Socrates and the Anti-Democracy The trial, determination of guilt, and eventual death of Socrates, one of the paramount philosophers in history, on the charge of “corrupting the young and of not believing in the gods in whom the city believes” (Plato 24c) in Athens, perhaps the most famous freedom-loving, democratic city-state of the Western world, is puzzling. In his earlier days, Socrates was once seen as an eccentric headmaster of a school of thinking, a harmless character wandering the streets, than a serious threat to Athenian values and democracy.
In Aristophanes’ Clouds, Socrates is depicted as an irreligious natural philosopher and teacher of unjust rhetoric. Years later, he is perceived as a dangerous and possibly treasonous individual. Socrates was being prosecuted for four related reasons: his philosophical positions were critical of the Athenian democratic ideology; he proposed a different kind of moral understanding that threatened the norms of ancient Greece; he taught three notorious traitors to democracy – Alcibiades, Critias, and Charmides; and his complex argumentation caused confusion and irritation among the citizens (Apology Commentary).
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The decision to prosecute and ultimately execute Socrates was most likely based off his prior involvement in the tumultuous history of Athens in the years preceding his trial. On the account of corrupting the city-state’s youth, the trial mainly focuses on three former pupils of Socrates: Alcibiades, Critias and Charmides; all of whom betray the democracy of Athens, and take part in the oligarchic governments installed after both overthrows. During the first of two periods of temporary overthrow of the Athenian democracy, from approximately 411-410 B. C. E. , Alcibiades, a former student of Socrates, masterminds the initial overthrow.
Previously, he had also fled to Sparta to avoid trial for mutilating a statue of Hermes. While in Sparta, Alcibiades proposed to the city-state’s leaders that he aid them in defeating Athens. As the “Four Hundred”, a group of oligarchs, seize control of Athens, the citizens call for the return of Alcibiades. He returns and is elected general, however many citizens fear him, and he is soon sent away into battle. Later, approaching the second of the two periods of overthrow, from 404-403 B. C. E. , the Athenians lose a crucial naval battle, and are forced to surrender, due to starvation suffered from the Spartan blockade, The
Spartans establish the “Thirty Tyrants”, led by Critias and Charmides, both frequent followers of Socrates. During the trial specificly, Meletus brings to the surface and incident involving the Thirty Tyrants and Socrates. Socrates tells, “the Thirty summoned me to the hall, along with four others, ordered us to bring Leon from Salamis, that he might be executed…the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home” (Plato 32d). Socrates gives evidence of his good conduct, in his resistance to the orders, but instead, the jurors and prosecutors question why he did not warn Leon of Salamis or stop the violence.
The terror of the Thirty Tyrants caused the Athenian citizens to look at Socrates as a precarious and detrimental influence, replacing his once harmless and fleeting image. On the account of impiety and not believing in the gods of the city, Socrates attacks Meletus for the inconsistency of the charges, instead of defending himself and denying the charges of impiety. He argues; “Now you say that I believe in spiritual things and teach about them, whether new or old, but at any rate spiritual things according to what you say, and to this you have sworn in your deposition.
But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirits. If on the other hand the spirits are children of the gods, bastard children of the gods by nymphs or some other mothers, as they are said to be, what man would belive children of the gods to exist, but not gods?… You must have made this deposition, Meletus, either to test us or because you were at a loss to find any true wrongdoing of which to accuse me. ” (Plato 27d) In this instance of classic Socratic style, many of the jurors may have looked upon his response as avoiding the questioning, rather than the denial of the charge of impiety.
These instances of round about questioning most likely contributed to the charge of impiety that was brought against him. Piety was very important to the Athenians, not only respecting the gods, but also for the deceased and ancestors. Piety also required not only belief, but the observance of praying and offering sacrifices. Socrates was often preoccupied with his questioning and teaching, and probably was unsuccessful in attending the important religious festivals. He also questioned the widely accepted ritualistic religion shared by most Athenians. Socrates himself was not undemocratic.
In a democracy, individuals are allowed to freely practice religion, or practice no religion. Individuals are guaranteed this right under the laws in a democratic society. In Socrates’ case, he may be seen as undemocratic for going against the minority, and having a small band of followers. It was not fault of his, that three young men who merely listened to his questioning of other citizens, ended up in the oppressive, oligarchic governments. In this situation, the Athenian citizens’ belief in his undemocratic persona was a tragic quality, in another time and place however, it would merely be viewed as a difference of opinion and interest.