our most prominent citizens possess the expertise needed to inculcate virtue in Athenian youth. You cite our most beloved democratic leaders as examples of moral, political, and pedagogical inadequacy. And who are your associates, sir? Do you need to be reminded that Critias, an eager participant in your search for wisdom, became a leader of the notorious Thirty Tyrants? Is it not true that you were drawn to the young Charmides – also a member of the Thirty – and closest of all to Alcibiades, who betrayed Athens to Sparta? Criminals and traitors – a handsome lot. Athens has been shaken by the temporary overthrow of the democracy by oligarchic conspirators in 411; the ascendancy of the Spartan-backed regime of the Thirty Tyrants in 404; and, in 401, only two years ago, the unsuccessful attempt by members of the Thirty to renew civil war. At one time you were regarded as a nuisance who caused considerable embarrassment to prominent citizens. Athenians smiled at your excesses as a bemused father upon his headstrong child, but the revolutionary upheavals of recent years have eroded our tolerance for your radical critique of democracy. We must send a clear signal to the Socratified youth who threaten to topple our fragile polis yet again.
Mr. Blue: If my esteemed colleague wishes to impress upon us the competence of ordinary citizens to govern Athens, he has made a poor start. Those jurors who remained awake during your windy speech could not have missed your astonishing ignorance of the law – not to mention your feeble command of oratory. May I remind you, sir, that the indictment could cover only the activities or teachings of Socrates during the years between the overthrow of the Thirty and the present day [401-399]. The restored democracy generously granted amnesty to all – with the notable exception of the ringleaders – who played a part in Athenian politics during the reign of the Thirty. Although this act of civic reconciliation should have protected the defendant from your slanderous speech, I am compelled to correct your misreading of events in Socrates’ defence. Whatever criticism of democracy we hear from Socrates does not imply endorsement of oligarchy or involvement in a conspiracy against the democratic constitution to install an aristocratic-oligarchic elite. We find no praise for specific oligarchs or calls for return to the ‘ancestral constitution’. It also should be noted that social class is no barrier to participation in Socratic dialogue. Recall how Socrates elicits from a slave boy the solution to a geometry problem, demonstrating to the spoiled Meno that anyone willing to think for himself is capable of learning. Regarding Socrates’ conduct, have you forgotten that before Athens succumbed to Sparta, and democracy was still in power, a mob wanted to try the ten generals who commanded the battle off the Arginousai islands for failing to rescue men from the wrecked ships? As the representative of his tribe responsible for bringing business to the Assembly, Socrates opposed the decision to try the generals together, rather than separately, as unjust and illegal. Nor should we ignore Socrates’ own distinguished record of military service as a hoplite during the Peloponnesian Wars. Socrates earned high praise for his courage and powers of endurance in campaigns at Potidaea, Delium, and the Battle of Amphibolis. Later, when the Thirty were in power, they ordered him to arrest Leon of Salamis, a prominent citizen whom the government wished to put to death. The others followed orders but Socrates refused and simply went home. The Thirty knew that Critias and Charmides had been among his associates and hoped to implicate Socrates in their wrongdoing. They underestimated his integrity and courage. Chaerephon, a friend and associate of Socrates, apparently learned well from his mentor, choosing exile during the Thirty and returning to Athens only once democracy was restored. So much for the claim that a political ideology was common to all of Socrates’ associates. Far from acting with injustice or impiety, Socrates was willing to sacrifice everything against those of the democratic faction who acted contrary to the laws; and he regarded the acts of the Thirty who overthrew these laws with obvious disdain and hostility.
Mr. Red: I thought Socrates’ defence speech was evasive, but it earns high marks for directness when compared to the meandering of Messrs. Black and Blue. Let us leave the ancient history of Socrates’ war record and political manoeuvres to Thucydides and address the matter at hand. Socrates, you began your speech by labouring to distinguish yourself from the politicians of Athens, from those who discourse on nature, and from those who profess the art of education. After defending yourself against the allegedly false caricature of your first accusers, you then read the thoughts of the jury: “Well, Socrates, what is your affair? Where have these slanders against you come from? For surely if you were in fact practicing nothing more uncommon than others, such a report and account would not then have arisen, unless you were doing something different from the many. So tell us what it is, so that we do not deal unadvisedly with you.” You promptly answered your own question with the story of the oracle, according to which Chaerephon learns from the Pythia at Delphi that none is wiser than Socrates. Puzzled at the attribution of wisdom to one so unenlightened, you set out to discern the meaning of the oracle by querying those reputed to be wise. I find it odd, Socrates, that your declared intention is to serve Apollo, who enjoined you upon your philosophical mission, yet you set out to refute the divinations by identifying someone wiser than yourself! Can it be denied that your attempt to refute the oracle looks like the debunking of the Delphic Apollo? Have you not set yourself up as judge of the god’s utterance, and hence as the god’s superior? You barely conceal your hubris even as your profess ignorance and praise the wisdom of the gods!
Mr. White: Mr. Red, I can’t let your charge of hubris go unchallenged. You have asked how the attempted refutation of the oracle might be in accordance with the god. Have you forgotten that by the end of the examination of Athenian citizens, Socrates becomes the oracle’s champion and spokesman? Do you not recall that he questions himself on behalf of the oracle and recites his own explanation as the god’s ‘priestess’? Whenever Socrates finds someone who seems wise but is not, he comes to the god’s aid and shows that he is not wise. Nor should we forget that Socrates lives in poverty in his service to the god and to his daimonion. The story of the origin of Socrates’ philosophizing mission culminates in his becoming a pious servant to the god who alone is wise.
Mr. Red: Let us concede that Socrates is ‘inspired’ to practice his dialectic [elenchus]. May I remind you that civic piety requires that he follow the state religion. Apollo, a foreign god associated with soothsayers, and Socrates’ idiosyncratic sign or ‘inner voice’ [daimonion], do little to help his case. But neither do I think unorthodox religious belief is sufficient to bring this serious charge of impiety. The central question confronting this court is whether philosophy, once licensed in its pursuit of purely rational knowledge, inevitably usurps the gods as the final arbiter of truth and virtue. Recall that Socrates holds the poets in low esteem because they can’t give a rational account of their inspired works of beauty. The philosopher submits to no god other than reason. To do less would infect philosophy with the same ignorance Socrates has imputed to craftsmen, politicians, and poets. Let me clarify the problem by offering an example from Socrates’ own conversation with the Athenian seer, Euthyphro. Socrates, you will recall that the conversation centred on the nature of holiness, or piety. The question was raised whether ‘right’ can be defined as ‘that which the gods command’. Sceptical as always, you then asked: Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right? If conduct is right because God commands it, the only reason we should, say, tell the truth is simply that the gods require it. But this leads to trouble, for it represents the gods’ commands as arbitrary. They could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness, would be right. The absurdity of this position leads the philosopher to search for independent, rational grounds for belief. A neat argument, to be sure, but one destructive of our religious tradition and authority.
Mr. Black: Mr. Red grows impatient with jurors for their references to episodes from Socrates’ past, but if he spent more time reading Thucydides and less cruising the Piraeus, he might find that the Clouds, a play penned by Aristophanes and performed in competition twentyfour years ago, presents damning historical evidence against the accused. Socrates is quick to hold the play’s supposed ‘distortions’ responsible for the charges brought against him, but let me refresh your memory of the play with a synopsis. [The scribe notes a sigh from the jury] It tells the story of Socrates’ disastrous encounter with Strepsiades, an old man whose son’s extravagance is about to ruin him. Strepsiades goes to Socrates’ ‘thinkery’ to learn how to make the weaker speech stronger; that is, how to twist his way out of the grasp of his creditors’ lawsuits. He quickly discovers that the Socratic course of instruction goes far beyond training in courtroom oratory. It is concerned with the truth about the nature of all things, including things in the heavens and under the earth, and especially with the truth about the gods. Zeus does not even exist, says Socrates in the play; the true gods are the Clouds, those airy forms in the sky that imitate all things. Strepsiades, being old and somewhat literal-minded, finds out that his intellect is too meager to complete the rigorous program of Socratic theology, grammar and meter, and dialectical problem-solving. When Socrates refuses to have any further dealings with such stupidity, Strepsiades compels his unwilling son Pheidippides to go in his place. Pheidippides turns out to be a star pupil. The old man is overjoyed to see that his son’s newly acquired rhetorical skills will free him from financial ruin. When the creditors come to collect their debts…
Foreman: Mr. Black, most of us are familiar with the play. Please get on with it, man. The waterclock is dripping.
Mr. Black: Right, I was getting to the best part. When the creditors come to collect their debts, Strepsiades drives them away with contempt. Well, Strepsiades feasts his son at a banquet celebrating their reconciliation, which is quickly disrupted, however, by a quarrel over poetry. Pheidippides refuses to have anything to do with the old-fashioned songs and insists on reciting a tale of incest from the modern poet Euripides. When Strepsiades objects, Pheideippides beats him. The son justifies his outrageous conduct by appealing to nature, according to which it is just for the wise to punish the foolish for their own good. The father reluctantly concedes the point. However, when Pheidippides proposes to beat his mother as well, Strepsiades is shocked and refuses to hear another word. Perhaps the father suddenly realizes the son’s argument for the permissibility of incest might have real consequences within his own family. We do not know. Strepsiades reasserts his father in Zeus, burns down Socrates’ thinkery, urged on by the god Hermes himself. Strepsiades’ flirtation with Socratic inquiry ends when he sees that Zeus is necessary to maintain the integrity of his family. Do you see what the play is saying: Socrates is the atheistic enemy of family values.
Mr. Blue: I think you’re wasting our time, Mr. Black, if you intend to find value in the play as an historical account. I knew Thucydides, sir, and I can assure you that Aristophanes is no Thucydides. The play is filled with falsehoods, as Socrates rightly emphasizes in his defence speech. Surely, you don’t accept uncritically the contentions that Socrates introduced the Vortex as the first principle of all things, or demonstrated the nonexistence of Zeus by examining everything from the intestines of gnats to the courses of the moon? We know that Aristophanes misrepresented Socrates as someone who ran a school, taught in exchange for fees, and devoted his studies to natural phenomena. The play has no credibility. Yet powerful men who have been publicly embarrassed by Socrates now shamelessly trump up charges and use this ridiculous comedy to vent their anger. After the atrocity of Melos, the arrogance and folly of the Sicilian disaster, and the bloodlust of the rabble after Arginousae, we should know better than to condemn an innocent man.
Mr. Black: Mr. Blue, you chide me for consulting drama as if it were history, but is the distinction so easily drawn? The Clouds would not have struck a chord with the audience unless the character on the stage bore a close resemblance to the comical figure they had seen and heard daily conversing with the young in the agora. Now that a raw political nerve has been exposed, the same lines that once produced riotous laughter today elicit fear and anger. Apart from the obvious metaphorical associations with the ivory tower, the clouds in Aristophanes’ play suggest something changeable, elusive, insubstantial – and ominous. After receiving instruction from Socrates, Pheidippides loses his moral compass. Without tradition or higher authority to guide him, nothing is left to take Zeus’s place except empty air. This nihilism is the work of the historical Socrates, not of a harmless fiction.
Mr. Red: Yes, I see your point. It agrees entirely with mine. Allow me to add that Aristophanes’ play also brings into relief the connection between Socratic philosophy and sophistry. Forced to choose between being and becoming, the sophists abandon the idea of a permanent reality behind appearances, in favour of an extreme relativism that identifies knowledge with the beliefs of the perceiver. In the absence of an objective reality, the search for truth is replaced by a verbal battle that rewards the clever with prizes and wealth. The clouds are the sophists’ gods, imparting skills for shaping speech into any form one pleases. Although it is true, Socrates, that you do not subscribe to this view – and have argued vigorously against it – philosophy and sophistry are, finally, two sides of the same drachma. Your philosophical inquiry breeds scepticism, then contempt, among the young for Athens’ cherished traditions and institutions. When all the authorities have been ridiculed, when parents and government leaders no longer command respect and obedience, when the laws are cynically understood as arbitrary social conventions without rational foundation – will our liberated youth, whose souls have been entrusted to your care, then find spiritual nourishment in the thin broth of dialectic? Or perhaps, as I have long suspected, we will then witness a crisis of values in which our generation no longer knows how to live.
Mr. Gray: Sorry, you’ve lost me, Red and Black. I’m a practical man who likes to understand what he is asked to do, finish the job, and then go home for a cold retsina. Look, if we go back to the specific charges, I think it is clear that Socrates is guilty. Rather than responding directly to the impiety charge, Socrates traps Meletus in a logical inconsistency: How can Socrates be both an atheist and a follower of foreign deities? Well, Meletus, isn’t on trial for schoolboy howlers and Socrates knows it. This clever bit of sophistry shows the defendant trying to evade the charge, a tactic preferred by clever orators who lack solid evidence of their innocence. On the question of corrupting the youth, Socrates argues that he could not intentionally corrupt the young because he is well aware that harming someone is likely to lead to harm in retaliation. And if he harms the young unintentionally, then he deserves instruction, not punishment. This argument is weak. Someone harmed will seek revenge only if he is aware that he is harmed; if he is deceived into thinking that moral corruption is not so much harmful as liberating, then the corrupter is in no danger. Here is where the rubber meets the road to Thebes, gentlemen. Socrates is silent on the charge that he does not believe in the city’s gods; and he corrupts the young, for he teaches them to disbelieve in the authority of the gods and laws by insisting that firm knowledge replace received opinion. Time for that drink.
Mr. White: Not just yet. Socrates disclaims ability to make a speech, then proceeds to make so able a speech that one might call it a masterpiece of rhetoric. Is it any wonder that members of the jury would regard such cleverness with suspicion? I think we make better sense of Socrates’ performance today by distinguishing the form of the speech from its function. Like the rhetoric of the sophists, his speech has a discernible structure and coherence, but its aim is not to gain his acquittal. We know that Socrates could have won our sympathies by humbling himself and pleading for mercy. He could have pandered to the jury, in the manner of traditional rhetoric, but instead he infuriates and defies us. He uses rhetoric to deny sophistry; on trial for impiety, he says his conduct was prompted by obedience to a god; and before a jury holding power of life and death, he says he will not give up his service to the god no matter what we decide. He attacks politicians, poets, and craftsmen for claiming knowledge of things of which they are ignorant, knowing full well that few jurors fall outside one of these maligned groups. If Socrates’ defence, his apology, is well-crafted, then what precisely was the function of the speech? I believe it was a philosophical rhetoric aimed at producing excellence of the soul and justice in the polis. Socrates, the one true statesman in Athens, acts today as our gadfly, chastening us and urging us to join him in his philosophical mission. He appears to us as arrogant, incurring our wrath, but he performs a service by purging our false conceit of knowledge. How can we condemn him for impiety if we do not know what piety is? How can we condemn him for corrupting the youth if we do not know the meaning of virtue? I submit to you, fellow Athenians, that the conviction of Socrates today shows that we do not know what sophistry is, or what it really means for the stronger argument to be strong. The resemblance of philosopher to sophist is not unlike that between dog and wolf. From a distance the wildest creature is indistinguishable from the tamest. Take care to see things in their real nature, for resemblances are slippery things. You mistake the philosopher for the sophist, the dog for a wolf. Mr. Black suggests that philosophy, like sophistry, leaves us spiritually empty. It is true that Socrates has no doctrine, no seven-step program for achieving arete, but he teaches us today by example, showing us courage allied to wisdom. Unfortunately, Athens, the so-called school of Hellas’, proves itself a poor, undisciplined student. As for Socrates, we can do him no harm. The unexamined life, he calmly observes, is not worth living. By this measure, it is Athens, not Socrates, that has the most to fear.
Here the fragment abruptly – and suspiciously – ends.
© Dr S. Goldberg 1997
Steven Goldberg has a doctorate in philosophy, and teaches philosophy and history at Oak Park River Forest High School in Illinois.